By Jamuna Rangachari
Turning points are nature's way of giving us an opportunity to grow and enhance our potential. Some encounter them in adversity, some through a teacher, a book, a thought, or the inspiring lives of others.
When Emperor Asoka looked at the damages wrought by the Kalinga war, he was shaken to the very roots of his being. This led to one of the most famous turning points in history, and the Kalinga effect is still a metaphor for the emotional pain that war can impose, even on a victor. The path he turned to had evolved from another great turning point: Prince Siddhartha's dejection on seeing a corpse and an old, diseased man, led to his quest for the truth and ultimately, his enlightenment as the Buddha.
Both the events that triggered these turning points are not unique. Many wars have been fought before and after Kalinga and all of us have seen diseased people and corpses. How is it that in some, events such as these lead to a totally different direction or a 'turning point' while in most, it is just a temporary feeling of discomfort that is soon overcome or suppressed?
As in all spiritual areas, a subjective quest by looking at other turning points would perhaps help us understand this phenomenon better.
Strength in Adversity
'He knows not his own strength that hath not met adversity,' said Ben Johnson. When adverse circumstances force people to examine themselves afresh, true strength of character is often revealed or forged.
In September of 1942, a young doctor, his new bride, his mother, father and brother, were arrested in Vienna and taken to a concentration camp in Bohemia. One of the earliest blows he faced was the loss of a manuscript, his life's work, during his transfer to Auschwitz. Another significant moment came while on a predawn march to work on laying railroad tracks. A prisoner wondered out loud about the fate of their wives. The young doctor began to think about his own wife, and realized that it was his hope of reuniting with his family and his will to rebuild his life's work by writing on bits of paper that kept him going. Throughout his ordeal, he began observing that, among those given a chance for survival, it was those who held on to a vision of the future, either due to a significant task before them, or a return to their loved ones, that were most likely to survive their suffering. After liberation, he was shattered when he found all his loved ones dead, but focussed his attention on work, putting all his energies into the development of logotherapy, a new approach to psychotherapy that is outlined in his best-selling book, Man's Search for Meaning. Agreeing with Nietzsche's maxim, 'He who has a why to live for can bear with almost any how,' Victor Frankl concluded, 'Ultimately, man should not ask what the meaning of his life is, but rather must recognize that it is he who is asked.'
The arrest of a colored woman for her 'crime' of not giving up her seat at the front of the 'colored section' of a bus, to a white passenger, spurred Martin Luther King, a pastor with a doctorate in divinity, to take active part in the fight for justice. The Montgomery bus boycott that forced the US government to change its law of segregation, was the first among many victories that Luther won in the civil rights movement. In 1964, he became the youngest recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize. Like his role model, Mahatma Gandhi, he too was assassinated, but not before making his dream of equality a common agenda of all right-thinking Americans.
The ability to make such sweeping changes in societal attitudes through individual turning points may not be given to all of us, but each of us can inspire and elevate those around us by the courage with which we turn around adverse situations into opportunities for growth.
Losing a limb in combat is not a particularly unusual situation for an army officer. What is unusual, however, is Maj Gen Cardazo's dogged determination to remain an active officer of the Indian Army and to lead his unit. Drawing strength from the biography, Rise to the Sky, of the Royal Air Force pilot, Douglas Bader, who lost both his limbs but still went on to fight admirably in World War II, he resolved to command his Infantry Unit, worked hard to achieve the high physical fitness that was required and then demonstrated his ability to do all that a man with two limbs could do, to the higher authorities. The Army got the rule itself reversed - any person who could prove his physical fitness could now command a unit. Rising to the rank of Major General, Ian Cardazo has authored a book on war heroes called Param Vir and now works in the disability sector after retirement. 'It is my constant endeavor to keep proving that disability is not a handicap,' he says, and is grateful to the Army for giving him a chance to prove this.
When a routine appendicitis operation failed, Ketan Shah tried desperately to recover and get back to normalcy. Nothing seemed to work. Desperate, he was ready to try anything and finally got cured through acupressure. Having gone through a series of tests with expensive bills, he resolved to help others in similar situations and mastered this technique. Today, he heals others at his center in Bangalore, accepting only voluntary donations. To fund his center, he conducts workshops and training sessions all over the world, and is renowned globally for his expertise.
Dinesh Gupta, a disabled youth, though self-employed through running a photocopying shop, still felt dependent as he continued to rely on the transport of the Spastic Society, which forced him to wind up by afternoon. He decided he must overcome this dependency and limitation and bravely boarded the Delhi Transport Corporation (DTC) bus one day. He was in for a shock - the driver rudely told him to stop inconveniencing others, and he had a bad fall as others jostled and pushed him around.
Bleeding, this event made him realize that it is only by being seen and heard in the mainstream world that he would be able to sensitize it to the needs of the disabled. Pulling himself up, he filed public interest litigation against Delhi Transport Corporation and founded Abhiyan Disabled Friends Club, a movement that organizes social events and garners support for various initiatives of the disabled. He won the case against DTC, which has since then introduced disabled-friendly buses and also introduced training programs for its staff on the difficulties of the disabled. Today, Dinesh's main aim is to help the disabled integrate with society. 'After all, we have normally functioning brains, and possess a soul as sensitive as anyone else's,' he says. Accepting responsibility, he adds, 'People like us need to step out of our cocoons and find our footing in society.'
A simple idea, thought or a book often has a profound effect. On minds fertilized by years of preparation, the seed sprouts instantly into germination.
While on a holiday with his family, Stephen Covey read a book in which a single paragraph powerfully influenced the rest of his life. The paragraph communicated the simple idea that there is a space between any stimulus and the response to it. The key to our growth and happiness is how we use that space. The idea hit him with fresh, unbelievable force and revolutionized his thinking, changing his life and the way he communicated forever. As we know, Stephen Covey then went on to influence millions of people to lead more meaningful lives through his workshops and best-selling books, beginning with Seven Habits of Highly Effective People to his latest, The 8th Habit - from Effectiveness to Greatness.
Grappling with the loss of her parents and the difficulty of her daughter in coping with the Indian school system after studying abroad, Anuradha Bakshi, the daughter of a diplomat and wife of a high-flying official, was under tremendous stress. At a physical level, this manifested as a stiff-necked collar for spondylitis. It was then that she met a simple, unlettered Tibetan healer, who she calls 'Mataji'. Mataji took one look at her and said, 'Your collar is a decoy and leads you away from what you should be doing. Take it away and get involved in working with the poor and needy'. This wisdom turned her whole life around and she plunged into 'Project Why', an institution that educates the slum children of Girinagar in Delhi in academic and vocational areas, thus providing much-needed hope to the community. Immersed in the lives of the slum-dwellers, she has found true meaning in this role and says, 'Mataji made me realise that 'grief' is also energy and it only needs to be channelized in the right direction.' The collar, of course, is off.
Inspiration from Heroes
'What you are shouts so loudly in my ears that I cannot hear what you say', said Emerson. Extending this, one could say inspiring lives are often the most potent catalysts of new thought.
Anna Hazare, though a simple village boy who went on to sell flowers in Mumbai, was inspired by the lives of Vivekananda and Gandhi and decided to join the army to serve the nation. Facing a perilous accident as a truck driver during the 1962 Chinese war and isolated for several days before being rescued, he convinced himself that he had been saved to serve others and returned to his village, Ralegaon Siddhi in Maharashtra. A huge challenge lay ahead - the village was poverty-stricken, reeling under the effects of drought. Vandalism and alcoholism was rampant. Undaunted, Anna renovated the village temple out of the meager pension funds he received and started living in the two rooms, bringing about galloping changes - water conservation, a grain bank and a residential school. Most of all, he has been able to alter the despairing mindset of the people into one of optimism and hope.
Born in a backward community in Tamil Nadu where caste equations were still dominant, Ramaswamy Elango was clear he wished to improve the lot of his people without conflict, using the simple maxim, 'There can be no individual happiness if there is misery all around'. He worked hard, qualified as an engineer and got a plum job in Oil India, but all along kept yearning to contribute to the development of his village. His wife, Sumathi, a pillar of strength, supported him by planning out a strategy. She obtained a job and took up the responsibility of the family of two children so that Elango could concentrate on his mission without hindrance. The first step was his victory in the Gram Panchayat elections. With that came a huge responsibility. Providing jobs and much-needed hope to the community was his first concern. An opportunity presented itself very soon. At the outskirts of the village was a factory that polished granite stones that was willing to pay for the disposal of its waste. Elango happily took up this project, provided employment to the villagers, and used the waste granite to develop drainage for the village, thus tackling one more problem. The drainage was completed in one-third of the allotted amount for the project - a great achievement. Before he could rejoice, however, he realized that this very success was a sore point with vested interests. Projecting that Elango had overshot his authority by using granite instead of the usual 'rubble', they got him sacked. Shocked, he was on the verge of giving up his dream, when his wife asked gently, 'Are you allowing the first setback to deter you?' giving him Sattiya Sodhanai, Gandhi's autobiography in Tamil to read. Reading the book made Elango understand the true message of Gandhi's life, 'First be truthful. Then be fearless'. With courage, he calmly fought his case with the authorities and was back in the fray. Kuthambakkam, Elango's village, is now a model of cooperative development with extensive water management works, processing of agricultural produce and collective businesses run by women.
Alka Zadgaonkar, a chemistry teacher, had worked hard for three years on her passion, of not just reusing plastic but converting it into fuel, thereby tackling the problem of 'environmental waste' and providing a usable fuel. She was convinced in her belief that it was a workable idea but none of the experiments were successful and she was on the verge of giving up. Sensing her dejection, her husband gifted her with the biography of George Washington Carver, an African-American who had overcome tremendous obstacles to invent and implement new methods of agriculture to better the lot of his people. Shamed into realizing that her obstacles were much easier to tackle, Alka continued her experiments and finally succeeded. Today, her factory is in high demand at Nagpur and many state unit heads and international agencies have shown interest in learning this technique from her.
It is not just famous people but heroic acts of ordinary people too that can inspire. Dominique Lappiere, the eminent author, who switched over to writing for social causes from writing bestselling accounts of famous moments in history, says, 'The moment which spurred me to write The City of Joy came when some of the poorest inhabitants of the slum asked me one day to help them have a school for their empty-bellied children to learn how to read and write. That day I understood I was with the true heroes of humanity. I had to become their voice for the world.'
Listening to Signals
Sometimes, we do not know that we need help - but God does, and provides us with an answer even before we make a conscious attempt to ask. All we need to do is listen and muster the courage to act.
Down and out due to a series of job fiascoes, well-known editor Vinod Mehta had settled to a laidback, meaningless life. Harbouring depressing thoughts, he was walking home one day when he fell into an open manhole. In an instant, his whole life flashed before him. On one hand, he thought this was the end and wallowing in self-pity, he regretted he had done nothing truly worthwhile in his entire lifetime. But soon, he pulled himself together and resolved to get back on his feet. Help arrived and he was back on terra firma and subsequently, went on to become editor-in-chief of Outlook, India's leading newsmagazine. He wrote in the magazine's 10th anniversary issue, 'In retrospect, falling into that manhole was the best thing that happened to me. It was the reality check I needed.'
Vasudeva and Sushila Rao had a good home, two lovely sons and good friends. Vasu, then a bank official, however, had become a compulsive alcoholic. As with most alcoholics, he refused to recognise and accept this fact and kept going deeper and deeper into a bottomless pit. Sushila tried very hard to help him but finally despaired and concentrated on the children and her other interests. Eventually, Vasu was dragged into a meeting of the Alcoholics Anonymous by a friend. Though he recognized many symptoms in himself, he refused to accept that the term 'alcoholic' could apply to him.
He was walking away in a pique when a man came towards him and casually said, 'I just want to ask you three questions. How are your interpersonal relationships at work vis-�-vis what it was before? How is your relationship with your wife, again with the same yardstick? Do you know in which classes your sons are studying?' Jolted into recognizing where he was heading, that very day, Vasu took the first step of accepting that he was indeed an alcoholic. Now, he is an active member of Alcoholics Anonymous, has not touched alcohol for the last 25 years and has helped many people accept and overcome their addiction.
Traveling along with her husband to small villages and townships where a clear demarcation of affluence and poverty was glaringly visible, Thilakam Rajendran set out to bridge this difference. Married for 13 years without conceiving a child, she had come to terms with the fact that, perhaps, motherhood was not for her. At this stage, she moved to Delhi and found herself at a loss without a goal and missed the closer community she was used to. Spotting an advertisement for a course in special education in the field of disability, she impulsively enrolled for it. Studying after a long break and commuting in a big city did pose a challenge initially but soon she got used to it and began working in the disability sector after her course. Miraculously, she soon became a biological mother too. Now, having worked in the disability sector for 19 years with AADI (Action for Ability Development and Inclusion), she is truly thankful to God for the opportunity to play multiple roles of a mother, didi, friend and guide, thus making each day truly meaningful.
A Series of Turning Points
Potential turning points surround us all the time, if only we would open ourselves to them. The most satisfying part of their trip to India has been the time they spent in service at Mother Teresa's home, were the reported words of some foreign tourists. This set Geeta Sekhon, a lecturer in law and the wife of a Naval officer, thinking. She resolved to do at least a little bit for her fellow citizens. Since then, she has made it a point to get involved in helping and serving to the best of her ability and circumstances, going every weekend to Mother Teresa's home initially, and then doing whatever was possible in the stations her husband got posted to. Now, she continues teaching law and also runs a class for the poorer children in the colony she lives. 'Even with such little time, I am able to make a difference as the children are so receptive. Someday, I hope to dedicate all my time to helping the downtrodden,' she says.
An everyday event or task can be a small turning point too. While working on a parenting article recently, I bungled many times. All the areas seem to have been covered but still the article was 'not quite right', my editor pointed out, and patiently guided me to make it better. Initially, I tried to mechanically change the text but that just did not seem to work. Taking a break, I examined my own feelings in this matter, and indeed that was the problem. I realized I felt extremely challenged by the difficulties of parenting today which is what I conveyed, whereas what was required was an analysis of how parenting is becoming healthier, more intimate, and more positive, partly due to these very challenges. Viewing the whole equation with a new perspective, the article fell in place easily. Serendipitously, this is exactly what I needed, as I had been plagued with worry, anxiety, and self-doubt in my own role as a parent.
Why ? How ? When ?
Is a turning point, then, an answer to the call of our consciousness? It certainly seems so. Victor Frankl had always wished to study and improve the human condition and so, even the horrible conditions in the concentration camps spurred him on to carry out his study from a different angle. Elango, though not exposed to Gandhian thought, had been working for the same causes that Gandhi believed in, and so was fully ready to understand the true meaning of Gandhi's life and work. Anuradha, born and raised in Mauritius, craved for her Indian roots and wished to give back something to the land she belonged to. Even her father's last words to her were, 'Never lose faith in India'. Project Why was a natural outcome. Dominique Lapierre was plunged into social work and City of Joy just flowed through. Similarly, all the others were looking for the answers which presented themselves in due time.
To walk the rough road is surely not a cakewalk. The biggest hurdle is fear of the unknown. To move forward when we have no idea of what lies ahead requires tremendous courage. There is fear, of course, but it must be overcome. As we have seen, one common thread in all of the above instances is the courage to embrace change with the challenges that come with it. Mary Carroll Moore, in her book, How to Master Change in your Life, says, 'Change is a gift from God, a doorway to the next spiritual level, and we are a creative force in our own lives. To no longer be the victim of change is to master change. This mastery allows you to see the hand of God at work in your life and create a future that reflects confidence, a divine plan and a higher purpose.'
Another vital factor is grace. Mary says, 'There comes a time in changes, especially big ones, where we have to lean on God's grace'. We cannot program our turning points but can surely prepare ourselves to receive his grace.
Once we accept the challenge, we become agents of change ourselves. Maj Gen Cardazo's efforts have resulted in many more disabled officers getting a chance to lead their units in the Army. Anna Hazare, Elango, Anuradha, Stephen Covey and all others have been catalysts in many, many lives.
A higher power gives us the relationships and the situations we need for spiritual growth. However, just like a radio can receive signals only when tuned, we need to tune ourselves to receive the spiritual messages that are sent to us. We need to embrace the opportunity for growth, asking ourselves at every step, 'What can I learn from this experience?' Life will then become a series of turning points, each one taking us to a new level of inner strength and eventually, perhaps, enlightenment itself.
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