By Suma Varughese
In the many struggles life presents us lie our growth, glory, joy, purpose, our true Self. Life’s meaning unfolds only as far as we face it courageously and tackle the tasks it issues. The more we battle the odds, the richer the rewards—inner strength, confidence, realisation of potential, understanding, love and success
When Ahmed was born after just seven-and-a-half months of gestation, he weighed a meagre 1.2 kg, had immature lungs that required him to breathe with a ventilator, and developed meningitis. A tough call for a baby just launched into life. Yet today, at three and a half years, he is a happy, thriving toddler, his early struggles only strengthening his capacity for survival. What made this frail little morsel so strong? What caused him to struggle heroically against such formidable odds? What gave him such a passion for life?
In truth, admirable though it is, Ahmed’s victory is no surprise, for life is nothing if not tenacious. The fragile blade of grass breaking through a rock is an even more dramatic testament to life’s indomitability. Heroism is everywhere. We may be enthralled and inspired by the great feats of mankind, like the Buddha’s enlightenment. Or the martyrdom of Jesus Christ. The achievements of Mahatma Gandhi. Edmund Hillary’s conquest of Mt Everest; Roger Bannister’s conquest of the four-minute mile. Nadia Comaneci’s perfect ten. Mother Teresa’s compassion. Beethoven’s brilliant compositions after turning deaf. Sachin Tendulkar’s batting. These and many others draw for us a graph of what is humanly possible. For that we salute them.
No less inspiring is the heroism of everyday life. A plant’s ceaseless struggle to move towards the sun and light, the mongoose’s battle with the mighty cobra, the stoicism of the mother of a handicapped child, of a blind man feeling his way through the streets of a busy city, of a dauntless battle against cancer, and every individual’s ongoing search for truth, beauty and happiness. The struggle never ends and with reason, for strife is the calling card of life.
Nature of life
Scientists tell us that the laws of thermodynamics dictate the nature of the inorganic universe. Of these, the second law states that natural processes always move towards an increase of disorder, measured by entropy. In other words, the universe has a tendency to run down. Yet life, far from running down, has only evolved to higher and higher states since it first appeared on planet earth. Says James Lovelock, author of The Ages of Gaia: “Life is the paradoxical contradiction of the second law.” Despite the force of entropy holding it back, life prevails and triumphs. It is therefore the very nature of life to fight against the odds, to overcome and to evolve.
How can this universal theme not be present in human life? M. Scott Peck begins his book The Road Less Travelled by echoing the Buddha: “Life is difficult. This is a great truth, one of the greatest truths.”
Yes, life is difficult because it is meant to be difficult. We are here to battle against the odds, to strive against the circumstances of our lives, to defeat the entropy of deadening habits, lethargy and conditioning. It’s no use pining for an easy life. It’s never going to happen. Indeed, as Dr Peck writes, the more we long for an easy life, the more difficult life is. So why this torturous game plan? Why are we meant to struggle all our lives?
You don’t go too far in life before you get a glimmering of the answer. In the struggle lies our growth, glory, joy, purpose, our true Self. Life unfolds its paradoxical meaning only as far as we face it courageously and tackle the tasks it issues. The more we battle the odds, the richer the rewards—inner strength, confidence, a realisation of our potential, understanding, wisdom, love and an abundant flow of the life force, not to mention external rewards like success, money and fame.
Writes Scott Peck: “It is in this whole process of meeting and solving problems that life has its meaning. Problems call forth our courage and wisdom; indeed, they create our courage and our wisdom. It is only because of problems that we grow mentally and spiritually.”
Give up the struggle and we fall into the dread hands of entropy. Our stores of energy, enthusiasm, happiness and positivity dwindle and die. The law of life is stern: progress or perish. And yet, life’s complex pattern is woven with a strand of infinite mercy and grace, for we are offered innumerable chances to redeem ourselves, to seize the moment, to move from entropy to growth. This happens all through our life for the universe never gives up on us, and perhaps beyond the present life as well. For today, there is proof proffered by psychiatrists like Brian Weiss, whose book Many Lives, Many Masters is a classic of its kind, that reincarnation is a fact.
Indeed, if we can accept that evolution is an ongoing phenomenon, and that as crown of creation, we are meant to birth the next phase of evolution, it seems logical to assume that we get to live again and again until we can, in fact, reach the desired stage of evolution. What may that be? Classic spiritual literature of our country tells us that it is to become God. We are meant to grow in stature and perfection until we become one with the Divine, who scripted this whole plan for us. God wants us to grow—and this growth will be facilitated by pitting ourselves against the circumstances of our lives—until we reach that lofty peak of perfect freedom, happiness and peace, which is God.
The road might be difficult but the goal is sublime. Yes, life expects the most out of us, but that is because it wants us to reap the highest reward it can offer us. With such a motivation, why should we not take up the gauntlet? Why should we not strive against all odds?
The hero’s journey
We start, of course, with our everyday selves. Striving against odds does not necessarily mean wrestling with a dragon or taking on Osama bin Laden, though these would be included. It means the daily push and pull of our lives, as we struggle to rise above our circumstances, to make something of ourselves, to get the better of our anger and sloth, and to contribute something to the world. It is the daily struggle to rise above habit, about making the things we want happen in our lives, about becoming better human beings. It is also about the bigger things, about coping when disasters happen, when illness strikes and death overcomes. It is to be able to vault over all circumstances. It is about releasing the hero in each of us.
The famous mythologist Joseph Campbell talks about the ‘hero’s journey’, an archetypal pattern that runs through every story ever written, including the story of our own lives. The pattern consists of stages we all have to go through in order to grow. The hero’s journey begins with dissatisfaction with some aspect of life brought on by limiting assumptions, fear, and conditioning. You sense that a deeper, more fulfilling life awaits you if you can only move towards it.
At first you resist, overcome by fear of the unknown. The universe steps in and creates an event that forces you towards your dream. Perhaps you lose a job or a relationship, or experience a spiritual insight. It is then that you commit yourself to the journey and turn your back on the ordinary world. En route, you meet challenges that force you to evaluate yourself, and to go beyond the masks and superficialities with which you shrouded yourself.
Entering the heart of the storm, you confront your deepest fears and your inner demons so that the real you can be released. As your old identity dies, you embrace your true, expanded self. Finally, you return to the ordinary world, renewed. Now you are ready to live your life’s purpose, which is to give of yourself selflessly in service to the world. These are the elements of the journey all of us must make through life.
Let us start with the things that stop us, what Campbell calls ‘resistance’. For Scott Peck, it is laziness, which he sees as the embodiment of entropy. He writes: “No matter how seemingly healthy and spiritually evolved we are, there is still a part of us, however small, that does not want us to exert ourselves, that clings to the old and familiar, fearful of any change or effort, desiring comfort at any cost and absence of pain at any price, even if the penalty be ineffectiveness, stagnation or regression.”
This resistance accelerates to furious proportions when the Universe shakes up our life. “When my son Vivek died in a tragic car accident on July 8, 1990, our world literally came to an end. My husband, daughter and I were completely shattered and broken,” says Chitra Singh, wife and one-time singing partner of ghazal singer Jagjit Singh. Healer and personal growth trainer Meeraa Kotak recalls her state of mind when she emerged from an unsuccessful marriage in 1990. “I had feelings of low self-worth. I felt rejected and sorry for myself. I lost interest in health and my appearance and felt socially inadequate.”
The writer Ashok Banker, whose recent retelling of the Ramayan, The Prince of Ayodhya, is a critical and popular success, is the product of a traumatic childhood. At age 12, he was solely responsible for an alcoholic psychotic mother, earned a living, took care of the house, and engaged in the normal routines of school-life. “My family circumstances drove me to the depths of despair. I touched rock-bottom,” he recalls. When housewife Vandana Gupta was diagnosed with Hodgkins Lymphoma, cancer of the glands, her ordinary world disappeared in a haze of radiation and chemotherapy.
The way out
When disasters strike, the extent of our misery can paralyse us. The event appears huge, menacing and unbelievably cruel, sent for the express purpose of destroying us. Chitra Singh recalls months of being locked up in her son’s room, mourning her loss. “I could not bring myself to think of life or logical behaviour,” she says. Our own resources to tackle the crisis appear meagre and pitiful. There are many who will not progress beyond this place, bayoneted by the tragedy. (But they will get a chance, innumerable ones, in lifetimes to come.)
Others find, within themselves or through external agents, a helpline. In Meeraa Kotak’s case the urgent need for financial security compelled her to make a new life for herself and her children. For Chitra Singh, two questions simmering in her mind launched her into the hero’s journey. “I wanted to know, firstly, why did this happen and secondly, why was I here? In the natural order of things parents go before their children.” For Banker, the journey up from rock-bottom took place when his despair drove him to attempt suicide from the ledge of his balcony. A fortuitous window clasp hooked on to his shirt and wouldn’t let go. Someone was clearly watching over him. “I realised I desperately wanted to live. Everything changed from then on and I said, okay, get up and go,” he says. For Vandana, watching interviews with cancer survivors on television gave her the conviction that she too could beat the dreaded disease.
A lucky few are exempted from this step. Ashish Bagrodia, advisor to GSL, was just 15 when a feeling of heaviness in his leg muscles led him to one of Mumbai’s best-known bone specialists. Walking unescorted into the doctor’s clinic, for he had told no one about his complaint, he heard the doctor confirm what his own reading had led him to suspect. He had muscular dystrophy, a degenerative condition of the muscles that would eventually lead to an inability to walk.
Says Bagrodia, now 34: “I don’t remember feeling sad or bad.” Fate dealt him another blow two years later, when while returning from his factory in Gujarat, his car met with a severe accident. Almost every bone in his body, including his jaw, was broken and he was hospitalised for the next three to four months, undergoing surgeries. The enforced inactivity greatly accelerated the muscular atrophy. “Ten years of atrophy in three months,” he says. He came out of hospital, not yet 18, but already wheelchair-bound. Even so, Bagrodia kept his upper lip pretty stiff. “The accident gave me a lot of pain physically, but I had no mental trauma or depression.”
Life had not finished testing him. A year later, the bones had not yet set and back he went to undergo surgeries all over again. This time there was a momentary resistance, he says. The only time when he rebelled against his condition was when he turned 23 and thoughts of marriage crossed his mind. “I didn’t want a girl to marry me simply because she felt sorry for me or because I had money,” he says. Fortunately for him, he met and fell in love with Shantipriya and the two are now happily wed.
Accepting the challenge
Though it may take them longer than Bagrodia, those who embark on the hero’s journey eventually get to the zone where they are willing to pick up the gauntlet, accept the new circumstances they find themselves in, and proceed with the task of overcoming them.
What do they need to take with them to succeed in their journey? Stephen R. Covey, author of The 7 Habits of Highly Effective Families, strongly advocates proactive behaviour, which he defines as the ability to go beyond our habitual reactions, and choose our responses based on our ability to press the pause button between stimulus and response. He speaks of being deeply impressed by the following lines he read in a book: “Between stimulus and response, there is a space. In that space lies our freedom and power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and happiness.” Struck by the enormous potential hidden in these few words, Covey worked to create within himself that pause, which he realised made him a force of nature.
Proactive behaviour, or the ability to choose your own responses, is the key to mastery of life and lies at the heart of the ability to win against all the odds. Whatever the situation, all is not lost as long as we have not given up. No matter what the situation, our response to it is ours alone: it need not be dictated by the situation.
It is this ability to choose the positive response, the growth response, the loving response that distinguishes great masters who beat the odds. We have only to think of Mahatma Gandhi and his satyagrahis going down to bullets and batons with neither rage nor retaliation, to see the huge moral power behind this concept. Writes Victor Frankl in Man’s Search for Meaning, which is an account of his experience in a concentration camp during World War II: “The way in which a man accepts his fate and all the suffering it entails, the way in which he takes up his cross, gives him ample opportunity even under the most difficult circumstances to add a deeper meaning to his life.”
Proactive behaviour, says Covey, can be generated by the use of four gifts each of us has been given: self-awareness, conscience, imagination and independent will. Self-awareness is the most crucial factor for it will allow us to transcend our present behaviour and use the other gifts in new ways. Conscience, he says, is a moral power that aligns us with the deepest and finest principles contained in our highest ideas. Imagination can be used to creatively visualise our proactive behaviour so that it can manifest in the real world. And will is the energy that converts vision into action.
From the point of view of entropy, proactive behaviour can be seen as life-generating, for it calls us to go beyond our circumstance, to choose a response that is based on vision and focused on growth. Reactivity comes through succumbing to circumstances, giving in to the same old anger, greed, fear or self-pity. It is therefore entropy-heavy.
Tools for the journey
Scott Peck has another set of instructions for those on the journey: “Discipline is the basic set of tools we require to solve life’s problems. Without discipline, we can solve nothing. With only some discipline we can solve some problems. With total discipline we can solve all problems.”
Peck’s discipline pivots around four qualities: the ability to delay gratification, acceptance of responsibility, dedication to truth, and balancing. The first three qualities are crucial if we want to rise above lower needs. Peck admits that the strength to do so depends on our upbringing and the sense of self-esteem planted into us by our parents.
Acceptance of responsibility is a universally acknowledged factor in any dialogue with crisis. Unless we can take responsibility for the situation, we will continue to be a victim, blaming life, others and circumstances for our imbroglio. Writes Mary Carroll Moore in her book How to Master Change in Your Life: “When I look back on times in my life when I suffered greatly, I see that sometimes I learned, sometimes I didn’t. What made the difference? When I brought responsibility into the situation, when I acknowledged my part in it, when I asked what I could learn, I learned. When I refused to take responsibility I didn’t.”
By truth-telling Peck refers to the need to be relentlessly honest with ourselves and others about the reality of our lives. As long as we refuse to acknowledge a problem or its dimensions, we cannot begin to grapple with it. By balance, Peck refers to our ability to juggle all three factors so that one does not overwhelm the others.
These apart, there are other crucial travel tools for the journey. One, which Peck touched upon, is self-esteem. We must believe in ourselves, have confidence in ourselves and care for ourselves. The hero’s journey is arduous and calls for rigorous self-examination. It asks us to surrender all that we are in order to be what we can be. It asks us to know ourselves intimately. We cannot even begin to engage with it unless our self-confidence and self-efficacy are robust.
The other, and the most crucial of all, is faith in God. Remember that this journey has been ordained by Divinity. You are by no means alone in it. As you take your steps on the path, you will find that an unknown hand is guiding you through coincidences, intuitive nudges, by placing the right people and books in front of you and occasionally, by an outright miracle.
Says Dada Vaswani in a collection of his answers to questions posed by disciples, called Dada Answers: “He who seeks refuge in the Lord finds that life is the great guru, the great teacher, the great initiator. Every experience enriches his interior life, leads him onward in the march of the true, the good, the beautiful and the holy. Every pain makes him perfect, every suffering makes him strong. Such a man is never alone, another is always with him, blessing him, guiding him, protecting him, leading him on.”
Peck, referring to his own history of miraculous escapes from death, writes: “I suspect that the majority will find in their own personal experiences similar patterns of repeated narrowly averted disasters, accidents that almost happened that is many times greater than the number of accidents that actually did happen. Could it be that most of us do lead ‘charmed lives’?” An important messenger of grace, says Peck, is our Unconscious, which he likens to the God within us, for its many signals through dreams and intuitions always lead us on the path to growth and away from stagnation and entropy.
Lessons of life
To accumulate these tools and through them develop facility in living is itself a huge part of the journey. In the process, for this is a journey into the unknown, great adventures befall the hero, which he cannot combat with the skills that have so far served him. He must learn to let go of what he knows, be willing to relearn by overcoming prejudices and fears, and allow those in the know to teach him. Above all, he must be willing to look himself in the face, see the illusions and delusions he has been labouring under and cast them away. He must learn to hone himself to his simple essential self.
There are other lessons he must learn—to forgive himself and others, to accept the circumstance he is in and to see the hidden gifts it holds for him. If he is lucky and applies himself assiduously to the task, he will find himself face to face with the choicest of rewards, the glimmering of spiritual truth and an understanding of the purpose of life. For the hero’s journey must culminate in a spiritual awakening.
As she mourned for her son, a visitor told Chitra Singh about the other world where souls of the dead go. Chitra launched into a feverish drive to read more about life after death. This phase culminated in a visit to a famous medium in England. “This man did not know us, yet he was able to describe my son’s appearance accurately, including the braces he had on his teeth. He described certain incidents that only one of us knew or were restricted to the immediate family circle. This was when I was convinced that I had not lost my son completely. I could not feel him, touch him, or do the things I did for him, but he was there,” she says.
Through reading and inner insight Chitra began to discern the hand of karma and destiny. “I was married earlier. I got divorced and married my present husband. We were brought together by music but today I don’t even sing. I believe that we came together to bring this son into the world so that we could become the kind of people we became as his parents. And to experience the intensity of suffering when he left us. I have also realised the purpose of his going away. To make us the people we are today. Had he been here, we would have had unbounded joy, but we would have remained the same. Our lives would have been defined by music, travelling around the world, fun, money, fame and prestige. But is that the purpose of life?”
For Ashok Banker, the hard road to resurrection included discovering his vocation for writing and expiating his ghosts through it. It also led him to appreciate his family members, for he realised he had been presented with perfect examples of how not to live. “It was like getting a moral science lesson in 20 chapters,” he says, “so I didn’t have to go through the same experiences. I realised what would happen if you drank or were disloyal in your marriage.”
As the lessons are pondered over and absorbed, the hero changes within. He has developed new skills and abilities, but above all, he has a new perspective on life. He has peered into the very heart of pain and what he has seen has transformed him.
Says Chitra Singh: “Through his going away, my son has enabled each of us to grow into our purpose in life. Today, my husband’s music is sublime, my daughter is an accomplished tarot reader and I am into healing. I know now that misfortunes are disguised opportunities for growth. You are born as one person but the universe wants you to become another. To allow that one to surface is your job. I must actualise it.”
Banker considers that his adversities have made him who he is. As the negativities of the past transform into a positive force, he is more accepting of himself and of the world. “Earlier, I used to hate parts of myself. I used to hate them in the outside world as well. Today I can accept them, both in the world and in myself. The bitterness was not in the things I was tasting. It was in me.” He adds gently: “The people I grew up with were also battling tremendous odds and we cannot forget that or judge them.”
Vandana Gupta has started a cancer support group called V-Care, which looks after the needs of cancer patients. Says she: “Cancer has been the biggest degree in my education. I am more understanding, more empathetic. And when I see the difficult battles other people fight, it makes me grateful for every mercy shown to me. Today I feel there’s nothing I can’t handle.” Meeraa Kotak too is a new woman. “Thirteen years of living as a single parent have helped me discover my strength. I have also discovered tremendous creativity. Now it is easy for me to speak before an audience of 1,000 or 2,000 people. Today, I bless the situation. For there was a divine purpose behind it to help me find who I am.”
For Ashish Bagrodia, who apparently didn’t have to make the journey because he was already at the end of it, life continues unabated. “I work eight to ten hours daily and travel to my factories. I hardly ever feel exhausted. I have never been embarrassed about my handicap nor allowed it to stop me from doing anything I want. For instance, I was fond of horse riding and decided to try it again. I consulted a doctor in the US about a saddle and actually rode a horse. Recently, when I went to Jaipur, I even rode an elephant, with proper precaution of course,” he says. A hero? Well, what can I say?
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