By Suma Varughese June 2010 Can we learn to move from the many what-ifs that consume us with fear to a serene acceptance of what is? A few days back while mulling over this story, I was having lunch with a friend at her club. I had just about had the last morsel on my plate when she got a call. Her aunt, who had been ailing for a few months, had passed away. My friend’s son, said the caller, would pick her up in 10 minutes to take her to the hospital. Even as we waited outside the club for her son to come, she got another call. Her mother had fallen down and hurt herself.Katherine Keefer, a talented US-based artist, sculptor, and poet says, “In the space of a year – at the age of 60 – I lost my marriage, my home, and my job. In the same year, my father and my brother both died. It took me two years to not feel like I was at the edge of the abyss, to feel connected and grounded, to feel like I had a separate self. At 60, I had expected to be reaping the harvest – to have my family around me, my home, my husband.”Lakshmi Desai (name changed), a bright and able journalist, recalls the nightmare she plunged into when she married a man she met online and settled down in Australia with him. A closet homosexual, he was abusive and manipulative, threatening to break the relationship if she did not comply with his wishes. The apex was reached “the day he got violent with me, hit me and picked me up and threw me out of the house at 10.30 in the night. I fell in the passage on my fours and he locked me out. After several futile knocks from me, the neighbour downstairs came and took me to her house.”Reinhold Koglmeier, who belongs to the spiritual organisation called Friends of Bruno Groning, recalls the time when life suddenly whipped out its iron hand from the velvet glove and gave him a hard wallop across the face. At age 55, he was given notice from his company that his services would be terminated in six months’ time. Koglmeier decided to start a direct marketing business himself, relying on his girlfriend to support him on it. She also offered to have him move into her flat. He accordingly found someone to take his flat and was all set to move into hers at the end of the year, when lo, she fell in love with another man and moved in with him at once. At one fell swoop he had lost his business, his girlfriend and his flat. “I had no idea what the future would look like or whether I would ever find a job again being 55 years old,” he says.Werner Erhard, the founder of EST and Landmark Forum once said something memorable. “Life comes at you like bullets from a gun.” Rat-a-tat tat, without any hint of what the next moment contains. And there’s no way out. For this is life.And yet this basic truth is so obscured to us. For the longest time, we float by in a cloud of unawareness, unable to penetrate the utter unpredictability of life. perhaps this is just as well for surely it is one of the hardest and most wrenching realisations to come to terms with. Glorious as these blooms are they wither in days Here, for instance, is one man’s account, from The Varieties of Religious Experiences by William James, of how he felt when he suddenly penetrated this truth. He had lately seen an epileptic reduced to idiocy in an asylum, and the fear came to him that there was nothing to guarantee he would not become like him: “That shape am I, I felt, potentially. nothing that I possess can defend me against that fate, if the hour for it should strike for me as it struck for him…something hitherto solid within my breast gave way entirely and I became a mass of quivering fear. After this, the universe changed for me altogether. I awoke morning after morning with a horrible dread at the pit of my stomach, and with a sense of the insecurity of life that I never knew before…I remember wondering how other people could live, how I myself had ever lived, so unconscious of that pit of insecurity beneath the surface of life.” I too, had penetrated this truth somewhere in my youth and I remember lying sweating at night with the fear that there was no guarantee that I would not end up in a ditch somewhere, destitute and unwanted.No guarantee that we will draw the next breath, no guarantee that our loved ones will live beyond the moment, no guarantee that we will have our limbs or reason beyond the moment, no guarantee that a dreadful disease will not lay us low. No guarantee, period.Fortunately, life helps us ignore this by enfolding us in routine. She lulls us into slumber through our schedules, our morning walks, weekly kitty parties, monthly family gatherings, and the stultifying sameness of everyday life. We begin to believe that life will continue in the same vein – that we will reach home from work every evening, we will wake up every morning, we will commune with our dear ones each day. Our lives are programmed to expect everyday, unchanging sameness.Coping strategiesOf course, the sceptre of uncertainty cannot entirely be kept at bay. There is too much evidence of it at any given time. And so we invent a thousand ingenious ways to deal with it. We look for it in power, fame and money. Swami Yatitananda, a monk at Divine Life Society, Rishikesh, offers the example of a crorepati who gets his accountant to calculate how many generations of descendants his wealth would suffice for. When he is told that there is enough money to last seven generations he is consumed with fear. “What will happen to the eighth generation?” he gibbers.Another strategy to stave off uncertainty is through planning, and organisation. We strive to anticipate and make provision for every possible contingency, thereby securing safety and security. The West is particularly prone to this sort of thing by creating watertight systems in all areas of life. People are so used to trains running on time or traffic proceeding smoothly that when things go wrong, they are struck down in shock. 9/11 was a monumental tragedy but it is a sure bet that any city in India would have recovered much sooner from the disaster for the simple reason that we have gone through so many disasters that our coping mechanisms are far more refined.Another favourite ploy is to cultivate relationships. Don’t we all enter into love with the plea, “Promise you will love me forever!” people marry hoping that they will have a life partner forever (as Katherine proves – there is no guarantee of that happening) and here in India our children are our insurance for old age. The idea of life insurance, medical insurance or any other form of insurance is an investment made to protect oneself against sudden contingencies. The very existence of society, of family and every institution known to man is to insure against the crippling uncertainty of life.The hard truthOne may ask at this juncture, if it is even feasible to live without this soft coating. Is it really possible to remember at every moment that the next moment is forfeit without going nuts? Can we really keep worrying about our next breath or if we are going to see X or Y ever again? After all, wasn’t it TS Eliot who wrote that the human mind cannot bear much reality? Most sadhus lead uncertain lives It is true that this realisation is hard to bear. However, it is equally true that at one point or another life will force us to confront it. Our purpose for living is growth and evolution and therefore we will be forced to part with all that is false and illusory. Whether we like it or not, at some point we must confront the reality of life’s uncertainty even if it exposes us to excruciating pain and anxiety.Anisha Anilraj, a 27-year-old academic of biological sciences based in Chicago, was exposed to this realisation at a tender young age.When she was six years old, she, her parents and grandfather were on their way to their native Kerala for Diwali by train. Halfway through, her grandfather passed away, soon after he had asked her mother how much longer they would have to wait for lunch to be served. The family hastily disembarked, located a doctor, arranged for the body to be taken to Kerala and spent their much-looked-forward-to holiday on the last rites of a beloved patriarch.Anisha says, “The entire experience left me acutely aware of the impermanence of things. I would wake up at night and crawl next to my mother and stick my little fingers under her nose to make sure she was breathing. Sometimes I would just shake her awake to be sure. As I grew older I tried to control everything around me so as to leave nothing to chance. Most of the time it worked, but my mind was constantly filled with dread, with caution; and when things did transpire how I wanted them to, my relief was only momentary before I moved on to trying to control the next thing.”To secure a semblance of certainty through control is our first natural reaction. But alas, we are still operating from the world of illusions when we attempt this. Sooner or later we have to cease to control others or hedge our bets, for it only creates misery for us and others.Handy insightsHow do we move beyond this stage? What are the insights or changes of attitude that can help us come to terms with uncertainty in a healthy manner?One of the most important thing is to cultivate our coping mechanisms. If we can develop our skills, our endurance, our determination and so on, then gradually we realise that we can cope with whatever life sends our way. A friend has had one of the rockiest life paths I have known, which includes among other challenges taking care of a handicapped brother, having to earn a living at the age of 10 and going through a painful divorce. Through it all, she has grown to such an extent that today she is a radiant and accomplished woman who is a massive force for th
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