Niranjan Gidwani explores the inevitability of contradictions in our life and the ways in which we can tackle them
Life is full of contradictions. As we grow up, we begin to get exposed to the many contradictions of our professional and personal lives. Examples abound all around us. A schoolteacher is expected to teach values in the classroom, but the system wants them to give preference for admission to a less-deserving child because that child’s parents offer a large donation. A manager is expected to be people-oriented, but he must ask a good teammate to leave because business has slowed down. A journalist writes exposes on many social issues, but he can see skeletons in his own organisation. A young executive is faced with the issue of working on a project for which the client is an alcohol company. By building a more efficient AI-based information and delivery system for the client, would he not be increasing the possibility of more people getting addicted to drinking? Likewise, the head of a tobacco distribution company wants to speed up his packaging and delivery processes. Or a doctor recommends unwarranted surgeries to meet the return on investment targets of the hospital owners.
How to deal with contradictions?
So what is the right way and what is the wrong way of dealing with issues such as these? In every such case, at the end of the day, it is for the individual to do his or her own ‘sense-making.’ A systemic answer is not always possible. Faced with a contradiction, most of us usually look for the truth instead of dealing with the contradiction itself. The absolute truth is always much more comfortable. The difficult but inevitable thing in life is that the truth always reveals itself in contradictions. The packaging never gets any better.
The newer generation is finding this very difficult to deal with. “One day you tell me to do this, another day you tell me to do the opposite.” Should we then become either apathetic and cynical or become subservient to the system and blindly follow what it asks of us in every given situation?
A lot depends on two things: One, do we hold ourselves responsible for thinking and making sense of issues, contexts, and the outcome possibilities? Two, how much do we see ourselves as the system? When we are the system, do we also think of improving the system, or do we just think along with the system? Or, should we not think at all? In most cases, people find issues to be problematic because they would rather have the comfort of someone else running the department of truth and publish policies on the internet that are clear, unambiguous, and without multiple possible outcomes.
The Gita’s perspective
The Bhagavad-Gita provides an interesting perspective on both: the pervasive nature of contradictions and the central need for the individual to think and make sense for himself. The former is best illustrated in the conflict Arjuna faced when he was at war with his own kith and kin. When the purpose of life is to do good, how can one justify waging war against one’s own people? The message lies here. Our tasks in professional life are not about the easy stuff; conflicts are a part of every profession, and we are supposed to deal with them. They are not an aberration; they are the reality.
Now comes the second part. Who must guide us in moments of indecision? The concept of the dialogue between Krishna and Arjuna is symbolic. Essentially, everyone is part Krishna and part Arjuna. The Krishna in us is the voice of reason. The Arjuna in us is about the responsibility to act. Without one, the other is incomplete. Action without reason and reason without action are both inherently destructive. So, every time, it is not for a higher power in the department of truth to tell us what the truth is. We must take the responsibility to think for ourselves and about the consequences of our actions.
Life is full of contradictions
Some time back, a very senior leader came with the anguish of dealing with a contradiction. He was then given a simple exercise. Something was written on the board, and he was asked to clean it up. When he had finished, he was asked a simple question. “What did you do?” He replied innocently, “I cleaned up the board.” Pointing to the dirty duster in his hand, he was asked, “Did you clean something, or did you dirty something?” The interesting truth is, when you clean the blackboard, it is just a transfer of the mess to another surface. In reality, it is impossible to clean anything in the world without making something else dirty in the process.
The higher we move in our professional lives, the greater the need to deal with such contradictions. One must make peace with the idea itself, the inherent process, and the multiplicity of potential outcomes in every situation. Because that is what life wants from us.
Contradictions aren’t always a test to conquer. Sometimes they come as struggles to be endured. In the final analysis, the best way to stay true to our values is to stay open to rethinking our views.
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