Thoughts

The Year of Entering Adulthood: A New Year Letter to my Nephews

Dear Shrey and Ayush, 

This year is a big one. I know, I know. Too much pressure already. You don’t need me to remind you of that. You know it from your parents, grandparents, uncles, aunts, cousins, friends and teachers. Oh – and from all the coaching classes you have been attending for years while keeping your (and your parents’) lives on hold. JEE in all its complications and variations, which I can no longer keep track of, is staring you in your face.  

But I am here to tell you that JEE isn’t the reason that this year is a big one. The real reason is what happens after that, whatever be the result. It is the adulthood and all the freedom and responsibilities, all the euphoria and heartbreaks it brings. But first, let’s get JEE and its results out of the way.  

Photo by Nathan Dumlao on Unsplash

Here is the real shocker. It doesn’t matter which way the results go, life is not going to be easier after that. Don’t let anyone convince you otherwise. Even if you do well and get into an institute and course of your choice, life is going to be far more hectic and competitive than it has ever been. There will be many more exams – of the academic kind and of life itself – many more scary possibilities of failures. On the other hand, if you don’t do well then you would think that you are starting your career from a position of disadvantage. But that’s not the actual problem because there is a silver lining. It’s a pretty thick lining too. And it is something like this: there isn’t just one way to success and happiness in the world. There isn’t even just one definition of success. You can have your own definition of success and you can follow your own path towards it. You can even decide that success doesn’t matter in the first place. The real tough part is that you will have to figure it out for yourself. And this you will have to do even if you start with a great JEE rank. 

So, all the best. Do well by all means. It’s never going to hurt. But let’s talk about what happens after that. 

A disclaimer here. It is tempting to want to tell you all; to pour all my experiences of the extra eighteen years I have over you into your heads at once, so that you have a head start in life. But what this experience has also taught me is that it is impossible. Nobody lives somebody else’s life. So, I must remind myself (and perhaps your parents too) that you will live life at your own pace, you will have your own existential questions and you will answer them in your own ways. Everything I say here is just one of the many possibilities. Treat every advice I give you as a part of a toolkit. You may decide to use or not use a tool from that kit based on your judgment of its suitability. With that being clear, now I can proceed to the crux of this letter. 

The best and the worst thing about adulthood is that your decisions will have to, increasingly, be your own. There are, perhaps, only a limited number of career, personal, spiritual and moral options available to all of us. But by combining them in our own ways, and most importantly by infusing our own selves into it, each of us creates a unique life for ourselves. This life is not independent of the rest of the world. So the life you have known till now, the lessons you have learnt till now, your parents and your family will continue affecting, shaping and supporting your decisions. But the other influences will be larger as will your own conscious role. It will no longer be enough to listen to those who are supposed to know better. The world changes fast these days. Soon enough, you will find yourself in territories your parents have never chartered, nor others whom you have grown up looking up to. Their experiences and choices may not be suitable for you. You will find yourself facing questions you can’t bring back home to be answered. Your life will have aspects that your loved ones will not understand. You will have to find new people to look up to and new people to solve your problems with, and the ways you have learnt till now may or may not be helpful. 

The world from here on will be as narrow or as wide as you have stomach for. When you meet people who are different from you, you may dismiss them as irrelevant. You may be awed by them and try to emulate them. Or you may find the differences unbearable, even contemptible. I suggest not to adopt any of these attitudes blindly. I suggest openness. I also suggest caution and patience. Not everyone who is different from you is worthy of awe or contempt. True to the old wisdom, not everything that glitters is gold. At other times, something that challenges your existing ideas of right and wrong, of good and bad, and changes those ideas may be the best thing to happen to you in your life. At yet other times, there are simply different ways of being – without any of them necessarily being better or worse than the other. Don’t feel the need to assign positions for every way of life based on some kind of prestige hierarchy. Learn to live with the differences. Learn to enjoy them, cherish them, even. Change your opinions, reject the stereotypes you have in your heads. You don’t have to feel guilty about changing. Just know why you are doing so. You will have opportunities to break down your older biases and expand your horizons. You will also have access to temptations that are best avoided. When you encounter something different and don’t know at first how to react to it, start by respecting it, not by rejecting or condemning it. Then take your time to understand, then decide. 

When you are struggling with decision-making and when you don’t know whether doing something means being open to experiences or succumbing to temptations, remember this golden rule about taking decisions. The right decision for you is the one whose consequences you are willing to live with. Most of the time, the consequences not worthy of being lived with are not difficult to know if you apply your cool mind to the question.  

If I have made it sound too complicated and tough by now, don’t worry. It’s not like there isn’t any help available. Reach out for help. There is no shame in asking for help. If friends, seniors, counselors, family members don’t work, reach out to me. 

Now some specifics. 

Wherever you land, but especially if you land in a good place after school, you will hear this new golden truth (and it may come as a surprise in the beginning). That grades and academic performance don’t matter in life. Like a lot of things you will hear from now on, it is simultaneously right and wrong. Good grades are never going to hurt you. At the same time, closing yourself to every other life experience while trying to chase that perfect 10/10 can close too many doors for you. The right decision, as I said earlier, is the one whose consequences you are willing to live with. One rule of thumb is this. If you are not putting in your time and effort in academics, be very clear about what exactly you are doing with the time and effort saved. Is it something productive? Is it something that is teaching you important life skills? If so, pursue it by all means. If, on the other hand, that time is being spent in just being cool, perhaps you will not be happy with the consequences. Bad grades with nothing else to recommend you are not a good thing in life. 

The question of what to do with your life may haunt you more often than you like. The answers may not be obvious, easy or immediately available. When that happens, remember not to descend into nothingness. Remember to hold on to something that advances your learning. Attend classes regularly, if you can think of nothing else. Or do something else. Just keep learning. Always work on polishing at least one life skill that can sustain you in the worst of the times. Then you will do well in the best of the times. Life skills can be unconventional. Even spending time on video games can help you learn some, especially if you are also figuring out game design and development in the process (great career!) or finding your way into professional circles (unconventional, but great career if it works for you!). 

It will be easy to succumb to the hectic activities around you. But make time for things that are important. Make time for reading, for traveling, for trying out new experiences, for keeping in touch with your family. Make time for whatever is important to you. Because remember this. When something is on priority, you make time for it. Not having time means it was not your priority. So don’t fool yourself with the excuse of not having time. 

And do you still need some more academic advice? I will give you some before it starts sounding uncool. Unless you find yourself falling into the category of those geniuses who know everything already, the easiest way to get through the academic system, even in the toughest and the most competitive of places, is to attend classes. After that you can use all the time you have for whatever else you want. 

And now, I will rein in the temptation I had referred to earlier. I will not try to tell you all. Rabindranath Tagore had said in his book Gora: 

To offer instruction on any question before it has really arisen in the mind is like giving food before one is hungry  it spoils the appetite and leads to indigestion. 

So, I will stop now. Reach out when you are hungry. Reach out when you have questions. 

Happy new year and all the best. 

Love,
Jaya 

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Thoughts

In Defense of Pessimism

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I did some reading on Buddhism recently. And if there is one idea that contemporary Buddhists are obsessed with it is that Buddhism is not pessimist. Many “allege” that because Buddha talked about the reality of suffering and focused on eliminating it by eliminating desire (as opposed to promising some eternal pleasure in a higher life), Buddhism has a pessimistic outlook. It is not so, retort the Buddhists vehemently, and there are books after books dedicated to proving this.

I am not getting into Buddhism here. But what strikes me with a rare force in this discourse is how pessimism is treated as a pariah. Contemporary Buddhism is not alone in its desire to distance itself from pessimism. Defenders of all sorts of religions and philosophies do so. They wouldn’t be caught standing on even the distant periphery of the circle of pessimism.

The motivation behind this bias for optimism in religions and philosophies is understandable. As a race, as a society, as individuals, we prefer to be optimistic. It seems to be wired in us – biologically, psychologically and sociologically.Popular religion has pandered to this optimism bias since the dawn of history, whether it was simplistic Vedic hymns to curry the favor of nature gods or the ultimate judgement, reward and punishment based on right and wrong promised by the organized religions of later times. We want to hope, we want to feel in control; that is what motivates us to act. But why? Why act?

Different answers will emerge depending on at what level you pose the question. An individual acts to earn his livelihood, to not starve, and to live comfortably. Organizations and  governments may have more sinister motives. They may want individuals to act because it helps them become more powerful.  Others might point to more noble motives. It is by acting that we, as a race, survive, develop and progress. But why survive, develop and progress? We’re all going to die and the promises of a good life after that are just products of our imagination.Why care?

Uh oh! What a pessimistic question!

Pessimistic? Okay! But inadmissible? No!

Nobody will buy a self-help book that concludes that there might not be much meaning in life after all. None will flock to a religion that is not anthropocentric, that doesn’t make people feel important and great. No entrepreneur will be taken seriously if he didn’t proclaim that the world can be a better place and he is going to make it so. No policy-maker could hold her job if she didn’t announce policy decisions with a bright, cheerful outlook of the future.

But this bias towards optimism is a reflection of our culture, our survival instincts. This cannot make optimism unquestionable for those in search of truth. “The pursuit of truth, when it is wholehearted, must ignore moral considerations; we cannot know in advance that the truth will turn out to be what is thought edifying in a given society,” says Bertrand Russell. Pessimism is not edifying to our society. But that doesn’t make it wrong.

In fact, when one starts scratching beneath the shining surface of the world bubbling with our optimism, the case of a pessimist being closer to the truth only becomes stronger. Which hope-giving God has not failed us? I am not only talking about religious ones here, not only the Vedic and the Brahmanical, the Greek and the Roman, the Zoroastrian and the Jewish, the Christian and the Muslim,  but also the secular ones we have bowed to from time to time –  the different political systems, the socio-economic systems, this theory and that, one leader then the another! The most widely accepted gods for optimism these days are democracy as a political system and capitalism as an economic one. These, together, are supposed to ensure development, equality, meritocracy, justice, peace and a bunch of other ideals. But what really happens?

Rapist of his own three-year old daughter avoids jail because he won’t fare well there. Nobody seems to be driving the car that kills someone on the footpath and the testimony of the eye-witness who lost his own life over it turns out to be not reliable! Convicted politicians walk out of jail, while undertrials spend their entire lives behind bars without even getting a hearing. Rich kid walks free after a murder spree because he suffers from “affluenza”.Millionaire “accidentally” rapes a teenager and walks scot-free. If the list is not longer, it is because pessimists also don’t like getting depressed.

Even after the experiments of thousands of years, the gods of monarchy, aristocracy, and democracy; those of socialism, communism, capitalism, and Nehruvian middlism; those of nationalism, patriotism, internationalism, and individualism; those of heredity and meritocracy; and all kinds of systems and solutions we have built have failed us. And yet somehow optimism of setting things right in the next five years is considered valid and is embraced. But pessimism is avoided like the plague. Whereas our continued failure in creating the optimist’s just, peaceful, prosperous world should have long tilted the balance of truth-seeking in favor of the pessimist.

Is it time for writing the pessimist manifesto? Is it the time for the pessimists of the world to unite and claim their rightful, legitimate place in the world?

Bah! The world is unlikely to be better off for the effort!

Literature

Re-reading notes: The Discovery of India

Following my new year resolution of re-reading books for at least first three months of the year, I am re-reading The Discovery of India by Jawahar Lal Nehru. I had read it long back and only vaguely remembered being impressed by the way it inspired you to study history beyond a list of events, people and wars. While re-reading it now, that aspect has no longer remained novel. By now, I know that the only meaningful way to study history is indeed to go beyond those lists and dates. But the same exposure to more of life and world, which has made the idea not-so-novel, has given me better ability to use the content of the book in that way.

I have read only about one-third of the book till now. But I still find some observations worth noting down.

Among other things, Nehru discusses ancient India’s relationships with other contemporary civilizations. When I read his views on the relationship with ancient Greece, I was reminded of some portions of History of Western Philosophy by Bertrand Russell. Russell, of course, discusses the various philosophers of Greece at length. What is interesting is when he talks about the effect of orient (including India) on Greek philosophy, he makes it out to be mostly negative. The eastern influence, which according to Russell seems to have started only with Alexander’s conquests, brought esoteric practices, obsession with other-world, superstition, magic and everything irrational to ruin the more rational Greek philosophy. Nehru’s version doesn’t necessarily counter the influence Russell speaks of. But according to him the contact of the two civilizations much pre-dated Alexander. Nehru says that Pythagoras was influenced by Indian philosophy. (Pythagoras himself was a great influence on Plato.) Even during and post-Alexander period, Nehru’s version talks of more constructive synthesis between Indian and Greek thoughts, which does not feature in Russell’s version at all.

Of course, Nehru and Russell are writing for different reasons in different countries on presumably different subjects (History of India in case of Nehru vs. History of Western Philosophy in case of Russell). But what links the books together is that they were written at about the same time. In 1940s – during the second world war! Nehru’s inclination to find and point out praise-worthy elements in Indian history and philosophy is understandable. There was a need to bring respectability to Indian identity to justify India’s claim to independence. But when you read Nehru, you can also see that while he may be modulating his expressions for political necessity, he is not a fanatic nationalist, who needs to glamourize everything Indian. Nor is his ambition so misplaced that he will deliberately mislead you about India and history. He is critical of things he sees wrong in India. He appreciates the good that he sees outside India. So, I think there is a need to take Russell’s dismissal of oriental philosophy and its influence on West with a pinch of salt. I do not know what the contemporary Western philosophers think about it. But I hope, for the sake of the discipline, that it isn’t the same dismissal.

There is another interesting claim in the book. Vedic religion was not big on idol-worshipping. In India the first idols that were made were those of Buddha. And that too hundreds of years after his death. Vedic/Brahminic Gods made their entry later in the world of statues. The effect was apparently Greek. And the word बुत for statue apparently comes from “Buddha”.

One place where I cringed was when Nehru dismissed the linguistic diversity of India. Fifteen languages cover entire India according to him and the “so-called” hundreds of languages of India is about bad definition of language in census. Let’s be fair to him on this count though. The diversity of India – most visibly represented by the linguistic diversity – was considered a threat to or even a proof of non-existence of a united Indian identity. Many who tried to “impose” one language on India had no sinister motives against the other languages. They were simply overwhelmed by the need to maintain the unity of India which they were sure was essential for our freedom and progress. In retrospect it is easy to see the problems it created and easier still to find faults with what they tried. But let’s be a little generous here, and not judge those well-intentioned people by a future they couldn’t have known about. They did get a lot of things right. We do have a more stable country today than many other more unfortunate former colonies

Finally, do you identify with the following? 🙂

“Probably there was more unity and harmony in the human personality in the old days… But the problem is a more difficult and complex one now, for it has grown beyond the limits of the human personality. It was perhaps easier to develop some kind of harmonious personality in the restricted spheres of ancient and medieval times. In that little world of town and village, with fixed concepts of social organization and behaviour, the individual and the group lived their self-contained lives protected, as a rule, from outer storms. Today the sphere of even the individual has grown world-wide, and different concepts of social organization conflict with each other and behind them are different philosophies of life. A strong wind arising somewhere creates a cyclone in one place and an anti-cyclone in another.”

I do. Remind me to do another post about it!

Philosophy

Bertrand Russel on Philosophy

Some quotes from “History of Western Philosophy”

Philosophy, as I shall understand the word, is something intermediate between theology and science. Like theology, it consists of speculations on matters as to which definite knowledge has, so far, been unascertainable; but like science, it appeals to human reason rather than to authority, whether that of tradition or that of revelation.

Almost all the questions of most interest to speculative minds are such as science cannot answer, and the confident answers of theologians no longer seem so convincing as they did in former centuries… To such questions no answer can be found in laboratory. Theologies have professed to give answers, all too definite; but their very definiteness causes modern minds to view them with suspicion.

Science tells us what we can know, but what we can know is little, and if we forget how much we cannot know we become insensitive to many things of very great importance. Theology, on the other hand, induces a dogmatic belief that we have knowledge where in fact we have ignorance.

To teach how to live with uncertainty, and yet without being paralysed by hesitation, is perhaps the chief thing that philosophy, in our age, can still do for those who study it.