Sunday, March 31, 2019

The Journey

I grew up on a small street in a small town in Punjab.  The town of Patiala, known for its heritage of kings and darbaars and its classical music gharaana.  My darji (as we used to call our grandfather), was a simple man who sold vegetables in the market, sitting next to the ancient wall of the old fort.  Our home was tiny, barely ninety square yards.  The street was often flooded with drain-water when it rained heavily.  I played on the street with other kids, and went to the local temple to ring their bells in the evening.  My world was small but full of warmth and affection.  It was dinners in December, sitting on the floor in a cozy kitchen, it was the three siblings and our mother sleeping on a double bed, it was our school bicycles leaning on each other in the verandah.  My street and my home may not have been known to anyone outside Patiala, but it was the capital of my world.

I studied in an institution of prestige in the capital of India.  The chaotic capital city of Delhi, with its VIP mansions, roads named after Kings and Generals and Prime Ministers, the wide boulevards lined by embassies, and the glittering, elite environs of South Extension and Vasant Vihar.  I stayed in the institute hostel named simply Jwalamukhi (the volcano), and during the day studied the foremost contributions of the human mind of the twentieth century: Quantum Mechanics, the theory of Computation, the Calculus of limits and fields.  At times world-renowned men and women came to our campus to talk to us: the Dalai Lama, the Prime Minister of India, the founder of the Bose Corporation... We worked on computers built in Great Britain, and were taught by professors who had studied in Berkeley and Stanford.

I work near Washington DC, the center of world power.  I work for global airlines who reach all corners of this planet.  I sometimes trade in financial instruments which derive their value from the GDP projections and the future of oil supply.  Premiers and Presidents and Generals whisk past me on the road or fly above me in a helicopter.  Decisions which impact billions of people throughout the world are taken in buildings that I see in front of me.  Global trade deals are made and talked about in a hotel lobby while I sip on my coffee.  I am surrounded by people of almost all the nations of this world, speaking strange languages and dialects...  When we walk and chatter on Constitution Avenue, it fills many of us, I hope, with immense respect for that short document whose Bill of Rights has become the bedrock of human freedom.

The journey from that small street in Patiala to the power center of the free world has not changed my heart much, but it has exploded the frontiers of my mind.  I enjoyed the fairy tales of kings and princes and phantoms back then, and I perhaps understand the complexity of the human condition now.  As the train travels further and more distant from my birthplace, I long for the simple joys of my past, but am enthralled at the experiences which I could not have imagined as a child.

A journey that would have been unthinkable just a century ago is a living reality for me.  The journey has made me grateful, and humble.  I can only dream of giving back to the world a paltry extent of what it has given me.

Thursday, March 07, 2019

A Comment on Epictetus

It is the act of an ill-instructed man to blame others for his own bad condition; it is the act of one who has begun to be instructed, to lay the blame on himself; and of one whose instruction is completed, neither to blame another, nor himself. (Epictetus)

This is a superb quote, and deserves some elucidation.

Imagine someone in a concentration camp, or imprisoned due to a false accusation.

Is it true, and useful, that he should blame himself for his condition?

Is it true, and useful, that he should blame others for his condition?

Any aphorism is only a means to reflection, and it is a mistake to try and understand life through a formula.

The first part of the quote, that others might be responsible for one's pain and suffering, can indeed be true, but that frame does not help the situation if one has no means of changing them.  An inmate in a concentration camp, or a wrongly imprisoned person, can continue to justifiably blame others, to little effect.

The second part of the quote, that I myself am responsible for my suffering is often vigorously stated in self-help and spiritual literature, but this too is only partly true.  One can perhaps be considered "responsible" for one's response to an unwholesome state of affairs, but that too assumes an infinite fluidity and scope for inward change.  One's responses are not infinitely flexible.  One cannot help but react.  To react (emotionally and cognitively) is to be alive.  Spiritual literature often talks about "responding" instead of "reacting".  But we are emotional as well as rational creatures, and we will first react to a lesser or greater extent, and then hopefully respond when the emotions have cooled down.  Stoicism only works to an extent.  It is useful to only focus on one's responses if the situation is indeed firmly beyond one's control.

Imagine yourself having been in a car accident and losing a limb thereby.  And suppose it was indeed someone else's fault that the accident happened.  It is indeed true that the other is to blame, but it does not help you much if you are to reconcile with your current state.  You can claim compensation, but the fact is that your limb is gone.  The compensation may never be enough.

Imagine yourself being in a relationship with a foul-mannered person.  You can learn to be more patient, but only up to a point.  If that person continues to add friction and conflict to your life, is it useful to continue to blame oneself?  Imagine further that for the sake of your children, it is impractical for you to separate from your partner.  In that state, how useful it is give up on improving the manners of your partner, and only focus on how you and your children respond to the unhealthy environment?

Imagine yourself living in a very cold climate which frequently makes you suffer from fever and pneumonia.  How useful is it to continue to blame one's lack of immunity and not seek to perhaps move to a warmer clime?

So, blaming only oneself is only somewhat helpful in accepting the unchangeable.  Most situations are somewhat changeable, and it is solipsistic to only focus on oneself.

The third part of the quote, to neither blame oneself nor the others, is the understanding that things, including oneself, are limited in their ability to be transformed and changed.  That we live in a continuum of interaction.  That often things happen just "because"; without much rhyme or reason.

That the driver-at-fault who got distracted by his child sitting in the backseat of his car and hit you was perhaps not to "blame" but a factor in what transpired.  Was he to blame for not being a perfect driver?  Should he be jailed for his negligence?  Was the child too precocious?

That your ill-mannered spouse is limited in his self-awareness and in realizing the effect of his acts on others, or is perhaps suffering from a need to seek attention.  That the toxicity in your home is definitely his doing, but to blame "him", as in wanting him to fix this "issue" in him, is to not understand the entire background of "him".  Perhaps he can behave better, but perhaps he is like a blind man not able to see what is in front of him.

The third part of the quote, I believe, indicates that others are also limited.  That often blaming is to find reasons when there weren't any concrete ones.  That causation is complex.  That oneself is also a mix of influences and interactions of others.  That to improve either oneself or the situation may only lead to a limited success.  That there is no fully individualized "self", either Me or You, that one can blame or improve as one would repair a car.  To improve, one improves one's own responses (as far as possible) as well as the situation (as far as possible) but perfection may forever elude one.

"Blame" is often just a rant without useful, constructive action.  That of course is just the beginning of change.  If one ends there, it may have some therapeutic effect (just as it is relieving to cry due to a severe emotional trauma), but is Epictetus saying that it is not wise to only blame and then sit back and suffer?  Is it a call to action?  Is it to begin with blame, as in find factors which can be impacted, and then act?

Blaming is not in itself unwise.  But blaming narrowly, either just others, or just oneself, or a too wide rant at the whole realm of existence, is often an expression of helplessness.  Still not wrong, but not optimal.  One can do better, I hope.

The wise man blames correctly, and then seeks to improve oneself and change one's state of affairs.

Similar to Epictetus' quote is the Buddhist (?) adage:

"If you have a problem that can be fixed, there is no use in worrying. If you have a problem that cannot be fixed, there is no use in worrying."

But worry is the emotional energy to want to improve a state of affairs.  No problem is either fully fixable or fully un-fixable.  The worry is the effort to determine to what extent one can change the situation, and how.

And that kind of worry is eminently worthwhile.

The Serenity Prayer has more wisdom than either of these quotes:

God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,
Courage to change the things I can,
And wisdom to know the difference.

An earlier essay on a related theme: The Inner and the Outer.