Sunday, September 23, 2007

The Moral of the 'Story so far'
Part 3
-Probability and Providence-

We have heard it said so often that, "Great minds discuss ideas. Average minds discuss events. Small minds discuss people". Introspection, the process of placing oneself on trial, is so much more difficult than judging others. Natural curiosity makes it easy for our minds to get interested in other people, even with the smallest effort. With more than average effort, our minds can shift from a passing curiosity in personality traits and quirks, to a keen observation of events in the lives of people, their behaviors and circumstances. Our minds are at their greatest when natural curiosity and persistent observation are both harnessed, by resisting the urge to stick to prejudices or jump into conclusions. It is now that the ideas that drive people and events become clear. A story, especially a true-life story, has something for all minds; small, average or great; because a story always has people, events and ideas: characters, plots and morals. A story harnesses our natural curiosity, sustains interest and keen observation and hence imperceptibly prepares us and makes us attentive to a lesson of life. A moral may find authoritative expression in a commandment or sermon, but the subtle suggestion of a moral by a good story is a more evocative and memorable expression. While a sermon demands obedience; all that a story demands is our natural curiosity and coaxes the mind into seeing something beyond. A moral may inspire through a story, but a moral is not the only way a story can inspire. This is the reason why more people find inspiration in 'The Fountainhead' than in the 'Introduction to Objectivist Epistemology', though both convey the same message and philosophy of life.

What has been written so far may sound like a chapter outline for a proposed book entitled, ' 'How to read biographies'. Even if such a book is written, it is unlikely to teach more than a single good story will; and is unlikely to add anything to the learning of those who have heard many good personal stories. Writing now about a thought-provoking life story I heard recently would not therefore, be out of place. It can bring a narrative concreteness and liveliness to this exercise of learning to examine lives. After all, any discussion between even the most seasoned book-lovers is not just about the history of literature, but is always replete with reviews of recently read books with mentions of interesting episodes or lines. This is about the first talk which I got to attend in person at USC's 'What Matters to Me and Why?' series, the one by Dr. Jeffrey Nugent, a renowned development economist.

Dr. Nugent warmly recounted experiences from his early years, whose unexpected lessons stood him in good stead through his illustrious academic career. He recalled with special fondness the spiritual quest of his mother, who would always explore any question of faith from the viewpoint of different faiths like Protestantism, Catholicism and Judaism; and frequently ask him his views on such topics, eliciting from him frank admissions about their imponderability. His mother's unprejudiced quest continued well into her elderly years and even after she suffered visual impairment. Growing up in New York, Dr. Nugent was an ardent baseball fan as a boy; and according to him, his special interest in developing economies has its beginnings in his trait to root for the underdogs in baseball games. To this day, he says, he finds himself cheering with as much gusto as he would in a baseball match, when he sees a developing economy anywhere in the world make the right policies and flourish. During his college years, he was once required to escort an elderly classmate home after class, who inculcated in him a life-long love for English poetry during their conversations in the walk back. Years later when Dr. Nugent was performing compulsory military service without access to books and entertainment of any sort, this love for poetry helped him form a group of poetry-lovers in his camp who would meet often and each recite a poem from memory to maintain sanity and preserve the aesthetic self during troubled times. He spoke about how he decided on a whim to take an archaic course like the electoral history of 19th century America during his later college years, where he happened to read the classic speech 'Cross of Gold'. This speech would supply him later with inspiration and references for his first tenure-winning paper.

While relating such instances of how things picked up casually along the way came in handy in the long run, Dr. Nugent spoke of two turning points in his career which were made possible by opportunities he almost missed by hair's breadth. The first of these was an offer to perform research in Nigeria, which he was apprehensive to undertake given his newly married status and a general unwillingness to relocate to an unfamiliar land. After mulling over it and even missing the deadline by a day, he decided in a flash to get back to those who made the offer. To his pleasant surprise, they were only too glad to let him come and he spent a very productive time in Nigeria. The second one was an opportunity to fulfil his longtime desire to perform research in Greece. Knowing that an eminent Greek researcher was in town, he had kept a research proposal ready. As luck would have it, he suffered a severe attack of diaorrhea throughout the visiting professor's stay in town, and had no means of reaching him. At the nick of time before the visiting researcher boarded his flight home, Dr. Nugent managed to track him down at the airport. As luck would have it again, a native speaker of Greek happened to be passing by and was promptly recruited by Dr. Nugent as an interpreter to get through his proposal to the visiting scholar and eventually got to spend several productive years in Greece as was his cherished desire. In Nigeria and Greece, he got to learn new languages, make friends for life and grow greatly in stature as an economist of international repute.

After the speech, I had the following question for Dr. Nugent, " You mentioned in your talk how you made a last-minute decision to go to Nigeria and how you could get your Greek proposal through at the very nick of time; both of which later proved to be life-changing decisions. Both of these are experiences where things could have gone wrong at the last moment.
What would you attribute your last-minute decisions that later proved to have unexpected benefits? Are they:
a) fortunate coincidences and a matter of chance
b) expressions of 'Providential harmony' as the more religiously inclined would say
c) a consequence of the fact that people who try out more things and take more chances than others eventually get it right once in a while!Is it true that 'The only way to get a good idea is to get lots of ideas'?"

Dr. Nugent's face lit up and he said that he found the question very interesting. He replied that his decisions were based on an inner conviction that an idea was good and seemed right. At the moment of reckoning this conviction eventually won over the indecision. Most interestingly, he was unwilling to rule out the possibility that some decisions may be 'divinely inspired'. In a later e-mail exchange, Rabbi Susan Laemmle, the Dean of the Office of Religious Life at USC also concurred with Dr. Nugent's views. In her own words, "I think that one of the most important things in creating a good and meaningful life is to listen to your own inner voice -- to learn to understand yourself and what matters to you, and to notice what makes your happy and sad and angry and depressed. And then to take actions that accord with your developing and solidifying inner nature. I do not see this process as primarily a spiritual matter, directed by God, but more of a psychological/emotional/cognitive matter. However, it is not all that cut and dried; since I do see God as connected to, even if separate from, our inner natures. In my view, sometimes things are a matter of sheer luck, and sometimes there is an element of luck -- as perhaps there was in the Greek speaker actually being at the Eastside terminal when Nugent arrived there."

In a way, my basic question was about the nature of luck. Is luck simply a series of flukes, part of a yet-to-be-revealed Plan of heaven, or is it the sum total of byproducts and unintended consequences of our own conscious decisions? Is it Providence or simply probability? Is it the play of the gods or simply of the odds? This question is one of the many variants of the perennial debate between free will and destiny. The economist and the Rabbi, both very learned and distinguished in their own fields, concur that our lives are mainly shaped by our decisions made when conviction wins over doubt. But they concede that our decisions and convictions may themselves be shaped by unknowns. While they readily acknowledge that there are unknowns, conventional wisdom often does not. There are two common metaphors that usually figure in any debate between free will and predestination. One is that fate deals us cards and it is upto us to play the cards we have got as well as we can. This is like a description of a system in which we have no control over the inputs, but freedom to change the process and hence alter the outputs. This view gives free will the last word. Another metaphor is that all our efforts are the grist of the 'mills of God'. This seems to suggest that we have control only over the inputs and then a larger process takes over. This approach gives destiny the last word. But irrespective of the worldview, we are expected to do our best: play our cards well and supply our best grain to the mills. In practice it really makes no difference if it is free-will or destiny that decides: for in any case all that we have to do is refine our own personal gameplan and avoid whatever goes against the grain.

Without expecting miracles and windfalls, and by taking upon themselves the onus of coming up with the best response to a situation; the two learned respondents to my question suggest that we can actively propose a course of life even if it is not entirely at our disposal. They have freed themselves from both fatalism and delusion, and give a balanced message that avoids both the complacency of expecting Providential guidance all the time, as well as the arrogance of being in full control. This is not to belittle the role of religion in our inner lives. Every great world religion offers its own set of answers to the perennial questions of philosophy, but these answers are not meant to spare us the effort of seeking our own answers. The purpose of religion is defeated if we rely on traditional assumptions instead of assessing each situation on its own merits; or begin to expect miraculous resolutions whenever we err, all in the name of faith. There really is no conflict between religious faith and faith in oneself. When truly practised; both require us to find our own true needs and fulfil them with our best efforts; to examine our own deeds and see if they are true to our values; and not to expect our needs to be fulfilled by fortuitous stars and our deeds to be forgiven by lenient gods.

At the very outset, we saw how seeking meaning in everyday mysteries is the first step to begin understanding our own lives. Then we saw how we can learn best from the lives of others by putting ourselves in their place and examining what stance we would take. Finally we have learnt to take a balanced view of our own role in shaping our lives, which many of us tend to assume is entirely our own, or entirely at the mercy of something beyond us. We started this exercise as an attempt to 'read our lives'. It is said that Reading, wRiting and aRithmetic are the 3 R's of education. We may say that the three R's we must undertake to be able to learn from life are:
1. Research into what we find most mysterious and meaningful
2. Roleplays placing ourselves in the experiences of others and observing our stance
3. Responsibility for decisions coupled with refraining from wishful thinking and unjustified expectations
We have seen how learning from life means not allowing ourself any self-pity, refraining from making condescending judgements or delusional comparisons, not resorting to any convenient beliefs we may grown up with, and dealing afresh with each situation. Giving up so much of what has been second nature to us, and untiringly exercising our intellect, imagination and patience to examine and redirect our own lives seems to be a tall order. However, sustained effort in this direction will allow us to stand tall in our own eyes, and bring more order and harmony into our life; to make it the stuff an inspirational biography is made of.

Part 2:

Part 1:

Monday, September 10, 2007

The Moral of the 'Story so far'
Part 2
-Instances and stances-

Retrospection would have served its purpose even if we are unsuccessful in elegantly inking our past life. It is enough even if we are able to get some inkling of what the living present means to us. Even if retrospection does not yield the moral of the story so far, it might place in our hands in the thread of the story to come. However, 'looking back' is purposeful only if we also 'look within' at the same time. Retrospection unaccompanied by introspection serves no purpose. Retrospection only provides personal instances, incidents and illustrations to the introspective questions of what we find most mysterious and meaningful: "What matters to me and why?". "What matters to me and why?" is also the title of a monthly series of lectures by eminent professors at USC, sponsored by the Office of Religious Life, currently in its sixth year. In the words of the organizers, this exercise is meant to encourage "reflection about values, beliefs, and motivations". Listening to the lectures in this series is an excellent opportunity to hear leading luminaries in academia, who are otherwise known only by sketchy media reports of their research findings, present vivid first-hand accounts of their own results of retrospection and introspection.

Among the speakers are the great minds of a generation, minds that were drawn towards to the problems of mankind: scientific and spiritual, physiological and philosophical ; minds that were also indrawn to untiringly seek solutions, remedies, insights, outlooks and wisdom to better the lot of mankind. To hear such minds share their experiences of their inner life in relation with their obvious outward achievements, is perhaps one of the most edifying experiences one can have on campus. It is humbling to see that the process of self-inquiry challenges even mighty intellects such as those of the premier physical and social scientists who address these gatherings. In the audio talks of past speakers available online, I could hear pioneering psychologists and award-winning engineers, professors from the East and those from the West. It was surprising and in a way heartening to note that, notwithstanding the obvious differences in their origins and their callings, they describe their personal journeys in uncannily similar ways. One thing that they all have in common is that they do not describe their journeys in terms of milestones, but in terms of crossroads. Not one talk I heard from these speakers made much mention of their first graduation or first publication or first award. The 'firsts' they did mention were the first time experienced the dilemma of tough choices and the first time they came face to face with the reality of suffering, even in events that to an outsider may have seemed commonplace. Indeed, according to the organizers of the series " Presenters are encouraged to talk about choices made, difficulties encountered, and commitments solidified."

The animals in each of Aesop's fables are different, but they all speak in human voices and have human traits. Every adventure tale, Gulliver or Sindbad, is different, but they all have shipwrecks that throw the travellers off course along unexpected journeys. Each speaker in 'What Matters to Me and Why?" has a different story to tell, but they all are narrations of human nature at its best, and bettering its best in the face of unexpected occurrences and challenging circumstances. The outlines of the personal lives provided by the speakers were of different shapes and forms; but without exception, they all dwelt at length upon character-forming parental influences in early childhood, and personality-shaping experiences of overcoming human suffering. Recurring themes in each personal story are unforgettable times spent with dear ones, unlikely sources of inspiration, unasked for good turns, unexpected turns of fortune and unusual interests that led to unintended possibilities. The universality of the themes provides the backdrop for the uniqueness of each individual instance.

Which one of us can claim not to have had experiences that were unforgettable, unlikely, unusual or unintended? Then how is it that not all of our stories are the stuff inspirational biographies are made of? In a manner of everyday speaking, greatness has less to do with 'what' happened to a person and more to do with 'how' he or she faced it. The answer perhaps lies not in the outer details of the instance, but in the inner stance of the individual. The great ones find their childhood experiences unforgettable because they did not just seek comfort in their dear ones, but also sought within themselves the aspirations to do their dear ones proud. They may have received unexpected favours from fellowmen, but almost always did so by deserving it through their conduct and initiative. They did face unexpected twists of fate, but when they were at their greatest, they saw these as an instruction in patience and forbearance, and not as destruction of hope. They found inspiration in the unlikeliest of sources because of their willingness to be instructed, a lesson they never forgot from their earlier experiences. Greatness is not entirely governed by the uncertainty of instances, coincidences and happenstances; but is attained by taking a certain stance: to stand erect and not rigidly, to stand at ease but not submissively and most importantly to stand corrected when needed. Instead of excusing ourselves for own ordinariness and dismissing greatness as a matter of circumstance, or amusing ourselves with trivial similarities between instances in our lives and those of great ones, we can step closer to greatest within ourselves by learning from the stances they took.

NEXT: Part 3:

* Audio talks of previous speakers in the 'What Matters to Me and Why' series at USC are available in the USC website at :

Saturday, September 08, 2007

The Moral of the 'Story so far'
Part 1
-Mystery and meaning-

Try to read your life so far. Try to see your life so far as an open book in your mind's eye. Do you see the book of your life as a single epic, or is it more like an assortment of short stories with some characters appearing in all of them? Does every story in your book have a moral? Are you the protagonist, a participant, simply a narrator or all of these? Most importantly are you the sole author? Are you the author at all, or are you simply turning new leaves in a book of mysterious origin happening to bear your name? Is the life that you are reading now, one that you yourself scripted, or is it an ongoing play happening to have you on the cast for a while?

Has this exercise in imagination now prepared you to write your autobiography? That is an unfair question, for choosing what is worthwhile to include in a daily diary itself is hard enough, let alone knowing after a brief reverie what was truly significant in an entire lifetime. Writing an autobiography is not merely an extended exercise of recalling and retelling personal events. It is not just the summary of the experience of one person, since you were a different person during each experience. The prattle of the child you were, the bluster of the youth you were and the assured convictions of the wise man you may now see yourself as; all compete uproariously to dictate the narrative. You must hear out the versions of all the different persons you have been over the years. It is almost as if you are a detective at a crime scene piecing together a version of the event from a dozen eyewitness accounts from the incidental kid, the casual youngster or the alert passer-by. Or you are like a general who must decide on a single course of action based on reports from a troop of scouts who vary in their training and daring. Or you are like the director of a research laboratory who must referee results from several young researchers differing widely in acumen and application, before you declare your conclusions. Your vision of yourself and the description of your life will depend on whether you view your life as an urgent mystery, an ongoing battle or as a quest for meaning.

Great autobiographies the world over seem to be products of such a line of inquiry. To Mahatma Gandhi, the Father of the Indian nation; life was a series of urgent mysteries of ethical choices, an ongoing battle against inner weaknesses and a quest for the Truth which to him is indistinguishable from God. To the Dalai Lama, a modern-day apostle of non-violence; life begins as a mystery of his own identity as living god or leader of men, an endless battle against tyranny and a quest for freedom in exile, peace in a troubled world. To Helen Keller, the classic example of triumph of the human spirit; the world itself was a shrouded silent mystery and life was a battle against deprivation, which stirred in her the quest for an 'understanding which bringeth peace'. To Dr. A.P.J Abdul Kalam, India's former scientist-president, intellectual life began by childlike wonder at the mysteries of flight in the sky, progressed through student and scientist life battling against financial, bureaucratic and institutional constraints; and inspired a quest for the development of India into a superpower - a vision that inspires a generation of young Indians today.

Longfellow says "Lives of great men all remind us, we can make our lives sublime, and, departing, leave behind us, footprints on the sands of time." While all the inspiration from the life histories of great men and women may not be enough to help us make history ourselves; it can in the least help us tell the sublime from the ridiculous in our own personal histories. Rather than asking self-pitying, self-defeating questions like "Why did this event have to happen at all?" or "Why me?" during retrospection; we may learn a lot more about our lives and ourselves by instead asking the questions, "What do I always find most mysterious?" and "What is it that gives the things I value the most their meaning?" Rather than mulling on our peculiarities and musing over our precariousness and predicaments, we will learn to read and write our lives better if we always remain aware of the mystery and eager for the meaning.

NEXT: Part 2: