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 :

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