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Trying to do the best we can

Letting go of old ideas and patterns of behaviour is provenly the hardest thing for a person, writes Renuka Narayanan.

india Updated: Dec 16, 2006 03:30 IST

Letting go of old ideas and patterns of behaviour is provenly the hardest thing for a person, isn’t it? Think how difficult it is to start a new habit, like remembering to take your diabetic pills bang on time though you know it’s crucial or forcing yourself out on that cholesterol-reducing walk. The brain is usually out blogging on the zillion-and-one things that occupy it and often doesn’t register everyday personal stuff! This might sound absolutely horrific to people of tidy mind and regular habit, but hey, that’s how half the population seems to exist, a ‘functioning anarchy’ as long-ago Kennedy administration ambassador to India, John Kenneth Galbraith, described our motherland.

Yet sages ask us, when we can’t even get our own lives in sync, to come out of our shell and actually engage extra with the world despite all our hassles and our damaged selves? Well, let’s accept it’s the place where lots of people in today’s world seem to be coming from, because, as Margaret Mead put it terrifyingly in the last millennium, “Life in the twentieth century is like a parachute jump: you have to get it right the first time.” And since many of us obviously don’t, what are the options? Stay within our fortresses until we die?

But scripture, as ever, has ideas to offer. Let us, for the sake of simplicity (an under-rated virtue), look at a homegrown philosophical path. Three MOs to choose from, billed as assured paths to peace, fulfillment and eventually God: thought, action, spiritual surrender. Big concepts, great, but how do they break down as micro-applications in regular lives? Pravachans tell us these are three paths to God aka self-realisation, but suppose we took them as the dummy’s guide to connectivity?

If we tell ourselves, “I will engage,” the next step obviously, is putting that thought to work. Go wear our hearts on our sleeves, be effervescent risk-takers, don’t hold back from doing something our heart tells us to do. That’s actually the greatest pleasure of trying to keep an open mind, because if we’re not afraid of people or situations, we stand a good chance of being enriched by new texture in our self-conscious little lives.

MO Three, surrender, also known as bhakti, doesn’t need any clarification for Indian minds, because that has been our spiritual template for centuries: can’t fix your life, surrender to God. Well, why ever not? But braindead bhakti has its limitations. I’m thinking of a lovely but dirty little temple up in the hills where I thought I’d do a spot of seva by sweeping the yard and picking up all the kachra  lying around, so that the next lot of visitors would find it clean. It’s something one learns from the gurdwara. Anyhow, a sadhu-type watching me whisk around, said in a bhanged-out way that made me want to whack him one with the jharoo, “Kya faayada hai? Yeh sab toh Shivji ki maya hai.”

Oh, puh-leese, don’t rain on my parade, I wanted to say. Here I was sweeping myself into a virtuous little vortex and Loser Locks, who wouldn’t lift a finger himself and lived off other people’s handouts unless he was a hash-handler (and he didn’t look a day older than 40), had the nerve to crib.

But when I came down from my high moral dudgeon after a Shivji-like glare, I realised this wasn’t about him. It was about me and what I wanted to do and would do anyway, ‘unattached to the fruit of the action’ or bothered by bystanders’ remarks.

This very tiny tale is no deal at all, compared to the big stuff social reformers, philanthropists and activists are up to. But most of us are usually too caught up in earning our livelihood in office jobs with long hours and no weekends. Where do we have time to go engage, except in sporadic shramdaan or writing charity cheques or paying the school fees for the maid’s children? Whatever. Scripture says it’s okay to do the best you can, like the squirrel at Setu that you read about in yesterday’s Inner Voice. As Emerson wrote in his poem The Mountain and the Squirrel, “Talents differ, all is well and wisely put/If I cannot carry forests on my back, neither can you crack a nut.”

Email Renuka Narayanan: renukanarayanan@hindustantimes.com