Life, in general, is tough. It might sound preposterous to many, but even for those of us who have a great job, a safe place to live in, and seemingly everything – life keeps on throwing curveballs: from illness, death, loss, crises and disappointments. Fielding those curveballs with gratitude, perspective, and patience is not always a feasible task. Even with access to all the wisdom in this world, managing the mind is quite something. And managing our own expectations of ourselves, especially in the day and age of social media, is more than quite something.
Possibly the most important modulator in this is a compass. The perspective and patience mentioned above is helped by having a big picture in mind. Where do we want to take ourselves? What matters? What will be OK if we can’t and what won’t be? Gratitude helps with the grit that is needed when faced with setbacks while following the compass. But if the compass is set right, based on whatever our personal guiding principles might be, it becomes easier to reset after setbacks. In my life, I would have had neither the wisdom to create my compass, or the grit to follow through if not for mentors. Or strength sources as I would call them. They are not what would come to mind when we think of a mentor in the usual sense of the word, although I didn’t have any shortage of such mentors either (from family members, to professors, managers, and sponsors at work) who I am eternally grateful for. But what I want to write about here are people who profoundly transformed me, helped me understand what is important in life, and continue to provide me strength even though they are nowhere around.
The first such entry I had in my life was a young boy, whom I have never met. I was in high school when close friends of our family decided to adopt. They adopted a toddler and brought him home from a city orphanage. But what they also brought with them was an incredible tale of the elder sibling of this boy, who, an orphan himself, had forwarded his younger brother (his only living relation and only one to love in a life that must have been tremendously tough already) for adoption. He knew quite well that owing to his advanced age (he was at that time approaching his teenage and boys that age usually weren’t picked by adoptive parents) he will not get picked for adoption himself. But he absolutely didn’t want his being associated with his brother lessen the latter’s chances, and therefore, refused to have the orphanage put in a clause for consideration of both siblings together. The story inspired me day and night. Even though I had never met this boy who was much younger than I was at that time, I could see all my troubles (with exams, what discipline to choose for college, whom to love…etc.) become dust in front of his strength. I learnt my first life compass lesson: guiding star for decisions in life should be love for others. Decisions taken that way, whether in personal or professional life, have never deserted their promise of happiness in the end even when the results weren’t what I had expected.
In my life today, I become selfish often. Me first happens, as does disappointments from not getting ‘me’ all that I want to. But I keep forcing myself back to my first mentor and it serves well to ground me and eventually leads to peace and happiness.
My second such mentor (or mentors to be accurate) were a group of children in a remote village in the Sunderbans, India. In my Cornell days, I volunteered for a non-profit and this visit to the Sunderbans was a part of a project visit for the same. For those who aren’t familiar with this region: this is a delta in West Bengal, adjacent to Bangladesh, ravaged by cyclones and flood every monsoon. The group of children I met shared with me that they walked in the rain for an hour each way during the monsoons (a period of over six months), risking snake bites and often catching infections, because they wouldn’t miss school. I remember sitting in the dark that evening for a long hour (electricity hadn’t reached there still), wondering about the privileges that I so took for granted and what they meant to those who didn’t have them. As I raise my daughter today, trying to provide for all her needs and often her wants, I remind myself of this guiding compass. Life needs to be measured with perspective wider than our immediate reality. In my journey of imbibing gratitude and responsibility in her, this serves me well.
Such faces are now quite removed from my daily life. However, I take life’s short- and long-term decisions keeping in mind that they exist. And probably, the greatest gift of life is that there is no shortage of such inspiring tales, for no matter where or who we are, there is always someone to look up to who endures and amazes more.