August 27, 2012

Accepting What Happens

"Words once in common use now sound so archaic. And the names of the famous dead as well: Camillus, Caeso, Volesus, Dentatus... Everything fades so quickly, turns into legend, and soon oblivion covers it. And those are the ones who shone. The rest -- unknown, unasked for a minute after death. What is 'eternal' fame? Emptiness. Then what should we work for? Only this: proper understanding; unselfish actions; truthful speech. A resolve to accept whatever happens as necessary and familiar, flowing like water from that same source and spring." - Marcus Aurelius, Meditations

At the moment I write this, there are homeless people in the city I live in. There are people with families and children who have no money and who are facing eviction; who right now, as I write this, are dreading tomorrow morning because they will no longer be able to have a home. There are people who have burden upon burden pile upon them or their families: poverty, sickness, physical and mental abuse, physical and mental illness, lack of education or opportunities. People with such clear disadvantages in life that it is hard to fathom what the point was in their being born at all. Why be born only to struggle in such harrowing conditions. To have the powerful pulse to live, only to be constantly thwarted by the difficulty in achieving even the most basic securities required for living well. People in such hard circumstances that to even think about the possibility of my life looking like theirs makes me shudder with incomprehension.
Those people, how far they seem from Obama and Bill Gates, from Michael Jordan and Madonna, from Noam Chomsky and John Rawls. These people seem to exemplify human life in some form. They seem to transcend even the question of whether their life was worth living, for the answer seems so obviously "yes!" They seem like paradigms of what a human life can look like, paradigms which call out for emulation. Can we imagine Michael Jordan homeless? Or Rawls living in the projects as a drug addict? The mind rebels at the thought. At least my mind rebels, and I suspect I am not alone in this regard. The mind cries out, "No, not Michael Jordon! He is the very exemplar of being an athlete!" He embodies excellence in such a pure form that we can only imagine him as a shining beacon, a distant star which we are lucky to behold in our midst. He is so perfect at what he does that he seems to have achieved a kind of perfection as a human being, as if the halo of his excellence at basketball has expanded to envelope his whole life, and he stands forth as an ideal of humanness--a modern day Achilles.
These people's lives seem meaningful because it is their lives that we orient our own life around. It is tempting and natural to say, "Of course Einstein or Mother Teresa or Gandhi lived worthwhile lives!" For their lives have become for us not just the lives of particular people, but something more. Something much more. They have become ideals by which we define what a worthwhile life looks like.
These people, the greats, seem unique because they exhibit a skill which the vast majority of people can't even hope to have--a skill which in fact seems particular just to those great people. In contrast, those people, the utter have nots, seem to barely be managing a human life because they cannot consistently exercise even the most basic skills which most people take completely for granted; skills of self-sufficiency such as having a bed for the night and a shower in the morning.
These people are at one end, and those people are at the other end. I seem to be in the middle, along with multitudes of people.

August 13, 2012

Being Positive

When I decided to leave academia, it was a tumultuous period emotionally and intellectually. It was a time of personal transformation and expansion of horizons. It was also a time of some unclarity and not being able to even think about some basic issues. Such as what other job I was going to have. I resigned without looking for another job. Without even thinking about an alternate career. And I didn't even know exactly why I was resigning. There were reasons I gave myself (I didn't enjoy the contorting I felt I had to go through to put my thoughts in publishable form), but even to me it was unclear why such reasons had to imply leaving the profession. After all, if I wasn't enjoying what I was writing, perhaps I could write in a different way. Or on different topics. Or seek to go to different conferences. Why leave the profession altogether? It was hard to answer these questions when colleagues, family or friends would seek to raise them, because I myself did not know the answers.
What I felt though was that making this decision and following this path was something I absolutely had to do. Even though I could not give clear reasons to myself for my decision, what I felt strongly was that down this path lay my intellectual and personal growth. That somewhat down this path I would better understand the reasons, but that at first it was imperative for me that I make the choice and plunge into this path.
I firmly believed that what I was doing was not irrational. That it was a perfectly rational action, which was being guided by a grasp of reasons which in principle could be shared with other people. However, I also strongly felt at the time that I couldn't express those reasons clearly to myself or to other people. What I felt was that I was grasping and being moved by reasons which I was still unable to grasp clearly in thought. That I would be able to grasp them in thought only by allowing myself to be moved by an intuitive awareness of the reasons. That a life transformation motivated by a fledgling awareness of the reasons was necessary before I could be able to articulate them more clearly. That I had to act now, and that the reasons would come to the surface in the ensuing years. As if my leaving was like a seed which had to be planted and that the reasons for leaving were like the branches of a tree which would grow from the earth over many years.
What I felt strongly when resigning was that this was a decision I was actively making. That it was a positive action, a movement towards growth and not merely a reactive decision. That I wasn't leaving the profession out of resentment or anger or lack of confidence. That I was leaving because I felt it was the right thing for me to do in better understanding myself and the world.
In the past year, however, it was not always easy to think of my leaving as a positive action. Suddenly bereft of a career, and still thinking all the time about philosophy and so not having much energy for thinking of a new career, it was natural for me to cast about trying to understand this decision I had made. Unable to hold on at times to the sense that I choose to do it, it was natural to feel that circumstances had driven me out of the profession. That the profession was unjust! Close minded! Arcane! That a great ill was done to me, and that somebody or some institution has to be held accountable for it! Filled with sadness and bitterness at my fate, I felt at times that I did not so much choose to leave as that my pain in the profession made me leave. And with this thought deep seated and long hidden anger, frustration and resentment rose to the surface of my consciousness. I mourned for the Bharath I could have been, the Bharath I imagined when I was twenty that I would become, the essays and books I felt I would write as a professor, the classes I would teach, the changes I would help make from within the profession. Even after leaving the profession, my desire for that path was still strong and it seemed at times as if left to my own volition I would have never made this decision. That the decision was so unnatural and so contorted that it could only be a reactive decision. A decision made only out of pain and not out of joy. And the more I felt this, the more the anger and the resentment got a grip on me.