In the past 72 hours, three interactions with three different people thrust me into a rare and sacred zone of clarity. Each encounter was an observation of happiness- the human soul concurrently in its most stimulated and peaceful state.
The first discussion occurred in the most unlikely of places, as resonant moments often tend to, in the ER. A friend I grew up with but hadn’t seen since we’d left for college, one of the most dedicated and inspiring people I’ve had the privilege of knowing, was volunteering the 9 PM to midnight shift on a Friday. The aspiring physician, who could have been anywhere else but in an emergency room changing bed sheets to kick off her weekend, was doing her rounds in grace. Her contentment was, at the time, jolting.
The second discussion was with a college student who had recently taken a semester off to start a school in India. Our conversation took many trajectories- the state of education in India, legal inefficacy, socioeconomic stratification…but most importantly, the extraordinary scarcity of people willing to pursue what they really want because they’re held back by fear. His contentment with what he was doing- something unprofitable but morally lucrative- was also, at the time, jolting against a landscape of diminishing dreamers.
The last of these conversations happened this morning, as I was catching up with a dear friend on the phone. At the end of our awesome talk, she told me something that resonated so deeply I had to write this post:
“When you die, you leave your money behind.”
We often hear that our entrance into and exit out of life are immaterial. Spiritually speaking, and if you’re not spiritual look at it in terms of the innate human capacity for desire, we are born with a soul and die with a soul. So why is everything in between so often dictated by decisions irrelevant to the fulfillment of our souls? Our desires?
The three encounters got me thinking about what would happen if we started looking at our lives as aggregate symbols of innate value rather than a timeline of disaggregated structural entities, and whether such a shift in mindset would better our understanding and attainment of that elusive thing called happiness.
For a second, and I promise I’m not being dismissive of the sheer impossibility of a life undistracted by financial criteria, pretend that you could stand for anything- for an idea, for a person, for a cause, for an emotion. What would it be? At this specific moment of your life, what do you want your role in that belief to signify, both to you and to someone or something around you (not necessarily society or the world or anything expansive but something, even at the micro-level)?
Now dream. How do you get to that moment you just imagined, where you stand before your collected experience as a fulfilled human being? It doesn’t matter how lofty you think you’re being. Pretend there’s no such thing as practicality because the moment you start dreaming practically you shortchange yourself immeasurably.
I don’t think the problem lies in people not dreaming or striving towards something they believe in. I think the problem is that people are too afraid of leaving the structure that’s incubated them forever, and the incubators refuse to see that we’re stagnating- culturally, philosophically, personally. My cousin, a sophomore in high school, told her guidance counselor she wanted to be a psychologist, to which her counselor responded: “You need to aim higher than that. A doctor would be better.” So that’s her new goal.
Just within my friend group, four people who for 20 years of their lives knew that all they wanted was a career in medicine are now, respectively, pursuing degrees in history, political science, economics, and math. None, as far as I can tell, regret “wasted time” because what a person finds inherently valuable at a certain stage of his or her life, is despite its current devaluation, a testament to what was once a passion, an impetus, a love. Today, each of those friends finds another province of life more inherently valuable and in line with what they’d ultimately like to be. These notions surely aren’t static. The evolution is eternal.
In my 19 years of existence, I’ve constantly faced an uphill battle between embracing what I’ve been incubated to do – either by myself or the structures around me- and coming to terms with the fact that what I or those structures found inherently valuable is no longer what feeds my soul.
Until eighth grade, I was going to be a doctor. An oncologist. My father’s dreams for his kids before they were even born were that one day, they would do what he wishes he had done if he had the resources to do so- spent life in relentless devotion to the health of humanity. I found in my father’s dreams for me reason and passion, but most importantly inherent value– a sort of belief and faith in what you do so deep that it transcends the power of any social control that could damper its significance.
With freshman year of high school came biology and chemistry labs, where the theoretically inherent value of working hard to save lives was, for me, dissolved by an overwhelming apathy for textbook and laboratory science. I struggled to tell my parents, my peers, and most exhaustingly myself that what I once wanted and what others still wanted for me now was no longer of inherent value. Visual media, specifically filmmaking, quickly began to enthrall me. The fervor I no longer felt for science manifested itself in moving images. The camera replaced the microscope as my tool for understanding, and for the next four and half years, I didn’t look back, because I was driven daily by something I found inherently valuable.
Today, as a college sophomore, my goals have, yet again, shifted drastically because I no longer find filmmaking, at least at the professional level for which my education trains me, of inherent value. Yet again, I face the stressful task of justifying to my family, my friends, and myself that who I am is not a rigid label but an amorphous soul, forever adapting to what it finds, at various points in time, intrinsically valuable. Some have called me confused, unfocused, and destined for failure. I don’t care. Because as long as what I’m doing at a given moment in time feels inherently worthwhile, I know I will never regret anything I’ve done. It’s not just living in the moment, it’s making the moment soulful.
Perhaps, if we made “career goals” more synonymous with “life goals”, we would be happier people, especially considering the fact that most people, when asked to describe their fundamental mission in life, answer with “happiness.”
When you have to continually rationalize to yourself why you’re doing what you’re doing, maybe it’s time to take the risk you never took because you were too scared of what would result if you did. What’s the worse thing that could happen? You took a leap of faith for something you believed in. That, in and of itself, will always be of inherent value.
Maybe if we stop crafting our life narratives in reverse, stop pursuing our end goals before making sure that each step in the process is a step we find inherently valuable (which is a chronology we can never predict or pinpoint in advance, but a discovered process) we would collectively be a happier society.
Live a life you don’t regret. We don’t have to regret going to the wrong college, dating the wrong person, saying the wrong things to the wrong people at the wrong times, if at those specific moments, what transpired felt inherently valuable. This realization has erased regret from my history and instead replaced it with gratitude, because at one point, I believed innately in the decisions I made.
This quest to discover what actually generates happiness in my life has been very sporadic and anything but even keel, but at the end of the day, invaluable. And with this journey, I come to a simple, obvious, but important answer: if we pursue every, single day of our lives doing what we find inherently valuable, regardless of what that may be, life will bring us to the right place. So close your eyes, take a deep breath, and ask yourself: Is what I want to do next more inherently valuable to me than what I’m doing now? If the answer is yes, and makes your heart pound just a little harder than it just was, embrace what your soul is telling you and live life in forward.
By: Siddhi (written after a trip to Lhasa, Tibet in 2007)
The globe spins, rotating effortlessly beneath the twirl of my fingertips. The blur of colors surge in a whirlpool motion, fascinating, but incoherent. 24, 901 miles flash before my eyes every few seconds. I just saw the entire world twenty times in a single minute.
Our jeep rattled forward on the rugged, mountainous terrain of Lhasa– the sacred origin of Tibetan Buddhism. The landscape was a living still-life painting; the beauty I had only seen in museum art splattered on a canvas of reality. It was exactly how the travel books had described it – dreamy. My camera’s shutter snapped every few moments as I reveled in the sight.
That was until I saw the walking scarecrows. They were haggard, bent over rails of bone. They were emaciated, barefoot corpses with cloth satchels. They were children on their daily three-hour walk to school. Almost suddenly, the majestic beauty of the Himalayas was reduced to nothing but those languished faces. The yellow mustard fields, the snow-capped plateaus, the skies of white gold – everything felt hideously out of place. The earth our tires tread belonged to a class of peace-driven people who for generations worked to uphold their beliefs in karma and nonviolence. And these same people were now, in front of my own eyes, walking a deathly walk, only hoping that the Chinese soldiers that infested their land wouldn’t beat them to the ground.
I was numb. Somehow I managed to bring the camera to my eyes, and clicked. This time, it wasn’t just a digital image I had saved onto a card, but a fresh wound in the flesh of my conscience, a permanent scar in my naivety.
One month after I returned home, mainstream news channels flashed with clips of violent Tibetan uprisings against Chinese soldiers. The families of those skeletal kids, who walked under blazing furnaces every day to be educated, were portrayed as the savages. They were greedy, selfish monsters that were unwilling to sacrifice personal freedoms for the “better good”. I felt irascible desperation. I was there. I had seen through my viewfinder those same impoverished villages, living in raw fear.
The naked, poverty-stricken children selling flutes for food in the heart of Cambodia; the Chinese freedom of expression being squashed by the oppressive fist of communism; Thai citizens in constant limbo between life and death. Unlike most teenagers whose vista of the world is based on reported realities in the media, I have been fortunate enough to experience these global truths firsthand. From the moment the plane scrapes the runway, what I know about the world I live in is mutated, enlarged and ultimately diminished. The more I see, the more I realize I’ve seen nothing. Whether that’s a blessing or a curse, I don’t know, because my innocence is gone. I don’t believe things at face value anymore because I know there’s something beneath the surface.
I need to help tear down these walls. Countries have stories, people have stories; truth, that is subdued by bias and ignorance. These realities lurk beneath the filmy surfaces of the piles and piles of photographs I’ve taken over the years. Going back and looking at some of these pictures almost always unleashes that same feeling of discomfort and angst I felt when I saw that slanted view of Tibetan uprisings. With my camera, maybe I’ll be able to do a sliver of justice to the human condition. Before I can do anything though, I have to know.
The globe slows down, the mar of colors gradually forming a fluid image. But it’s still incoherent. I don’t see the familiar oceans, continents, islands- I see a vastly uncharted map, an enigma that I have yet to completely understand. Luckily, I’ve got a camera. And I’m only eighteen.