Once, when I was an undergraduate at LUMS in Pakistan, we were asked to create 'future CVs' for ourselves, imagining where we would be 10 years down the road.
According to my calculations, by the age of 30, I would be an acclaimed international affairs correspondent with Al Jazeera TV. I would also be a certified yoga instructor, the author of an award-winning collection of short stories, and the co-director of a charity school in Pakistan. I would have trekked to the base camp of an 8,000-metre peak (if not summited the peak itself), and I’d be speaking five languages like a native, or as we say in Urdu, farr farr.
A few weeks ago, I celebrated my 30th birthday. And looking back at that smug, overambitious piece of paper (I still have a copy), what do you suppose I felt?
Disappointment – at falling short on pretty much all of my grandiose goals?
Guilt – for being lazy, for not doing 'enough', for not 'living up to my potential'?
Anger – at myself; at people around me; at the circumstances that thwarted my legendary ascent to that 8,000-metre peak and to the age of 30?
No. I only laughed. Frankly, I couldn’t care less about goals and achievements that you could enumerate on a CV; that you could neatly check off on a “bucket list” and be done with.
I used to care, a lot. During my 20s, I was beleaguered by that pervasive pressure to “achieve”, all too familiar to us millennials. Often times, we weren’t even sure of what we wanted to achieve; it could be an important position at a multinational corporation or a big bank, it could be starting our own business, running an NGO, getting a PhD, and “making a difference”. Yes, what we wanted most of all was to make a difference, to “change the world”.
I stopped thinking that I could change the world, and it was a conscious decision.
That’s not to say that I became cynical. I just realised that I, as one individual, did not have the power to change or “save” the world. I couldn’t eradicate poverty. I couldn’t stop wars. I couldn’t ensure that every child on the street went to school, nor that no woman was ever raped. I couldn’t put an end to meaningless violence. I couldn’t reverse global warming.
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I couldn’t carry through any of this in my own hometown, Lahore, let alone the entire world.
To think that you were somehow “special”, that you could clean up a mess that was centuries, millennia in the making, just like you’d solve a nifty Math problem, was downright arrogant.
Once in a while – perhaps once in every generation – somebody exceptional came along. Extraordinary people who, by dint of birth, effort, circumstance, and some serendipitous conjunction of the stars, did extraordinary things. These were the world’s heroes and heroines, revolutionaries and prophets, thinkers and humanitarians, inventors and scientists, artists and writers; whose names we read in history books.
I don’t suppose that any of these great people ever planned on changing the world. I don’t suppose they wrote about it in their college applications, or scribbled it on their “bucket lists”.
I think they were just going about their lives, one day at a time, doing whatever it was they loved and believed in – not expecting any accolades or honours – just following their intuition, being themselves.
That’s one thing we all have the power to do: being ourselves. Improve ourselves, and consequently, have a positive effect on everything around us.
It could be the simplest things, such as:
Recycling trash. Holding open the door for someone at the metro station. Lending an ear to a friend who’s had a bad day. Teaching somebody a skill, or learning something new yourself. Making friends with somebody from a different country; making the world a more tolerant and kinder place by embodying those qualities.
That was, realistically, the best I could do, and it was enough for me. There is no point in beating yourself up over “failed” ambitions or irrational expectations, neither your own nor those of others.
The expectations of others, or “what will people think” – we’ve all been oppressed by them, from something as trivial as buying the “right” gift for a birthday party, having to attend a cousin’s friend’s brother’s wedding or wearing the “right” outfit to a family lunch, to being emotionally coerced into a marriage by your parents, putting up with an abusive husband, to sticking with a job that sucks the life out of you daily.
Because that’s what you’re expected to do. That’s what a good, responsible, respectable person does; he or she makes make everybody happy – everybody except themselves.
But deep down inside, where nobody can hear our true thoughts, we often ask ourselves:
Why am I doing this? Is it worth it? I’m fulfilling all my ‘duties’, but why am I still so miserable?
There’s something perversely romantic about misery, the notion of sacrificing your life for the sake of others; for your children, parents, friends, your community and country; without a thought of your own wishes and desires. Whether or not you enjoy being cast in that role, society will definitely love you for it.
On the other hand, society will not take kindly to seeing you happy. That’s just shameless. And if you insist on being so brazenly optimistic, then at least pretend to have something to gripe about.
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This kind of thinking is typical among desis, and I was done with it. If your actions didn’t spring from love or genuine kindness; if your only motivation was to “live up to” some vague ideal or ill-conceived expectation; the fear of what people might say, then those actions were worth very little.
The fact was, you couldn’t make anybody happy, truly happy, unless you were happy and fulfilled yourself.
It was not always the simpler choice; oftentimes, it was easier to be miserable, it was easier to be a doormat than to stand up for your inviolable right to happiness. But, it was a choice you made.
So far, I’ve led a pretty privileged life. I’ve never known hunger, or homelessness, or violence or abuse – none of the unimaginable hardships that form reality for millions of people around the world. Most of us are familiar with the ordinary struggles of human existence – death and sickness in the family, relationship troubles, financial crises – but nothing as shattering as the experience of a child in a war-torn country, a family who has lost everything in a natural disaster, the victim of racism or religious persecution, a refugee, an addict, a prisoner, a slave.
Given the enormous advantages that we already have, there is really no excuse for us to feel sorry for ourselves, or vainly blame others for our own unhappiness. We are not victims, and we are certainly not helpless. We are lucky enough to be able to make our own decisions, chart our own priorities, control the course of our lives with some degree of certainty (putting aside a percentage for qismat, of course).
It could be, for example, choosing to spend on a holiday rather than a new piece of jewellery, or exercising instead of watching TV. Or it could be something more far-reaching, like deciding to move to a new country, taking on a new job, having a baby.
The bottom line is, we are all blessed. We all have dreams, and most importantly, we all have volition. We just need to muster up the courage to pull those tricks out from our magic bags and put them to use, in spite ourselves.
So, what have I learnt about life after 30 years?
It doesn’t seem like a whole lot, even by earthly accounts. In the universal scheme of things, it’s embarrassingly negligible.
But what I do know now that I didn't before, is that life is really about living and not about achieving lofty goals, building monuments, racking up positions, bank accounts, cars and TVs.
For me, it’s not about pleasing others, being a hero, a saint or a superstar, devoting your life to any one cause.
It’s about finding contentment, finding beauty, finding peace in the little things. The day-to-day achievements, the seemingly mundane. You learned a new word today. You tried a new dish. You finished an assignment before deadline. You took your kids to the movies. You caught up with an old friend. You explored a new neighbourhood. You danced under a tree.
Your expectations of yourself need not be grander. Yes, you may wish to write a book one day, or set up a charity school (I know I do). I haven’t forgotten those dreams. But I’m no longer in a rush to accomplish them, nor am I going to let them dictate or frustrate my present.
There was a time when I’d walk out of the house with a squeaky clean face and just a dash of kajal in the eyes, ready to go to college, a dinner or a wedding. Now, I use makeup on a regular basis. I even wear lipstick, something I found utterly loathsome at 20.
The salon girl makes it a point to count out the growing number of white hairs on my head every time I go for a trim, shaking her head disapprovingly: “But why don’t you dye?”
I find myself flipping magazines at various clinics much more often, thanks to an array of itinerant physical pains. I’ve become more attentive to what I eat, trying my best to choose a salad or a piece of fruit over a cupcake or a toast slathered with butter and marmalade. In the past, I couldn’t be bothered about the lumps of sodium in ChinChin Chinaman’s hot and sour soup, or the pools of grease in the LUMS cafeteria chicken karahi.
Then, there are the inner changes, the ones you can’t really see: I feel happy, but in a calmer way. I’m not in a hurry to go anywhere, do anything, be anyone. I don’t care as much of what people think of me, and I’m a lot less concerned about offending somebody over a nicety.
The smudges of shyness and self-consciousness that I had retained from teenage into my 20s have all but dissipated, and life is so much easier without them. I avoid comparing myself with others. I try not to be overly self-critical (a family trait), and most of all, I remind myself to be grateful, and not take life too seriously.
And what of the idealistic goals of that fictional 10-year-old CV?
Well, I didn’t fall off the mark entirely when I made those predictions. So I’m not a correspondent with Al Jazeera TV, but I did work at Democracy Now, which in my opinion is the most excellent independent TV news program in the US.
I’m not a certified yoga instructor, but I am an uncertified Bollywood dance teacher.
There’s no collection of short stories (let alone award-winning), but there is an in-progress research project and an intermittent blog.
I’m not the director of any charity, but I basically do volunteer work for a living, from museums to bookstores to archaeology pits.
I’d say I’ve got two languages down in the farr farr category, with a third one in the works.
Instead of trekking up a gigantic mountain, I chose to throw myself out of a perfectly good airplane 1,000 meters in the sky (you do some ridiculous things in your 20s).
So, all in all, I’m pretty satisfied with the 30-year report card, as should you be with yours.
There’s no need to feel despondent or to have regrets about what you could have done and didn’t do; and there’s no need to panic that your “best years” are flying by so you better make “the most” of them.
With good health and a little bit of qismat, every year, every day can be your best, if want it to be.
|Zen. —Photo by author|