The capacity of accepting

Primary education for kids everywhere in the world is focused on teaching them moral values. The important subjects like science and math come much later. The emphasis initially is on the basics; diction, writing, counting, and morality, as I mentioned earlier. And as religion has taught us, storytelling is a really powerful tool to simplify and put forth complex ideas. Stories make acceptance of values and ideas, which hitherto are alien to us, easier. Before understanding the power of good storytelling, however, I used to ponder why so much of our time is allotted to fairy tales and memorizing nursery rhymes, when as adults we hardly remember these stories, which in my case is true, for I have forgotten most of the stories and rhymes they taught me way back then. So I surprised myself today when I remembered a story from my childhood.

So this story is about a beggar. I vaguely remember the illustrations from the story books, and find it funny how they always had a fixed template for everything. Children always had rosy cheeks (I don’t think Indian skin works that way), grandparents always wore spectacles, had silver or white hair and walked with canes, mothers always wore colorful sarees (with colors and designs which no self-respecting woman would ever consider wearing, except maybe in a Kellogg’s commercial), dads always carried a briefcase (who uses a briefcase?), the dog (yes, there was always a dog, which gave you goals as a child of having one, only to be stomped out cruelly by your practical parents) was always called ‘Moti’ or ‘Tommy’, and beggars, as in this case, always had patched up clothes, a frayed hat, messy hair and lots of stubble. And we wonder why we paint everyone with the same brush and like to stereotype. Sorry for digressing. Anyway, since my recollection of those images is vague at best, allow me to introduce my ‘grown-up’ sensibilities to this children’s tale. So this beggar, or more appropriately a ‘homeless person’, is sitting on the pavement, with a cardboard sign next to him, with ‘Help appreciated’, or something to that effect, written on it (where he got the ink for it, I don’t know, and somehow we never wonder who was generous enough to lend this guy the art supplies), his clothes tattered and torn, and all his belongings stuffed in a big trash bag.

So now the children’s tale part kicks in. Suddenly out of nowhere a fairy appears, and walks up to him. And surely enough, she’s dressed in gaudy clothes, she wears a crown, has a halo behind her head, (this imagery of a halo interestingly has its origin in ancient Egypt where a ‘Solar Disk’ indicated divinity, and the imagery was borrowed by western religions, or at least that is what Dan Brown taught me), and has a wand with a star at its tip (it’s not official until you have a star). So she introduces herself to our protagonist as “Lady Luck”. Since luck has been down on him, she’s here to balance the scales in his favor. She tells him since she has control over luck and fortune, she can conjure up gold, and promises to give him as much gold as he can carry without a single piece of it hitting the floor. If even a single piece touches the floor, its game over, and all that gold will turn to dust. So our homeless guy empties the trash bag he has, and props it open in front of the generous lady. The lady gives her wand a wave (no swish and flick, no Wingardium Leviosa, no incantation, nothing, as this is pre-J.K. Rowling era sorcery we are talking about) and gold coins like the ones in Uncle Scrooge’s vault start flowing from its tip. The homeless guy is visibly happy. There is enough gold in the bag now to get a proper meal, some more and now there is enough for decent clothes, a little more and enough to maybe pay a month’s rent for a nice studio. Fancier things start popping up in his mind as the bag keeps on filling up. Every so often the fairy asks him whether she should stop. This is clearly an optimization problem, but that is not important here. Laws of physics have ceased to exist as it’s literally raining gold, so why not go for the jackpot? He tells her to keep it coming, and keep it coming she does. The bag is half full, but it’s also half empty, so he asks her to keep the gold flowing. Now as anyone who has tried to fill up insane amounts of empty alcohol bottles in trash bags while cleaning up after some Friday night partying knows, there’s only so much trash bags can carry, before giving way. Wait, did I say alcohol? I meant empty milk gallons, just regular harmless containers for my 2% milk. Anyways, there is a nasty ripping noise, the bag splits wide open, and all that precious gold reduces to dust as it hits the pavement. The fairy says I told you so, and promptly leaves, leaving the homeless guy, and us wide-eyed children, to contemplate what just happened. The moral here is to not be greedy. To not reach for more than you have the capacity to accept. You end up reaching for more and whatever you have also gets lost in the bargain. A pretty decent lesson right?

Now why would I, someone who is in his twenties, recollect something from so long ago? As it happens, I was talking to my friend, who was a batch-mate of mine during my Masters, and we were catching up after a long time. And somehow our talks always end up being deep and meaningful. My friend was feeling a little frustrated with a situation at work, in that the work was not as interesting as the coursework during Masters was, where we learnt something new almost every day. Your mind is a sword that needs sharpening, and Tyrion would agree that it does get a lot of sharpening when you are studying, preparing for assignments, working on projects, and bracing yourself for interviews. The mind, however, is not as stimulated when you start earning and working to fulfill your employers’ goals. By no means was the work bad, it just didn’t have the same intensity as one gets used to while studying in one of the toughest grad schools, and my friend had developed the fear of losing the edge which had been honed by being one of the most dedicated people I know. I could empathize, for I too felt like I was sailing in the same boat. Millennials always seek out purpose in whatever we are doing, whether it is learning and improving, starting something new, or making a difference in the world. And this was not the case with people belonging to generations that came before ours. I think this had to do with the fact that previous generations had to concentrate on making ends meet, and satisfying the basic needs was what occupied their entire bandwidth, leaving hardly any time or energy for the secondary needs like job satisfaction, seeking purpose in life, etc. I am not saying people back then did not aspire for more, for they did achieve a lot, but they had to start from building the base. We were privileged enough to have them provided for us, so that we could aspire for more than just the basics from the word go, and maybe the generation after ours, will aspire for something even greater.

As we pondered over our millennial condition, I steered the conversation back to the problem at hand. We have this tendency to romanticize our past, maybe because the human mind has this ability to remember the good times more vividly than the uneventful and miserable times. Objectively though, pursuing Masters is one of the toughest times in one’s life. You don’t have a lot of money, you don’t have a lot of prospects, you are perpetually buried under a mountain of coursework, you have no time to eat and stay healthy, and you are constantly worrying about landing a job and paying off your debt. It is true, however, that if you survive this ordeal, you are forged into a better person, a stronger person. I had to remind my friend that even though the same intensity of intellectual stimulation was missing, it came as a package deal along with these other things which are not so pleasant. And there are many things one earns in return, such as more time for oneself, a healthier bank balance, a thriving personal and social life, and so much more. Would it make sense to sacrifice all these things which one desires in the long term, to satisfy the desire for intellectual stimulation? After a small pause, I got a reply in the negative. That is when the story I recalled earlier came to me.

Good things will come in life, but they are of no use if we are not in a fit state to accept them. Imagine, for a second, you have this sudden, unexpected windfall (lottery winnings as a hypothetical example). If you don’t have the financial acumen, or respect for money (which is acquired if you actually work hard to earn it), you will most likely end up losing it, as is the case with many celebrities who fell on hard times because they were not equipped to handle the fame and fortune. Just like that trash bag, there is only so much that we can accept. But we are not pieces of plastic. We are living, breathing, sentient beings and we learn, grow, and evolve. We are where we are today because we have struggled to reach that stage. We must constantly try to increase our capacity to accept the good things life offers. If we try to shove more gold into our bag, without increase it’s size, our bag will be torn and we will lose what we have. It can be our wealth, our happiness, or even our health. When you are a student, your end goal is to get a job. Everything till now has been building up to it, right from our school days. And surely, if we work towards it, a job will fall into that plastic bag. But one does not, and should not stop there. It is natural to want more, and we tend to want what we don’t have, and even more so if others have it. But we will be in a situation to accept all this good, only if we work towards it. This was my advice to my friend. You have increased the capacity of your bag, so your job fit in. If you try pushing in more, your bag does not have any more space after being filled with your job and the financial stability it brought you. You can aim for more, that is, learning new things, and keeping your skills current, if you work towards it, by utilizing your time which is spent in trivial tasks, to instead focus on self-study.

There are so many things we would like to do, once we cross getting a job off our list. Maybe it’s travelling, maybe it’s learning to dance or play a musical instrument, or working on hobby projects, or a plethora of other things that we might have in the form of a bucket list, things we aspire to do before we pass. But that cannot come at the cost of what came before it. And that is how we can work towards increasing our capacity, by being better at how we manage our time, by improving how much we are able to do physically and mentally, by being better at what us millennials like to call ‘adulting’. Because there is going to be plenty of more adulting to do, and it is not easy. There is going to be plenty of good stuff coming up, like a better job, a new car, a significant other (if you don’t have one already), a new addition to the family, and what not. And we will want to grab these things. That is inevitable. Accepting these better things, means being a better person than you were before. We would do well to remember the story of the beggar, and the lesson he taught us, and the countless other lessons which the tales of childhood continue to teach us, even though they may be long forgotten.