6: Who cares about personal development?

If you’ve ever had the misfortune of googling ‘personal development’, you will find pages after pages of websites which will make you more confident, outspoken, fearless, achieving, happy and the list goes on. Most of these websites carry listicles which will tell you 30 ways to become happy, 20 ways to find your true love, 15 ways to become successful right now and so forth. There is nothing wrong about these websites, and occasionally I have benefited from some of them. However, the problem lies in their definition of self-growth and the formulaic approach they adopt towards it.

I recently attended the introductory session of self-development program at the insistence of a friend. The program promised to bring about positive, permanent shifts in the quality of life and create power, freedom, full self-expression, and peace of mind for the future. As I entered my session, I was greeted by individuals who looked very confident, had a smile on their faces, and loudly introduced themselves. Everybody had their name tags on and the insistence was on addressing everyone by their names. The fellow participants were a motley bunch of people who were either troubled by life, had been invited by a friend or were curious enough to attend it on their own. There was an enthusiastic home-maker, who wanted to contribute more to her husband’s happiness and improve her relation with her in-laws, a businessman who wanted better relations with his brother, a shy engineer who wanted to become a writer, a master’s student who wanted to pursue his doctorate, a man who was feared by his family because of his anger, a painter who wanted to find his own voice, and others who remained quiet for the rest of the session. As the program began, everybody was encouraged to open up, to see their lives from the suggested point of view. The session leader selected two people who volunteered to for case studies. The session leader had all the answers in his mind, all he needed to do was to fit everyone’s problems in a template and provide answers. By the end of the session, the leader successfully convinced everyone, that all their problems would change with a shift in their perspective, that by joining the program they would all become the strong, confident, expressive people they always wanted to be.

In the midst of all this, nobody questions why do we all want to become a prototype? Every person is unique and that’s what makes us special. An introvert need not share everything with the world, they have other avenues to do so. Not everything is in our control. It is okay to aspire for confidence but it is also okay to not be so. Anxiety and self-doubt are as much necessary as positivity and optimism. Everyone should not be the confident, extrovert which are most visible to us. There are other ways to measure success than what is taught to us. Most importantly, solutions cannot be generic. Everybody lives their own journey, and the path to self-development for each of us cannot be the same.

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5:  Are self-righteous people hypocrites?

Self-righteousness suggests a sense of moral superiority over one’s beliefs and values, to the detriment of others. If you feel that you are morally superior to others because of the values you practice, then ‘self-righteous’ may be apt to describe you. Hypocrisy is when you do not practice what you preach and display inconsistency in thoughts and actions. I have been accused of being both these things in my life.

I have mulled over both these terms in an attempt to discover if it actually applies to me. The relation between the two has been satisfactorily established in psychology. The logic is simple; a self-righteous person believes that they are morally superior because of their beliefs or actions. Reality dictates, though, that all men are imperfect and no one is infallible. This is what leads to the hypocrisy. You claim to be perfect when you are actually not. As far as I can remember, I have never claimed to be perfect. I cherish certain values more than others, such as kindness, empathy, thoughtfulness, love, loyalty among others. The only claim which I make is that I try to live by the virtues which I believe in. Am I a hypocrite? No, because I admit my weaknesses and my inability to live up to my virtues all the time. How can a person be called self-righteous  if they admit to their inability to stick to their belief system always. Does a person remain a hypocrite if he admits to being a hypocrite?

More often than not, I feel that people project their expectations of me, on me. If people accuse me of hypocrisy, it’s because they expect a perfect version of me, and are infuriated to see me act differently. If people did not expect perfection, they would act normally when they found  me diverging from my path. Similarly, when people accuse me of self-righteousness, they are projecting their own inability to live up to the values which they deep down believe in. It’s not me, it’s their own self which makes them feel embarrassed about themselves. At the end of the day, we are all imperfect. Accepting your weaknesses is great but there is nothing wrong in trying to be a better version of yourself.

4: The man who hid his candy stash

As a young girl, my mother was very close to a Punjabi family that lived in her neighborhood. The family had five sons and three daughters. She was friends with the youngest daughter and was treated like a sister by all the five brothers. The eldest brother in particular liked my mother, and never treated her any differently than her own sisters. He was a kind man, very spiritual in his outlook and had a golden voice. Just listening to him talk was like a lecture on faith and positivity. This was more impressive since he had to struggle to make ends meet and sustain a huge family. When my mother bought her first tape recorder she recorded some of the songs which he sang. We would often listen to that years later. After my mother’s marriage, the family migrated to different cities, while the eldest brother moved to the United States. They hardly stayed in touch except for the occasional news which we got to hear of them.

A year ago, however, the eldest brother called my mother from the United States. My mother was no longer the feisty, comical person whom the brother knew. She had been worn down by years of depression and family troubles. Naturally, she was overjoyed to receive that call and to listen to a familiar voice. The eldest brother sensed my mother’s need and promised to call her often. From that day, he would call at least once a fortnight, if not more. Each time he would call, my mother would be filled with hope and optimism. He would tell my mother stories of his life in America. How he was living his dream. How he exercised daily and led a healthy lifestyle. He would send pictures of himself on Facebook which I would share with my mother. Once, my mother was very worried about my life choices, so she forced me to speak to him. I was very hesitant at first, and thought there was no chance that a man of eighty years would understand my point of view. But to my surprise, he did. He told me that he had received very little education and was not as educated as I was. But, from whatever his experience had taught him he had learned that if it was in my destiny to pursue what I intended to, it would happen. He told me not to worry, that the universe already had a plan in mind, but I would have to give my hundred percent towards my goal. Talking to him felt like speaking to a friend, and I was so reassured after the conversation that it became easy for me to open up to him and to respect him. My mother often cited his life as an example for us to lead ours. In every sense, he was an ideal person and a great human being.

We stopped receiving phone calls for him for a month early this year, only to receive the sad news of his demise. We were all very sad, especially my father and I, because he had such a great impact on my mother. Nevertheless, we decided to remember his kind and motivating words and move on with our lives. A few weeks ago, we met his relatives to offer our condolences. What perturbed me was when I found out that his life was far from ideal in America. He had stopped exercising for a long while and his desk drawer was filled with a stash of hidden candy wrappers. It was so ironic that a man who taught others to live positively, take care of their bodies and practice restraint, was himself struggling with life threatening habits.

Overtly positive people often hide their deep seated pains. If everything else seems okay on the surface, dig deeper. We are all broken, after all. Some of us do a better job at plastering the cracks. The person whose life you covet on social media, may be as fucked up as yours. Our scars make us human and testify that we have lived a difficult life, and have survived.

3: Is selflessness a dying virtue?

When I was a kid, I had difficult older cousins who would try to annoy me by destroying my personal belongings or even on some occasions trying to physically hurt me. It wasn’t that I was unable to defend myself, but, my mother always stopped me from retaliating. She encouraged me to treat them kindly and avoid seeing them instead. When I would angrily ask my mother how she could ignore what my cousins did, she would remind me of an old Hindi adage, which would roughly translate to, ‘those who lay thorns in your path, return them the favour by strewing flowers on their way; the thorns in your path will turn to flowers, and the flowers that you have laid for them will hurt them like a trident’. I learnt forgiveness and selflessness from my mother. She still reminds me, “When you help others, the universe sends out ways to help you” and “If you have only lived for yourself, is that really living?”

As I grew up, all around me, the focus grew on taking care of oneself first, to the extent that I felt that selfishness had gained social acceptance; to the extent that I began to question the merits of selflessness and whether people meant the same thing when they claimed to be selfless. My gender studies class showed me how women have been subjugated through centuries by glorifying self-sacrificing behaviour. Prominent feminist movements were based on challenging this notion by encouraging women to claim what they had been shamed to seek, viz. their own bodies and from society. Personal development coaches will tell you the same thing, focus on your life, go ahead, and follow your dreams. It made me challenge what I erstwhile accepted without much questioning. When I went back to my mother, during college holidays, I asked her, “Why did you make me do the things I did not want to do? I tolerated your relatives only to make you happy.” As angry as I was back then, I would do it all over again. My mother’s life is a testament of selfless acts done for me, each of which has made me what I am today. Doing these little things, like helping her family, even if it was unpleasant, was my turn to return the favour.  The happiness accompanied by it was not illusory but left me feeling warm and satisfied, just like when you feel after a tough round of working out.

When we care for others, we are taken care of by others. It need not be the same people that we help, who come to our aid but there will always be someone. After all, we are all part of one big cosmos. That’s how society should function. There are certain things to keep in mind, though. You may become a source of giving only, if the people around you are merely interested in receiving help. Genuine needs also must be distinguished from constant neediness. Both these conditions are difficult to attain in real life. But there are ways to work around it. If you feel that there is someone (anyone) who genuinely needs your help, then go ahead and do it. If you feel that there are certain people, who have established themselves in your life, as people whom you can trust and that they would sacrifice as much for you as you would do for them, then go ahead and do it. It won’t hurt you.

I would like to end, by mentioning my friend, who recently tried the Pottermore sorting hat ceremony. He got Hufflepuff, the house which represents the helpers. Most people would be sad for not getting Gryffindor, the house which represents people who seek greatness, or Slytherin for people who covet exclusivity, or Ravenclaw, for people who seek knowledge. My friend took it in his stride, and retorted if given a choice between helping someone and seeking greatness, he would choose the former. If his college tenure were to be examined though, it is nothing but a testament of greatness. That’s what comes around when you imbibe selflessness in your daily life, and everything else follows.

2: Everyone has a purpose in this universe

What do people mean when they say, “you were born to do this”? Destiny is an illusory concept. If you choose to believe in it, it may betray you. You try to ignore it, and it catches up with you in unseemly ways. I have struggled to find my purpose in this world. Surely, it can’t be that high-paying desk job, which others can do just as well as I do. It definitely won’t be that academic position that others, more serious people, are better suited to do. I sure do pray that it is the job I covet, but don’t necessarily have the skills for (as yet).  Is the little voice in my head urging me towards my destiny or is it merely wishful thinking? It’s all very muddled.

Some of my friends suggest that there is really no answer to the question, what is your purpose in this universe. It’s all a matter of choice. My mother chose to be a teacher. My dad chose a nine-to-five government job. Their choices became their destiny. However, if you met my mother, you would immediately recognize that she was meant to be a teacher. As an energetic child, she had difficulty adapting to the patience and persistence which the education system of her time demanded. Learning was boring and required her to sit down and read books. Naturally, when she chanced upon a teaching job, she enjoyed making teaching fun and inclusive for everyone, including me. In a way, her circumstances chose the purpose of her life. So, when it comes to deciding your purpose, how much of a choice does one really have? For most of us, our destinies are sealed even before we become conscious of it. That is the reason why we keep feeling that calling in our heart. It’s like a little nudge pushing you towards something. RuPaul calls it ‘the universe’s stage direction’. Whatever it is, it draws you further and further until your actions become one with your purpose.

As I stood on my balcony one day, with rain pouring down heavily, I noticed a creeper (money plant, to be precise) firmly planted on the ropes of my sun-shades. The creeper reminded me of my biology classes, especially evolution. I remembered reading about the orchid shaped like a female bee. The male bee confuses the flower to be its soulmate, and pollinates the flower instead. Whenever, we feel totally lost, nature always provides inspiration. There is nothing wasteful in nature, everything has a purpose. Even the most mundane living beings, have an important role to play and impact the ecosystem in huge way. As much as we like to believe that we have surpassed nature and control our own destinies, we are still a part of nature. That’s an important lesson to keep in mind. Literature and mythology tell us the same thing. Everybody, has a part to play in the story sooner or later. So, for all those people who feel confused about their purpose, or are scared that they will never find what they are meant for, nature serves as reassuring reminder.

1: Meta

Here I am. Inspiration lends itself in the most unlikely places. I found mine while mindlessly browsing the net. All my life I have written what others wanted to read, said what others wanted to hear. In the process, I lost track of what I wanted to write, what I wanted to say. A friend suggested, write for yourself, and put yourself out there. But, the process of self-discovery is difficult and discipline is hard to achieve, especially, when all your life you have been trained to win others’ admiration. How does a people-pleaser, please himself? More importantly, how does a person find himself?

So I took up this challenge, inspired by many such time bound challenges on the internet. For the next eighty eight days, I will write something daily. I will let the day and the mood decide the content.  At the end of it, if nothing else, I will be happy that I took up a challenge and completed it successfully.

“It gets easier. But, you’ve got to do it everyday” – stolen inspiration via friend via Bojack Horseman