Inspiration

There has always burned a fire
that gave me light and heat
that powered every desire
and kept me on my feet

That fire needed fuel
I wonder whence it came
I must have burned up too much
the fire is now quite tame

Some sparks are still left over
to remind me of what once was
I am still moving forward
but momentum is now the cause

I mis-conceived my pursuit
lost more than I could reclaim
I burned a part of myself
that will never be the same

I was certain of my success
on a path not quite my own
but a path of such great import
is a path I must walk alone

I need to reinvent myself
and stoke up the fire again
the fuel I took for granted
I must work to now regain

These words are an effort
to seek what must be sought
the fuel that I am after
I must find it in my thought

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If

If, by Rudyard Kipling, is by far my favorite poem. The topic came up in an email conversation and I decided to write down my understanding of the poem. At face value, If might seem to be an appeal to stoicism. But it is actually a brilliant and passionate expression of how experiencing the emotions that arise from moral behavior is the only thing that really matters. Refreshingly, the moral outline is explicitly individualistic – focusing primarily on the actions of the individual and the reasons for those actions, rather than on consequences – for the individual or anyone else. There is no mention of the “greater good” or “giving back” or “a cause larger than oneself”. This is what a proper morality is.

IF you can keep your head when all about you
Are losing theirs and blaming it on you,
If you can trust yourself when all men doubt you,
But make allowance for their doubting too;
If you can wait and not be tired by waiting,
Or being lied about, don’t deal in lies,
Or being hated, don’t give way to hating,
And yet don’t look too good, nor talk too wise.

The first 7 lines are clear enough. The last line is not so clear. What is “looking too good” and “talking too wise”? Modesty is not a virtue. Honesty is. And being honest includes being honest about yourself. However, an independent man is not concerned primarily with what others think of him. Looking good and talking wise can be driven either by a desire to be seen as good and perceived as wise or as a natural consequence of being good and wise. I take this last line as a caution against the former.

If you can dream – and not make dreams your master;

A dream is usually about something that doesn’t yet exist. About changing reality to make it better. And it is easy to get carried away by visions of the better reality and lose sight of whether those visions are actually realizable or not.

If you can think – and not make thoughts your aim;

To a thinking man, thinking is a pleasurable activity. But, as with dreams, aimless thinking leads to worthless thoughts disconnected from reality.

If you can meet with Triumph and Disaster
And treat those two impostors just the same;

This does not mean that you should have the same emotional response to triumph and disaster. The only way to do that would be to not feel anything at all. And that is death (“Without pleasure, without pain, …”). This is a rejection of consequentialism. Triumph and disaster are consequences, not causes. Your sense of value should derive from your actions, not the consequences of those actions. This is illustrated in the lines below.

If you can bear to hear the truth you’ve spoken
Twisted by knaves to make a trap for fools,

Apart from the above, however painful it may be to see your words twisted, protecting fools from knaves is not the goal of your life.

Or watch the things you gave your life to, broken,
And stoop and build ’em up with worn-out tools.

You don’t really give your life to things (or people or causes). You act in a particular way for yourself, for your own satisfaction, to achieve the goals you set out for yourself. And if the things break, you build them up again.

If you can make one heap of all your winnings
And risk it on one turn of pitch-and-toss,
And lose, and start again at your beginnings
And never breathe a word about your loss;

Rejection of consequentialism again. The end result is not what matters. The experience does. The actions that enabled you to have those winnings matter, that you have those winnings doesn’t. That you have the courage to risk them matters. The loss (consequence) doesn’t.

If you can force your heart and nerve and sinew
To serve your turn long after they are gone,
And so hold on when there is nothing in you
Except the Will which says to them: ‘Hold on!’

Very clear.

If you can talk with crowds and keep your virtue,

Very clear again – especially with so many demagogues and populists around!

‘ Or walk with Kings – nor lose the common touch,

Clear again.

if neither foes nor loving friends can hurt you,
If all men count with you, but none too much;

The only person you have any real control over is yourself. And no one – friend or foe – should be able to hurt you in a significant way. Rand makes the same point in “The Fountainhead” when Roark talks of a pain that only goes down to a certain point. You should value all men (appropriately) not not be dependent on anyone.

If you can fill the unforgiving minute
With sixty seconds’ worth of distance run,
Yours is the Earth and everything that’s in it,
And – which is more – you’ll be a Man, my son!

Amen!

Independence

Ishaan: Aaj tak koi bhi faisla mera apna nahin tha. Kuch faisle mujhe virasat mein mile. Kuch kartavya ke naam pe liye gaye. Aur baki mere mahol ne kar diye. Aaj tak koi bhi faisla sahi ya galat ka farak dekh ke nahin kiya gaya. Mere mahol ne jo mujhe diya main leta gaya, jo mujhse maanga main deta gaya. Suman, tumse milne ke baad mujhe ehsaas hua ki is daayre ke bahar bhi kuch hai.

Suman: Ishaan, tumhare saamne do hi raaste hain. Sachai chupao, ek khuni ko azaad phirne do aur apne dost se wafadaar raho. Ya sach ka saath do. Sachai ko saamne la kar us khuni ko uski saza dilao. Aur insaniyat ke naate jo hamaara farz banta hai, use poora karo. Ishaan, mere liye ye farz, apne kisi bhi niji faisle ya shapath se bahut bada hai.

— From the Hindi movie Thakshak by Govind Nihalani

Translation:

Ishaan: “Not a single decision so far has been mine. Some decisions, I inherited. Some were made in the name of duty. And the rest were made by my circumstances. Not a single decision was made by considering whether it was right or wrong. Whatever my circumstances gave me, I accepted. Whatever they demanded from me, I submitted. Suman, after meeting you, I realized that there is something beyond this.”

Suman: “Ishaan, you have only two roads ahead of you. Hide the truth, let a murderer roam free, and remain loyal to your friend. Or, support the truth. Bring the truth into the open and punish that murderer. And fulfil the duty that is ours through our humanity. Ishaan, for me this duty is much bigger than any personal decision or promise.”

This is one of the very rare moments when – briefly and inconsistently, in a raw, sense of life form – Hindi Cinema comes close to a proper understanding of morality. And then immediately afterwards it returns to the tired old cliches of duty to humanity and sacrifice of personal values.

Interesting observations from my attempt at translation.

“Sach ka saath do” : “Support the truth”. That’s the best I can think of. Not something one says in English.

Is there a word in Hindi/Urdu that means obligation as against duty. “Kartavya” and “farz” both mean duty. Or is the difference not expressible in Hindi?

Independence? day

Another anniversary of India’s independence is approaching. And there are children on the streets, at traffic signals, selling paper flags to anyone who wants to celebrate the occasion. Wonder what they do on other days? They sell a lemon and two (or is it more?) chillies tied with a string to anyone who wants to ward off evil spirits. So what exactly are we supposed to celebrate? Independence? Whose independence? From whom? More than 60 years ago, thousands of people gave their lives to achieve political “independence”. What did they achieve? They replaced British rule with democracy. Some of the British rulers were doubtless oppressing a people willing to be oppressed. But others were rendering a service – the white man’s burden. After “independence”, India’s government was led by men of the second kind – British educated socialists who resented the white man’s burden because they wanted to make it their own. They were men with a “noble” purpose; to teach the uneducated masses how to live – by taking control over their lives. These men had “noble” dreams, but their dreams were not dreams of what they would do with their lives; they were dreams of what they would do with other people’s lives. That meant that no one else would be allowed to dream. This was supposed to be independence. Inevitably, this “independence” has produced the worst kind of dependence imaginable. The politician is dependent on the poor, the uneducated, the superstitious, the irresponsible and the incompetent for their votes. And it is in his interest to let them remain as they are. And these people are dependent on the politician for favors or promises of favors. This dependence is the essential and defining feature of the kind of unchecked democracy that India’s leaders established after independence. The modern intellectuals call this dependence “corruption”. But the manifestation of the essential nature of a system is not corruption. Unchecked democracy is corrupt to begin with.

There is no such thing as political independence. The concept of independence is properly restricted to the realm of a person’s mind. A man’s thoughts, wishes, desires can be independent – of the judgements of other people. Like all virtues independence applies to individuals, not to a collective. And like many other such concepts, this one too has been stolen by collectivists to disguise their true goals. What the Indian political leaders fought for was not independence – of any kind. What they fought for was sovereignty – the state of affairs when a country is governed by people of the same race, religion or culture that have historically occupied it. There is nothing particularly desirable about sovereignty as such. Some of the most oppressive places in the world to live in suffer from sovereignty. It does not matter whether a country is governed by natives or not. What matters is the system of government.

The proper socio-political goal is freedom, not some meaningless independence or a tyrannical sovereignty. Freedom to believe and express one’s ideas – without being censored by the government or by thugs (M.F. Hussain); freedom to marry the person of one’s choice – without being murdered by one’s family or community (honor killings); freedom to develop a technology and market it – without having to buy the rights to do so (3g auction); freedom to buy land and use it for any purpose – without having to rely on the government (Tata Nano); freedom to contract with people on mutually agreeable terms – without being tied by labor laws; freedom to spend one’s money as one chooses – without having it confiscated for subsidies and hand-outs; freedom to run a school – without having to declare it as a non-profit; freedom to start a political party – without having to swear by socialism…

When will India become free? I am not holding my breath (remember the lemon and chillies?). And I am not going to celebrate “independence” day either.

Boys vs Men, Indian weddings, and an essay by Paul Graham

Boys vs Men

This has been going around in my head for some time; ever since I read/reread some of Alexander Dumas’ novels a few months back. The main characters in his novels (especially “The Three Musketeers”) are all people in their early twenties. And they are described as men and women, not as boys and girls. Today the age at which we describe someone as a man seems to be around 30. Young people seem to think of themselves as boys and girls, not men and women. The standard love stories in the movies are described as boy meets girl, not man meets woman. It should be a matter of pride to think of oneself as a man or a woman as opposed to a boy or girl. And yet, there is a definite reluctance in most young people today about letting go the self-image of a boy or girl. It is as if we want to remain boys and girls forever. This reluctance is quite surprising considering that young people – atleast in India – have never been as financially independent as they are today.

Most of us have grown up in families where our parents have been extremely responsible people in an age when there were very few opportunities. Our parents have held the same job for decades while we are free to change our jobs every few years. Our parents have lived in a socialist hell where achieving financial security meant dreary jobs and a sacrifice of their dreams. Is it that we associate adulthood and responsibilty with sacrifice, boredom and dreary routine? In the relatively free economy today, it does not have to be so.

Regardless of the cause, thinking of oneself as a boy well into actual adulthood is clearly a bad thing. Ideas held unconsciously have an enormous influence on our lives. If we don’t think or even want to think of ourselves as fully grown adults, we will always look to various authority figures in our lives to make our decisions for us, to take responsibility for our lives.

Indian weddings

There are two parts to most Indian wedding ceremonies. A religious ceremony consisting of various rituals and a reception party. The interesting thing is that neither part is directly controlled – to the extent that a ceremony involving so many people can be controlled – by the couple getting married or even their families. The first is controlled by some Pandit and the second is controlled by a photographer! If ever I have a wedding ceremony I would want to control every aspect of it.

“The Top Idea in Your Mind”, Essay by Paul Graham

Paul Graham is easily one of the most thought-provoking essayists I have read. And this one is particularly good (Via Gus Van Horn). Graham writes that there is a “top idea” in one’s mind – the idea that one’s thoughts keep turning to when one allows them to drift.

I suspect a lot of people aren’t sure what’s the top idea in their mind at any given time. I’m often mistaken about it. I tend to think it’s the idea I’d want to be the top one, rather than the one that is. But it’s easy to figure this out: just take a shower. What topic do your thoughts keep returning to? If it’s not what you want to be thinking about, you may want to change something.

This seems to be a brilliant observation and an excellent way to take control of one’s thoughts.

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