Tuesday, February 13, 2024

Two 'Fulfillment Stories'

“Time” is  one of the main themes in Marcel Proust's novel In Search of Lost Time. The narrator thinks all memories of his youth  have been permanently lost. And then one day, while dipping a piece of madeleine cake into a cup of tea his mother had made him, the memory of his happy childhood days in Combray came unexpectedly flooding back to him. He realized that they had been released by the taste and smell of the tea and madeleine crumbs which had reminded him of the cakes his aunt LĂ©onie used to make for him as a child.

I breathe through a tracheostomy and I rarely have anything through my mouth so taste and smell do not stimulate any memories for me. (It is not that I have lost my sense of smell. I breathe through a tracheotomy so very little air and hence very few odour molecules pass through my nose. An odour has to be particularly strong for it to register.) My Proustian moments come when I read a book. A passage in a book will remind me of some incident in the distant past which might lead to another memory and yet another . . . And as Macbeth said,  “My dull brain was wrought / With things forgotten.” 

In Wanting, Luis Burgis writes about  hearing what he calls 'Fulfilment Stories' - stories about times in your life when you took an action that ended up being deeply fulfilling. According to him, a Fulfilment story has three essential elements: 1. You took some concrete action and you were the main protagonist, 2. You believe you did well for an achievement that matters to you.  3.  Your action brought you a deep sense of fulfilment, maybe even joy and just thinking about it brings some of it back. 

The first incident happened when I was in high school when a cousin had come to Jamshedpur to stay for a while. Once, we were practicing our catching skills with a tennis ball in a room inside the house. The play was proceeding sedately along expected lines when suddenly . . . (Chekov writes in Death of a Government Clerk that 'very often in stories you come upon this word “suddenly,” and this is all very proper, since authors must always concern themselves with the unexpectedness of life.)

Suddenly, my cousin threw the ball somewhat off target and to our misfortune, it hit a clock behind me. The glass on the face of the clock shattered into million pieces with an unseemly noise accentuating our horrified silence. My cousin was very worried about how to break the news to his uncle (my father) when he returned from the office. This was surprising for me because my father was a mild mannered person who was not likely to fly into a rage and shout at us. 

Looking at the worried expression on my cousin's face and listening to his fears, I told him that I will tell my father that I had thrown the ball that had inadvertently hit the clock. 'Really?', he asked with a look of disbelief. I assured him that I would.  When my father came home in the evening, I took the blame for the broken clock as I had promised. As I had expected, nothing much happened, with my father expressing some disapproval and telling me to be more careful in future. My cousin was relieved and I soon forgot about the incident. 

Years later, about a year after my stroke, the cousin visited me. During the visit, he mentioed the incident which was the first time I recalled the incident after the day it had occurred and I felt happy about it. It was an insignificant incident for me but it must have meant something for him if he still remembered it after almost two decades. 

The second incident occurred when I was in Bajaj Auto Ltd. which was my first job. When I got my first salary, I sent some money separately to both my grandparents. (I will be writing only about my maternal grandparents since my father was an orphan and I don't know anything about the authors of his existence.) I don't know why I did it because both lived in the same house, my grandfather had always looked after financial matters and my grandmother was perfectly happy with this arrangement. It must have been a spontaneous action and I promptly forgot all about it. 

After a few months, I got admission in IIMA, resigned from my job and served the mandatory one-month notice period. After this,  there were two weeks to go before joining IIMA and I decided to go to Palakkad, Kerala where my mother and sister were staying along with my grandparents. I had to travel by bus for an hour from Palakkad Junction to reach my village. I reached the bus stop near my house at my usual time of around eight in the morning. 

There was a short walk from the bus stop to my house. On the way a relative called out to me, 'Grandmother died.' Huh? 

- 'Whose grandmother?'

- 'Your grandmother.'

This came as a shock.  For a moment I did not know what to say. I had had no knowledge of any ailment or accident. Then what had happened? I hurried home. My mother and an aunt came out to receive me and from the looks on their faces I knew that what I had heard was true. (Anyway this was not a matter about which somebody will make jokes. Perhaps I was hoping unconsciously that it would be one.) Soon after, when we (my mother, sister, grandfather, an aunt and myself) were settled in a room, I was told what had happened. 

My grandmother had complained of stomach pain and was taken to a hospital in Coimbatore. After examination, the doctors said that they had to perform an operation. During the procedure, they found that she had stomach cancer which had spread to many organs. She had never complained of any pain so nobody had known anything about this. The doctors tried desperately to retrieve the situation but their struggles were in vain and she died on the operating table. Everybody was stunned by what had happened. I had not been informed because everybody knew that I had given notice and couldn't take leave and anyway I will be home in a week. 

Then my mother told me about the money order that I had sent to my grandmother some months ago, something I had forgotten about. (Those days, one way to send  money was by using a money order which was sent through the postal system.) It seemed that nobody had ever sent any money to her. My grandfather looked after financial matters and my grandmother was content to look after the kitchen. When my grandmother heard her name called out by the postman, she was surprised. 

When the postman told her that one Suresh had sent her money, she swelled with pride. She had to sign in order to get the money which was the first time in her life that she had been asked to sign anywhere. She practised her signature gravely for some time and then put her signature at the required place feeling very important. She then took the money and kept it carefully among some clothes in her cupboard. She never spent any of the money but periodically, she would look at it with great joy.  

The story overwhelmed me. What had been an insignificant act that I had forgotten about soon had now become the best act of my life. Both the above acts were ones I had initially thought were minor but later assumed significance. They often remind me of the last stanza of Wordsworth's poem Daffodils

For oft, when on my couch I lie

In vacant or in pensive mood,

They flash upon that inward eye

Which is the bliss of solitude;

And then my heart with pleasure fills,

And dances with the daffodils.


Saturday, January 27, 2024

Typing upgrade

About a year ago, when Jaya and I were celebrating our 27th wedding anniversary, Sujit presented me with an I-Mac. I received it with a mixture of happiness and bewilderment. The bewilderment was because I had never used a Mac before and I didn’t know if all my files would be compatible with the Mac OS. Sujit assured me that it will not be a problem which eased some of my worries. 

He then gave me some tutorials about common Mac commands. For eg. instead of the 'cntrl' key in Windows, I had to use the 'command' key in Mac. So for copying something, I had to click command+c. For Mac, it is Finder, while for Windows PCs, it was File Explorer. Instead of Explorer, there is Safari. I could search podcasts and music more easily. What made Sujit opt for an I-Mac was the Dwell feature in the Accessibility features about which he learned from a friend. When he used it in a showroom, he knew that I would take to it quickly.  

The mouse-pointer is moved using head-tracking technology. The pointer appears over the chosen spot and the dwell time countdown begins (a pointer circle starts to empty). When the countdown is over (which takes a couple of seconds), the chosen action is performed. The default dwell action is set to left click. By clicking on a dropdown menu, I can select a different action like double click, right click etc. The current dwell action will revert to 'left click' after the action is performed.

The Dwell function allows me to do what anyone else can do in a computer including browsing, switching between documents and reading pdf documents directly. Previously, once I had specified a document, I had to type within that document till someone changed it. For reading pdfs, I used to ask somebody to copy it in Word which would result in the images being lost. All such problems are no longer there. 

Another advantage is that there is a text prediction feature in the Accessibility keyboard which makes typing easier. After typing just a few letters, some words are suggested. I can select the word I want, and just click on it for it to get typed. For example, for typing the word 'example', I just had to type 'e' and it was the first word predicted. The software had predicted that after 'For' it was likely to be 'example'. 

Of course, so many advantages have to be accompanied by at least one disadvantage - the curse of distraction. In The Count of Monte Cristo, the protagonist Edmund Dantes reflected upon the enormous degree of intelligence and ability that a fellow prisoner Abbe Faria displayed and said, 'What would you not have accomplished if you had been free?' Abbe Faria replied, 'Possibly nothing at all; the overflow of my brain would probably, in a state of freedom, have evaporated in a thousand follies; misfortune is needed to bring to light the treasures of the human intellect.'

Freedom is great but unrestricted freedom brings its own problems. Now that I had the freedom to do whatever I wanted in a computer, I felt the urge to do things other than what I was currently doing. If a WhatsApp notification came, I wanted to check what it was. I would think of something I wanted to check in Google. This would lead me to a link which would lead me to another link and another. . . I would be reading a book in pdf and I would be tempted to check another book. Previously, I could not do any of these things so I focused on the file I was working on for a couple of hours before I asked somebody to change it. 

At this time, I happened to read a book called Deep Work by Cal Newport. It mentioned a 2012 McKinsey study which found that the average knowledge worker now spends more than 60 percent of the workweek engaged in electronic communication and Internet searching, with close to 30 percent of a worker’s time dedicated to reading and answering e-mail alone. This state of fragmented attention does not allow you to do deep work, which requires long periods of uninterrupted thinking. 

He said that many assume that they can switch between a state of distraction and one of concentration as needed, but this is wishful thinking: Once you’re wired for distraction, you crave it. The constant switching from deep, focused activities to superficial activities at the slightest hint of boredom teaches your mind to never tolerate an absence of novelty. The urge to turn your attention toward something more superficial is always present. People who multitask all the time can’t filter out irrelevancy.  They just can’t keep on task. 

The key to developing a deep work habit is to  add routines and rituals which help maintain a state of unbroken concentration. Hours of practice is necessary to strengthen one's “mental muscle” to maintain this focus. A lot of advice for the problem of distraction follows the general template of finding occasional time to get away from the noise. Some put aside one or two months a year to escape these temptations, others follow one-day-a-week schedule of avoiding distraction, while others put aside an hour or two every day for the same purpose. 

Instead of following such a schedule, Cal Newport suggests following the opposite strategy of specifying a particular time for giving in to distraction. Regardless of how you schedule these blocks of time, you must keep the time outside these blocks absolutely free from Internet use. The idea behind this strategy is that the use of a distracting service does not, by itself, reduce your brain’s ability to focus. It’s instead the constant switching from focused activities to superficial activities, at the slightest hint of boredom or cognitive challenge, that teaches your mind to never tolerate an absence of novelty. 

This constant switching weakens the 'mental muscles' responsible for focusing your attention. By segregating Internet use you’re minimising the number of times you give in to distraction, and by doing so you let these 'mental muscles' strengthen. A full day of scheduled distraction therefore becomes a full day of similar mental training. Following this advice, I first kept 30 minutes for focused activity during which I resisted any temptation for distraction. Then I would schedule 15 minutes for checking e-mail, Google searches etc. I gradually increased the Internet-free chunks of time to 40 minutes, 50 minutes, one hour, etc. This practice has worked well. 

Friday, January 12, 2024

Social production of moral indifference - 15b

The philosopher George Santayana once said,  ‘Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.’  Perhaps it is also important to know what to remember and what to forget. Those who do not remember the extraordinary truces of the World War I trenches, or who do not learn of Gandhi, Mandela, Vaclav Havel, Viljoen, Tutu, the extraordinary statements of many ordinary people in the South African TRC etc., are condemned to be less likely to repeat them.  (Hemmingway  - “As you get older it is harder to have heroes, but it is sort of necessary.”)

After the pogrom against the Sikhs in 1984, Rajiv Gandhi made infamous Newton’ First Law of Motion by justifying the horror with the statement - ‘Every action has an equal and opposite reaction’.  This statement is often made for justifying negative emotions. But what can be done is to use it to justify positive emotions. During his debate with Tilak about the interpretation of the Gita, Gandhi refuted Tilak’s justification of violence by saying: 

The text from the Bhagavad Gita shows to me how the principle of conquering hate by love, untruth by truth, can and must be applied. If it be true that God metes out the same measure to us that we mete out to others, it follows that if we would escape condign punishment, we may not return anger but gentleness even against anger. And this is the law not for the unworldly but essentially for the worldly

A study found that cooperative behaviour is contagious and that it spreads from person to person. And it takes only a handful of individuals to really make a difference. When people benefit from kindness they "pay it forward" by helping others who were not originally involved, and this creates a cascade of cooperation that influences dozens more in a social network. Groups with altruists in them will be more altruistic as a whole and more likely to survive than selfish groups. (Oscar Wilde -  “Always forgive your enemies; nothing annoys them so much.” ) 

I have never seen violence or even been near a scene of violence. I have only read about the horrible acts of violence that people commit on each other and get sickened by it. Probably the same is the case with the majority of people who read this blog. About the only type of violence I have enjoyed is a statement by P G Wodehouse  (I think he put it in the mouth of Bertie Wooster): 'Whenever I get that sad, depressed feeling, I go out and kill a policeman. ' 

In contemporary times, people kidnap girls and sell them into slavery, commit atrocities like slitting a person's throat and, instead of being scared and concealing them, display the evidence online, enjoying the horror  it creates. As the Irish poet William Butler Yeats said, ‘The best lack all conviction, while the worst are full of passionate intensity.’ To merely accept that this is the kind of world we live in  and  agree with received wisdom about the selfishness of human nature would prove right Goebbels’ perverse prediction: “Even if we lose, we shall win, for our ideals will have penetrated the hearts of our enemies.”

Antonio Gramsci once talked about pessimism of the intellect but optimism of the will. Pessimism of the intellect means accepting nothing at face value, doubting all that we are told, and questioning everything, not in the spirit of cynicism but of scepticism. But always, pessimism of the intellect needs to be balanced by optimism of the will. In other words, see the world as it really is, warts and all, but still forge ahead tenaciously. It is a powerful warning against wishful thinking and simultaneously a cry against resignation. 

Logical analysis of a situation may lead the intellect to despair, but we can’t let anxiety overwhelm and paralyse us. The underlying lack of conviction, the absence of an optimism of the will, influences how we see ourselves and events every day.  P.G. Wodehouse once said, 'I can detach myself from the world. If there is a better world to detach oneself from than the one functioning at the moment I have yet to hear of it.' And if we still wonder how an insignificant individual action can make any difference, Adam Smith has the answer.

In The Theory of Moral Sentiments, he describes his concept of an invisible hand using a moral example rather than a monetary one showing how individual choices can lead to important social outcomes. We decide what is proper and improper and what is honourable and noble and kind. We give our approval to honourable behaviour and our disapproval to dishonourable behaviour. All these patterns of behaviour around us come from all our actions together thereby setting the norms by which society functions. And few of us realize that we play a role in creating these norms and values.

There’s no way to legislate the virtues of courtesy, kindness, thoughtfulness, compassion, honour and integrity. No statute could be written to enforce them or to punish their opposites. They are best encouraged — and their opposites discouraged — by human interaction. A society of decent behaviour is created through the signals of approval and disapproval we send to each other and through the admonitions we give to our children. We create the understandings of behaviour that we each in turn use to moderate our self-centredness.

Smith is saying that our choices matter. When we honour bad people or avoid good people, we are playing a role in degrading the world around us. When you honour honourable behaviour by others, you play a role in breaking an unvirtuous circle. Being good encourages others to be good.  It’s a small role, almost negligible. But together, our combined actions are decisive. As Goethe said, “When you take a man as he is, you make him worse. When you take a man as he can be, you make him better.” (See How Adam Smith can change your life by Russell Roberts.) Robert M. Sapolsky says in Behave: The Biology of Humans at our Best and Worst

Eventually it can seem hopeless that you can actually fix something, can make things better. But we have no choice but to try. And if you are reading this, you are probably ideally suited to do so. You’ve amply proven you have intellectual tenacity. 

You probably also have running water, a home, adequate calories, and low odds of festering with a bad parasitic disease. You probably don’t have to worry about Ebola virus, warlords, or being invisible in your world. And you’ve been educated. In other words, you’re one of the lucky humans. So try.

PS: If you are interested in Biology, you can listen to the talks by Robert M. Sapolsky in YouTube especially his Stanford lectures on Human Behavioural Biology.  Robert Sapolsky Rocks.