It is Valentines season and one is primed to think of matters of the heart in terms of (romantic) love. I don’t like misleading so at the very outset: this isn’t about that. I don’t think I have anything (meaningful) to say on love (as yet). This is about the whole “follow your heart” fad. When I started down the road called “follow your heart” I knew it would be different and somewhat difficult but the challenges I confronted and what transpired in dealing with them has been quite a ride!
Let me use the oft cited ￼￼￼analogy of Life being a race. I started off in that race and for some time enjoyed it, doing quite well. Suddenly my wandering eyes found everything beyond the track more appealing and the logic of the race was just not convincing enough to keep me running. So I quit (always conscious of the fact that I could AFFORD to, financially and otherwise). I was warned by elders there was nothing beyond the races. To my surprise I found everything, Life itself, waiting beyond it.
It’s a tyrannical freedom that I experience having quit the races. It is tyrannical because of the burden of choices I, me, myself made. There’s no one else to blame. The moment I decided to quit the races, to follow my heart, was when I lost the liberty of blaming others for my disasters. In every tragedy of my Life, the actors are Uncertainty, Luck and Me (wish to emphasise that Me includes my genes, so there is a subsection of humanity that gets implicated as well)! It’s not that others did not want to be a part of this story. The “formidable” Indian society, which all of us talk about but none of us know exactly what we mean by it, would have me married by now and I could then have had someone to blame for life thereafter, but resistance by playing ostrich has been my life strategy and it has worked brilliantly (?,!), so far.
The Freedom. It took me a while to understand the nature of my Freedom. To be honest, I was quite ashamed of myself till I did. I couldn’t make sense of myself as a person. “Why could I have not stayed put (in my stream, in my relationships, in my job)? Where was I headed? Is my entire life going to be a series of “I don’t like this, let’s try something new”? Do you just learn to like? God, I have grown up to be such a failure!” These feelings stayed with me for such a long time. It was only when these questions were answered that the guilt of letting people down and the embarrassing “truth” of not having “succeeded” attenuated.
When people asked me what my plan was, I came up with some nonsense, trying to put together stuff they expected to hear; inside my head mocking myself “So much for rebelling against the system, you cannot even admit you do not have a plan.” I felt embarrassed to admit I am doing trial and error to figure out what I want in Life. For the longest time I was apologetic to my parents for my behavior. It was the usual “I know I have let you down, I wish I hadn’t, but I don’t regret any of my decisions, I doubt I would have it any other way if given another chance.” (Note to self: Their patience and support, one day I shall write about it). It is because I kept comparing myself to standard milestones of success and failure that I stayed miserable and apologetic. To emphasise how deep the insecurity of “not having made it”, of being a “failure” was, one anecdote should suffice.
Last October I was telling my mother about my travel plans. She asked me if I had taken into account my safety (she has legitimate reasons to be concerned). My reaction was “Don’t worry! I’m looking into it. At this point I know that I have failed you guys so fundamentally that your only expectation from me is to keep myself alive and I really don’t want to fail you on that.” A justified scolding followed. It was things my mother said that made me think about why I was being so harsh on myself.
Long, long ago, at that Frost-ial “fork in the woods” instead of taking a “path” I jumped into the bushes. It has been wild wild country thereafter! I kept enjoying the journey, the views, but felt miserable for not having “succeeded”, for being a pure, untarnished “failure”. But it was only recently that I asked myself “How am I defining success for myself? The journey I chose for myself, what does it mean to fail here? What are the standards I am going to apply?” I was amazed that my peanut sized brain took so long to arrive at this. Why was I trying to look sideways to get a sense of measuring my achievements? Is earning as much as my peers the measure of success? Is being married before 30, having a baby before 35 how I am going to define success for myself? But if inability to achieve those targets is failure then why did I leave the race to begin with? Isn’t that race the most trusted and well-tested path under given rules to that particular idea of success? I walked away and with that came the Freedom to define success and failure for myself. The cliché with freedom comes responsibility is true. But I kept playing ostrich with that responsibility as I now realise.
It was a case of having chosen an untrodden path in the woods while trying my best to keep up with New York’s traffic rules. It doesn’t work. When I stepped away from the races, that should have been the end of applying the rules of the race to my Life. You don’t walk away from the Race to meet the same finish line in similar amounts of time, while adhering to the rules. I wish someone had told me this before. Holding myself upto the same metric of success and failure as conventionally defined was a recipe for disaster and no surprises, the disaster happened. But because I’m up and running once again, I felt it was high time that I came out with this. For the longest time I hid behind the veil of humour and traveling, supported by friends and family. Their dogged refusal to give up on me made it so difficult for me to write myself off. Finally I’m at peace with myself. I felt I needed to get this out there and tell anyone who feels like a failure for having taken the risk of walking away that you’re fine. The day you decided to follow your heart, that day onwards the relevant metrics for you changed: if you’re ENJOYING the process, if you’re Life has MEANING, if your struggles feel like they are WORTH it, the very fact that you are able to look at your struggles as a pleasurable process, you’re doing fine. That was what you walked away for!