The Jaundiced Eye

This is a collection of borrowed wisdom, often masquerading as my commentary on life at large.

Does God exist? Is God a man or a woman or even human for that matter? Does he keep tabs and protect the good and punish the bad? What is good? What is bad? Should I believe the words of self-appointed spokespeople who claim to have conversed with God? Does it make sense that God would speak to a few and not to the rest? Is God logical? Or is He fickle and arbitrary and opinionated like his spokespeople make Him out to be? If He is really fickle and arbitrary and opinionated like He’s made out to be, shouldn’t such a God be deposed and not worshipped? Or perhaps, is he the non-judgmental, all observing One? Or perhaps he’s the Spirit? The Spirit who resides in everything and connects everything and yet detached from everything? The One you can hear when you listen closely to the heart beat of this universe? The One whose presence you sense in the mighty distant stars and the frail ant alike? Is He the One who hugs us when we are happy? The one whose hand we feel on our shoulders in grief? Is He just a comforting notion and nothing more?

I don’t know.

Does it matter what the answers are? What do we really want? We want to be happy. So let’s pursue happiness.

Happiness is the sun. It’s right there in front of our eyes. God’s the distant galaxy, nebulous and fading in and out of sight. Maybe we should get to the sun first. If we tried, maybe we will learn something about ourselves. Maybe we will learn humility. Maybe it will make us light and strong. So light and so strong that… perhaps … perhaps someday we will make an effortless leap to the distant elusive galaxy called God. Perhaps we will not feel the need to make that leap when that moment arrives because we’re already there.

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I’m coming up on a birthday soon. It’s hard to not connect birthdays to aging once you reach the mid-forties. 46. Is that really how old I am?

Let’s take a closer look.

The youngest atom in the body is more than a billion years old. Hydrogen, the most abundantly found element, is nearly 14 billion years old and was produced during the Big Bang. Carbon and oxygen atoms are between 7 and 10 billion years old. In other words, we are really really ancient. What’s another 20 or 46 or 72 years in this cosmic scheme of things?

So how old did you say I was?

Cells in our body die every second and new ones replace them. In a sense, we are re-created with each passing moment. A liver refreshes itself in 3 months. Taste buds in 2 weeks. The lung’s surface in 3 weeks. The heart refreshes 2-3 times over a lifetime. Cells in the intestine in 2 days. In fact, only our eyes are as old are we are, not undergoing transformation over time.

So we are made of ancient cosmic dust but renew ourselves in some cases as often as every 2 days and sometimes never?

So, tell me again. How old did you say I was?

Each of us, like a chicken, started off as an egg. From the egg that came from our mothers, that is. The thing about a human egg is that it is formed when the mother herself is an embryo. And we could argue that the formation of the egg, half of which contributed to each of us, is technically our first moment of existence. So, if your mother had you at 25 years of age, and you are 30 years old, technically you are ( 30 + 25 = ) 55 years old.

46 years. 2 days. 14 billion years. Add your mom’s age to yours. Take your pick.  I told you that age is just a number.

And happy birthday to you too (for whenever the day comes). Remember that you are this newborn baby that has existed since the beginning of time and will last till the end of it. Many happy returns of infinity to you.

There is an old thumb rule in the tech industry which says that you can get at most only two out of performance, quality and price in any given product. For example, if you get low price and high performance, chances are that the product is sold by an inferior brand. If the product is sold by a great brand for a low price, then it’s likely that its features are limited. And so on. I call this the rule of three.

There may be a similar rule that applies to leaders, especially the political ones. I think you can get at most only two out of charisma, integrity and performance in a leader. By charisma, I mean an intrinsically trustworthy and likable person who has the ability to inspire large numbers of people. Manmohan Singh, for example, is not a charismatic leader. Ronald Reagan was a charismatic leader. By integrity, I mean things like not being corrupt, honesty, truthfulness and similar traits. Bill Clinton, for example, would not rank high on the integrity scale. By performance, I refer to an ability to govern and execute. Vajpayee’s stewardship of the national highways project, for example, is quoted often as an example of excellence in execution.

If we applied this model to Indian leaders, it seems to work well. Jawaharlal Nehru and Mahatma Gandhi were not the best of administrators. Sardar Patel, Lal Bahadur Shastri and Narasimha Rao lacked charisma. Indira Gandhi lacked integrity. Atal Behari Vajpayee is the only one who comes somewhat close to having all three, which probably is why some consider him the greatest prime minister till date. Manmohan Singh displayed governance and integrity early in his career, as RBI governor and then Finance Minister. His last five years as Prime Minister are notable for their deficiency in all three areas of charisma, integrity and governance.

In 2014, we will likely evaluate three prime ministerial candidates: Arvind Kejriwal, Narendra Modi and Rahul Gandhi.  Kejriwal appears to possess charisma and of course, has built a campaign around his personal integrity. Inexperience in governance is his weakness. Narendra Modi scores on integrity and governance fronts, but comes across more as a polarizing force than a unifying one. Rahul Gandhi appears to be the straggler in this mix, possessing at best personal integrity and at worst, none of the three. That doesn’t bode well for Congress. If his party were to somehow win, it wouldn’t then bode well for the country. We can’t afford yet another leader who scores zero on three.

Can you think of any leader, either in politics or business, living or dead with all three? Please use the comments section to nominate.

One of the things we are told, nay coerced, to do well early in life is to be right. Being right is a big part of our education system. If you don’t get the right answer, you will lose points. Winners are those who get the most right answers and thus the maximum marks on tests. This approach works in the context of schools and colleges especially in science and maths where there is little or no ambiguity about the rightness of answers. And then we step out of these cocoons into the real world to discover that there is no such thing as an unambiguously right answer.

It’s little wonder that we are dissatisfied with how education prepares us for life. In fact, it does not prepare us for anything in particular. Not even work. In the real world, it’s not about locating the right answers. It’s about working with others towards finding the least wrong answers. It’s about asking the right questions. I’m not saying that we do away with math and sciences and the current methods of testing our skills in them. I’m saying that we ought to perhaps place more emphasis on the indiscernible. Perhaps we ought to help our children gain better appreciation of such concepts as ambiguity, uncertainty, context and perspective earlier in their lives. Perhaps we ought to have a system which rewards them for asking the right questions instead of finding the right answers.

Einstein described genius as the ability to hold conflicting thoughts in one’s head. He described genius as a state of mind which appreciates the relativity of truth, which is to say that there is a context intrinsic to truth. If we emphasized the absoluteness of truth less, perhaps we will create a society in which genius flourishes and is found to be in abundance. More importantly, we will perhaps create an environment in which people are kinder and gentler towards and less judgmental of their fellow citizens.

Thoughts?

As recently as 100 years back, human life expectancy at birth was a mere 31 years. Today the world average is around 67, and the average in many developed countries is above 75. But for most of history, life expectancy has been 30 years or less. Historically, a large number of humans have died before the age of 10. It is only as recently as 30,000 years back that “grandparents” first came about, which is to say that humans began living long enough to have three generations co-exist.

For most of our time on the planet, humans have not lived long enough to experience the problems of aging. We’ve just begun getting familiar with the social, psychological and economic consequences of aging in the last 30 to 40 years. And we have begun focusing our energies on finding cures for these new age ailments. We’re likely to find a cure for cancer within the next 20 years. When that happens, life expectancy will quickly surpass 100 years. Once life expectancy jumps to 100+, it is likely that humans will live long enough to intercept new breakthroughs in medical science (including prosthetics and artificial limbs) and it won’t be long before life expectancy touches 200 years. In fact, those who are younger than 40 years of age today are likely to live to be 100+ years and their children are likely to live to 200 years of age.

200 years! That is a long, long time. Imagine the consequences of being alive for 200 years. Presumably, people would work for at least 150+ years out of 200. This implies that people would potentially have 3 or 4 different careers in one lifetime. What would relationships look like? Would marriages last? Would friendships last? It’s likely that 6 – 8 generations will co-exist which would make it easier to transfer wisdom and experience across time. Conversely it would also mean that biases and prejudices of past generations would be carried forward interminably longer in time. What would be the impact of a longer life on our religious and philosophical moorings? Would living longer make us somehow less interested in the notion of God? Would it make us more stoic and less spontaneous, because we will have more time on our hands? Would they be more depressed or would they be happier? Would a longer life be a curse or a boon? Interesting questions.