I have mentioned on more occasions than one that at any point in time, you are likely to have one difficult person in your life. We tend to hold this person responsible for our unrest. We sorta think that only if this person could change or if he/she got along, how much better my life could be. This individual could be your boss, a colleague, a competitor, your parent, child, partner, or anyone, really.
Sometimes though, it’s not another person but the situation that is difficult. What can we do in that case? While there’s no panacea, it is the theme of my write-up today. What’s bothering you currently? (My heart and prayers go out to all the people who have been affected by raging COVID-19.) Other than the devastation unleashed by the pandemic, what would you say is the one problem that you are facing at work or in life? Plummeting revenues, piling debt, a court case, doom-and-gloom at home, or something else? Whatever it may be, the truth is it only matters as much as you let it matter.
I wish to share with you a spiritual insight that will help you cut through the most challenging problem of your life. The only caveat is that it does not directly apply to problems arising out of physical illness. First up, a tiny little true story I read in Naomi Levy’s Einstein and the Rabbi.
The book written by a Rabbi herself tells the story of another remarkable man, Rabbi Marcus who rescued numerous Jewish children during the days of the Holocaust. 1
At one particular location, Rabbi Marcus discovered 1000 children in a highly emaciated condition. His colleague Rabbi Herschel Schacter found a small boy hiding in fear among a pile of corpses.
With tears streaming down his face, Rabbi Schacter picked the boy up. “What’s your name, my child?” he asked in Yiddish.
“Lulek,” the child replied.
“How old are you?” the rabbi asked.
“What difference does it make?” Lulek, who was seven, said. “I’m older than you, anyway.”
“Why do you think you’re older?” Rabbi Schacter asked, smiling.
“Because you cry and laugh like a child,” Lulek replied. “I haven’t laughed in a long time, and I don’t even cry anymore. So which one of us is older?”
To effectively deal with problems in life, we need to have an adult’s mind with a child’s heart. The one who possesses such a sublime combination can trump any challenge. You can’t afford to get old if you want to rise above your problems. In an old person’s heart, the problems just make a permanent residence. And one way to remain young at heart is to have some aspiration alive in your life. In fact, that’s just about the only real difference between a young and an old person: the former has things he/she still wants to do and the latter has practically given up.
So, is this the insight I alluded to earlier? Not quite. This was just the preamble. You see, it’s very important to have problems in life. By problems, I mean all things that kick us out of our comfort zone. Situations that are usually adverse, uncomfortable, and undesirable. Fine, you say. How do I overcome them? Well, imagine that you are looking for a paperclip in a stationery tray when you accidentally prick yourself with a stray pin. You pull your hand out and see a tiny drop of blood emerging on the tip of your finger. It’s hurting badly. You put that finger in your mouth for some relief. That tiny prick is your biggest problem right now.
Now, you turn to go to the washroom so you may put that finger under the tap, and bang, you stub your toe real hard against the foot of a table. At this moment, you are screaming in pain, holding the toe with an injured hand, and dancing on one foot. I guarantee you that at this moment, you will not be thinking about the pinprick at all. Your entire attention is directed at the toe that’s swollen and turned blue. The problem that was so big a moment ago has ceased to matter altogether.
And that is my unusual recommendation to you: pick a problem much bigger than the biggest problem you have right now. All your existing issues will dwarf in front of the new big problem. This is the insight: whatever problem is there in your life, make it insignificant by taking on a bigger one. And, there’s great joy and a sense of triumph in solving problems that we voluntarily choose. They impart much greater learning than those problems that just fall into our lap. For the simple reason, we are more open to learning when we choose our problems. If they are inevitable, why not pick one then?
This leads me to share with you the hierarchy of life’s challenges.
Do you have a purpose in life? Something that’s greater than you. If yes, you are at the top of the life-chain. You will experience great freedom and limitless bliss for the most part of your day. You will find yourself full of joy and energy. If you don’t have a purpose, you fall next in the hierarchy.
That is, do you have something you want to realize in the years you are here on this planet? A purpose is not always your mission. A purpose is simply a broad and grounded sense of direction in life whereas a mission is what you are here to do. So, do you have your life’s mission cut out for you? If the answer is yes, you will never run out of ideas or resources. But if you don’t have a particular mission either, you then slide to third place.
Do you have some kind of ambition or goal you wish to accomplish? Something that keeps you up at night and helps you overcome distractions? If you have a goal you really care about, you will never run out of motivation or creativity. You will find yourself recharged every morning to inch closer to your goal in every waking minute of your life. But, what if you are not passionate about anything and have no such goal or aspiration. Never mind, you are at the fourth rung of the ladder then.
In the absence of a purpose, a mission, or a goal, you will find yourself saddled with some responsibility you can’t seem to get out of. You want to do other things but you have this responsibility like the monkey on your back that neither lets you sit still nor lets you live fully. For, if you really have a purpose, mission, or goal, the universe will work out a way for you. It’ll conspire to lift you out of petty challenges and responsibility and thrust you into much bigger ones. But, there are many who have none of the above. What are they up against?
Those with no purpose, mission, goal, or responsibility only have meaningless problems in their lives. After all, someone has to be the wasp in the food chain, no? People with only problems are unhappy with mostly everything and everyone. My only suggestion to these lovely people is that if must we have a problem, why not pick something meaningful?
What if you can’t identify with any of the five above but you are happy and content? Well, you are blessed. Stay blessed.
A software engineer, a hardware engineer, and the CEO of a small company were on their way to a meeting in Switzerland. They were driving down a steep mountain road when suddenly the brakes failed. The car careened out of control and bounced off the guardrails until it miraculously came to a halt along the mountainside. The occupants were unhurt but the car was stuck.
“I know what we should do,” said the CEO. “Let’s strategize, define some broad goals, identify the key issue, and soon we’ll have a solution.”
“It’s not needed,” the hardware engineer said. “I’ve got my Swiss army knife with me. I can strip down the car’s braking system, isolate the fault, fix it, and we’ll be on our way.”
“Wait,” said the software engineer. “Before we do anything, shouldn’t we push the car back to the top of the mountain and see if it happens again?”
Whatever you wish to do, whether it is to strategize, isolate or replicate, just don’t give your challenges the power to crush your childlike heart. Pick them before they pick you. Make your existing problems insignificant by taking on a bigger one.
Go for a walk through the market of life and shop with detachment, buy the biggest problem that appeals to you. You’ll have fun solving it. After all, if there’s nothing left to work for, there’s nothing to live for. It’s that simple.
PS. I invite you to listen to this magnificent arrangement by Cheryl Bains, a graduate of the Manhattan School of Music. It’s easily the best orchestral rendition of Kabir’s Ghat Ghat Mein Panchi Bolta. Don’t forget to subscribe to her YouTube channel. Great ensemble; well done, Cheryl!