A Point of True

The truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the subjective truth.

Category: Rants and Revelations

Why I don’t trust my gut and neither should you

Glowing 'Box Office' sign

The show could go on

A blindingly bright foyer narrowed into a dimly lit passage, phosphorous blue from the overhead lighting. Popcorn crackled in a machine in the distance. Chattering crowds formed clunky queues before swirling into the screens like soap water through a stubborn drain. A state-of-the-art surround sound system provided a worthy counterpoint to the deafening silence outside save for the occasional dragging foot. And, then, I heard it. The creak of the cleaning trolley accompanied by the reticent clip-clop of its reluctant controller. My gut sensed it. The moment was here. She was here. I had to speak.

Two months ago I had moved back to Aberdeen, Scotland’s third most populous city. With a little over 2,29,000 people (a far cry from the 10 million where I grew up), Aberdeen was quaint. It was also where I’d finished my Masters before moving to England for work. Now, with a return to India imminent, I saw it fit to spend my last few months where it all began. A recent breakup and a change in life plans called for some quiet times and a gig at the cinema seemed like a great shout. It helped that there wasn’t much action except for the occasional ‘screen jumper’.* My other jobs** didn’t afford quite the same serenity.

The mop slid off the rack, enjoying freedom for a fleeting second, before greeting its bucket with a gentle splash. Holly, the (part-time cinema staff and full-time student) cleaner for the day and the lady in question, was a skilful mopper, each swish belying the resignation behind it. After all, every mopper that has a why can bear almost any how. Dark haired and probably good-natured, she’d caught my eye a few times when I’d walked into work as I hoped I would have her’s.

“Why can’t you be more spontaneous? Don’t you know how to have fun?” These words were ringing in my ears the past few months. Young and full of pop culture, I bought into a rather flimsy narrative of love and life and saw it fit that my actions would result in expected outcomes. Spontaneity just wasn’t an option. But, the interviews weren’t working out, a three-year relationship had ended, and a broken collarbone hadn’t done wonders for my sporting ability. The time for change was upon me.

“Right, screw this, I’m going to give this instinct a shot. Spontaneous, shmontaneous. I’ll show you.”

I’d never really asked someone out until then but had been in a few relationships with the most recent (and most realistic) having ended a few months ago. “How hard could it be? Think of something witty that needs a follow-up and then see how it goes. Easy.” Now that my 2-step homebaked seduction guide was in place, I prepared myself for the grand moment, the prestige. This part needs you to visualise the actual setting. The passage above (yes, the one with the hue of blue phosphorous) in the passage above*** had a sharp T-shaped bend that led to six movie screens, three on either side. Cleaners would typically start on the left and work their way up to the right before walking back to the foyer. Facing that bend was a spot around 2-feet wide. That was my position, a vantage point that allowed me a view of a few of the screens, the passage, the foyer, and any miscreants (patrons). The bend took all of a second to turn into, and that was my moment to speak with Holly. Any later and we’d be looking at a 15-minute wait before repeating the process. And I was done being one for waiting.

I took a few deep breaths (calmer minds allow for a more articulate voice, after all), drew my shoulders down and back (yes, posture, YES!) and steeled myself to seize this fleeting blip of time. Holly was approaching the passageway. My heart started to quicken, and my mouth decided on dryness as a great option, but I had this covered – reading blog posts about meditation was almost as effective as meditation.**** She was nearly at the bend now. I decided to bail.

“You don’t have the right words. What if you get shot down? Is this worth the rejection?” This indecision lasted all of a few seconds as self-assurance kicked in with the vigour my brain refused to exhibit. “Trust your instinct. Breathe. Trust your instinct.” So, I did. I took a deep breath, gathered all my courage, and decided to let my instinct take charge.

“Hello instinct, you’re up!”

“Awesome. I won’t let you down. I really won’t. I might be primitive, misguided, misunderstood, but that means nothing, NOTHING! I also almost always confuse simple deadlines with an attack on your life, but I’ve got this. Yeh, I’ve got this.”

“Umm, okay. I trust you?”

And then it happened.

Just as she was going around the bend, I took a couple of steps towards her. Our eyes met, mine exhibiting fear and hers exhibiting fear that my well-honed Indian man instinct interpreted as attention. Eager to quit while I was ahead, I cleared my throat, took a deep breath and mouthed the following words as cheerfully as I could: ‘Hey Holly, are you afraid of death?’

For all my talk of a fleeting moment, this ceased to be one. Time flies when you’re having fun, but not when you clip its wings and bludgeon it into immobility with copious amounts of stupidity. No, in that situation, time stalls because it’s having fun. My question seemed to cause in Holly a sensation somewhere between an itch and a convulsion as she uncomfortably twitched her way out of the scene with the grace of an eel and the stealth of a ninja. The embarrassment, on the other hand, was mine to savour.

Then, dear reader, right then, with all the clarity of a drunken sailor snacking on a rusty saw, it came to me. The instinct is a dodgy bedfellow. While my gut’s desire to respond wasn’t in my control, choosing to use that response was. Being an idiot was a choice! Soon, probably after her fear subsided, Holly went back to her perch behind the concessions counter, and that was that.***** I spent the next few hours dissecting the mechanism of my gut-brain-mouth interface. I’d never been one for ‘spontaneous’ and I’d just been presented with a resounding reason for that choice. I followed through somewhat blindly, and the outcome followed suit.

Anecdote complete.

Here’s what I learnt. Right from the time I grew up, I was led to believe (and for a while considered) that there was a set way to do things.

“Study hard so you’ll be successful.”
“Trust your heart, and then you can never go wrong.”
“Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.”
“Your gut knows more than your brain does. It may take some time to realise that.”

The problem with these ‘truisms’ is that they are right some of the time but expected to work all of the time. That thinking is no different to using a toothpick in a lobotomy or a toothbrush to fight off an unusually persistent shark. Things have their place and so do personality traits and views. Your instinct is no GPS for excellence, otherwise just listening to it would guarantee bonafide success (did someone ask for hogwash with a side of air?). Ascribing any deliberate intent or scientifically-driven efficiency to your instinct is self-assurance masquerading as reason. Excellence takes work, the logical route takes effort, and I don’t think humans have an innate appetite for tough choices. Listen to your instinct, but it might help to analyse its output as objectively as you would someone else’s. Over the years I’ve practised listening to my automatic response and then making a decision either in line with it or with some tweaks. This effort has dramatically refined my social process.

“Hey there, how would you want to go?”

“What do you mean, weirdo?”

“To dinner, of course. Drive or walk?”

“Oh, let’s walk. Sorry, I misunderstood.”

“It’s alright. But if I were curious about your preferred way to pass, what would it be anyway? I’m not interested, only asking because you brought it up”.

“…”

“Good chat.”

So, the improvement may not have been drastic, but I’ll get there. Something tells me I will. I reckon it’s instinct.

Image Courtesy: Connor Limbocker on Unsplash

*in this cinema they only checked your ticket at a single entrance, not every screen. A screen jumper is someone who’d  buy a ticket for one movie but would sneak into a bunch of others too

**these included being a dancing bear, playing host at a strip club, and working as emergency response security at music festivals

***the one without any hues of blue; I’m using a synonym for ‘paragraph’ as a pun to show off literary skills *applause*

**** it isn’t

****in case you were wondering, I had a wee chat with her later. More importantly, if you thought I screwed this up, then the joke is on you. After chatting for a few moments, we decided that my question was quirky, and laughed about it. I got her number. There was a first date. We spent this time discussing how I would leave the country in two months and had no interest in a fling, therefore, rendering this whole shenanigan pointless. We also considered her relationship with her sister and the rest of her family before arriving at the tearful decision that she needed to connect with them. Then, once a demonstration of financial chivalry was complete, I walked her to meet a boy she fancied. There wasn’t a second date.

The myth of the self-made man

Spices hanging in a market

Wafting through like a hint of make-believe

The sharp scent of tamarind, spicy notes of pepper, and a strong overtone of garlic. Rasam at home was one of the stronger social lubricants that I had experienced as a teenager. Disarmed by this familiar and comforting smell, I’d wander into the kitchen to get a stronger whiff. And that’s when it happened. The middle-class Indian mom struck with the classical 1-2. Lure you in with spices, smack you in the face with loaded gossip.

“So, I was talking to your uncle. His son just started his own business. Apparently, he’s making well over a couple of lakhs a month (not that it’s about the money). I’m just telling you, it’s not a comparison.”

“Yes, I’m glad he’s doing well.”

“I’m so happy for him. Even I want a son…umm, no, you’ll get angry. Anyway, it’s excellent news so I thought I’d share it with you. The best thing about this is that, just like his father, he’s entirely self-made!”

“There’s no such thing, ma. No one is ‘self-made’.”

“You have to contradict everything I say. I knew I shouldn’t have told you. My mistake.”

“Let’s drop it. By the way, the rasam smells fantastic!”

“It does? Thanks! New recipe, I’ve added lots of garlic, just how you like it.”

“Thanks, can’t wait.”

In the past, this conversation would leave me feeling either shell-shocked, disgusted, infuriated, or just dumbfounded with the intensity of both the forgetful repetition and the steadfast commitment to the eradication of all logic. But, the hide thickens, since the thick ones don’t hide.

self-made1
adjective [usually ADJECTIVE noun]

Self-made is used to describe people who have become successful through efforts, especially if they started life without money, education, or high social status.

I wandered over to speak to my father, nestled in the couch in a contortion only a desk job can render you capable of forming. He’s reading the newspapers. One Telugu, two English – a tabloid and a mainline respectively. In our household, and as I’m sure many others, a devotion to the banal wasn’t just valiant, it was necessary. “How else will we know what’s happening in the world?”

“Yes, dad, a chain snatching in a neighbourhood we’ve never been to and five million stories of political foul play are expanding your consciousness rapidly. On the upside, at least this is helping the systematic deterioration of syntax and logic right when we’re at our most vulnerable to the onset of dementia. But, the rasam is excellent. You have to try it.”

Much against the better-placed advice of my instinct, I decide to live life on the edge. I started an actual conversation.

“So, mom was telling me about this business malarkey. How’s that going anyway?”

“That’s right. It’s going very well.”

Succinct.

“It’s funny how she talks about money, although we keep saying that it’s not the most important thing.”

“I don’t want to comment. We should be happy for everyone’s success.”

“Come on! I am, but you have to see my point. If money isn’t what matters, values do, then isn’t any praise focused solely on money inconsistent with ‘said values’? You’ve said it yourself. ‘I’ve never chased money; there’s more to life.'”

“Yes, I agree. I am happy with what I’ve got. It’s not about how much you have. See, Adarsh, I may not have much, but I am a self-made man…”

At this point, I worked out why the mental health industry made money. In fact, I was surprised it didn’t make more! My parents and I wonder how many others, were a fantastic lead generation tool. They could justifiably demand a commission for all income generated from psychotherapy. “Fuck em up, send them to therapy, bada bing bada boom, Bob’s your self-made uncle.”

The myth of the self-made man is just one narrative that my parents, and especially our peers in the middle class, tended to reinforce. There are several other classic hits that you might recognise like *drumroll*

“Time fixes everything.”

“Where science ends, spirituality begins.”

“Well, so what if it’s not grounded in logic or even reality. My mother told me this works, and I listened. Now, that is respect. Speaking of which, you’d do well to learn some respect.”

“Money isn’t everything. Happiness is. Family is. Purpose is. Now finish your homework in the subjects you dislike, aren’t good at, are learning by rote, and that will play no functional role at any point in time in your life except for uprooting your faith in the education system, common sense in parenting, and the very fabric of society. After all, money doesn’t grow on trees, and you need to earn it.”

“Life, just like marriage, is just about compromise. Don’t set your sights too high.”

“A house you own, food to eat, and a secure job. What more do you need?”

“I’ve given my life for you, but the sacrifices have been worth it. My voluntary choice to procreate is a cross I bear and you, boulder to my Sisyphus, make the struggle feel like time well spent.”

Some of these are exaggerations (Okay, I lied, all) but their essence isn’t far from what I heard year after year all the way until young adulthood, which is when I left for university. Over time, I realised that a bunch of these myths, in spite of the reinforcement and blind conviction behind their existence, are quite literally myths. They are constructs fortified by fear, brainwashing, and a reluctance to fail in the pursuit of success. For some reason, our society glorifies abstention. Want less, make do with what you have, cut your coat according to your cloth. Hold on. I haven’t finished! Don’t break the ‘rules’, obedience is the key to affection, and this absolute zinger – ‘greatness lies in being a self-made man’ – a phrase almost exclusive to being middle class in the developing world. Well, I call bullshit.

Here’s a thought:

“There is no such thing as a ‘self-made’ man. We are made up of thousands of others. Everyone who has ever done a kind deed for us, or spoken one word of encouragement to us, has entered into the make-up of our character and of our thoughts, as well as our success.”

– George Matthew Adams2

This quote makes an obvious point quite well, but I’m going to take the liberty of making an addition. Everyone who has subjected us to distress or directed a sentence (or two) of derision towards us, has helped build our resilience and our defiance, as well as our drive for success.

‘Positive’ and ‘negative’ are labels we ascribe to an experience based on immediate context. For instance, if you were late to a bus station and your coach was delayed, the mighty grace of God and the whimsical charms of Lady Luck have come together for your grand journey to an apartment above a department store. However, if you had a rough day at work, spent ages waiting at the post office or whatever other inane service creates the illusion of purpose, and end up at the bus station early and then, THEN, your ride is late! Well, the universe has now earned your wrath. “Lord, how full of contempt is your grace and my fate!”

Anyway, I digress. The very idea of a ‘self-made’ man, romantic as it may sound, is absurd. Sperm, ovaries, and either God or biology come together to make the zygote that then forms your well-intentioned carbon-based lifeform. Not self-made. You are then subjected to parenting, cheek pulling, bullying (either as a victim or perpetrator), insignificance, success, failure, anger, love, lust, fast food, slow classes, movies, popcorn, candy, and unicorn farts before you develop a life-view, your window into the world. Again, not self-made. After subjugation to these myriad circumstances, you finally grow the gumption to rise above your context and flourish like no fish thrashing on a trawler has ever flourished before. Your fins are wings, your grumbling a song, and your routine a tale of undebatable grand conquest. Good job, kid. And again, say it with me, slowly this time – NOT. SELF. MADE.

So, why are we so preoccupied with this idea of being self-made? Is our future written in the stars, do we control where we go, or do we feel content by making the right choices based on a given set of circumstances?

Here’s the deal. Being ‘self-made’ implies a transcendence of context and suggests that someone has overcome immense hardship to climb up the social ladder without external help and any favours. I don’t question the courage in that for a moment. I do, however, worry about the pressure this creates. The world we live in today can be isolating. The implication that greatness achieved through further isolation is somehow superior to other forms is absurd. Yes, these stories are inspiring. But suggesting that grit and perseverance trump canniness and relationships is odd. Our warped understanding of the notion of being ‘self-made’ is even more crippling. What begins as a desire for independence soon becomes a reluctance to ask for help, a shame that arises from needing assistance,  and using a connection that can help open a door can seem like a defiance of longstanding values. Being canny has its place. In fact, I’d go as far as saying that it could even be more beneficial than sheer grit. After all, effectiveness beats efficiency.

Does this mean we shouldn’t have a filter for how we achieve success? In absolute terms, no. But, as a member of civilised society, moral and ethical guidelines should prove sufficient. If you’re in doubt of what those are, you may wish to hire a defence lawyer sooner rather than later for your imminent crimes. To the rest, you may want to take a closer look at what you want and what tools you have to get there. Don’t get caught up in being ‘self-made’. You didn’t start off being, and you don’t have to (won’t) end up being. Every compliment, admonishment, rejection, kind look, dirty glare, shove, hug, caress, and nudge has played a part in where I am right now, in where you are right now. Qualifying which factors did what based on the false narrative of a biased memory is foolhardy at best, severe delusion at worst.

Make of yourself what you will, or don’t. It doesn’t matter as long as you are content with your choices. This ‘self-made’ malarkey is no different to restaurant chains that claim to have a ‘homemade’ recipe – it’s bollocks and places undue pressure on the person making that claim. The truth is that it doesn’t matter if you’re self-made, homemade, handmade, a French maid, or a bleeding cupcake. As long as you make the choices that directly affect your contentment and act as a means to an end, you’re fine. Apply some ethical filters, don’t be an asshole, and you’ll be on your way.

What’s the go-to cliché phrase in your family? I’d love to find out if you have similar experiences.

“Adarsh, an idle mind is a devil’s workshop.”

“Would working towards being more stupid make me less idle? Whose workshop is it then?”

“There’s little point in having a conversation with you.”

“God, this rasam is good!”

Image Courtesy: Pavan Trikutam on Unsplash

Citations:
1. https://www.passiton.com/inspirational-quotes/6748-there-is-no-such-thing-as-a-self-made-man-we; Date Accessed: April 10, 2018
2. https://www.collinsdictionary.com/dictionary/english/self-made; Date Accessed: April 10, 2018

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