This extraordinary situation, apart from shutting down the whole world, is teaching everyone unputdownable Life lessons.
My young friend Kalyan sent me a voice note over WhatsApp yesterday. The COVID-19 situation had made him all angsty. He’s doing his Master’s in Geology at a grad school in Miami, Florida. And, like everywhere else in the US and the world over, his school too is shuttering down, encouraging students to either defer their programs by a quarter or take their courses online; plus, of course, asking them to vacate dorms and informing them of layoffs from student employment. “Should I come back home to Chennai or should I luck it out here? What if I contract the virus? Will I survive quarantine? The uncertainty is suffocating, everything is suddenly so dark, so hopeless. What do you think I must be doing, AVIS,” he asked.
Surely, everyone, in some form and measure, is dealing with that gnawing feeling from within: of uncertainty, of cluelessness over how Life will be in the aftermath of this COVID-19 pandemic. And this is not just about how the world itself is likely to be affected, but how our own, individual, worlds will change in the next few weeks and over the next several months. From lockdowns and work-from-home advisories to healthcare systems breaking down to tens of thousands of people dying to a global economic recession to entire segments of small businesses being wiped out to bankruptcies to job losses to families crumbling emotionally – everyone, everywhere, has a view on COVID-19’s impact. And all of it is ominous; it portends gloom, is depressive and is fueling uncertainty – naturally, everyone’s worried and very, very fearful.
Interestingly, as I told Kalyan over a call that we subsequently did, there’s only one way to deal with uncertainty. And that is to not fear it. So, don’t resist uncertainty, don’t run away from it, but instead embrace it wholeheartedly!
For my soulmate Vaani and me, this unputdownable learning comes from our own lived experience. Over the last 13 years, we have been living through an excruciating yet fascinating, Life-changing, phase; we are enduring a crippling bankruptcy. To be sure, ever since our small Chennai-based consulting firm went bankrupt in end-2007, we have been repeatedly dealing with prolonged spells of worklessness and, often, pennilessness! Our debt of over a million dollars, owed to 170+ creditors, remains unpaid as we have never quite had enough money in this time to even cover our living expenses month on month. Incredible as it may sound, but despite our best efforts, we have not been able to put our business back on track; so, we have not had a steady, predictable, revenue stream in a long, long time. And when we do get work, and some income, we stretch the penny so we can survive, so we can last longer at the edge of the metaphorical precipice that we find ourselves clinging from. Simply, Vaani and I have been living through uncertainty for over 150 months now. We often survive on grace and grants, dealing incessantly with imponderables, with the financial, legal, social, professional, physical and emotional implications of living with a mountain of debt – and without work and money. In a way, it appears that we have been in quarantine forever!
Yet, these past several years of our Life have been very, very transformational. Undoubtedly, we remain pinned down by material scarcity, but we are soaked in a rare abundance. Even as we continue to grope through the darkness and uncertainty, we are no longer in the throes of fear and anxiety. Because, we have learnt to be non-worrying, non-frustrated and non-suffering. Which is why, while we may well be failed entrepreneurs from how the world sees us, we believe we are the happynesswalas. We are truly happy despite our debilitating circumstances. Our Life’s Purpose now is Inspiring ‘Happyness’ among all those who care to pause and reflect – that’s why I wrote my book Fall Like A Rose Petal and that’s why we curate and host live, thought-provoking, non-commercial Conversations on Happiness in Chennai.
Important, Vaani and I are not just living with uncertainty; we thrive in it, we celebrate it!
Our lived experiences, and the simple Life lessons we have gleaned from them, have shaped us to be this way. I share here some reflections on how it is possible to live fully, being fearless and happy, with what is – no matter what you are dealing with! I hope you find them relevant, relatable and useful to cope with the uncertainty that you may currently be experiencing over COVID-19, in the specific context of your own Life.
Uncertainty is intrinsic to Life
Uncertainty is not a product of any crisis or, in specific, of the COVID-19 scenario. The very nature of Life is that it is impermanent, so it is uncertain. From the time you are born, to when you die, there’s risk, disease, crisis, tragedy – and of course death – lurking around the corner, every step of the way. In fact, every moment is steeped in uncertainty. Anything, absolutely anything, can happen to you, around you. When you think about it deeply, you will realize that you always knew this truism about Life. But you did not consider it as immediately relevant because social conditioning, education and the idea of using both these to earn money to pay bills have made Life appear predictable. Which is, because you have a home to go back to, you have a family, you are educated and you are earning an income, you have always believed that you are in control of your Life. Besides, human advancements in science and technology, in enterprise and economics, have led us to naively imagine that much of the Universe functions because of us humans. It is only when the inscrutable arrives, challenging logic or defying reason, that you pause to consider how powerful Life is. And that’s when you realize how powerless you – and all humans – really are. For instance, what do you do, what can you do, when you are informed that you are dying of a rare cancer or when you lose a dear one suddenly in a bizarre circumstance or when an MH 370 disappears without trace and cannot be found by all the world’s inventions and intelligence or when a COVID-19 comes along and turns the world, your world, upside down? Well, almost always, that’s when you wake up to the realization that there are some things that you don’t – and can’t – control. The truth, however, is that you were never in control. The truth is, Life happens in spite of us humans, and certainly not because of us! In fact, Life has all along been happening with a mind of its own, at its own pace, in its own time, consistently shocking, surprising, amazing and awing you. Simply, when you have put in the efforts and have got what you wanted, you have thought that you have caused your Life to happen your way. That there was a plan, your plan. And so, you imagined that there was a predictability to your Life. But when Life socks you with an inscrutable situation, then you are numbed by, well, the uncertainty – of not knowing why something’s happening, what you must do and where Life is taking you! What do you do when you don’t know what to do?
Face Life, be fearless
The immediate, natural, human response to uncertainty is fear. Understanding what fear is, and how it works, helps immensely in dealing with it. Fear arises in you only when you are confronted with what you don’t know or when you lack previous experience of handling a given situation. Now, obviously, fear serves no constructive purpose. When you are fearful it certainly does not mitigate any risk or make uncertainty go away. In fact, it makes the unknown assume monstrous proportions, it clouds your thinking and makes the darkness that engulfs you unbearable. Fear debilitates you. Period. But, interestingly, what you fear most will always torment you only as long as you continue to fear it. So, instead of running away in fear, turn around and face the situation. Embrace the uncertainty. Know that fearlessness is not a difficult-to-attain, lofty, abstract, state. It is also not the absence of fear. Fearlessness comes from a choice you exercise to look your fears in the eye, it is what fear delivers to you when you turn around and face whatever is scaring you. It is when you accept your vulnerability, and employ your understanding that uncertainty is in the very fabric of Life, it is when you face a situation, that you turn fearless. Now, when you are fearless, your problems certainly don’t disappear, but your ability to deal with them are enhanced dramatically, exponentially.
Train your mind to learn three key skills
Even so, merely being fearless momentarily is not enough. To sustain fearlessness, you must train your mind to avoid worry, frustration and suffering. These three aspects of Life, given the pulls and pressures of everyday living, are erroneously believed to be unavoidable. And they make uncertainty look menacing. They exasperate you, suffocate you, make you feel miserable and, most often, hopeless. But with a little effort these aspects can be understood and, with some practice, they can be overcome.
Take worrying first. The problems we face always fall into two buckets. Problems we can solve – so, why worry about them; and problems we can’t solve – so, again, what’s the point in worrying about them? Bottomline: worrying about problems doesn’t solve them; so, it is a wasteful, incapacitating, activity. Once you understand the futility of worrying, you will choose to be non-worrying. This doesn’t mean that you will be free from worries. Of course, worries are thoughts; they will keep rising in your mind. But being non-worrying means you will choose not to pick up a worry – thus making it powerless – when it comes along.
Next, consider frustration. To be non-frustrated, understand why frustration arises in the first place. It is only when you don’t get what you want, or when you get what you don’t want, that you feel frustrated. So, your frustrations stem from your desires. The very idea that Life must give you what you want is a figment of human imagination. Because, think about it, you are born without your even asking to be born, so this Life is a gift; besides, it promises you nothing, it gives you no guarantees. Which is why being frustrated with the outcomes, when your efforts don’t bring the results you want, is surely avoidable. Just look around you. There are so many, many stories – including your own – of those who have not got what they perhaps truly deserved although they have talent, integrity and have invested hard work. Clearly, sometimes in Life, no matter how hard you try, or however much you wish, or pray, the results simply don’t add up. So, being non-frustrated is an intelligent response in situations when you can’t make sense of the way Life’s treating you. It is a choice you make to focus only on what you can do in a given context, to make that sincere effort and to drop all expectations of reward, recognition and profit.
And the third quality that you must imbue in you is being non-suffering. Please understand that you can’t negotiate with pain; it is integral to the process of Life. It always arrives uninvited and without notice. But suffering is optional. You suffer only when you ask why the pain exists in the first place or why you are being made to experience pain. You suffer only when you want your Life to be different from what it is now. So, whether it is the death of someone you love, a pink slip, a terminal illness or a relationship challenge, any painful episode by itself is non-negotiable – you don’t get to choose it, you don’t get to postpone it. Quite simply, it is just another event in your Life! But you suffer from that painful episode only when you ask “Why?” or “Why me?” So, being non-suffering simply means you drop the “Why?” and “Why me?” questions. When you stop asking those questions, you may still be in the throes of severe pain, but you clearly will not suffer. Or, in essence, when you accept your current reality for what it is, the way it is, you are choosing to be non-suffering.
Being non-worrying, non-frustrated and non-suffering are not just choices, they are important Life skills that you can train your mind to learn, usually through a meditative practice. Now, when you are non-worrying, non-frustrated and non-suffering in any enduring, painful, situation, particularly in a crisis, you can only be happy despite your circumstances. Happiness then is the perfect antidote to uncertainty. It helps you drop anchor; it drenches you in equanimity and makes you live your Life, fully, fearlessly, one precious moment at a time. This is how you don’t just survive uncertainty, but how you thrive in it!
Trust the process of Life
A crisis is not necessarily a grand conspiracy by Life to vanquish you. On the other hand, it is essentially Life’s way of slowing you down. You emerge resilient, reflective and resourceful from a crisis every single time; only because, unwittingly, you have begun to appreciate how Life works, you have discovered what matters to you and why. And you have chosen to focus only on those aspects of your Life. Look back at your own journey. Hasn’t every crisis you have been through only made you stronger, wiser and, interestingly, happy?
Similarly, the COVID-19 crisis, and this spell of uncertainty, is likely to be no different. In fact, it is a global, mandatory-for-everyone, Masterclass by Life on ‘How to embrace uncertainty and go with the flow’! So, be sure to glean your own learnings from this phase as the scenario unfolds. Begin by welcoming the lockdown as a slowdown enforced by Life, enjoy quality time with your precious family or discover the magic and beauty of solitude when in isolation.
Simply, instead of fighting Life, flow with it. Know that, no matter what happens, Life will always bring you to where you must arrive. Such is the process of Life. Trust the process. Celebrate its suchness. And the way to do that is to make important choices – to be fearless, to be non-worrying, non-frustrated and non-suffering, to be happy despite the circumstances, to embrace uncertainty and to go with the flow.
Note: AVIS and Vaani are the happynesswalas. They believe their Life’s Purpose is Inspiring ‘Happyness’! They are going through a fascinating, Life-changing experience – a crippling bankruptcy!! If you would like to invite them to inspire your team(s) or explore other opportunities, please look up: http://www.thehappynesswalas.com
The very uncertainty that we fear is what makes Life magical and beautiful.
At a learning forum for managers the other day, one of the speakers championed the need for today’s business leaders to develop the ability to lead through uncertainty. He said that most decisions have to be made today not knowing what will happen. Some of those in the audience disagreed with him. They argued that decisions cannot and must not be made when you don’t know what will happen. The debate continued well past the keynote presentation and spilled over into the drinks and dinner conversations as well.
A senior business leader who was next to me said leading in uncertain times was a very scary experience. “Not many can do it,” he observed.
I disagreed with him. I pointed out that fearing uncertainty is never the appropriate response. I believe that not just managers, everybody on the planet is (and must be) capable of dealing with uncertainty. Uncertainty is unfolding afresh in each new moment and we must face it by looking it in the eye.
Why are we running scared of uncertainty when the very nature of Life is impermanent, fragile, uncertain? In fact, there’s a certainty about death – if you are alive, you will die, for sure, some day. But just because you are born – and alive – does not mean you will go on living. There’s no certainty about Life! From the time you came out of your mother’s womb your entire Life has been a journey through the uncertain. It’s your upbringing, your education and your reference to economic parameters (read a pay check and/or a bank balance) that makes you believe that you are secure and can be certain about the way your Life will pan out. Because you have been raised in a protected environment by your parents and family, because you have been progressing through your academic career in a linear fashion – moving from class to class in a predictable manner – because you got employed soon after you graduated from college; for all these reasons and more, you have come to believe that Life’s happening the way you envisioned it for yourself. You have almost concluded that Life is a straight line! That’s when Life socks you with a pink slip or with a heart attack or a break-up or a death! That’s when you wake up, shocked and dazed, and begin to “fear an uncertain future”.
When you live out of fear, resisting the uncertainty that surrounds you, you will not grow. You may grow older. But you will not grow from within, you will not evolve. Because fear debilitates. It limits. Every aspect of Life is uncertain, unsafe, dangerous – there are so many diseases you can contract and die or your house can be burgled and you can be murdered or you may meet with an accident on the road or your plane may crash mid-air or someone could hack your bank account and siphon off all your hard-earned money…Anything can happen if you actually consider what all can go wrong with your Life. But if you start letting the fear of uncertainty rule you, you can be sure to have ruined your Life.
There’s hope though! You can let go of all your fear and embrace uncertainty. Since uncertainty is the essence of Life, when you embrace it, you are actually uniting with the Universal Energy. That Energy empowers you and gives you the true sense of security – which no insurance scheme, no amount of money and no amount of physical protection ever can. Then a pink slip will not torment you. Then not-knowing-what-will-happen-next will be part of the game, of the adventure called Life.
So, I believe that anyone can lead through uncertain times. Anyone can take decisions even when they don’t know what to do – because leadership is really about seeing what is and mobilizing an appropriate response. All you need to be able to do this, lead through uncertainty, is to understand Life better. Yes, uncertainty can be unsettling and scary when you first notice it. But if you drop the fear, the same uncertainty becomes beautiful – you will realize that Life was always uncertain. This awakening is what makes Life magical. To experience this magic you must learn to live in the moment, soaking in whatever the moment has to offer, in a “not-knowing-what-will-happen-next” mode!