Focus on issues, than on people – and always say it as it is!

When you must, simply speak your mind. Keeping your views to yourself is a good idea if you have learnt not to grieve. But if you are the sort who simmers when you are unable to express yourself, it’s best to say what you want to – openly, candidly.

Tharoor and Modi: Picture Courtesy/Internet
The papers are full of stories of the Kerala Pradesh Congress Committee (KPCC) wanting the Congress High Command to reprimand Thiruvananthapuram MP Shashi Tharoor for “praising” Prime Minister Modi over Modi’s pet project – the Swach Bharat campaign. Clarifying that he wasn’t pro-BJP, Tharoor has said this in his defence: “The Prime Minister pitched his appeal as a non-political one and I received it in that spirit. I am a proud Congressman and a proud Indian. In short: not pro-BJP, just pro-India.” But the KPCC mandarins would hear none of this and is seeking that Tharoor be chastisized.

I am not bringing this up here to talk about the inner-party discipline of the Congress or even comment for or against Tharoor’s sense of political propriety. I believe the incident, if you peel away the political affiliations, the overtones and the personalities, gives us an opportunity to understand how we can be focused on issues than on people. The issue here is not Tharoor or Modi, or Congress or BJP – it is about a clean India.

The tragedy though is that almost always we focus on people and miss the issue – How can I say this to him? How dare she speak to me like that? How can I bring this subject up – what will happen if my intention is misunderstood? We fear the repercussions of our being open with family, friends, in social circles, at work and often even in issues that concern our nation or the world. The reason this happens is because of a subconscious tendency that all of us humans have – which is, to be nice to people and to be seen as being nice. So, whenever there’s an opportunity to flag an issue – and debate it, we let it go saying “it” won’t be taken well or that this is not the “right” time. Resultantly, we end up grieving without having been able to express ourselves. Honestly, all of us have felt this way at some time or the other in our lives.

I have learnt it the hard way too. For several years, I tried to be content being tactful than being truthful. But I was very uncomfortable in all those situations when I was unable or I had chosen not to express myself. Over time, I have learnt that if I have an opinion on an issue, I will express myself – saying it as it is, without sugar-coating things, no matter what the issue is or what the context is. And in situations when I choose not to express myself, I also decide not to grieve or complain about the situation. I simply accept things the way they are, I accept my inability to speak about it and I move on.

Recently, we had some maintenance work being undertaken by the owner of the apartment above ours. The owner lives in Dubai and had entrusted the work to a contractor. The contractor did not bother to follow certain procedures laid out for maintenance work by our building’s management. So, for weeks on end work went on, literally above our heads, noisily, for over 18 hours daily. Towards the end of the maintenance project, the owner came from Dubai to review arrangements for a house-warming that he planned to conduct at his “new, improved” apartment. He visited us too. He apologized for the “inconvenience” that we had to put up for over four months. And invited us for the house-warming event. I told him that I could not accept his apology because he was merely saying it for the sake of saying it. I pointed out to him that he could not be “genuinely” apologetic because he has not felt our pain or understood what it means to have someone banging away at the floor above your head for weeks on end. However, I did tell him that if our schedules permitted, we will join in their house-warming ceremony.

This is what I mean when I say focus on the issue. And never on the people. When you focus on the issue, you can express yourself clearly. And candidly. It is when you bring in people and relationships (could be with anyone – between friends, in a family, with a boss, or an organization) that you become emotional and wary of expressing yourself. At the end of the day, it is always better to speak your mind and get it out of you. Or if you choose not to express yourself, also choose not to grieve. Bottomline: Don’t grieve over anything. Definitely not over your inability to say what’s on your mind!  

Be true to yourself: others perceptions of you are irrelevant

In any situation, be truthful than being tactful. When you are true to yourself, nothing – and no one – can embarrass you.  

Some weeks ago, we were at a wedding of a close friend’s daughter. It was among the top-billed weddings in Chennai that season. Our friend is a very successful professional and is very well networked in social and business circles. There were 3000 guests at the wedding and the traffic cops had a huge job on their hands regulating vehicle movement outside the wedding venue. As we were exiting from the venue, one of the families we know was also coming out. There was our friend, his wife and their two young sons. They don’t live in India. They had flown down from the Middle East for the wedding. Our friend’s wife was unable to reach their driver and so she wondered if we could drop them to their hotel before we went home.

“Hey can we squeeze in and hitch a ride to our hotel in your car,” asked the lady.

“Sure,” replied my wife, “except that we don’t have a car. And you will have to come with us in an auto-rickshaw. However, we will need to engage two auto-rickshaws if all of us need to make it.”

“What? You don’t have a car?” the lady exclaimed.

“No. We don’t. Not sure if you know this, but, we are going through a financial crisis. We sold our car some time ago. We now use public transport,” explained my wife.

The lady was aghast. She stared at me and my wife in utter disbelief. Here we were, all of us guests at a big, fat, rich, Indian wedding. It is that sort of an event where the clothes you wear, the perfume you use, the jewelry you flaunt and the vehicle you arrive in really determine how you are perceived by everyone else. And here was someone who says they used public transport to get here?

The lady did not hide her sense of shock. “Oh! I didn’t know this. Don’t worry, we will manage,” she said, trying to sound both apologetic and reassuring. The family soon found their car, while we found an auto-rickshaw. We all bade our goodbyes and went our ways.

Saying the truth as it is, in any situation, has always worked out for us. We prefer wearing our Life on our sleeves than pretending to be different from who we actually are. And, honestly, this is the best way to live. Be open. Be transparent. Be truthful.

One of the most important aspects of intelligent living to remember is that we are not what we wear, what we drive or where we live. All these are impermanent and perishable aspects of our Life. What is permanent, and will live on, even beyond our physical form is the real Self – our soul. And even if the soul theory doesn’t make immediate sense, a practical perspective to consider is that how we are perceived by others is really irrelevant in the context of our lives. If someone does not want to respect you as a human being because you no longer have the means to afford an upwardly mobile lifestyle, such a friendship – if you can call it one – is really flaky and meaningless. On the other hand, if people will flock to you only because you flaunt an “impressive and socially inspiring” lifestyle, then again they are not friends – they are opportunists.

I don’t mean to say that it is okay to dress inappropriately or disregard social customs or tradition. Nor am I saying that we should be apologetic – and brooding – for circumstances beyond our control. What I am saying though is that, in any context, just feel good and feel proud of who you are – the way you are! The simple thumb rule to follow is this – never project an image of yourself that you really are not.  When you are this way, you are at peace with your circumstances, with your reality. This is the key to happiness. If people around you are uncomfortable with you and your reality, well, it really is their problem. Not yours! Isn’t that plain and simple?