Every life must be driven by ambition. Yet everybody must also lead a whole life in perfect contentment. There is a natural tension between ambition and contentment. Sometimes the balance tips towards ambition, especially when one is younger. At other times, especially when one is older, the balance tips towards contentment. At the end of any life, the cup of accomplishment and contentment are both half full. The epitaphs and eulogies thereafter are based on the half-full cups of what has been accomplished. The empty half cups of non-accomplishment are interred with the person's ashes.
It is every ageing person's deep desire to die peacefully, having lived a life of fulfilment and contentment. But to judge whether the life has been fulfilling creates its own dilemmas of judgment. Do you need to be well-known, even famous? Can an 'ordinary person' live as fulfilled a life as a 'famous person'?
When I read about the Mahatma Gandhi's life, I am unable to resolve the question of whether he led a fulfilled life. He changed the trajectory of life for more than half a billion of the subcontinent's people through his struggles and personal sacrifices. He died surely knowing that he made a huge difference to the existence of so many people, all within his short lifespan.
Yet, in terms of his family life, the Mahatma could not have had a feeling of happiness and fulfilment. There were many moments and incidents of great distress to him as a father. Was he an adjusting husband who discharged his Vedic vow of 'treating his bride as an equal partner and like a queen in his house?' (Incidentally, many people do not realise that that is the precise vow every Hindu takes during a Vedic wedding ceremony.)
How can we think about fulfilment in life as a balance between work and family?
The story of Bhishma is one of the most celebrated in Indian mythology. During the battle of Kurukshetra, Bhishma is struck down by the arrows of Arjuna, his grandnephew. The arrows pierce his body and when Bhishma falls down from his chariot, the arrows form a bed so that Bhishma's body does not lie on Mother Earth. He dies on that bed of arrows, but only after some deep philosophical conversations and after reciting his views on life. The spiritual Vishnu Saharanaam is recited by Bhishma while lying on his bed of arrows.
With his body resting on the bed of arrows, Bhishma's head hangs loose with no support. Bhishma asks Arjuna to provide some support. Arjuna does so by piercing three arrows in the ground in so a manner that Bhishma's head can rest on those arrows. A satisfied Bhishma says, 'What a fitting pillow for a warrior like me—a pillow to match the bed.' He then asks for water. Arjuna again pierces his arrows into the earth and cool water springs out of the hole and goes directly into Bhishma's mouth. Bhishma is satiated.
Thanks to a karmic boon, Bhishma is aware of all of his earlier births. He feels he had committed no sin through all the many rebirths he has had. He asks Lord Krishna why he is dying with such suffering in spite of his track record of good karmas. Lord Krishna reminds him that in one birth he had sinned by inflicting pain on insects when he stuck needles and thorns into their bodies. This sin, coupled with his unjust support of the Kauravas, caused him that painful death.
It is a great gain to feel fulfilled with life. This means one must be thankful for all the good things that happened, must not be regretful and must be forgetful of the bad things that happened. There should never be remorse about the positive things that could, or should, have happened. This can cause only bitterness. Bitterness and fulfilment do not go hand in hand. If Bhishma had a fulfilled life, what can we learn about 'fulfilment' in life?
In this book I lay a lot of emphasis on the human quality, the effect of learning from experiences. Human quality, embodying the lessons of life, are so well-known for so long that zillions of books and articles have been written about them. They are all available freely in the 'Human Knowledge Bank'.
Yet each person has to learn life lessons for himself or herself as he or she goes through a personal odyssey of discovery about work, life, friendship and relationships. Although the Human Knowledge Bank is accessible to all, everyone does not seem to bank on or with it.
Furthermore, the availability of such knowledge is not of any great value as compared with learning that knowledge by oneself! The lessons of experience in life and in management work in the same way. You know the lessons but are unable to always practise them.
Every person's personality has two elements, a base and an overlay. Together they constitute the complete personality of the individual. The base is about temperament, which is more or less fixed by a person's genes and circumstances of birth. The overlay is the human quality, which is shaped by the person's life experiences.
Temperament plus human quality equals the personality.
What follows are five examples about human quality.
Acting under the pressure
There is an award-winning 2014 Swedish movie entitled Force Majeure. The film presents a week in the life of a holidaying Swedish family in the French Alps. The family comprises Tomas, his wife, Ebba and their two kids. On the second day of the holiday, as the family lunches on the outdoor deck, a controlled and planned avalanche seems to go awry. The avalanche starts to look real. The lunch parties fled the deck, and so did Tomas. Luckily there was no disaster, but Ebba feels that Tomas ran away to save himself instead of thinking about his family. The whole movie is about Ebba's feeling of being let down and Tomas's defence of his actions. Commenting on the film in The Guardian, Julian Baggini invokes Aristotle's wisdom, 'To become good, you have to practise being good by cultivating the habits of goodness. Only then will you find yourself doing the right things automatically.'
Gathering and scattering
The second human quality I consider is that, approximately, the earlier part of career and family seems to be characterised by 'gathering', while the later part is about 'scattering'. Gathering refers to acquisition or accumulation of all sorts of things: money, assets, influence, power, status and creature comforts. Scattering refers to the progressive deployment of the gathered stuff: settling children, assisting family and friends, sharing, even if selectively, the fruits of acquired things like influence and power. Everyone's life, or almost everyone's, has a gathering phase followed by a scattering phase. Phases of these kinds have been eulogised and described by philosophers for centuries, as, for example, the four ashrams of life according to Indian tradition and the eight stages of life according to psychologist Erik Erikson.
The narrative about Nihal Kaviratne epitomises this human quality.
Work and relationships
The third pattern is that the tension between work and influence, on the one hand, and family and enjoyment, on the other, settle into a sort of equilibrium that is uniquely suited to the concerned individual. It is almost that a realisation dawns that you cannot have it all, whether you are a man or a woman. You learn to balance the demands of career and family, based on questions like who you are, what your purpose in life is, and what brings you happiness. You are sure that you have got it all wrong initially. Even if you are not so sure, your wife and kids will remind you that you should have given them more time in the early years. When you think you have achieved a better balance, the family's needs have changed!
Circles of interest
The fourth pattern concerns the concentricity of our life circles of interest with others' life circles of interest. Romance and marriage books push us to believe that ideal partners have common interests. Early on in any marriage, the impracticality of such a thesis is made apparent. So a pattern of targeted concentricity starts to develop. As the family becomes bigger, more circles come into play through additional members and interests. When the couple becomes empty nesters, the circles can be quite different and distinct, almost in preparation for the inevitable, when each circle will submerge into the infinite in its own way, and singly so, as it came initially.
The certainty of uncertainty
The fifth and last pattern I will refer to is the relevance of Werner Heisenberg's uncertainty principle to work, influence, family and enjoyment. Heisenberg's principle states that you can never determine the exact position and speed of an atomic particle, hence some degree of uncertainty in the relative position of atomic particles is inevitable. This is because in order to detect the particle you have to shoot another atomic particle at it, a bit like sending a red billiards ball to find the blue one on the table. The mere act of the particles colliding has the effect of changing the speed and position of the target particle before the collision. The same happens with life. We chase, say, wealth throughout our life. But as soon as we have acquired it we have to think about what to do with it. As one of India's richest men once told me, 'Gopal, it is a curse to have too little wealth, but it is also a curse to have too much.' Likewise, the acquisition of power leads us to the question of what exactly to do with that power.
That explains the old Shakespearean adage: 'Uneasy lies the head that wears the crown.'
The journey of career and life has some purpose. It is to be happy: to give all one has, to take all one can, and to keep both in balance. When we refer to happiness what we really mean is a complex phenomenon called emotional well-being. To be happy is to possess a favourable emotional state. It is not about money, influence and possessions.
It is this path to happiness that motivates human beings to seek a life of virtue.
Life's biggest lessons are learnt from the tiniest of creatures.
One Sunday morning, a contented man sat in his balcony. A little ant caught his eye; it was travelling from one end of the balcony to the other, carrying a leaf several times bigger than itself. He saw that the ant, when faced with impediments during its journey, paused, took a diversion and then continued towards its destination. At one point the tiny creature comes across a crack in the floor. It stops for a while and then lays the huge leaf over the crack, walks over the leaf and picks it up on the other side. The man watches this for about an hour, until the creature has reached its destination—a tiny hole in the floor. Now how could the ant carry into the tiny hole its large leaf? It simply couldn't!
So the minuscule thing —after all the painstaking work and the exercising of wonderful skill, after overcoming all the difficulties along the way—leaves behind the large leaf and goes home empty-handed. It is a day on which the ant learns a great lesson. Isn't that the truth about our lives as well?
We don't quite realise in our life's journey that these are just burdens that we are carrying with utmost care while being fearful of losing them, only to find that at the end they are useless and we can't take them with us.
For most people a good life is one that leads to a circle of virtue. Aristotle had posited that virtue and human happiness are synonymous. He had argued that we all try to develop inner strength and virtues. Without those strengths and virtues we cannot be human.
For sure most of us wish to lead a good life. But what is the good life?