Saturday, June 27, 2009

The Little Big Things In/Of Life

New York/Delhi, present/past

Written circa 2004

There is a slight drizzle in the air as Anonymous is crossing 42nd street from 7th Avenue to Broadway. It is Anon's birthday and he (humor me and let Anon be a 'he' - does not make a difference) is on his way to one of those exclusive Manhattan restaurants to hook up with his friends and celebrate in style. It seems like a "big" thing, with Anon being good (and lets say fortunate) enough to be ironically enough in the "Big" Apple, doing pretty well for himself. Who would have thought some years back in India, that he would be celebrating his birthday in such grand style in the "City" (there, I have used a third substitution and all in one paragraph!).

But maybe it's the dark clouds on the horizon reminding him of the time when such pictures brought relief from a scorching sun at the same time of the year at another place; or, the sea of unknown faces in this rush hour crowd reminding him of those he may not see for sometime or, probably never; or, just something too deep to fathom in his mind; He looks back in time and remembers (and maybe even pines) for another birthday party he had with friends at another not so exclusive joint with a lot less budget (especially considering the $ to Rs. conversion rate!), and this time in a now seemingly far-off New Delhi.

Let us assume for a moment that being at this present stature in life is a "big" thing for Anon. If so, then why does he still craves for and try and refresh those "little" yet important things in life?

Switch the places and the scenario, but the question remains the same. The questions being not what are those things that excite us - those vary from person to person. But what stature of those things in terms of "big" and "small" makes us feel the way we do. Now before we jump to answer at an individual level (which probably is the right answer!) let us delve a little bit more into this seemingly-abstract-and-waste-of-time-but-good-time-pass topic.

What would have Juliet preferred, i.e. if such a person really lived outside of Shakespeare's imagination. Would she have liked Romeo's little gestures of giving her a rose every time he met her, and writing and singing sonnets for her each day? Or, would she have rather preferred to only be presented with say, a huge bouquet and a lovely "epic" poem for her once in a while, say on her very own birthday. A silly and a completely hypothetical question, but serves as a good example.

On one hand, giving something at every meeting, serves as a small and potent reminder of Romeo's love for his beloved each day. On the other, does not doing something day in and day out give a mechanical flavor to things, in spite of what we can assume are true feelings? Does it not maybe, in Juliet's eyes cheapen the value of the emotion being presented every day? And now, to take reverse the case the "big" example and get rid of these "small" gestures. Not doing those small things, which tokenize Romeo's affections, would not they drive his thoughts and bliss away from her mind when he is not there. But again on the other hand, if one does not expect anything like that because one was never used to it, then getting all those tokens in one big "chunk" - would not that serve as a far more fitter and stronger reminder of someone's love.

So were those small gestures more important, or will one big declaration of love sweep all the old ones into other recesses of the mind before it?

As the protagonist Alex, in Anthony Burgess' "A Clockwork Orange" used to say, "So what's it going to be then, eh?".

Another small example can be put in form of a choice to be made. Would one want a cell phone right from the onset of say the teen years, or only when one is an adult and able to afford one on your own. Here the question may not be posed as a trade-off between the big and the small, but more a question of time - constant v/s sudden. Is the constant possession of a cell phone a bigger blessing than the sudden appearance at which time it gives more the gratification due to all those years of waiting. But really in effect, it boils down to a question of small and maybe unrecognized pleasures much like those single rose buds presented to Juliet, as against a bigger but a single surge of happiness.

Let us get rid of these "prosperous" questions involving love and celebrations and technological gadgets and other capitalist-propaganda crap, and go to a baser level in life for a bit more perspective.

Consider a schoolteacher in a village who teaches a bunch of kids coming from farming families, which are not too well off. Suppose she (see I balanced the examples now!) is pretty diligent and sincere in her efforts and tries her best for the kids. Now what would give her more happiness, or let us say satisfaction, or maybe pride, or, any other adjective the reader may want to attribute if he/she were substituted in that teacher's place. Will she get more [use your adjective here] some of the kids to finish high school and maybe get a job as a clerk some place and be if only a little, but still better off than they are now? The students do well and they owe their success in part to her. Or, will she get more [use your adjective here] just a single kid to do amazingly well, get a really good break in life, get interviewed in some magazine later in life, and names her as one of his inspirations/drivers? With of course, the catch being that none of the other kids being able to get to that basic proficiency level as in the prior case.

Not to get into moralistic and ethical issues, as this is not the forum for that - just to think about it at a human level, what would give that teacher more happiness? Those trickle of students all through her life gradually doing something for themselves, or a sudden flood of plaudits once late (or, even early) in her life, and that's that. Again, a trade-off between numerous little things, as opposed yet again (never in conjunction, as that is the premise of this essay, and in the author's opinion, usually what happens in life) to a single big thing.

Well if you get my drift and think about it, then life in general seems really unfair to set us up with such choices all through one's life. And let it please be clarified, that one choice may not really be better than the other, just a question of patience versus contingency. As an example, and I know this may sound frivolous - does a student take Biology or, Math in school? On the one hand engineering is comparatively fast and will yield quicker results in terms of job prospects and stuff. Medical school is longer and more arduous (not to offend any engineers) and setting up a practice after a MD and other kind of things, may result in more time, and hence delayed returns. I took this (bad) example, to show that either is a good choice for a career, and yet there is a time factor involved. And in turn a question of little gains now and possible bigger returns later.

Do I spend money as I earn it and get high on these small peccadilloes, and hence forgoing the option to possess some big-deal materialistic thing? Or do I save up, live like a hermit right now, and later on life get a big house, big everything, big etc.? I know some people may say, "Well I can do both". But that is really not the point. Some little pleasures now will surely delay the big ones, unless one hits a jackpot or something.

Do I study real hard in under graduation and forego some of its pleasures in my quest for my career, or should I enjoy life as it comes and look to the future as and when it arrives? Again, can do both at times without conflict - just take it as an example.

Do I stay and relax at home every evening and maybe grow fat and ponderous. Or, do I forego the pleasure of lazing around and exercise regularly for me to be fit later in life, and maybe relax then?!

Do I call up my friend every so often to keep in touch or, do I call him once in a while to feel the surge of delight as it were renewing an old acquaintance.

So many (inane?) questions and these are maybe things that we never need to give a thought about in the first place, or sit back and think, "Will this be more agreeable in short stints or, at a single go?" We do not really have to. Then what is the point of all these rantings. I think, so that when we do certain things we can justify to ourselves as to why we did it. A model may use either of the two arguments. "Yes, I eat an ice-cream everyday (even though it may make me fat later on!) as eating it each and every day makes my life brighter and cheerful". "Yes, I do not usually eat an ice-cream as it makes me fat, and more so because eating it once in a blue moon makes the wait worth it, and the culminating 'sinful' act all the more pleasurable!"

It is when performing this act of justification that we can fall back on our trusted psychological arguments of little v/s big. And come to think of it, we have really used similar kind of arguments at different points in our lives, and continue to do so even as I write/someone reads this.

Writing this boring behemoth at one single stretch of two hours gives me immense pleasure right now, rather than writing it in small pieces over the course of a week and enjoying the expository journey if only in lesser intensity, but for a longer time! See I am already putting it in practice, if only this time, consciously.

But there may be other times as well where we made our choices unconsciously and more as a matter of head/heart than needing the straw of justification to cling on to. We may have whispered sweet nothings into the ear of a sweetheart for the small fluttering of the heart it gives us every day. As opposed to a single avowal of love spaced out far and few in between. And we may have not really thought about it and made the decision(s) on some complex chemistry which I would not dare to venture in. We may have chosen to forego all those parties in preparation of a test and finally getting the desired result felt that rush of exhilaration. But when refusing all those temptations we may have not really done it due to any immediate justification or, any expectation of a reward, we just did it.

So what is the point? The point is that no matter whether we attribute justifications or, conscious/unconscious choices, we do make such decisions and distinctions in our lives between big and little returns. We discriminate for reasons unknown to each other, but yet we all do it.

No two people are the same, and everyone has their own preferences, prejudices and final judgments. But we all are somewhat the same in the types of decisions that life throws our way and the outcome of those choices. I guess it is a long drawn game, and what choice one makes on a day, on another may move to a diametrically opposed direction with a flip result/reward.

The onus is on us, i.e. if we feel like it, to be once in a while in a position where we can think of the consequences of our actions before we plod headlong in them. And maybe then we may not do the things in the same manner. I may choose to get the very best of life in small measures or, I can wait patiently to ride out the storms and have then reach the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow later or, I may do what I am best at, and be just plain old confused.



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