Last week, I was compelled to sign out on a hurried note with a brief pointer to a passage from Nicholas Nassim Taleb’s book on what it takes to be “Anti-Fragile”. The thoughts embedded in the book have been lingering in my mind for a while now.
But I was being pushed to wrap the piece up on an early Friday morning. Between my brother, co-sister, wife and our kids, everyone insisted the laptop be shut down so that we may get out of the city and head into the wilderness. The intent was to get away from screens of all kinds that now accompany us everyplace, take in some fresh air, rediscover what it is like to shower in the open, taste water from fresh streams and sleep in tents with the moon, stars and a few dogs to keep guard through the night.
During our waking hours, conversations and food would be served at base camp by our hosts—a couple, now in their late fifties. They had taken a call over a decade ago to get out of the rat race, after having built themselves a place a few hundred kilometres off the Mumbai-Pune highway, far away from where most cellular towers are. They now live eerily close to the sound of silence. The lady loves to cook and the gentleman likes to talk. If they take a liking to you, they host you for a modest fee that may cover their costs.
Once there, there is not much to be done by way of so-called “adventure activities”, as city slickers like to call it. For instance, no paragliding, rock climbing, white water rafting, bungee jumping, or other such assorted distractions to keep you occupied. The most you can do is go for long walks on undiscovered trails, take skinny dips, lounge in the open, watch birds of all kinds, stare at insects you never imagined existed, and gaze in awe as an occasional reptile creeps lazily by.
When fidgety, you can keep hoping some cellular tower may throw a stray signal down your way that your phone may latch on to it. After a while, though, exasperation creeps in, you give up, and room opens for real conversations with real people as opposed to the ones exchanged on text and social media.
And it was on one such night that I spent a while with the gentleman and the lady of the house, wondering whatever it may be like to live the kind of lives that they do. It was then that the import of a talk delivered by Taleb at the American University of Beirut on life and what it takes to be Anti-Fragile started to fall into place. When I had first heard it sometime last year, I had made note of some passages that struck me as significant from his talk.
18 till I die
“... I have a single definition of success: you look in the mirror every evening, and wonder if you disappoint the person you were at 18, right before the age when people start getting corrupted by life. Let him or her be the only judge; not your reputation, not your wealth, not your standing in the community, not the decorations on your lapel. If you do not feel ashamed, you are successful. All other definitions of success are modern constructions; fragile modern constructions.”
When I first heard the talk, it struck a chord. But the real import of it was driven home late in the evening after everyone had retired to their tents after dinner. It was a long day after having hiked it out for at least 10 odd very long and hard kilometres through trails we would never have discovered without a scout who knew the way.
“Why did you guys choose to leave the arc lights and the city?” I asked the couple, who seemed the amiable kind, as we stared at the fireflies.
Her reasons were simple. She had spent over two decades as a trained social worker on the ground. Over time, though, philanthropists have started to make their presence felt in India significantly. While they have their heads and hearts in the right places, what she couldn’t handle were a new breed of people interested in civil society and engaging philanthropists on their turf in a language she didn’t know how to speak at “plush places like five star hotels”.
Until this breed came in, she hadn’t heard of phrases like “impact investing”, “social platforms”, “societal innovation”, “scaling up” and so on and so forth. I could see her cheeks turn red in anger as she made her disdain apparent. “The money they pay for one meal to discuss all this at a hotel can pay for a family’s food for more than a month where I used to work at,” she said.
Instead, she thought it better if she stepped out of a place like that, where she didn’t fit in, and follow another passion. “I always wanted a kitchen garden, bake bread of different kinds and experiment with cooking.” The husband continued to stare fondly at her and grinned indulgently. “That kind of a life would have killed me. My kitchen garden and experiments with cooking, keeps me young and alive,” she said. By any which yardstick, she was a lovely looking lady.
“And what is it that drives you, sir?” I asked him.
“I just need my daily bread,” he said and grinned. “Strangers like you who come by to stay over, talk, exchange notes, have a good time, share stories and part as friends. What else does a man need to live a good life?” he said, sipping on his whiskey.
We spoke a while longer. Them not having access to all that we now take for granted—television, news, high-speed internet—didn’t seem to bother them. They were in love with each other—much like they were when they first met many years ago.
“What do you do when there is no one around?” I asked.
“We stare at the sky,” he said.
I looked up. It was a clear night, the skies were clear and it was after a long while that I could finally see my favourite constellation, the Orion. It hadn’t gone anyplace. It was always there. But I didn’t have the time to look. On my way back, a part of me argued they are as happy as they are because they live in a filter bubble of their own creation. But then, who am I to take away from the fact that both of them can stare at the sky and be as happy as they were when they were 18? That said, there is no taking away from that they continue to remain uncorrupted. If that be a metric of success, they are successful and Anti-Fragile.
Success of that kind continues to elude me and many of whom I know closely.
Be stubborn, never compromise
“If I had to relive my life I would be even more stubborn and uncompromising than I have been.”
It is entirely coincidental that a day after I got home, a friend visited. He was transiting through Mumbai. As a professional, he works for an NGO. As a person, he is spiritually inclined, a practicing Christian, married and has two children. My wife and he studied together. In an earlier avatar, after having spent 14 years in a seminary, he was on the path to being indoctrinated as a Catholic priest. But much to the consternation of the community and many around him, he chose to walk out.
In the many years that I have known him, we had never engaged in a conversation about why he gave up on a vocation that had set him on a certain path. This time around, though, I asked him why. His answer was a compelling one. “I want to stay true to myself. And to do that, I must be uncompromising in my search for the truth.”
He had my attention. I asked him to go on. “There is a thin line,” he said, “that separates somebody who is spiritually inclined and someone who is religious.” I asked him to go on and elaborate. The difference between the two, he put into perspective, is that those who are spiritually inclined do not see any merit in rituals. When rituals come into the picture, tribes form and around it, religions emerge.
He then started to take me through his time at the seminary, where he was introduced to the great philosophical works from the Western and Indian schools. He thought it fascinating because they opened his mind up to multiple possibilities, compelled him to think hard, and ask even harder questions. This included questions of the kind that has often intrigued me as well, because I was raised in a Catholic family.
“Why,” for instance, “do I have to accept the divinity of Jesus Christ?” This was beginning to get interesting. I asked him to go deeper into where he is coming from.
The nature of Western philosophical thought is such that it insists on placing a premium on logic over all else. The seminary exposed him to Indian philosophical thought as well. Between both these worlds, his mind could see multiple possibilities. The Western schools insisted on reasoning everything out while the Indian schools open abstract terrains as well. When both are extrapolated, infinites are possible. But the theological underpinnings of the seminary suggested that the logic of the West and dualities of the East he was exposed to and taught to appreciate be discarded in favour of blind faith.
This left him in a piquant position, torn and conflicted. Because on the one hand, his studies in philosophy suggested that the Jesus Christ he had come to like and believe in was a gentle rebel who opposed theology in any form. His interpretation of theology was that it would lead to organized religion and stop him from his quest to discover the spiritual.
His mind also argued that the theology that insisted divinity be conferred on Christ the rebel was the one that crucified him in the first instance for opposing theology.
Much conflict in his head later, he told himself, if he must stay true to the Christ he had come to identify with over all else and be true to himself, he has to walk out of the seminary, give up on religion and instead nurture his spiritual side.
He did just that.
When asked about where he stands now, he said he feels like a free man at ease in a church as he is in a temple or a mosque or a pagoda. “Who is to know where God lives and where may I find what and who God is?”
That he demonstrated as much courage, questioned what was imparted to him, discarded what he didn’t believe, and discovered the confidence to find his own path, to my mind, makes him Anti-Fragile.
How was I to know last weekend that, between a lovely couple in their late fifties in the middle of nowhere and a rebel from a seminary, there is much to be learnt? I’ve got a long way to go.
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