What survives of us if everything we have worked for, the sum of our mental, physical and emotional toil, is gone? V.G. Siddhartha, the founder of the Café Coffee Day chain who is alleged to have committed suicide, may have been confronted with this issue in the face of a financial snare. Siddhartha’s personal debt is reported to have run up to ₹2,000 crore.
He was not the first to grapple with such issues. Students who have routinely put years into preparing for one exam; a farmer whose whole year’s effort goes into a crop that fails for no fault of his, leaving him with a lifetime of debt; women whose identity is shaped by a marriage beset with violence, or infidelity—they face it too. Earlier this year, a young boy who had survived a suicide attempt after failing the Telangana intermediate board exam told me he was so focused on passing it didn’t even occur to him that there could be other options.
Mumbai-based psychologist Jeevan D’Cunha points out that in everyday life, this is what HR departments spin as “drive". As a society, we encourage people to be so focused as to block out the possibility of failure, or dilution of energies. We are all—from teens seeking better phones to businessmen seeking better profits—looking for that single-minded focus as evidence of worth. Except net worth is not self-worth.
Anomic suicide, triggered by socio-economic distress, was first listed in 1897 by Emile Durkheim in his pioneering tome Le Suicide. By all accounts, Siddhartha’s debt was still serviceable. But the mind is more complex than to equate survival with a paucity of funds. As Nobel prize-winning psychologist Daniel Kahneman has pointed out, we don’t always make optimal economic choices, we make choices most instinctive to survival. Freudian theory explains that we see ourselves as failures in the gap between our real self and our moral self. D’Cunha says all “failure" is comparative. Hence, we need to redefine what we call success. When we internalize our negative relationships, we face inner fragmentation. In May, during research for a forthcoming book, farmers’ widows told me of their husbands’ last words, the “shame" they felt at not being able to provide. An industrialist like Vijay Mallya is able to detach his self-image from his business failures.
Viktor Frankl describes in his book Man’s Search For Meaning the many reasons why some survived the horrors of Nazi Germany. For him, it came through prayer and love. The ability to manoeuvre ourselves out of suffering is key to survival.
People who function laterally, investing their energies across varied interests, are generally, though not always, better able to find a way out. In business terms, this is why high-rolling investors have multipronged portfolios, and why the cautious farmer still relies more on multi-cropping. The ability to offset loss comes from a stability that roots itself like a banyan tree, with a broad spread of investments engaging time, energy and income into multiple relationships, crafting an umbrella to withstand the worst of storms.
To “transmogrify", a 17th century religious term that meant moving out of an evil influence, was co-opted by Bill Watterson’s cartoon character Calvin, who imbued it with the element of magic. With the transmogrifier, Calvin multiplied the selves that he liked, and could contemplate turning the selves he didn’t into worms, or Susie into clam chowder. Watterson’s box was a simple answer to philosopher John Calvin’s metaphors of the labyrinth man couldn’t escape.
We have the ability to alter our thoughts. The practice of Vipassana meditation, for instance, rewires our way of seeing. In effect, our self-image no longer depends on how we are seen. It was this ability that was dubbed “bouncebackability" by football manager Iain Dowie to describe his Crystal Palace side, which was near the bottom of the table at the midway stage of the 2003-04 season and eventually won promotion to the Premier League through the play-off route. The word entered the Oxford dictionary in 2005 and is now used to describe the resilience of markets after a crash. It is the basis of humanism, what psychologist Carl Rogers described as the ability to bend like a reed, flat against an oncoming wind.
CUE, a Toyota-built humanoid robot, sank 2,020 free throws in a row to commemorate the 2020 Tokyo Olympics, breaking a Guinness World Record as it did so. It is an apt reminder that any sport involving such a player will be devoid of a challenging contest. We exalt Roger Federer not because he always wins but because the possibility of failure makes winning more special. Human triumph lies in the overcoming, not in the winning.
Gayatri Jayaraman is a writer and a counsellor in training at the St Xavier’s Institute of Counselling Psychology and Tata Memorial Hospital in Mumbai.