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Guwahati: A man carrying essential items on a bicycle crosses a deserted road, during the complete lockdown imposed in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic, in Guwahati, Tuesday, March 31, 2020. (PTI Photo) (PTI31-03-2020_000166B) (PTI)
Guwahati: A man carrying essential items on a bicycle crosses a deserted road, during the complete lockdown imposed in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic, in Guwahati, Tuesday, March 31, 2020. (PTI Photo) (PTI31-03-2020_000166B) (PTI)

Opinion | Primal truths and survival techniques for tough times

We can either react to adversity or wilfully choose our response, as Viktor Frankl famously said

I remember the moment as though it happened yesterday. About a decade ago, I was diagnosed with cancer. The lab results from that morning’s tests came in just as I was on an evening call with colleagues in the US, trying to decide on a seemingly important but actually trivial corporate matter. The fear when I read the report was so visceral that I abruptly ended the call, without proffering a reason to my astonished co-workers. They found out why only much later.

Thanks to my doctors and thanks to a greater force I shall today call “Balance", and which others may call “God" or “Nature", the cancer is behind me.

But “Balance" didn’t leave me unchanged. So, for today at least, I will leave it to the pundits to predict what might happen to Information Technology (IT) in the aftermath of these strange times. Also left to them are the tortuous financial arithmetic and recommendations on what the IT industry or government should now do.

I am going to dwell instead on how the human mind can adapt to gut-wrenching turmoil. This is not yet another pop-psychology blurb on the five stages of loss; it is a personal account of the types of techniques we have to turn to when we find ourselves defenceless and alone, fighting a baffling, cunning and powerful enemy.

I will share three techniques that I attempted to use then, as I will no doubt have to yet again. I am nowhere near perfect in applying these. I claim no pride of authorship; I am only trying to write about a few eternal truths which could help us make sense of it all—if only we work to develop the capacity to reflect upon these truths.

I have written about such matters before, when events occurred that irredeemably changed the status quo for all of us in the IT sector. This year will upend the industry again, and both, millennial-age IT engineers and the older plodders among us, need to adjust to lost jobs, reduced paycheques and perhaps other unpleasant events.

Age-old wisdom lays down the law of cause and effect as a profound truth. This truth has been twisted down the ages by tech potentates, politicians, and in some cases even our parents, who attempt to manipulate our thinking and control our psyches. Addictive social networking apps are an example. The manipulators profit on the fact that our minds are unwilling to accept that our world ceaselessly changes and that our bubbles pop. Humankind clings to a need for control so strongly that we want to continue to influence this world from even beyond our graves, and so the toiling middle-class writes out wills and testaments while tech potentates make grandiose bequests to charity.

But the untwisted law of cause and effect lays down that everything that happens in the universe is in balance. This is the first truth.

Various great teachings have laid emphasis on this underlying point of balance. Every event that happens contributes to the balance of the whole; it is all one system, even though a single event within the system may seem utterly incomprehensible.

The harmony of this balance inspired Albert Einstein to say, “The scientist’s religious feeling takes the path of a rapturous amazement at the harmony of Natural Law, which reveals an intelligence of such superiority that, compared with it, all the systematic thinking and acting of human beings is an utterly insignificant reflection."

That would mean that the first smart technique to adopt when turbulent change occurs, is for us to sit back and realize that we are only witnesses to ourselves when external change takes place, and to intentionally respond to the change rather than unthinkingly react to it.

Sometimes, life is much like watching a movie unfold on the screen; some of us laugh at the funny bits and cry at the sad bits, while others don’t because they know the that the movie they are seeing is unreal. It is so too in real life: What actually occurs to us depends upon us as observers, and not so much on what is observed.

When we create enough space to be witnesses to ourselves, we are free to choose our responses, and therefore alter the reality we experience. This is the second technique. And only human beings can do that, not automatons or computers or robots. These are soulless beings, bereft of sentience, and as a result, can never be a witness to their own machinations. They can only react in the manner their set of computer instructions tells them to. They can never respond. We, however, can choose to respond instead of reacting.

Which then brings us to the third technique: How do we respond?

Do we respond from the same autonomic plane of “fight or flight" that the more primitive parts of our brains are said to be hardwired for? If so, we have lost the ability to be witnesses to ourselves and therefore also the means to respond intentionally instead of reacting in fear. No, it is by developing some sort of personal peace pact with the “harmony" that is larger than us, as described by Einstein, and then by going about using our free will in accordance with that harmony; not in opposition to it.

If we fight reality, like many of us might want to, we will only get regret, stress, and worry. Hence the truth behind our quest for meaning, best expressed by Viktor Frankl (1905-1997), who said “We get to choose how we respond. It is the one freedom that no one can confiscate."

Siddharth Pai is founder of Siana Capital, a venture fund management company focused on deep science and tech in India

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