A JOURNAL OF LIFE’S LESSONS- PART 5
IN SEARCH OF SIGNIFICANCE
While talking to my grandson on FaceTime a few days ago (as I do every morning), I complimented him on a poem he had written in school. In fact, I was astonished that a twelve-year-old boy could write a poem running to about sixty lines on the American War of Independence. I reproduce a few lines to give an idea of his thinking process-
Fighting and fighting,
Waging a war,
Wondering what it’s worth,
What it’s worth fighting for.
In the years to come if the next generation continues with this mindset then I am sure that the world will become a better place to live in. What impressed me more was the quality of mentoring imparted at the school level in molding the thinking process of young minds.
As the subject for the day centered around poetry, I asked him whether he knew what ‘Haiku’ is.
“Yes, it is a type of short-form poetry originally from Japan,” he replied.
“They taught you that in school?” I asked.
“Yes, we had a discussion on that,” he replied.
“I will read out a poem I had written, can you tell me whether it is a Haiku?” I asked.
I then read out the following poem to him-
In the shade
of the redwood tree,
I stood, a fly,
In time and space,
“No grandpa, it is strictly not a haiku. It is a short poem,” he said.
“And why so?” I asked.
“We were taught in school that a Japanese haiku consists of three lines or phrases with a 5-7-5 structure of syllables,” he said.
“But it does have other important features of a Haiku, like it is short and contemplative and has an emphasis on imagery,” I asked.
“Well, you can call it an English haiku,” he replied.
As I continued conversing with him I learned a few things myself, that it is never too early to understand nor is it never too late to learn. A few significant things arose from the conversation, though the keyword in the poem was ‘insignificant’. The most striking observation was when he said that ‘insignificant’ indicated ‘existential dread’. It left me groping for words.
“And where did you learn that,? I asked.
“We had a discussion in school, and that’s where I heard about existential dread,” he replied.
“Do you know what it means?” I asked again.
“Oh, it is something to do with anxiety and finding a meaning in life,” he replied.
“But grandpa, no one is insignificant,” he continued “everyone is significant in some way isn’t it?”
“Yes, you have a point there,” I said and stopped.
I decided that it was time to change the topic of our conversation and veered off to more mundane things. I was afraid that we were stepping into an area that was far beyond the realms of childhood and disturbing the innocence that lay therein was not my idea of a conversation. He seemed to have touched a spot that had taken me years to understand and experience. I was also aware that he had only spilled out what he had picked up during the class. But he had touched a raw nerve when he talked of existential dread.
Several years ago (eleven to be exact), when on a visit to the US, I had the opportunity to visit the Muir Woods National Monument which is situated a few miles north of San Francisco. The 558-acre Monument preserves one of the last remaining ancient redwood forests in The Bay Area. Some of the redwoods are nearly 1,000 years old and reach heights of more than 250 feet. As I walked through the preserve I was overcome with a sense of awe looking at the humongous size of the trees: so tall and so broad around their trunks that you felt like just an insignificant dot in that landscape, for all purposes non-existent. As I found a place in a cavity of the trunk of one tree and stood there, my nephew who had accompanied me clicked a photo (the photo is attached along with this post). When I returned home to India and scanned through the photographs, this one stood out and I immediately penned the five lines reproduced above. At that time what went through my mind was how small I looked compared to the giant redwood tree.
It is only now, years later, that the question of ‘Existential dread’ rose again (after the talk with my grandson). I had long ago felt the anxiety, the dread of melting away into ‘Insignificance’, like Antoine Roquentin in Sartre’s novel ‘Nausea’. Throughout the novel, Roquentin grapples with uncertainty about his own existence and the existence of objects and people in the world around him. The seemingly impulsive act of picking up a pebble and throwing it into the sea overcomes him with nausea and the meaninglessness of his act. He is left searching for authenticity in his living.
There is no general formula for tackling this anxiety of fading into insignificance. Each person carries his own burden and seeks out his own answers. Maybe that is why I found my way to becoming significant through my books. My first book ‘I am just An Ordinary Man’ arose out of this question of existential dread. Writing has given me release.
In other words, it is the aspiration to be something of ‘Significance’. But like my grandson said ‘no one is insignificant, everyone is significant in some way isn’t it?”