Out of the Despair


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Category: Reflections Date: 27 Oct 02

Hesse’s Siddhartha tells the story of a young Brahmin in quest of self-knowledge, where we watch him try on several guises – that of the ascetic who has renounced life; the seeker of knowledge; the worldly sensualist who has an affair with a beautiful courtesan – and we enjoy success and wealth, and finally looking upon the aged and dying face of his lover who has borne him a son, we hear the words of a man who has, after his many travails, found himself.


“Most people, Kamala, are like a falling leaf that drifts and turns in the air, flutters, and falls to the ground. But a few others are like stars that travel one defined path: No wind reaches them, they have within themselves their guide and path.”


This week, I saw a young mother of two teenagers lying in a coffin, looking radiantly beautiful in a red and gold wedding sari. I watched one of her daughters say, “my mother said we were her angels but really, she was ours,” with grace and composure.

Private Moments

I saw the young girls afterwards mingle with their friends, smiles breaking out of tears, and knew the life force would take over; they watch the world open and close and like everyone else, they would come to some kind of understanding of this at times bewildering, frightening world, marvel its wonders, and move on.


Last week I read of three mothers at the funeral of their teenaged daughters. The stories were of collapsing mothers and weeping friends.


This week I read of a boy who watched his mother being murdered, of his spending his 10th birthday with the memory of his mother’s death still fresh in his mind.


Every life has its private moments of intense pain where the world has shrunk into a tiny room, opaque with a fog, backed into a corner of no escape; moments of despair out of which there appears to be no relief.


Despair has many forms – could be a mother clutching her belly at her child’s coffin, an unthinkable betrayal, the loss of a parent or child, or simply a slow erosion of love from your life.


Not for me, I have thought these many years – the numbing escapism, the anathema of renunciation, meditation, ritual, non-being practised by Eastern cultures. I considered those the props of the weak, the resentful, the fearful. I wanted to grab life with its multitudinous tentacles bristling, electric sparks fully conscious to experience its roller-coaster depths and the rocket highs. Stillness to me was a kind of death.


But new experience, observed and experienced, has brought another equation into this belief system, the puzzling question of how humankind deals with being cornered in that room with fog; how do we process it; how do we allow ourselves and help those around us despite it all to become stars and not flail and fall and rot like leaves.


The stars are not of Hollywood or celebrity glamour. They are simply the men, women and children amongst us who are able not just to pick up the pieces, but struggle against being whipped by life – by people who lash despair with blows of life.

Sense of Self

See the child whose parents died of aids holding down two jobs so he could send his younger brother to school, and take care of his needs. See the woman who tries to make sense of her son’s death by helping other people cope with the illness her child had.


See the recently retired man valiantly putting on his suit and going for interviews so he could keep a sense of himself. See the woman caring for her ill mother at home for the past 20 years, mopping up urine at 2 am, laying her down on fresh sheets and still managing to share a smile. Those are stars.


At a funeral service, the pundit spoke the ancient Hindu words of wisdom – truths that we all know – that our bodies are clothes that we can cast off, that the soul is eternal.


Yet, how difficult this fact is to fathom because even as we grasp the terror of a human being just like us, another part of us is actively pulled along with the life force, with its minutiae promptings and responsibilities – an exam, a child waiting to be picked up from school, a dress to be altered, a phone call that absolutely must be returned.


And this yearning, aching, striving, conquering one’s own demons, wanting to go on despite it all, is our belief that life, with its infinite mysteries, is worth it, after all; that chips of diamonds that lift our spirits are somewhere there among the mounds of ashes.


But in my new equation, I believe now that vital to our life force is a kind of stillness that comes from the understanding that everything has its time: Our fleeting youth, our riper passions, fame, success, power, wealth. Its joy and travails all transient, shed like old clothes.


Beyond that, to borrow the analogy from Siddhartha of the river that is everywhere – at the source, at the mouth, at the waterfall, current, in the oceans and mountains – is a sense that we may each be at different points in our lives, and those will change with time, but we all remain part of the same eternity. Some call it the soul. For the spiritual cynics like me who need a more tangible twig of understanding, TS Eliot’s prayer in his poem “Ash Wednesday” may work:
Teach us to care and not to care.

Teach us to sit still.


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All Articles Copyright Ira Mathur