Writer Sujatha had this amazing talent for the pithy yet sharp line. In a scene from “Kandukonden Kandukonden” where a retired Army major recounts his past, the feisty heroine challenges him – “Aren’t you still alive?” In response, he orders her to come forward, bends down, stares into her eyes and says, “You know what is worse than dying?" And adds, "It is being forgotten.” It is a stinging line that has lost none of its sheen and power in the last 21 years since I first heard it. They say that death and taxes are two immutable certainties in life. True. But the inevitability of irrelevance merits further inspection too.
Let me clarify something right off the bat. Yes, people – in various relationships, not just marriage - do drift apart owing to deep-rooted incompatibility. Sometimes, there is a volcanic eruption that happens when things come to a head, hurling people in different directions. At other times, fissures metamorphose gradually into schisms, eventually sinking the relationship. That is not what I am choosing to dwell on here. Instead, it is how I perceive the issue of relevance, or lack thereof.
As I thought about some of the reasons why we seem to become irrelevant or less relevant over time, three things came to mind. Distances. Interests. Commitments. As I have reflected on people who have given me the sense of diminished relevance and importance over time, these are the reasons that I could hone in on. I don’t claim exhaustibility here. But I think these are sufficiently different from one another, to give me a framework to dig deeper.
Despite anything that we can say about the power of technology-enabled connectivity, there is a comfort to be had in the rhythms and routines enabled by proximity. My grandpa and his best friend were born, lived in, and died in the same city. My grandpa’s friend had traveled abroad for his higher studies but that was a miniscule fraction of their lives. Mutual respect and genuine affection were the most significant drivers of the longevity of their kinship. But the lack of distance was an undeniable enabler too. The frequency of their interactions meant that they effortlessly became a very indispensable part of each other’s lives. I sometimes bemoan the adverse impact that distances have on relationships. Practical matters such as differing time zones and inability to travel without elaborate planning do rob us off the charm and magic of the in-person interaction.
An evolution in interests and tastes is another factor that make people drift apart without sometimes even realizing it. Outside of our work lives, we all have limited time. And in that time, we chose to focus on things that are sometimes unique to us, meaningful even. But when shared interests erode over time, shared experiences dwindle. I remember once in a group setting among people that I had known for decades, there was a discussion on a new topic that people assumed that I was not an expert on. They were right in their assumption – I was no expert in that topic! Fair enough. I listened silently, chiming in with a tangential thought at times. What was irksome was when I had started to speak about something that I had grown passionate about, it was greeted with a toxic mix of mockery and condescension. Again, the root cause for the heartburn was not the lack of shared interest - it was lack of respect. After all, if one truly meant something to us, we would at least exhibit a perfunctory interest in what excites them. But growing differences in interests were detrimental to the relationship, nonetheless.
And finally, commitments. I would be remiss to not acknowledge the fact that as we age, we have duties and commitments that we absolutely cannot shirk. We grow to expect that people who were once a more integral part of our lives might not get that sense anymore owing to what we focus our time on. To make time for people who are not part of our day-to-day lives and livelihoods is not the easiest of tasks. Distances making hearts grow fonder is an endearingly utopian thought. Sadly, it sometimes is as far from everyday reality as mars is from the earth. Sometimes, out of sight is indeed out of mind. This is where we must acknowledge our blessings. The people that take the time to send a note to say that something seemingly insignificant in their day reminded them of us. Or people that know of something we are working on, send a note to check in on us. These kind souls realize that thoughtful action and meaningful gestures don’t always take much time. But the impact of those gestures lingers and brighten our days.
As much as staying relevant and being given a sense of belonging are wonderful feelings to experience, two things are equally vital, if not more. First, the stability gained by looking inward. And secondly, the need to get into a giver mindset. Looking within us is what lets us be comfortable in our shoes. It lets us adapt to changing tastes and trends at a pace that works for us, sans fear of becoming irrelevant to others. We must live our lives in a way that feels authentic to us. At the same time, getting into a ‘giver’ mindset will liberate us from the pressures and disappointments associated with what others give or do to us. Instead, we can choose to focus on what we can do to people that would benefit from our kindness- of word, thought and action. If you take veteran filmmakers, for instance, some adapt well to changing trends and cater effectively to audience tastes over time. Others stick to their methods, expecting the world to still respect them and treat their works with the same enthusiasm. Yet another group of people turn into mentors for younger writers and filmmakers, hence paying it forward. No one approach is right or wrong. Whatever one’s attitude is, we must simply look to derive happiness and comfort from it.
As Sujatha suggested with his piercing line, being forgotten – or, as I interpret it, becoming irrelevant – is indeed painful. But as actor-director Parthiban once wrote, “Innoruthar irukkum varai yaarume anaadhai alla.” It loosely translates into, so long as there is at least one other person for you, no one should feel orphaned. As I think about this line, I realize that it is one thing to expect to be the recipient of such generosity. It is another, more fulfilling experience to be that person for someone else. If I do that, then I can get totally comfortable with the thought, "I am irrelevant to some, yes. But others are important to me."