Thursday, May 12, 2022

Normalizing new normals

Starting in July 2013, I was preparing for a new normal.  I don’t know if I quite thought about it that way at the time, but I think that is what I was doing.  My maternal grandma – I called her Thathamma since I was a toddler until she passed on in 2018 – underwent a bypass surgery in Chennai.  The surgery was a rude shock to her and the family.  The operation was successful and Thathamma recovered quite well.  After moving to the US in 1998, I don’t think I had ever failed to be in active contact with her.  But post her surgery in 2013, I decided that I would call her every day and speak to her at least briefly.  I don’t think I verbalized it, but I interpreted the surgery as a reminder that she was not going to be around forever. 

Thathamma had two children – my mom and my maternal aunt, who was 11 years younger than my mother.  I was very close to my aunt as well.  As I liked to say, my aunt was a sister, friend and mother rolled into one.  Post Thathamma’s surgery, my aunt – who also lived in Chennai – on occasion, would pick up some of my daily calls if she happened to be in the house too.  If I was in a rush, I would tell her, “Shoba, I’ll talk to you later.  Put Thathamma on the phone.  Let me say, Hi.”  Subconsciously, I knew – or I thought so – that I had more time with my aunt than I did with Thathamma.  Then, something unexpected happened.  In October 2016, Shoba passed away, aged 49.  Nobody saw that coming.  I certainly did not.  Yes, she had had some health issues but not for a moment did anyone think that she would die.  She did.  A world without Shoba was not a new normal that I was prepared for.  Nobody in the family or her close circle of friends were, for that matter.  If I had known, I would have prioritized speaking to her on the phone a little more.  But how was I supposed to know?

Over time, I have realized the truth in that wonderful saying about the best laid plans of mice and men going astray.  Not to sound nihilistic, but it is true that there will be times in our life that new normals will be imposed on us.  Through circumstance.  Through fate.  Through destiny.  Through whatever.  If a new normal is unexpectedly positive, we can, of course, rejoice in it.  But if it is not, we are better served accepting it with as much grace as our hearts will allow it.  I am not a perfect man.  I am not always as gracious or as graceful as I would like to be.  But I sincerely believe that the way I went through the grieving process post Shoba’s death was a rare instance where I dealt with an unexpectedly negative development with considerable equanimity.  It was because I realized that the shocking new normal of existence post Shoba’s death was going to be hard for me, yes.  But it was going to be much harder for Shoba’s daughter and Thathamma, who were 12 and 80 respectively, at that time.  Finding inner peace, not happiness, was my immediate goal post Shoba’s death.  I strove, and at times, forced myself to channel my grief in service of those who needed to be shielded from uncontrollable sadness.

We live in a world where there is a tremendous, almost nauseating, emphasis placed on happiness.  The need to look happy, the urge to flaunt one’s happiness through smiles even during instances where inner unrest prevent the smile from reaching the eye.  As I wrote earlier, if we are to place more of a premium on internal peace, we may actually achieve happiness along the way.  Happiness, in a purer form, unsullied by the pressures of society.  I sometimes think that we almost expect and demand that life be a bed of roses.  In my initial phase of living in the US, I remember hearing quite a few of my friends use the phrase, “Shit happens.”  Not the most eloquent, flowery words but it is something that has stayed with me.  Unexpected stuff happens.  Sure, there may be life lessons to be learned if any of it was avoidable.  But in circumstances where things are well and truly beyond our control, we will do ourselves and our loved ones a service by prioritizing two things - outward acceptance of the situation and an inward journey towards finding peace. 

As I reflect on my own life, I know that I am still a work in progress. (Thank you, Will Smith, for that coinage.) As Anu Hasan once remarked, it is not the ones that fall that fail.  It is the ones that don’t get back up that truly fail.  Yes, fate might slap us in the face when we least expect it. (Sorry, Will Smith, for alluding to the Oscar slap!)  But if we can get back up, while lending others a hand, then we might succeed in adjusting to new normals in a fulfilling manner.