80th Birthday

Life for many of us is not about artistic genius or business impact. It is about small pleasures, rich relationships and the ability to make peace with your soul

The Good Life | Shoba Narayan

Posted: Fri, Aug 17 2012. 8:32 PM IST

In the last six months, I have participated in five sathabhishekams-as 80th birthdays are called in my community.  Milestone events help you mark time and take stock.  For the Hindu 80th birthday, the date is usually fixed after the person has seen 1000 full-moons.  Both my father and father-in-law celebrated this, as did three very close uncles.  In the West, people turn 80 and take viagra.  In my community, people turn 80 and drink hot-water infused with dried ginger root.  Hugh Hefner might gather around 11 Playboy bunnies for his 80th birthday.  We gather around 11 bare-bodied priests who will chant the Rudram in praise of the ascetic God, Shiva.    Typical of the patriarchy that still pervades Hinduism, this 80th birthday is usually celebrated for the man.

Turning 80 is a good time to confront the question that author Clayton M. Christensen poses in his well-meaning but ultimately pointless book: how will you measure your life? The premise of Christensen’s book, and one that I disagree with, is that wisdom can be taught; that happiness can be engineered.   For example, Christensen blithely imparts business concepts-the most gag-inducing one being, ‘Create a culture,’– that aim to help the reader pursue happiness.  The book should have been an article.  At best, it serves as a nudge; something that readers can mull over and then most likely forget.  Behavioral modification of the kind Christensen advocates requires discipline and commitment, both of which can be taught but not through a book.  Teaching it in a classroom environment over the course of months seems to be a better model.  The best way is to follow Christensen’s own approach.  He earned the right to write this book through intense introspection, which arguably, is the only way to gain wisdom.  He says that he spent an hour a day during his year as a Rhodes scholar meditating and praying about the purpose of his life.  Each phrase in the previous sentence delineates Christensen as an exceptional person.  What about the rest of us? What about the average person who doesn’t have the intellect to be a Rhodes Scholar; the faith and the discipline to meditate an hour a day at age 20-something; or the means to do any of the above?

My skepticism of self-help books such as Christensen’s doesn’t, however, detract from the seductiveness of its title.  How will you measure your life? For the educated elite, and certainly those graduating from Harvard Business School, where Christensen teaches, a good measure of a life well-lived would be impact and legacy: building an institution, affecting countless lives, making enough wealth to pass on to future generations, improving the world.

Legacy in this business context is usually built or engineered, but in the art world, it can often be an accident.  When the Japanese artist, Hokusai, created the woodblock print that would become a Japanese art icon nearly 200 years later, he didn’t know he was creating a legacy.  His print, The Great Wave off Kanagawa, is among the most recognizable pieces of Japanese art.  But Hokusai wasn’t aiming for immortality when he created that beautiful wood-block print in Prussian blue.  He was cultivating the self; aiming for the divine.  A quote attributed to him at the end of his life says that none of the pictures he had produced till age 70 had little merit.  “At 100, I will make real wonders and at 110, every point, every line, will have a life of its own,” said Hokusai.  I have read similar quotes from Hindustani musicians in Sheela Dhar’s wonderful book, “Raga n’ Josh,” in which singers aim for honesty and integrity in every musical phrase they essay.  Hokusai’s measure of his life in terms of the integrity of his art was every bit as lofty and ambitious as Andrew Carnegie’s desire to build steel plants and cultural institutions.  The East plumbs inward to chart and measure growth of the self; the West measures external impact.  But what of average lives that cannot be measured through achievement either in the material or artistic sense?    Life, for many of us is not about artistic genius or business impact.  It is about small pleasures, rich relationships, and the ability to make peace with your soul.  It is about what author Katrina Kenison calls, “The Gift of the Ordinary Day.”

The people who attended my father-in-law’s 80th birthday were not the spectrum of political contacts he had made during his years in Delhi.  They were a broader version of that vaunted Indian stereotype: the joint family.  Who will come to your birthday when you turn 80? Who will you invite to be with you when you have little to gain and nothing to prove? As I saw this year with five sathabhishekams, it will be those people who are part of you; the people you love.

How will you measure you life? By increasing the surface area of the people you love.  Unlike monuments that can be built; unlike intelligence, which can be faked; learning to love your frail friends and dysfunctional family requires tolerance and generosity.  Affection is not about what you do; it is about who you are.  Worst of all– from a goal-oriented point of view–it cannot be measured, only felt.  Building a web of affection is, to my mind, the hardest goal there is; and also one of the few goals worth pursuing.

 

Shoba Narayan doesn’t measure her life but that may be because she isn’t good in mathematics.