Let us give ourselves the freedom to change our course

(Opinion Page Column published in Khaleej Times dated 17 Jan, 2022)


Literature to me has always been a way to understand life as the writers saw it. Among the innumerable readings I have had of prose and verse, one that has stood out for the metaphor it presents of life is the poem, ‘The Brook’ by Lord Tennyson. How dexterously the poet has depicted life as being in a state of constant flux, flowing from its source to destination, skirting around obstacles and changing the course as needed to avoid blockades, ‘curving and flowing’ to join the sea!

Every time I read this poem to my students as part of their literature lessons, I pause to consider the brook’s ability to mould its manner with changing conditions. It presents an unparalleled example for flexibility of character, which in my view would make it easier for us too, to navigate this vast landscape of life. But how often do we allow ourselves a change of course and conduct to our benefit? How easily do we reconfigure ourselves when we see roadblocks in front?

I have often felt that in our eagerness to seem steadfast and resolute in our ambitions, we put ourselves in straightjackets and suffocate silently. While it is a virtue to be a warrior and hold the fort come what may, there is merit in being malleable to situations too. When the weather turns adverse, there is wisdom in changing our path than in driving into the storm. My dad always said that only a tree that bends low when the wind blows hard survives. The presumptuous one that stands upright, in the self-consuming belief that it has all it takes to bear the bluster, might just snap as the storm passes by.

It is understandable that in a world that gives excessive importance to material success, it is a sin to be a drifter who doesn’t think twice before changing paths. We are fed with lessons on being single-minded and dogged in our occupations. There are no two ways about the fact that determination is indispensable to success, but it makes me wonder if we have made ourselves too rigid in the process, not allowing us space to manoeuver or alter our perceptions as we go along.

Come to think of it, it is a huge injustice we might be doing to ourselves. Even as we set our goals at various levels, we must also give us permission to deviate from the destination we have set for ourselves; allow us to think differently and to follow a new course, give ourselves sufficient margins of error, and the freedom even to fail. It is like having an entire field for us to push the ball and make it to the post.

Focus is not about being unyielding in our efforts; it is about being conscious to fluid situations, keeping a close watch on our circumstances and tweaking ourselves accordingly. Each situation requires a different response system and sticking to fixed life formulae or set dogmas will not help us find lasting solutions to our problems.

I have been a wanderer all my life, which is not to mean I have not had substantial plans and goals. I have chosen paths to travel which have often been tough to negotiate, and whenever it got to a point where I found myself smarting under the weight of the situation, I have always changed course. Like the brook that ‘winds about, and in and out’.

The guilt, shame and loss of face that I had imagined don’t exist anymore, for my personal pursuits don’t seek public approval. Many of my opinions have altered with time and I have never been averse to revise my thought whenever the scenario has changed.

However, freedom to change our perceptions does not mean being footloose and unchecked in our ways. It is about being easy and soft on ourselves responsibly, giving us the space to walk through the warren of life without hitting the dead-end, and not holding ourselves hostages to unbending self-theories.

Precision and perfection are good ideals to aim for, but if it will not give us breathing space and if they will make us utterly self-righteous, our channels may get clogged, impeding our natural flow, and we may become stagnant pools, unlikely to meet the sea. To be principled is not to be inflexible in thought and action, but to be compliant in a way that will steer us around curves and corners and take us to our rightful destination. For, as they say, if there is anything constant in life it is change.

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