Anxiety of what if

Distressed by the humiliating and heart crunching partly pre-ordained (destiny and deterministic) and partly random (the chance game of dice where everything was lost) assault of the mighty mace on her and her five husbands’ life that led them to the twelve ghastly years of not so royal exile into the woods, Draupadi interrogates Yudhisthira, the eldest one, about the dilemma of acting righteously. If acting and behaving righteously, as you have been doing, does not guarantee happy endings in this life, why should one bother to act righteously. If Duryodhana is the one who enjoys good days despite his indefinite and infinitely grave crimes against innocents and gullible, in what sense being righteous is better? If, we the victim suffer and they the culprits prosper, what is the meaning of it all?

I encounter similar queries loaded with the exact same moral dilemma from my undergraduate and graduate students. What I call “what if” anxiety is the biggest anxiety I have ever witnessed in my own academic journey as well as in the journey of my students as they narrate themselves with me on occasions.

“What if I do not land in a good job even after I get my degree?” They ask me frequently. What if I fail in life even after so much effort I have made? I have seen so many succeed without effort and with lots of cheating. What if I fail even after I pass the exams?

Students differ on the meaning of “good job” significantly. Some are expecting high paying job. Some dream about permanent secure job (government job). Some dream about landing in elite universities around the world. Some prefer to dream about having a job in NGOs if not in INGOs. Whatever they mean by “good job” most of the time, I find them, secretly but continuously, in anxiety of possibly not being able to achieve the dream they have after final exams of their degree. The seemingly happy faces in the graduation party hide a lot of what if anxiety inside their black and blue gown. 

Alas! I have no clear and sweet answer. I passed through similar anxiety as a student. I am no different from what they experience. But I have lived a little bit more years of life and have witnessed a bit more (maybe!) twists and turns of this lived drama. I dare to address this dilemma using the philosophical deliberation between Drapadi and Yudhisthira in Mahabharata, the largest epic that mankind has ever created.

I consider myself a Nastika (having no faith in some particular books being the ultimate words of truth) and Nirishwarbadi (with no belief in almighty God), I do not believe in past lives and/or re-incarnation, but I agree with three of the four factors of success that Draupadi cites: destiny (determinism/causality), chance (randomness), acts (effort) and Karma (actions past life). Our efforts are at most one third of what is required to be successful. The rest two third of what makes us successful is not in our hands. If you believe in reincarnation (and Karma theory), only one fourth is in your control. Only our acts are in our hand, if at all. Acts are necessary but never sufficient. Draupadi elaborates this fact by talking about an act of planting seeds. Planting seeds is necessary for the fruits to be reaped, but never sufficient. A farmer has only two options. Believe in the absolute destiny (determinism) and do nothing. Believe in absolute randomness and do nothing. Doing nothing is the killer of human dignity and meaning of life, I can say that. Believe me. The rain may come or may not come. The success is not predictable at all unless you know the record of all past lives to plug into the formula of Karma.

I regularly suggest my students to focus on maximizing their effort and that’s the best way to ensure the best possible outcomes. The best outcomes could be negative outcomes, but still the best ones. Worrying about what you have no control over (destiny, chance and past lives) does not make a tiny dent in the situation. The situation cannot be fathomed by worrying. The maximum we can do is one third of what ideally should be in our favor. If you fail, your responsibility is one third and if you succeed, again merely one third the credit goes to you. That’s is the maximum you can hope for.

Draupadi calls for action, to fight for what belongs to them. They might win or they might loose. But the only thing they have control over is their own action. Inaction is death for Draupadi.

Moreover, Draupadi shuns the idea of free will and hence god. Yudhistira blames Draupadi of being Nastika for questioning free will. Although she confirms her belief in the creator, she narrates the moral paradox of god’s existence succinctly. If god is the one who is responsible for everything, why should the sinners be punished and why should we expect good ends for righteous ones. God should take the blame as well as the credit of all our actions and thoughts if he is the one who makes everything move.

Back to my students’ what if anxiety. Yudhisthira tries to rescue Draupadi form the moral dilemma and the paradox of free will. A bit unconvincingly, but a bit convincingly nevertheless. Yudhisthira argues for niskama karma (actions without expectations of the final results) at two steps. First, acting and behaving righteously has to be done because it’s the right thing to do in itself. No reason for doing righteously is needed. End results have nothing to do with virtuousness (dharma) of your actions. Second, if you really need a casual explanation (what Draupadi actually seems to be looking for here) the righteousness also pays back, though we should never expect, if not in this life, in after lives. If destiny, chance and efforts are not explaining the results fully, Karma is the final explanation of the unexplained.

I fully recommend the first half of what Youdhisthira argues and would like to add an extra dose of reason behind doing righteously as suggested by Draupadi, i.e. acting righteously generally ends up paying you well in this very life. By doing right, you can expect that right will be done to you, most of the time. Studying hard tends to lead towards success. If you want a guaranteed life, either you need to believe in Karma and wait for the next life or you accept the limits of your existence.

Learning and studying is a right thing to do in itself irrespective of what your achievement is relative to your dreams. On the second step argument of Yudhisthira, payoff to be delivered in the next life, I do not see such guarantees.

I propose a perspective to view own learning or own achievement for my students. I tell this to my students. If you think passing the exam is the achievement, then you will neither enjoy learning nor will you be able to solve the what if anxiety and the moral dilemma Draupadi invokes as an argument in favor of immediately punishing Duryodhana with the help of incomparable strength of the five husbands.

This is my view of learning. After learning one should expect changes inside yourself more than in the grade sheets or in the eyes of your peers and preceptors. Karna wants his strengths and achievements recognized by the nobles and Duryodhana is the only one he finds willing to do so, unfortunately. A passionate bow fighter Eklavya from a tribal community does not care. He feels that he has learned so much from the stone made image of the preceptor, Drona, who refused to teach him, that he easily sacrifices his thumb as a fee for learning literally nothing

If you think that there has been changes inside you, however small, you have already achieved what education is meant to be. “What kind of changes?” some of them ask me back. The change that broadens your world view enabling you to see the reality a bit more broadly and little more closely. A bit with wider lenses.

Imagine looking at the mountain of your choice through a five millimeter tube and then 5 inch tube and then with 20 inch tube. Finally, imagine not using any tubes at all and looking at the mountain with your naked eyes. Now imagine you are looking at all these things on a huge screen. Again imagine actually being in front of the mountain.

Do you feel that your eyes have been widened, not literally of course? Are you able to see the wider horizon? Are you able to smell the breeze the mountain freezes on its way? If yes, your education has been a success. If not, your education may land you in a good job. But nothing can be a bigger wastage than your education if you are still looking at the mountain of your dream with the same five millimeter tube or 5 inch tube.

You can try. Success is not guaranteed. But not trying is nothing more than death itself.

3 Replies to “Anxiety of what if”

  1. The entire debate here relates with consequentialist vs deontological ethical theories.

    Who determines what acts are right acts/ action , and, what acts are wrong acts /action ?

    In what situations consequences help us determine the above ?

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