Please put down that Agatha Christie novel for a minute. You don’t know who I am, so it will come as a huge surprise when I tell you that I’ve walked with you every step you’ve taken. Bear with me – I’m not being mysterious; those are the facts. You’ll get to know me well in a few decades. In the meanwhile, can you take some time now to chat with me? I have something to share.
You are not quite 10 years old. It’s summer, and you’re in Mandya with your parents and sister at your cousin’s wedding. You are happy, enjoying the festivities, and having a great time playing with your other cousins. Suddenly you’re not having fun anymore. I know why!
An adult walking by your little group pauses to poke you in the ribs with a comment that begins to prey on your mind. “Look at that! Even Gita is taller than you are!” It dawns on you for the very first time that other people see you as a short person. Is Gita ‘better’ than you by that measure? Apparently, height matters. Why am I not as tall as Gita? This question rises to the forefront of your consciousness and dampens your enthusiasm and spirits. I see you brooding. Concerns about your height will continue to nag you. I want to share some thoughts about this. Before I do, I want to bring two others into this discussion.
You’ll recognize me someday as that enigmatic voice from the future checking in on you. Stop hanging from that horizontal bar and drop to the ground. Come join me and M10 on the bench over there. We should talk. You know M10 well, though he doesn’t know you yet.
Finally, you are a teenager! You’ve spent the last four months fighting and recovering from a serious case of Infectious Hepatitis. You’re even punier now than you were before you fell ill, and you don’t like what you see in the mirror. Shouts of “Arrey Chotu!” from the playground ring in your ears. You are sick of being the first boy on the left every time your class lines up by height in the school ground at the start of PT period. You are determined to grow tall, big, and strong. You’ve heard that gravity compresses our spine and joints, and squeezes cartilage, and contracts muscles. You’ve read in a magazine that hanging from horizontal bars can help fight the effects of gravity. Your lower body is stretched and the spine elongated to promote growth. You are in your ‘spurt years’ and determined to push it along. You want to be six feet tall!
Your dream will never be realized. All your life, you will have to contend with the unpalatable reality that your sister is taller than you are. Hang in there, M13. There’s more to you than your height. Let’s talk it over as soon as we get one more to complete our quorum.
Look here! Can I get your attention for a few minutes? You don’t know me, but you know these young men all too well. Take a break from your busy day to chat with us. I promise to make it worth your while. You do recognize M10 and M13, don’t you?
You recall hanging from the horizontal bars in vain as a teenager, trying desperately to grow taller. Almost 30 years have gone by, and you’ve made do, standing upright and stretching to your full 5’-3½“ frame. You’ve continually struggled with a conviction that people don’t take you seriously at first, because you do not command an imposing presence; that you are too small to make an impression. You feel passed over in social gatherings and mixers, and initially at work as well. There’s a memorable incident during the international-student orientation on Stanford Campus. You’re chatting with local community members there to welcome incoming students and help them settle in a new country. A nice well-meaning lady asks innocently, “are you here to go to Palo Alto High School?” You see her utter astonishment when you say, no, you are enrolled at Stanford; whereupon – and much to your chagrin – she blurts in amazement “wow, you are already an undergraduate.” You don’t have the courage then to tell her you are actually here for the Ph.D. program in Engineering. That incident haunts you for a long time until it gradually becomes a funny story. Over the years, you feel passed over for opportunities at work and play because of your small stature. You feel inferior. You literally feel small. It has been a rough ride at times; then you slowly learn to overcome these feelings, understand your own true worth and use your strengths to flourish.
Good, we are assembled together! Let’s start with introductions.
We are all the same person, guys!
M10, you will become M13, then M42, and eventually, one day in the distant future, you will become me.
I’m M73. I want to chat about our feelings of inferiority and how we’ve come to terms with them over the years. Like most things, it’s been a gradual learning process. It gave us heartache and anguish over the years. We experienced many difficult days; first chasing a dream that was never realized, then struggling with feelings of inadequacy, and confronting unfairness both real and perceived. It took us a long time to understand that physical height was not the only measure of a person’s stature, even if society frequently behaves as though it is, by judging us from first impressions.
We learned that the other qualities and skills we possessed more than made up for any physical shortcoming. We even learned to joke about it; “I’m not short, I’m vertically challenged,” we’d remark to others. We learned that this supposed shortcoming wasn’t really one at all. Our height is determined by a combination of factors not in our control, including genetics, the environment, and the circumstances and conditions in which we grew up. We realized that physical attributes are transient – they can and do change, and what matters most, in the long run, is the heart, the mind, and the attitude that we bring to our lives. We figured out that people’s attitudes changed when they got to know us for who we were, and what we were capable of. In the hearts and minds of those that mattered, we were ten feet tall. Along with our realizations, our stature grew! Guys, look at the bright side; our feelings of inadequacy did not turn into an inferiority complex; we didn’t turn into little Napoleons!
What’s the message for us? We should continue to learn from the experience and counsel of those who are wiser than us. Continue to reflect and learn from our own experiences. Understand that life can be unfair, and though we do not control the cards we are dealt, we can teach ourselves to play the best game possible with the cards we have. We should continue to make the best decisions we can at any given moment, with the information that we have. A true sense of self-worth, happiness, and fulfillment, and doing what we love with those we love is what life is all about. We must derive that sense from within us, not from the outside. We can and must continue to learn about ourselves, and consider how to live our lives in the best way possible as we move forward, by reflecting on our past.
Each of us can learn to stand tall in our own way; look forward by looking back to understand our past.
I wonder what advice M80 will have for all of us!
Mukund Acharya is a regular columnist for India Currents.