The country goes to the polls today. The what-if questions keep many of us awake at night. What if we make poor choices? What if healthcare becomes worse? What if we don’t survive this year?
I can’t recall ever being certain about anything in life. Until July 2020. As long as I can remember, from my first day in grade school (which desk to sit at or to share my lunch) I’ve been plagued by uncertainty. And these were the easy ones. Which college to go to, graduate school or not, meet the man my parents wanted me to, were even greater sources of uncertainty. Yet with my father in a job, that required us to move cities every two years, having to learn a new language each time and making new friends meant I must have learned to cope. Though all I recall is the anxiety that came from all the change and the uncertainty it entailed.
Strangely enough, after more than six months of being quarantined, the COVID-19 pandemic has surprised me with the degree of certainty it has brought into my life. The certainty that we don’t know a whole lot about the virus including when we’ll have a vaccine. If there will ever be a return to a normal—whether the old one or a new one. With aging parents living in India, I don’t know whether and when I’ll be able to visit them. My adult children constantly remind me that they’d rather be ‘home’ and they mean THEIR home! The pandemic’s guaranteed uncertainty, far from causing a panic attack, has had a calming effect on me, by rendering the uncertainty about everything else – the impending elections, the parents’ health, the children’s careers much less scary.
‘This too will pass.’ My mother’s mantra reverberates loudly now more than before. I remember the first time I heard her say the words. I was too young to understand how significant those words were and what they’d come to mean for difficult situations. When the emergency rule was declared in India, in the seventies, we were living in Hyderabad. The sense of fear that hovered over the homes of family and friends, the hushed conversations, and furtive trunk calls made to relatives living in Delhi are distinct even if only fragments of memory. Yet I recall the day I heard my mom whisper to her friend, ‘This too will pass.’ The mantra became my lodestar. A year later when an accident had me hospitalized for days, I held onto those words even as my aunts sang songs of comfort around me.
From the political to the social and personal, we often go through periods of great uncertainty. The current COVID-19 virus is not the first time we’ve faced a devastating pandemic. The human race has survived the bubonic plague (called the Black Death), the Spanish flu, Ebola, SARS, and other deadly viruses. The upcoming elections with the potential of devastating results are not the first crisis any country has faced. Even though the outcomes that we feel uncertainty over are never in our control, how we choose to respond is completely in our control. When my kids worry about a future that appears bleak, I quickly point out. “When you think you’ve hit rock bottom there’s only one way to go and that’s upwards!”
A story about the 16th century Mughal emperor Akbar and his advisor Birbal reminds us how to keep things in perspective. Once Akbar was strolling in the royal gardens listening to Birbal when he noticed a bamboo stick lying on the ground. The king picked it up and turned to Birbal with a mischievous smile on his face. “Can you make this stick shorter without chopping it?” Birbal looked around and spotted a gardener holding another stick—a longer one. He took the stick from the gardener and placed it next to the shorter stick that Akbar had given him. “Look, your stick is now shorter!” he declared. Birbal’s solution teaches us that our own problems may not be as bad compared to others.
As we head towards what seems to be a game-changing election, let’s use time-tested techniques, whether personal (meditation, exercise, hobbies) or public (writing, speaking, organizing), to cope with any uncertainty that we face. And continue to spread the word about the only thing that’s certain to make any difference. Vote!
Chitra Srikrishna is a Carnatic musician based in Boston.