Tuesday, April 06, 2010

What's In Your Backpack?

The launch of the iPad reminded me of something a friend commented over lunch a week or so ago. We had gone in a large group to the food court in the massive Bahrain City Centre, and she remembered a line from the George Clooney movie “Up in the Air” that ‘spoke’ to her – “what’s in your backpack?”

It basically led to an interesting discussion on all that we pack into our lives, the things that consume and weigh us down, and also what actually populates that huge backpack we like to label: ‘our personal and professional life’.

I made a rather flippant remark on the need to, perhaps, increase the size of our backpack, and soon realised this flippancy itself has its roots in most modern discourse on adjusting to life in the fast lane. Sometimes it is felt that the best way to deal with some of the core issues that one can’t handle is to change the packaging, give a new label to the problem or get technology to increase legroom.

In other words, to cite an example, it would be rare to find anyone question the rationale behind the really fast lifestyle that we all lead but you’ll find numerous technological and other solutions to optimise that very same lifestyle, make it productive, and squeeze the profit quotient into every micro-millisecond of that hurried lifestyle. The core issue, as always, is conveniently brushed under the carpet and only the externals are adjusted on the assumption that those are the only things that matter.

Exactly like what the iPad does: makes information consumption an enjoyable experience but does not check whether all that information has resulted in knowledge acquisition or simply fallen by the wayside. Of course, that is not the purpose of the iPad or other technologies we use and it would be pointless to expect that.

However, the core issue remains unchanged. The race to find meaning and significance in every activity that we pursue becomes, as a result, a mad rush for something truly profound – a need to determine that our life is not really a waste of time but that there’s a greater purpose in what we do.

However, as we try to explore this thought further, we find out that it’s not as easy as one would imagine it to be because doing so requires questioning the very things we do. Taken to its logical conclusion, this thought process can even alter our perceptions, force a paradigm shift in our thinking, and compel us to undergo a “metanoia” (new mind) experience.

If we look at our life through the prism of the big picture, and allow eternity to be the yardstick for our actions, then, it’s quite likely that we’ll discover that some of the emergencies of today will no longer appear urgent in the eternal scheme of things. They lose their importance because their value decreases. Their value decreases because we realise they don’t last forever, and hence, do not require to be taken seriously.

And yet - despite all this - we pursue them because we can’t imagine our life to be any different without them. Our backpack, we believe, has to be stuffed with them. In fact, so stuffed that there shouldn’t be any breathing space available. Heavier the better because it’d help us to brag better or so we think.

These things could be anything at all – from work related issues to personal goals or just about anything that adds meaning to our life. I wish I could provide details but I feel that will only obscure an appreciation of the bigger picture. An extra focus on details runs the danger of inviting a tangent in the discussion.

But then, it so happens that something unexpected takes place.

Our backpack soon gets heavier and heavier, and we realise that we like it and want it that way. Ambling through life under the weight of a heavy backpack suggests that we are leading a busy and purposeful life. And in an image conscious society we are in, appearances are not only important but also necessary. They enhance the image we want to convey, and leave us hungry for greater enhancements.

Satisfaction becomes elusive as our entire being taps into feeding that restless appetite to acquire more, want more, yearn more. Soon we want nothing less than making more space in our backpack for all those things we desperately want to accumulate.

The trouble is, in all this excitement, the words of Christ can prove to be a bit uncomfortable: What does it profit a man if he gains the whole world but loses his soul?

These words are a complete anti-thesis to the way we are programmed to live because the priorities they espouse aren't something we want to pursue. The immediate is what we cherish because it fits perfectly well within our world view. Our hands can easily glide along its smooth circumference and clasp it close to our comfort zones. Now it’s not that we dislike the long-term completely, but it’s just that waiting for the outcome can take a real long time. Besides, our backpack can only accommodate the compactness of the immediate, and so choosing it becomes a no-brainer really.

The real battle, therefore, if one has to put it that way, shifts to the choices we make about what inputs we want: what takes priority in our life? What do we want to burden ourselves with? What excites us? What makes us want to dance? What do we do that we don’t mind if it weighs us down? What – in the final analysis – is in our backpack?

Relationships weigh us down. Ryan Bingham, George Clooney’s character in the movie was very clear about not including relationships in his backpack. It was a choice he made, and had to live with the consequences of this and other choices his character made.

Relationships can be demanding, inconvenient, challenging. They are not meant to be easy because people - and we ourselves - are complicated beings. However, that is exactly what makes relationships so vital for our growth and maturity, and consequently, a must-have for our backpack. They make us learn where we fit in the wider context, that we belong to a community, and that even we have a part to play in making a difference to the world at large.

As is to be expected, towards the end of the film, Bingham realises the error of his ways and makes amends. Maybe not a complete turnaround, but close enough for him to build bridges and begin re-connecting with those who mattered in his world. A little late in life for him but a beginning has to be made. Better late than never.

Obviously this once again raises some pertinent questions about choices. Why do we often exclude that which is necessary? Why do we embrace the trivial and forsake the vital? Why do we avoid the narrow road? Why are we so comfortable in postponing metanoia?

What have we removed from our backpack?

If we are honest, we'll know the answer to this question, but most of us have turned evasiveness into such a fine art that it usually takes a crisis for us to articulate the truth. And till then, we can journey from airport to airport looking for experiences, moments, insights that we can stuff into our backpack and assume that we have cracked the code when, in fact, we are still far away from home.

Far, far away.