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Devdutt Pattanaik on how we can become more resilient

In his new book, Hope, the mythologist writes about the role of gratitude and generosity in creating opportunity, hope and resilience

Opportunity emerges when people are generous, writes Devdutt Pattanaik. (Unsplash)

When we are in the middle of a crisis, we feel the world is collapsing and nothing’s worth it. But the moment life starts getting better, when spring returns, we think of summer and look forward to the beach, holidays, and parties. 

We may forget the crisis entirely and return to our old ways. But the crisis will return, in one form or the other. We will soon forget COVID-19, as people forgot the Partition, and the world wars despite large billboards asking us to ‘Never Forget’. Humans forget. Memory is too burdensome. But is that wise? 

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Jain mythology tells us that time moves like a serpent, undulating upwards towards good times and downwards towards bad times. This happens with unfailing regularity. In the Jain worldview, the seeds of good times are sown in bad times and vice versa. In other words, a crisis in one form or the other will always recur in life. There is little escape, no matter what society promises us. It, therefore, makes sense to be resilient to the passage of time rather than feel fragile and undone when life takes a turn for the worse. We must prepare ourselves for the next crisis…. 

I recommend seven key ways to build resilience. 

• Retrain your gaze using the concept of ‘darshan’ and realize how the way we see creates fragility or resilience.

• Repurpose storytelling so that stories are not deployed to shut out reality with false promises as a way of protecting children. Instead, narrate stories that encourage resilience in the toughest of times.

• Explore the truth of the forest, where things can go wrong any time, for anyone, rich or poor, mighty or meek, for no fault of theirs.

• Through the assortment of stories available from around the world, learn to appreciate the diversity and dynamism of life.

• End the saviour complex that plagues the Western (and hence modern global) narratives. It makes us want to scold people who do not behave as per our expectations.

• Admit your mortality. Discuss death and prepare for the end of life.

• Contemplate gratitude and generosity. Being grateful for the help received is good but being generous in helping others is better, for the latter creates opportunities, which brings hope.

Devdutt Pattanaik's Hope, published by Juggernaut
Devdutt Pattanaik's Hope, published by Juggernaut

Retrain your gaze

Ram is devastated when Sita is abducted. All he knows is that someone has taken her in the southern direction. He walks in that direction consumed by a feeling of dread, not eating, not sleeping, when he encounters a tribal woman, Sabari. Sabari offers him some berries to eat. Ram has not eaten in days, so he accepts her invitation. Sabari takes a bite of each berry before offering it to Ram. 

Ram accepts the ‘jhoota’ or soiled berries with grace. But Lakshman is livid and accuses Sabari of lacking manners. Ram tells Lakshman, ‘You have sight but no insight. You lack darshan. You see a woman without manners. She has no understanding of royal manners as she has lived in the forest all her life unlike you who is judging her by the standards of the palace. I see a kind and generous woman trying to give me the sweetest of berries.’

In this story, Lakshman is angry with the world for not matching up to his standards, while Ram understands the world for what it is. Lakshman creates a crisis, a subjective crisis, based on his values and rules and expectations…. 

Resilience comes from darshan, … [seeing] the insecurity of all living organisms and their perception of themselves. What if we step out of the ‘good-bad framework’ and step into the ‘hunger-fear framework’? … Our own darshan shifts from being judgemental to being compassionate. 

Darshan is also about recognizing that nothing lasts forever. A crisis comes and goes. In a crisis, the world looks terrifying and everything around seems to collapse, making us very scared. But civilizations go through cycles, cultures go through cycles, fortunes go through cycles, families go through cycles. Animals go back to living as before when a crisis ends, but we as humans have the option to stay fragile or be resilient. 

Change your stories 

Our education has not prepared us for a tough life, a difficult life. We valorize rule-following but do not prepare the children for a world where people may not always play by the rules or even agree with them. We tell children that a good life is created by material opportunities when, in fact, it is created through an engagement with the world as it keeps transforming. We try to establish Swarga, full of opportunities, but ignore Naraka, full of threats that the children may have to deal with again and again in future. …

One way to make our children strong mentally as they slowly move towards physical independence is by telling them stories that deal with danger, injustice, cruelty, and complications. Stories can breed fragility or resilience. Stories shape the lens through which we make sense of the world. These stories help us to experience difficult emotions through their characters and their life circumstances. It’s a safe space. By immersing ourselves in these stories, we come out stronger. We are prepared for the battle of life. …

Be grateful, be generous

This is my strongest recommendation for developing resilience. I hope you are surrounded by generous people because I think then many problems will be solved. Rather than wish for a land of opportunities, I would seek a place where I meet people who are generous and kind, who understand and are able to give and receive with grace. I would like you to be surrounded by many radiant suns who will nourish you. That’s my great hope. 

Hope is when there is opportunity. Opportunity emerges when people are generous. When I talk about generosity, I’m talking about the ability to give without expecting something in return. Materialism is about constantly asking, ‘What is in it for me?’ while spirituality is about asking, ‘Does it have to be about me?’ The more we think only about ourselves, the more we create an ecosystem of hopelessness around us, where none can look at us in hope.

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Rather than asking why we cannot see abundance wherever we go, can we ask why we do not create abundance wherever we go? Rather than asking others to provide us opportunities, can we ask why we do not create opportunities? … If we find no hope around us, can we be the hope for those around us? We may not be able to give material opportunities to all, but surely we can always give an emotional boost wherever we go. Remember, human beings create hope. To validate our humanity, we must be the fountainheads of hope for others. 

Edited and excerpted from Hope: Wisdom to Survive in a Hopeless World with permission from Juggernaut 

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