Life is truly strange and is full of inexplicable ups and downs. Sometimes it seems that we are being tossed about like a boat in a turbulent sea – now reaching the crest, only to touch the nadir at the next moment. We seem to be mere toys in the hands of what we call “destiny” or fate. A few can withstand these blows, while others not only get frustrated with life but also lose faith in themselves. Such frustration, and its offspring depression sometimes have terrible consequences.

Recently, I came to know of a person who, in a soulful letter to a friend, lamented about almost everything that happened in his life. It seemed that life was especially cruel to him, and although he was a kind and honest person, he suffered because of what he called “destiny”, and was frustrated and dejected to the extreme. A dispassionate study of his life (based on his own statement), however, led me to a different conclusion. Many of us, in different measures, have similar experiences in life. So, I felt it appropriate to share with my readers (if there be any) my thoughts on the matter.

Born in a very poor family, our ‘hero’ has an unfortunate separation from his father early in his life, and is brought up by his maternal grandparents against some odds. When his grandfather dies, his grandmother helps him through college education, and he becomes a graduate. He cannot not, much against his wishes, pursue further education. He gets a job through a competitive examination but is not given a post commensurate with his higher rank on the merit list. So, for the rest of his life he suffers in terms of lower official and monetary status. He is even subject of ridicule and “heckling” because of his low status. He is also unfortunate in that despite his great love and attachment to his mother and grandmother, he cannot take care of them in their last days. He marries late and at the time of retirement, is yet to arrange for his daughter’s wedding. He buys a small flat after retirement, but even here, he feels he is a loser since his other colleagues built their houses while still in service. He is gifted with a mellifluous voice and a flair for writing. These qualities, sadly, do not earn him any recognition, he says, for want of necessary contacts. So, he is utterly dejected, frustrated with life and questions the wisdom of the saying that even bad things that happen in life are for one’s own good.

We may now consider whether the lamentations, frustration, and the ultimate conclusion drawn by him about his life’s events are logical and justified. Having born poor is definitely not a fortunate thing. On the other hand, he at least had grandparents to look after him. Millions of human beings born in similar circumstances are much less fortunate than him. The second major event in his life, viz. becoming a graduate, cannot by any stretch of imagination be termed unfortunate. In fact, the opposite is true. He was very fortunate to study in a college and even become a graduate. His grievance is that he could not study further! Well, this is not a happy thing. But then he succeeded in a competitive examination, secured a high rank, and actually got a job. He finds fault even here – that he was deprived of the higher placement he deserved and due to that he suffered throughout his life. We do not know how that happened; but we find it hard to accept that anyone could be “heckled” because of his low official status. After all, in any office the largest number of employees belong to, if we may say so, ‘lower ranks’. I have never heard of anyone being ridiculed for that. A low salary goes with a low post and one has to make do with what one has. The same holds true for his late marriage, buying a small flat and having to bear the responsibility of a daughter of marriageable age.

Studying his life, I could not find any justification for his dejection and deep frustration. In fact, if we draw a curve of his life, it will only indicate a steady upward trend. I think the problem with him is that he highlights and deplores the negative sides of his experiences in life, ignoring the positive developments. His life, though difficult, was not an unmixed misfortune. His study in a college, success in a competitive examination and getting a job were all positive developments and I consider him very fortunate, since in the situation in which he was born, where getting two square meals a day was a problem, many would have given up half way. He overcame stiff hurdles to achieve all that he did. He even bought a small flat. In this also he considers himself a loser in comparison to his other colleagues! He does not feel happy about any of his achievements. He obviously feels all this was not enough. Maybe, it was not. But then there’s no definition of what is enough! He had no choice over his birth but he did have the choice not to marry, when he knew that bearing the extra burden within his limited means would be difficult. He could have thus avoided the accompanying ‘burdens’ or responsibilites, which later became his ‘destiny’!

To my mind, here is a person who loves to feel that he is perpetually unfortunate; that his life has been a saga only of sorrow and suffering, although this is not factually correct. His is a typical case of looking at a glass as half-empty, when it could also be seen as half-full. Also, it is an undeniable fact that we can never be happy if we compare our lot with those better off than us. Instead, if we think that life might not have given all that we desired, but at least we got more than many others, it will give us some happiness. It is said that unhappiness has its root in unfulfilled desires. This person’s life is a very good example of this.

In what way things like poverty, hardship and underachievement which this person faces in life can be considered to be “for one’s own good” ? It cannot be denied that being born poor is not a happy thing. It seems, however, that because his situation was not easy, he got the impetus to fight against the odds and come up in life. These efforts on his part resulted in his becoming a graduate, securing a job and buying a flat. The hurdles made him try and overcome them, and achieve what he did in life. No one can say for sure that if he were born in a rich family, he would have been happy in life. There is no dearth of wealthy, but unhappy persons as well as poor, yet happy ones. In the ultimate analysis, happiness has but little to do with wealth or lack of it.

Very often, especially when something bad happens to us, we feel that it is our destiny. We of course seldom use the same term if things turn out to be good. Anyhow, I think that what we perceive as destiny now is nothing but the result of something we did in the past. If I punch someone as strong as I, it surely will be my ‘destiny’ to get one back from him.  When we see the result but cannot easily remember the action that led to it, we call it ‘destiny’. Actually, what we perceive as destiny is rooted in our own past actions.

There will of course be the question that if being born poor is considered to be the ‘result’, what could be its cause, as the child could not have done anything that led to his misfortune! Well, there’s no answer to it that can satisfy everyone. As a Hindu, I believe the answer lies in the doctrine of Karma (action). Results of our past actions do not end with our death. Those actions determine the nature of one’s next life.  Also, prarabdha or accumulated results of past actions  explain the various experiences – good or bad -through which one passes in the present life.  We term it our luck, fate or destiny.   At the same time, one’s own efforts or purushakara , according to the nature of the efforts themselves, also produce “good” or “bad” results. Our “destiny” is determined both by prarabdha and purushakara.  On the former we have no control, but the latter is surely in our hands.  In this we are reminded of the great warrior Karna of the Mahabharata proudly declaring: “….daivayattam kule janma, madayattam tu paurusham” [My birth in a particular caste was in the hands of God, but Manliness (i.e. effort to raise myself to higher levels) is in my hands].