December 6, 2020

Vivek

(c) J. Singh, 2017

He turned inward, focusing on his emotions. It didn’t feel at all good. In fact, it was very, very unpleasant. He wanted to run far, far away from himself. He didn’t feel like inhabiting his body anymore. There was a deep pain, and aching to be free. But he felt like he was shackled, bound down by heavy chains all over his body, cuffed at the wrists and ankles like a slave. He felt the crushing pain bear down on his chest like a heavy anvil. He felt like he was suffocating. He didn’t want to be living this life anymore.

He had troubles in his life. His job was a mind-numbing routine, and his boss took perverse pleasure in picking on him for regular lectures and verbal put-downs. He would just stand there staring at the floor while the obese man lashed out at him. He knew that he couldn’t talk back, or even defend himself, because that would give his boss grounds for instant dismissal. As damaging as his job was to his self-respect, though, he still desperately needed the paycheck. He still had to pay the bills and feed his family. His three young children needed food and clothing and uniforms for school and books and toys to play with. He was the sole provider — his wife did not have a college degree, so that limited her career choices. She preferred to stay home and take care of the kids anyway. And he was fine with that, since the cost of daycare or a nanny would outstrip any potential income that his wife might be able to make if she took a job.

But the pressure was starting to put an incredible strain on him. At work, he was constantly under scrutiny and had to endure humiliation from his boss, and at home he would get into shouting matches with his wife over trivial matters. Having three children provided enough stress for both of their tempers to flare up at the slightest touch. Intimacy had been lost for years. They seemed to be living only for the children now. His wife would spend hours every day complaining about her lot in life, lamenting her destiny and expressing that she would be better off if the Lord would just take her from this world. Hearing this constant refrain, he would clench his fists in unbridled anger, feeling infuriated that she should have the audacity of complaining when he was the one having to suffer every day of his miserable life. Then, he wouldn’t be able to control his anger any more and would shout at her. She would scream back at him. The younger kids would scamper for cover while the older kid would start wailing loudly, frightened at what appeared to be her world falling apart all around her.

His was not fit anymore. His belly had started growing and now it sagged down very unattractively. The few strands of hair left on his head looked unsightly. He felt like just plucking them off and being completely bald. But he clung to them for dear life, fearful of having that “fat, bald look” that seemed to somehow signal failure in life.

He was extremely frustrated. He was making no progress in his career, and had no peace at home. Even when his parents or relatives called, it was only to dump their own problems on him. Nobody ever once asked him how he was doing. It would be nice, he reflected wryly, if they might ask about his welfare once a in while. It seemed like everyone just assumed that he must be doing absolutely fine. Perhaps, he wondered, it was because he never complained. Unlike everyone else in his life. He would have to sit and listen to them drone on and on and on about some personal problem, or complain about someone he didn’t know or care about, and have to endure the torture of listening to every minute detail of how that person had wronged their relative and what a travesty it was. He had stopped trying to provide useful advice or even constructive criticism a long time ago. That was not what they wanted to hear, he had finally realized. For years, he had been offering advice and positive encouragement until he was blue in the face, only to have them call back the very next day with another problem and the same old cycle of complaints and lamenting would start anew.

He had tried reducing the time he spent talking with them. But that only made matters worse. They showed up at his house, unannounced, and claimed that he had cut them off from his life. He sighed, sat down despondently, and explained at length that he had not cut them off from his life. But they didn’t believe him, and so he had to prove it. And the daily calls actually increased in frequency and duration. It was beginning to be too much for him.

And then that’s when his symptoms began. He wasn’t able to sleep at night. Insomnia kept him awake for hours at a time. He would just in bed in the dark, staring at the ceiling. Some days he would cry. This helped a bit, as it seemed like some sort of release. But eventually, even the tears dried. Until there was nothing but just the blank stare. He began feeling a pain in his chest. And he had trouble breathing. At first he thought he was dying. He went to see his doctor, who dutifully performed all the requisite tests and then informed him that, medically, he was fine. This was anxiety. He should calm down. Maybe take a vacation. Try to relax.

He drove home in a daze. His panicked wife had already called him fifteen times to find out what the test results were. Annoyed, he texted her that he was fine. As he reached the last turn to his house, he decided that he didn’t want to see her yet. Just the thought of having to deal with her made him feel weary. Instead turning onto the road to his home, he turned away into a different street. He drove around aimlessly for fifteen minutes, not caring which way he went. His phone started buzzing again. His wife was calling, no doubt wondering where he was, since he should have been home by now. He felt like a dog with it’s leash being tugged. Growling, he texted her that he would be late and to stop calling. Then he turned his phone off.

A small voice in his head started whispering that it might be better to just end it all now. Get out of the pain. After all, there was no peace of mind for him anywhere. Stress at work, stress at home, stress from all his family. And nobody to even once consider his well-being. He started grunting angrily, clenching his fists around the steering wheel.

He drove by an empty park. It was deserted, the swings and play structures sitting idle as if longing for the children to come back and play. He stopped the car, parked on the side of the road, and walked into the playground. It felt a lot like his life, devoid of real companionship. He sat at the bottom of the slide, put his head in his hands, and sobbed. Then anger arose, and he howled into the wind. Storm clouds were gathering above, gray and black and menacing in their threats. He raged at what he had become in his life. Even though he blamed everyone and everything, deep down inside he knew that there was only one person who really could take the blame. It was the only person in the world who could actually do something about his situation — himself. Even though life had dealt him this hand, he had the choice how to play it. And thus far, he had been playing a losers game.

He gritted his teeth. What was going wrong in his life, he wondered. Why had he been behaving like a kite in the wind, buffeted this way and that, when deep in his heart he knew that he could handle it all and still achieve his outcomes? Why had he allowed himself to be beaten into submission like this? Why hadn’t he dealt with whatever situations life had thrown at him? He looked down at his misshapen body — the bulging belly and the extra weight he had started gaining. This was not him. Aghast, he realized that if he continued on this path, he would end up in an early grave after having lived a life that was not of his making.

Fear turned into anger, and anger turned into resolution. Somewhere deep inside him, something stirred. A long dormant force awakened, and it rose inside him. He made a fist with his right hand, and stood up. He had realized what had caused him to end up in this situation he was in. It wasn’t who he had married, it wasn’t his miserable job or his boss, it wasn’t the stress of having to feed and clothe three children, it wasn’t anything in his external environment.

It was his mind.

Wide-eyed, he stared vacantly up into the sky as he went inside himself to confront his own worst enemy.

“It’s because of you that I ended up here like this!” his vehement accusation was filled with rage, “it’s why I became such a weakling, why I did that awful job for years and put up with all that abuse from that hate-filled boss! It’s why I cannot have a loving relationship with my wife, and not feel good about myself for even one second in my life. You are the reason why I cave in to my fear, why I don’t go exercise, why I’m lazy, why I don’t take risks or even try anymore to make things better. It’s not life, it’s you!”

“NO!” he screamed at the top of his lungs, “NO! Not anymore! I am the master here, not you! ME! I am the master! You will obey me! I will not be a slave to you anymore!”

He was breathing hard, seething with fury at what his mind had wrought. As he stood there, minutes passed, and slowly the realization began to dawn on him that all the power was in his hands. If he could win control over his mind, he could change everything in his life. A glimmer of hope showed in his eyes.

When he got home, he hugged his wife in an embrace that conveyed a long-lost tenderness. It was entirely unexpected, and even though she resisted at first, eventually she melted in his arms and cried. She recognized that the man she had married had returned.

The next morning, he was awake in the early hours before dawn. He sat cross-legged on the floor, eyes closed in focused concentration. He was meditating. As the day progressed, he began to take those long overdue actions that he had always thought about and talked about, but never really done. With his children playing all around him, he dusted off the exercise machine that was sitting in his garage. He sat down and began lifting the weights. It was a painful exercise the first time, and his mind gave him a million reasons to quit. But he reiterated that he was in charge now, not his mind. And he kept at it.

Whenever he felt the temptation to engage in self-pity, depression and negativity, he would catch himself and remind his mind that these were old habits that he was not going to entertain anymore. “I am in charge now,” he reminded his mind, “you are my servant, not the other way around. And I don’t have any use for these emotions in my life.”

Slowly, bit by bit, he began to reclaim his life. He eventually lost the extra weight as he exercised more and engaged in a more active lifestyle. His diet changed to healthier, more nutrient-rich foods. His relationship with his wife was transformed. He sought out another job, which was offered to him with a significant pay raise, much to his surprise and delight. His relatives and parents seemed to relate to him differently now. They seemed to be more cheerful, and lavished him with praise. They all said they admired him. His life now appeared to be on a completely different trajectory than before. And he was happy. The tension and angst were gone.

Every once in a while, his mind still tries to take the upper hand, tries to catch him when his guard is down. But he is ready. He has sworn that he will never again be the slave of his mind, and he stays vigilant daily. It is worth the daily rigor, because his entire life has changed completely.

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