Look for meaning, not just a reason, in tragedy

A better question to ask when tragedy befalls — what meaning does it give to my life?

Over the last three days, three interesting things happened to me. On Sunday, I met a colleague who used to work with TWB about eight years back; he came back to work with me. A talented programmer, he lost pretty much everything other than the shirt on his back and he was consumed by the question — “Why did it happen to me?”

Then on Monday, I was giving a motivational talk at a company. When I talk about my own life experiences and ‘how to be a salaried entrepreneur’, many people cringed because it is difficult for them to fathom what I went through, and most importantly why?

Then yesterday, I was with a person who is a spiritual guide to scores of people. He spent a great deal of time telling me that most of the great upsets of my life had a reason and that it showed me I should not focus on dogs, but only focus on myself and look for a lower ambition and quality of life.

All these made me cringe in turn. And I ended up asking myself why am I upset about someone finding a reason in their misfortune, or in mine? Isn’t this what pretty much everyone does — look for a reason for any tragedy that befalls and then make this learning into the new normal?

People who lose a fortune learn to live on a smaller scale, people who have lost in love vow never to love again, people who have lost a dog will never keep a dog again — even though in the scheme of life these are not even real tragedies but mere blips.

The Reason for your Misfortune

It is an evolutionary trait that people look for patterns in their lives and that includes in their own behavior and that of others. A lot of our responses, fears and motivations come from there. When you’re walking on a lonely stretch, hearing footsteps but not being able to see it makes you wary of danger. On the other hand, footsteps in the kitchen mean your spouse or kid is back home.

By extension, we are trained to look for cause and consequence. What could the cause of this extraordinary misfortune that has come upon me be? This heartache that doesn’t go, this failure at work, this loss of business, this debilitating illness… The reality is that I have suffered not one but all these setbacks and it is not that I have not asked myself these questions. I have lost the person I relied on and loved the most, I lost a successful company and went from being wealthy to bankrupt, I’ve suffered the public humiliation of an arrest, which was covered in newspapers for days and I live with not with one but at least four life-threatening medical conditions.

Surely there was a reason each of these things had happened. Surely I could have avoided each of these and maybe I should be wary of trust and looking for contentment over-ambition and peace over passion.

The Problem in Looking for Reasons

Since all these misfortunes did not come at the same time, I have had a lifetime to think through some of this. I realised that there was actually no cause and effect, no reason for any of these things that had happened. Most of these are purely random events.  Life, for the most part, will not follow the script you write. As someone said, life is already happening to you when you are looking for it.

To begin with, we look for reasons for great misfortune in the wrong places — we reason it must be some greater purpose, or some omnipotent force of the universe or some preordained script of our lives. Loss of love and trust of the woman you loved must then mean that in the future you will not find that true love or all women are untrustworthy. The truth is entirely the opposite. The loss of love is a chance occurrence, there is no pattern and it does not point to anything for the future. Asking yourself the reason, therefore, is asking the wrong question.

The other danger in looking for reasons makes you keep revisiting the past to look at and obsess over ‘why’ or ‘why me’. It makes you lazy, in thinking that if this would have not happened I could have been, say, as successful as someone else. It makes you accept reality as you see it in the present. It saps energy and vitality from you. This, exactly, was making me upset — because I was being told there was a reason, there is a pattern and that pattern unfolds into the future. And I would not allow my future to be held hostage by anything.

I am not alone in feeling so. I find that the people I admire most have two things in common (1) They have overcome tragedy and pain that would immobilize most people (2) They rejected the notion of there being a reason for every loss and failure. They rejected it because it made them avoid the responsibility of making hard choices, and they knew that one has to take responsibility to create future success that must be built on greater odds.

Looking for meaning

Not looking for a reason, but looking for meaning, is the real question to ask. Now that this has happened what meaning does it have for me and what meaning does my life have? Irrespective of the reasons for your catastrophic failure, you do not control the past. But you do control the future. You can determine the trajectory of your life and give it purpose. If you look at the most successful of people who have invented things, discovered new worlds or created opportunities for others — they have all found meaning in great odds.

The world is better because of people who have lost a child and created schools for orphans, or lost a loved one to disease and started a hospital to cure others of that disease. For the most part, people who do these extraordinary things are not people with extraordinary means, but they have become people with extraordinary resolve. The resolve comes because suddenly that overwhelming tragedy has given them meaning.

I have found for myself that the reason bad things happened isn’t that it was some pattern in my life. They happened for reasons I don’t understand, or even accept. That also does not mean I am helpless because I found meaning. Finding meaning is not like a light bulb that goes on in your head — it is not easy because it requires you to resolve many unanswered questions, it requires you to plan and act from a place of great adversity.  Most of all, it requires continuous and lifelong action.

It is hard to look for meaning when you are in shock or grieving but it is creating meaning that has guided me through failure and loss. Each time I’ve suffered a life-threatening condition, I have trained myself not to ask why or how long I have to live, but what to do with the years I may have.

Indeed from all my own catastrophic failures — loss of money or trust or love, I’ve had to create meaning. It has meant the difference between being a victim of my circumstances or creating my own future; the difference between despair and hope, and of living with failure or creating success.

Looking for meaning in a great tragedy has taught me not to look at how unfair life has been but to look at it with gratitude. Not to look at betrayal but at trust. Not to look at the loss of love but at love. Not be a victim of the past but value the opportunities it has created. By looking for meaning, I realised life is not meant to be fair, it just is. And it is beautiful if you find meaning in it.

Stronger with RAKESH SHUKLA is a framework for developing unparalleled mental and physical toughness. It is based on Rakesh’s life, and has helped drive two ‘comebacks’.

Rakesh Shukla slept on railway platforms on his way to creating a world-leading technology company — 
TWB_, which is the choice of over 40 Fortune 500 tech customers worldwide including Microsoft, Boeing, Airbus, Intel, and others. However, at 43, he lost everything within a year. Alone and friendless, he spent the next five years repaying over INR 20 crore of debt and taxes, while building back his company and reputation, and creating and funding VOSD — world’s largest dog sanctuary and rescue.

Rakesh Shukla has suffered heart disease since he was seven years old, had had two heart attacks by the time he was 30, suffers from brain diseases, has broken his back and his kidneys are failing. Towards the end of this five-year period, Rakesh weighed 88 kg and very unfit. Today, at 48 years, he can lift well over 100 kg above his head, run a 10-minute mile, do 2,000 push-ups, and 250 pull-ups. He has never been to a gym, been on a diet, had a trainer, or taken any supplements.

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