A Parable on Proactivity

The Nazi death camp survivor Viktor Frankl has made an observation akin to Zen philosophy 'Between stimulus and response, there is a space. In that space lies our freedom and our power to choose our response. In that response lies our growth and our happiness'.

This wonderful idea popularized by Stephen Covey teaches us that we have the freedom to choose our response in any situation and the consequence, happiness or hopelessness, is determined by how we respond in each situation. There are many occasions in our lives when we wish 'Oh! If only I had acted differently, if only I had been more patient, understanding and considerate.' The problem is that often we get sucked into the emotion of a situation, which seems so overpowering and consuming that we are simply blinded from what we really ought to do. In effect we are just reactive in such situations. It is very easy to be reactive and later repent it.

A proactive individual acts based on principles and positive values rather than reacting based on emotions and circumstances. He has the initiative and ability to choose response to make things happen. If a reactive individual says 'There is nothing I can do to help Tsunami victims', a proactive individual may ask 'How can I serve the cause for Tsunami Victims' . Reactive people are driven by feelings and emotions, whereas proactive people are driven by values, carefully selected and internalized.

The irony is that most of us are proactive by nature and it is often our living conditions, circumstances or our nurture that make us reactive in life. We tend to be often a mix of both proactivity and reactivity. Sometimes we are extremely proactive in one area, while letting other parts of our life slip into unconscious autopilot. For example , some hard-working professionals are seen to ignore their health to become obese by their sedentary life style and they may even invite a heart attack. Proactive professionals make it a point to exercise regularly despite their erratic work schedule. They navigate their life better and create their own destiny by their core values and conscious choices.

Some years ago I happened to see a wonderful movie called 'Ikiru' which means 'To live'. directed by the great Japanese film director Akira Kurasowa. The story of this movie is about a petty bureaucrat called Watanabe working in Tokyo City hall in Japan. He had served the corporation for more than thirty years years as an ordinary Clark engaged in the mundane exercise of numbly thumbing through papers. Nobody even took serious notice of his presence in the office. One day this Clark gets a stomach pain and he is admitted to a hospital. After detailed examination and medical tests it is diagnosed that he is suffering from stomach cancer. This sudden collision with stark reality of life benumbs and frightens him. His face assumes a drab intensity that scares people. His eyes are like two translucent cups holding tears that never fall on his cheek.

Gradually, the man starts reconciling himself with the immensity of his tragedy and the doom awaiting him. He starts meditating the life he had lived so far and everything unveils in a flash back. He realizes horrendously that the life he had lived so far was sterile, absurd and devoid of any fulfillment. As the illness ripens, we recognize an attitudinal change taking place within him. Despite his illness, we see him emerging stronger with the deep rooted conviction to make the rest of his life meaningful. He takes initiative to build of a children's park which was the dream of the citizens of his town. The sheer enthusiasm, determination, dedication and almost superhuman efforts put in by Watanabe at the fag end of his life helps to transform a mosquito ridden cesspool into a spectacular park for children. Finally as the dream comes true, the man vanishes from the scene forever.

The last scene is the funeral wake where his coworkers pay eulogies and express astonishment at the transformation of Watanabe from a lifeless clark into a living legend. They vow to work with the same passion and will like Watanabe.
I have come across many such individuals in every day life. They may be people in difficult circumstances, perhaps with a terminal disease or suffering from certain handicaps. But they exhibit magnificent emotional strength and integrity as if they have transcended their suffering. They stand out as persons of high intrinsic worth and such men embody a value that inspires, ennobles and exalts life. As Watanabe eloquently says in the movie 'To live is to love, the rest is cancer'. My cousin Satish Nair who twice underwent kidney transplant and has been living on dialysis for the last ten years exemplifies this indomitable spirit. He not only took initiative in establishing the first cadaver Kidney bank in India but wrestled in his profession to emerge as as one of the top ten Service Tax consultants in Mumbai.

I believe that this is what true proactivity means. Socrates said 'The unexamined life is not worth living'. It is the shattering discovery of cancer that provoked Watanabe to reexamine his life and make it worth living by his proactive action. If a reactive man in such a situation succumbs to the philosophy that life is meaningless, a proactive man like Watanabe may say 'The meaning of my life is what I commit the meaning of my life to be. There is nothing else' . We can strive to cultivate this proactive attitude in any situation by exercising our independent will and facing our life with more courage, optimism and self- awareness.
As the great American thinker Thorea said, 'There is no more encouraging fact than the unquestionable ability of man to elevate his life by conscious endeavor'.        


More by :  P. G. R. Nair

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