Lessons From My Life’s Darkest Teacher

“Be grateful and happy that beautiful people chose to be in your life. Be happy that it happened, not sad that it’s over.”

I was listening to Cheryl Strayed podcast (author of Wild) on The Tim Ferris Show and at the end she challenged all listeners to write down who their darkest teacher was, life events, people whoever it might be. Here is my attempt.

Was my darkest teacher my Mom’s death? My Dad’s death? My lost teenage years? My failed ventures? they were all significant and some of them life altering but which ones taught me the most about how to live a good life?

I don’t know if it was the darkest teacher but losing my Mom and then my Dad has definitely set me on a different path than I’d have taken otherwise. I am very certain about that, I was a different person before losing them. I became reticent, much less interested in external achievements and rewards, others opinion of me didn’t matter, diminished faith in the external world and I struggle with these everyday.

Why did mom suffer physical pain for 4 years? Why did she die so young? What happened to all the goodness she brought to people around her? What would it be like if she is still around now? What would she say to her grandchildren? Why did dad have to die so young? What more could he have accomplished if he was still around? What happened to all the good things he brought into this world? Many questions and no clear answers, I don’t know if I will ever find them but the inquiry and struggle continues. Even if I find answers to some of these questions, are they worth anything now? Can they remove the pain, the darkness and the feeling of sadness I have experienced in the past and continue to experience to this day? Can the answers bring back what was once lost?

Am I supposed to simply wail in this abyss of darkness, is there a point in trying to look for light? Is this darkness what I am meant to experience? Is this all a random probability? or is there a rhyme and reason to all of this?

Through all this I learned a few things

Be kind and loving to everyone you come in touch with, no matter the situation, who it is, what it is, where it is, be kind and loving in your thought, word and action.

Be steadfast in your faith even if the outcomes are not as you expected and keep doing the work, keep living the life according to your conscience, not according to what the world expects, not what your friends or relatives expect but what you expect of yourself.

Listen to others going through the troubles, don’t advise, just listen and offer a shoulder if they want to lean on.

Be grateful and happy that beautiful people chose to be in your life. Be happy that it happened, not sad that it’s over.

Last but not the least, live up to their values, remember them in your daily life and cherish those wonderful memories.

Mary Oliver’s “When Death Comes”

“When it’s over, I want to say all my life, I was a bride married to amazement. I was the bridegroom, taking the world into my arms.” __Mary Oliver

I was caught by this one line in The Atlantic article, by poet and writer Mary Oliver, “Attention is the Beginning of Devotion“. In this world of myriad sensory inputs, attention to any particular thing is becoming nearly impossible. Apps, gadgets, screens, shows to binge and more; is there scope for attention, is there scope for devotion?.

If everything and everyone is calling out for our attention, then where should we expend our power of carefully thinking about, listening to or watching? Deciding where we spend our attention is the number one problem in this new world.

Attention: power of carefully thinking about, listening to, or watching someone or something __Merriam Webster Dictionary

Could we be turning into a species that will destroy itself because of attention deficit, one human at a time? How can we not have regrets at the end of our life if we never pursued anything all the way through, spreading our attention to a million things but not going in depth on any one thing, was this any different hundreds of years ago when there were fewer gadgets, screens and apps? I believe so. For example, in the 1400s people seem to have pursued one kind of work most of their life.

drawing from circa 1400, a servant tasting wines and food while king and bishops watch
source: historyextra.com
drawing from circa 1400, people weighing coins from taxpayers
source: historyextra.com

From the above drawings I observe a couple of things, people were doing things manually, there was little automation if any and hence working on one thing took a long time and needed manual attention. Second, people employed dedicated people for a job e.g. servants to test food. Imagine spending time to watch someone test your food before eating it and doing it for every meal. It tells me that there was a lot of time spent preparing and eating food just to stay alive, how much time would one have left to engage in other activities, not much.

Perhaps the question is not “Is it bad to be a polymath?”, in other words, is it wrong to try to do many things, but perhaps the real question is, would you be able to do many things and do them really well. If the answer is yes, by all means go ahead and do them. If not, stop everything but the most important one or two activities and follow them until done really well, then follow the next one or two.

Wasn’t Leonardo da Vinci a polymath? He studied art, architecture, science and technology in depth. I don’t know the answer to this question? Should one pursue one path all their life or explore many paths? May be it depends on what makes one happy when they look back at their life. That’s easy to say but hard in reality as one needs to either project themselves into their old age and do the things today that “might” make them happy later or simply look back at whatever they did and be happy without judgment.

Mary Oliver’s poem, When Death Comes, seems to suggest that it’s only in embracing everything that comes along in life with curiosity and amazement and not being set in becoming any one thing in particular, is the way to live life

“When death comes
like the hungry bear in autumn;
when death comes and takes all the bright coins from his purse

to buy me, and snaps the purse shut;
when death comes
like the measle-pox

when death comes
like an iceberg between the shoulder blades,

I want to step through the door full of curiosity, wondering:
what is it going to be like, that cottage of darkness?

And therefore I look upon everything
as a brotherhood and a sisterhood,
and I look upon time as no more than an idea,
and I consider eternity as another possibility,

and I think of each life as a flower, as common
as a field daisy, and as singular,

and each name a comfortable music in the mouth,
tending, as all music does, toward silence,

and each body a lion of courage, and something
precious to the earth.

When it’s over, I want to say all my life
I was a bride married to amazement.
I was the bridegroom, taking the world into my arms.

When it’s over, I don’t want to wonder
if I have made of my life something particular, and real.

I don’t want to find myself sighing and frightened,
or full of argument.

I don’t want to end up simply having visited this world.”

Mary Oliver

Decisiveness is crucial to moving forward with action whilst time shall pass and we will have nothing done when we look back. Even to take in everything with amazement as Mary Oliver calls out, one needs to make the decision to do so.

I am reminded of the “Don’t be a donkey” story that I heard Derek Sivers narrate. The story goes, a donkey is stuck in the middle of the road trying to decide to go left and drink water from a bucket or go right and eat the pile of hay. In trying to decide, the donkey wastes all his time and dies with hunger and thirst. If only he realized that he could have very well first had the hay and then drank the water or vice-versa, he would be alive and kicking!

Is The Unexamined Life Not Worth Living?

The amount of life we truly live is small. For our existence on Earth is not Life but merely time

We won’t let a stranger walk into our home but we welcome all kinds of thoughts to enter our mind and rob us of our true nature. We let our eyes and ears go wherever they please or wherever they are directed by online recommendation algorithms.

Examining one’s own life is not about the external world, it’s about introspection. Who am I? Why am I here? Where did I come from? Where am I going? Questions often dismissed as time-wasters because they sound daunting, they require thinking, experimenting, learning, failing, falling, getting up and trying again. We don’t want to go through that strenuous process, sleepwalking through life aimlessly is simpler and easier, it’s the path of least resistance.

Socrates says that an unexamined life – life devoid of love of wisdom – is not worth living. He believed that logically questioning and experimenting in the pursuit of wisdom is the sole purpose of Life.


Some might say, seeking wisdom is for the elite. Is it elitist to seek wisdom? Isn’t seeking wisdom an inherent human quality? Isn’t it true that children ask hard questions? Would you consider children elite? No. They are being human, curious, empathetic, innocent and self-examining. Why is it that we lose that child-like curiosity?. Wisdom is not just about exploring life’s hard questions, it is learning about yourself.

I believe it’s best to think from first principles and not rely on “common” knowledge. There are exceptions. Common knowledge is usually wrong. Earth is round, gravity pulls things towards the earth, fire burns, these are first principles and it’s beneficial to leverage them.

What is our (your) true nature? To burn is fire’s inherent nature, whether you believe it or not. One may say I don’t believe in fire, I am going to jump into it, you know what, fire doesn’t care whether you believe in it or not, it will still burn.

Every element in this universe has an inherent quality, for humans, it’s the Dharma, pursuit of right living. So, unexamined life is not just some exotic stoic concept, it’s about living a good life, life that you are satisfied with, life that you created for yourself, not dictated by others. Life where animal qualities – lust, greed, anger, attachment, arrogance, pride – take the backseat and reasoning, compassion, kindness, love and joy take the driver’s seat.

“A life that is in service of others. A life that recognizes and lives by the principle of oneness in everything. Bulbs are many but the electric current that lights them up is one. Cows are many but the milk is one, sweets are many but sugar is one. Humans are many but the consciousness is one, it is the same consciousness in the microcosm and in the macrocosm.”

Sathya Sai Baba

Well that’s my thinking, these are not first principles, so I urge you to not accept my take but instead examine life for yourself, question and experiment. Live a life you consider worth living, not according to someone else sitting on a pedestal and pontificating how you should live your life.

Poets On Life and Death

In order to possess what you do not possess you must go by the way of dispossession

We live in a world where there is no room for a poem, no time absolutely whatsoever. Rumi and T.S. Eliot are remnants of a long gone era but rest assured their poems are forever. 

Rumi has written beautifully on life and death, he calls out what might be on many peoples’ minds, if the feast of life is not to be enjoyed why did I get invited in the first place? Death of a dear family member is one obvious  reason one might question the legitimacy of this feast that we all partake:

you have set up
a colorful table
calling it life and
asked me to your feast
but punish me if
i enjoy myself
what tyranny is this


If the all encompassing love of a dear one is what we miss, is that a problem we experience because we are not immersed in their love, for if we are we should not feel the void. If we are immersed in their love, how can death of that person diminish the feeling of love?

you mustn’t be afraid of death
you’re a deathless soul
you can’t be kept in a dark grave
you’re filled with God’s glow

be happy with your beloved
you can’t find any better
the world will shimmer
because of the diamond you hold

when your heart is immersed
in this blissful love
you can easily endure
any bitter face around

T. S. Eliot writes in East Coker that love is not about here and now, in fact, he says when here and now cease to matter that is when we see true love. 


And the wisdom of age? Had they deceived us Or deceived themselves, the quiet-voiced elders, bequeathing us merely a receipt for deceit?The serenity only a deliberate hebetude, the wisdom only the knowledge of dead secrets. Useless in the darkness into which they peered

Love is most nearly itself when here and now cease to matter.

I particularly like this one line from East Coker, it is only when we don’t have what we crave for, we can feel its absence in every moment. Feeling its absence only increases the craving until a point when we are fully immersed in the love of that which is craved for.

In order to possess what you do not possess You must go by the way of dispossession.

And what you own is what you do not own

If I may dare to add to Eliot’s magnum opus on life and death “And what you do not own is what you own”.

If a thing of beauty is a joy forever then why brood over the lost ones? In John Keats beautiful words

A thing of beauty is a joy for ever: 
Its loveliness increases; it will never 
Pass into nothingness; 


And such too is the grandeur of the dooms 
We have imagined for the mighty dead; 
An endless fountain of immortal drink, 
Pouring unto us from the heaven’s brink

Seneca compares life to an inn, soon one has to leave to make room for another guest. Seneca points out that every man in this life comes with a certain lifespan, no one dies before their time or after their time, they all do on time.

We must firmly believe that loveliness cannot pass into nothingness, that is the only way I know to make sense of this thing we call life…..and death.