It’s a tragedy more of us do not know the name, Rabindranath Tagore. He is a titan of South Asian art and philosophy and the first non-European to win the Nobel Prize for Literature. His words have inspired many and form the national anthems of India, Bangladesh, and Sri Lanka.
He was an exceptional polymath famed for poems, songs, novels, paintings, dramatic dance, philosophy, and politics. The beauty of his words was so great, he gave speeches around the world despite being a British subject under colonial rule. Many rulers of this time could not claim to have been to 5 continents like he did!
This list was extremely hard to cut down, and I recommend coming back to it to extract the true meaning for your life.
“Clouds come floating into my life, no longer to carry rain or usher storm but to add color to my sunset”
We will always have new problems but it’s what makes life interesting. Can you imagine how boring it would be if everything was easy and went to plan?
Think about anything you do for fun, there is always some problem to overcome. The gaming industry is built on using uncertainty to keep people engaged. You never know beyond one block at a time in Tetris which keeps the dopamine firing.
Reframe the clouds in your life as opportunities. No adventure lacks drama and when you overcome it, you’ll have a story to tell. Tagore says it far more sympathetically than a certain Roman Emporer.
If it’s endurable then endure it. Stop complaining. — Marcus Aurelius
“The water in a vessel is sparkling; the water in the sea is dark. The small truth has words which are clear; the great truth has great silence.”
What is the meaning of life? What is your purpose? Does God exist?
People love to get lost in the big questions even when they are overwhelming. There’s no shortage of advice telling you to find your purpose in life.
The problem is seeking a grand answer to the puzzle of life. I don’t have one single life purpose and you probably don’t either. We can love many aspects and these may change over time as we grow. The child in the playground doesn’t stop their joy because it doesn’t fit into their master plan.
The future can be dark and murky yet we have our senses to experience the current moment. When you can live life mindfully, you see the truth of what it is. If your mind can drink clear water every day, you may find over time you have consumed the sea.
“By plucking her petals you do not gather the beauty of the flower.”
Who was the last person you put down? Are you now a better person because of it?
We compete with others throughout our lives. I like winning, who doesn’t? But I believe in winning the right way. Be better by rising higher not by dragging others down.
As part of the Karate National Squad, I trained with the same guys I would face in regional competitions. I’ve never worked in a better team. Despite us needing to be better than each other to win medals, we gave away all our secrets to each other. I told people their weaknesses so they could strengthen before the competition. I wanted to win against the best doing their best.
Water the flowers around you and grow into the most beautiful garden.
“He who is too busy doing good finds no time to be good.”
Most of us consider ourselves good people. But there is a recurring question. Am I helping because I want to be seen to help or because I’m doing the right thing? My answer isn’t always the same.
Ancient Greek philosopher Aristotle’s model of the cosmos has the individual at the center. Our actions can be used to describe us but they are not us. We can fool the world but we can’t fool ourselves. Ask yourself what makes you good and use not actions but the way the happiness of others makes you feel.
Our world is much more connected than it was in Tagore’s lifetime. This could be the most difficult time in history to work out our intentions. My social media feeds are full of virtue signaling of people trying to show they are good. Instead of them, think of soccer star Sadio Mane who has transformed his hometown in Senegal and volunteers to clean community toilets. This is the person I aim to be.
“You can’t cross the sea by merely standing in the water”
Here Tagore tells us what we all know. To do anything it must be started and yet he says it so elegantly!
Many of us have dreams and aspirations but they stay this way because we never do anything about it. It’s no use telling yourself what you want if you aren’t prepared to do anything about it. We can’t cross every sea and the best decision could be choosing to stop dipping your toe everywhere.
When you know there is something you truly want then seize it. You don’t need to set unrealistic goals but you must commit time to explore. Set yourself a challenge to start your voyage to cross the sea. Make today day one of your journey instead of thinking about one-day landing.
“A mind all logic is like a knife all blade. It makes the hand bleed that uses it.”
Reread that and imagine the blade. I would tell you to picture yourself picking it up but you might have already felt the sting.
I’m guilty of looking at things in this way and trying to explain everything in logic. It can be frustrating when others don’t seem to appreciate our brilliant ideas. Or logic isn’t everything.
Neuroscientist Antonio Damasio in Descartes’ Error, explores fascinating experiments on people with damaged brains who couldn’t feel emotions. He found they viewed everything as equally morally right. So if you are making any kind of moral judgment, there is some emotion involved. Let’s not kid ourselves otherwise.
We can’t understand our lives or the lives of others without understanding emotions. Try to think not only whether you are factually right but whether you are conscious of the feeling induced.
“Faith is the bird that feels the light and sings when the dawn is still dark”
If you’ve never had a dark period in your life, I envy your luck. Many of us have gone through these periods and we can’t know there aren’t more to come.
Do you know who the best people to have around are? Optimists. Those who believe in you even when you don’t believe in yourself. What is even better? To be this person for yourself. In these moments of despair, we can find the power within ourselves to keep going. Thomas Edison failed 1000 times before creating a working light bulb.
As a mental model, try to convince yourself of this. Any darkness in your mind is like the night. The sun always rises again even in the coldest of winters.
“I slept and dreamt life was joy. I awoke and found that life was service. I acted and behold, life was a joy”.
I love this quote and it’s my favorite of the list. I daydream of the day when I’m perfect and can spend all my time enlightening others. Yet there’s no reason why we can’t already help people with what we do know.
There’s a mismatch in how we can view our ideal lives and our daily labors. Whatever you do, it’s adding value to someone out there. Online, we can be distant from those we impact and underrate our influence. A small act you do could mean a lot to someone else.
Maybe you fixed a problem that drove some people nuts. You’ve made their lives a little bit better. Not all heroes wear capes. You can choose to reframe everything you do by what you can give the world.
Imagine if everyone took this view to life and we all lifted each other higher.
“If you cry because the sun is gone out of your life, your tears will prevent you from seeing the stars”
Tagore has a beautiful way of seeing change. Here he advises against dwelling on our losses so we don’t miss new opportunities.
I have friends from university who at every reunion wish we were back at University again. I find it hard to relate as at the end of every year I’m a bit happier with myself. Life is about the present. If your mind is stuck in the past, you can’t appreciate the now. The past will never change but this exact moment will never be the same.
When something ends, something else comes to be. It’s the cycle of life. We can be so caught up in what we have lost, we fail to appreciate what is now.
“It is very simple to be happy, but it is very difficult to be simple”
This quote made me smile because for years I’ve been trying to simplify my life. I’ve got a long way to go but I feel it has been working.
Modern cities pull us in 100 directions at once. Everything is screaming for our attention. Whether it’s news to outrage us, adverts to trick us or social media to numb us. We can float through life busy but afterward not even remember.
Most people are loss averse by nature, losses are twice as negative as gains are positive psychologically. In trying to avoid missing out, we spread ourselves so thinly it exhausts us. Essentialism aims to strip down life to only what you value and do more of less. I believe Tagore would approve.
“We read the world wrong and say that it deceives us.”
We are not as right as we think we are. The news can seem full of people who believe they are 100% right yet think differently. Something has to give here.
The mind will happily choose self-deception over accepting something that doesn’t fit our mental models. We want to have something to believe to make our lives easier. In Homo Deus by the philosopher Yuval Hariri, we learn the left hemisphere of the brain rationalizes our inconsistencies to keep us sane.
I do not understand everything on Earth. Not even close. I have so much to learn so how can I confess to knowing the motivations of others? Allowing the possibility we may be wrong opens our minds and lets us be less angry all the time.
“The real friendship is like fluorescence, it shines better when everything has darken.”
I know right now if I had a crisis who to call and who would be there for me in a heartbeat. Who is the first person who comes to mind?
With the internet, it is easier to be connected than ever yet still loneliness plagues us. 61% of Americans were lonely in Cigna’s study. It isn’t obvious and people don’t have signs above their heads saying they are lonely.
I know friends who can outwardly seem confident. They seem to meet with friends all the time. Yet inside they are lonely and their actions try to mask this. It is deceiving to have a thousand friends where each relationship is as deep as a shot glass. Be the person who is a whole damn lake for your friends who matter to you.
Reach out to the person you thought of. Let them know you care.
“Let me not pray to be sheltered from dangers, but to be fearless facing them”
We can’t control everything around us. Even the man in the greatest castle eventually fell. Stephen Covey’s circle of influence from 7 Habits of Highly Effective people is useful here. There is no use in being concerned with things outside of our control.
If we worry about what is outside our circle of influence we are doing ourselves a disservice.
Instead, look inwards. Trust yourself to take on whatever life throws at you. Because life will throw things at you but you will be able to overcome it. You’ve overcome everything thrown at you so far haven’t you? You’re still here, don’t forget that.
“Don’t limit a child to your own learning for she was born in another life”
If you aren’t a parent don’t think you are off the hook here.
In truth we are all children, as there never stops being new lessons to learn. No one on this earth shares your exact experiences. It means you can teach every person on this planet something. I find the reverse far more powerful. Every single person on this planet can teach me something.
As we grow older we lose this sense of Shoshin, beginner’s mind. We are too focused on showing off what we know to listen. Hans Rosling in Facfulness shatters our illusions. It exposes many of our ways of thinking about the world are stuck in stories we were told many years ago. Extreme poverty has more than halved since the 90s.
Don’t seek to impose your knowledge on others, you may find you can both teach each other something.
“We live in the world when we love it.”
If you’re reading this, you have the chance to thrive not just survive.
We can measure life in the amount we have lived not the number of years we have been alive. This doesn’t mean seeking individual moments of ecstasy. Hedonic adaption is where even after a massive positive event, our happiness eventually returns to our baseline.
What we want to do is move our baseline upwards. One powerful way to do this is through gratitude. I use weekly journaling but different techniques work for different people. See if our baseline happiness is reality minus expectations then if we can raise our bar by revising up our perception of our reality.
The world is incredible and we can experience so much. If you can learn to love your life then you have lived a good one.
All You Need to Know
For those who did not know Tagore, I hope you are inspired to seek out more of his work. I’m sure you’ll agree he has an elegant way of expressing the complexity of life still relevant almost a hundred years later. We can be tangled in the stress of the world and miss the beauty.
If you already knew Tagore, I hope this brought a smile to your face as you take in the words of the great man. I know writing this has brought some joy to my life.
Thank you for reading and I hope you have a wonderful day!