A Story of Firsts by Subhadra Jayaraman

Like everyone else, there was the first time I saw the moon, first time I licked lime and cringed, first time I hiccupped, and the first time I touched a furry puppy. However, I believe I am blessed with a seemingly profound memory loss – I am not capable of retaining any sharp memories about things that happened to me in the past. When I read memoirs where a visit to a Church is mentioned in extreme detail including the color of the walls and the number of leaves on the grounds, I am in awe of this photographic memory. All my memories are remarkably hazy and while I remember some coarse details, it is like watching a movie without my glasses or looking out into the night from behind a rain-splattered window – neither light nor clarity.

With nothing in my own memories to glorify, I have often caught myself wondering about the origin of things quite intensely. There was a first time for everything under the Sun and, as we know, the Sun itself. I wonder about everything that would have transpired when mankind invented, discovered, defined, and created this dynamic world around us.  And while I can’t remember the fairly normal human things I did, I marvel at the first time something was introduced to us as a race – things that we take for granted today like light bulbs and clothes and Facebook – they all had a first time and a beautiful story of failures and stumbles and smiles and Eureka! leading up to that first time.

Nobody remembers the man who came second” – I heard this utterly haughty phrase for the first time in the movie 3 Idiots where Prof. Virus says this to the incoming undergraduate class. I Googled this phrase just now and see that quite a lot of people have said this – Enzo Ferrari, John Cena, Walter Hagen, Donald Trump quoting Walter Hagen, and so on. I have never been a fan of this phrase. It puts too much emphasis on the first man (read person). This makes people strive to be the first in everything and turn life into a grueling rat race. The first billionaire, the first woman billionaire, the first man under 30 to become a billionaire, the first celebrity billionaire – we start coming up with more and more categories to be the first in and start commemorating people for the dumbest of human qualities (first man to eat a 6 pound elk burger in under 6 minutes, really?). We start fomenting hubris. But isn’t competition the fuel for success? While subtle incentivizing is harmless enough, greedy competitiveness leads to depravity and perversion. We lose quality, integrity, and morality in the process – in the race to be the first we leave behind life. We start dwelling in the accomplishment and ignore the human emotions behind that.

That is why I want to take a step back, and dwell on the feelings and the history and the positivity in firsts rather than the competitiveness and the awards. When Edward Jenner invented the first vaccination method, he wasn’t competing, he was desperately trying to save lives. When Alexander Fleming invented penicillin, he didn’t even know what he was doing, it was completely serendipitous with no incentive. Florence Nightingale was not a healer so that her name could come up as the First Nurse – it was because of her pure compassion that she chose to care for people. In the ages of Newton, Edison, and Mendel when humanity was flexing its muscles and trying out its capabilities, intellectual empowerment was the only goal. Monetary returns and worldwide recognition were not the objective. Even in the early 1900s, researchers thought it unethical to patent a medical discovery such as the mass production of antibiotics. But today it is a winner’s world, and it barely matters what you invented as long as you did it first. There are patent battles, healthcare is turned into a business, celestial exploration is a contest, and accomplishments are now a unit of measurement.

The Wright brothers flew the first successful aircraft, but some argue that it was actually Shivkar Bapuji Talpade who designed the first aircraft – there are brawls and clashes and disturbing name-calling associated with this “firsts” fight. The West and the East are always at battle about whether it was allopathy or Ayurveda or traditional Chinese medicine that came up with a medication first, and the equation turns on its head with the focus being the first group to find it rather than the implications and usage of it. Partners are always at daggers about being the first one to apologize after a fight or the first one to text the other each day or the first one to remember their anniversary, and the relationship lies there rolling its eyes at the absurdity of human choices.

It is not important who came first, or who thought of an idea first, or who earned a six-figure salary first. What is important is who can look beyond the delusional story of firsts.

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