Hard by Subhadra Jayaraman

Historically, we have seen beings thrive when they are adaptable. When the finches and turtles let the changes in their environment shape them instead of resisting, they survived. With some changes of course, but they survived. Being malleable is a survival strategy. Those beings that are rigid in the face of change, perish. An elastic, bendable branch of a tree on a windy mountainside might seem weather beaten, but it survived and let the wind pollinate it and circulated its kind. A stiff, hard branch on the other hand, broke in half, never to grow against the wind again.

While physical characteristics adapt as the environment changes, mental traits take a while to follow. Auxology shows that human height has been increasing steadily over the past few millennia. A combination of changes in genetics and the environment. As the surroundings changed slowly but constantly, spines became erect, fur disappeared, limbs shortened. And this continues, as nutrition is abused in some parts of the world, humans grow horizontally more than vertically. Even pigeons and cats are of different dimensions in the developed world when compared with the rest of the planet. But environmental changes are often slow. At least they were in the past. In this industrial age, we are altering the planet faster than ever before, making it difficult for beings to adapt. The marine fauna, that has survived many ages, changes, and calamities, is dying rapidly, thanks to the velocity of change we inflict on them. Ice melts used to take decades, and today they take weeks. The chemical content in the oceans used to naturally change gradually over centuries, giving life a chance, but today oil spills and plastic dumping leaves no room for life to escape.

For us humans, there is an added layer of mental behaviors having to adapt. People who don’t change with time are often left behind. This is a corollary of the beings that don’t evolve and succumb to change. Losing jobs, the death of loved ones, becoming incapacitated, falling terminally ill – are all examples of natural but harsh changes in one’s life. And the ones who adapt mentally to these changes are the ones who make it. Refusing to change with the times, ignoring the world around us, being rigid with outdated principles, sticking staunchly to historic beliefs, are all a sure recipe for failure of some kind in a rapidly transforming world. The malleable mind is our magic wand. Our master key to the ever-changing locks.

Now, there is the eternally running question – do we live a meaningful life, or do we just survive? What is our purpose on earth? Propagate our species or do something significant? Viktor Frankl’s famous book A Man’s Search for Meaning, is one among many that emphasize that without motivation or meaning, a human being cannot live or endure or look forward to anything. Psychologically, that is true. But we have a more primal wiring that just makes us survive against all odds, upon which the human psyche is built. If it were just meaning that drove us, wouldn’t significantly more people be trying to end their lives instead of procreating? Even the most suicidal man would try to save himself from a burning building or an incoming tsunami, would he not? Sudden manipulations to our surroundings ignite an innate cardinal response – to just survive. To keep ourselves alive. On the other hand, killing ourselves takes immense resolve. We instinctively want to save ourselves from harm before we think about why we do it. Meaning only follows survival. And survival is rooted in adaptability. Is the search for meaning a way to adapt? If so, is it reliable?

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