Some time ago — my fallible memory says the summer of 2010 — I noted something different about my mother. Alongside the alarm clock and hand moisturizer, there was a different set of books on her nightstand. Not the usual Paulo Coelho or India Today, but the written works of Deepak Chopra, Sri Sri Ravi Shankar and the like. These tend to be important to those seeking something spiritual. At the time, it was simply an observation — I didn’t think much of it. Maybe a year or so later, I came to her because I was really upset at someone at school. After pouring out the wrongs and grievances done to me, I hoped for her to condemn the doings of another. However, curiously, she did the opposite. She asked me, “Do you have to be unhappy?”

My memory continues to be unhelpful, but it might have been during one of my many teenage evenings of anxiety, sitting in a poorly lit, silent room when I recollected her words. By chance, I was in one of my few moments of clarity, so I repeatedly asked myself, “Why did I have to be unhappy?” Now, it’s been years and those evenings might be in the past, but the thought still remains. Why did I have to be anything?

I kept thinking about my mother and what happened to her. It wasn’t anything outwardly apparent, rather something quiet and subtle. I could feel it in the way she spoke, the way she reacted, the way she gave advice. She no longer wanted things, and she refused presents for birthdays and Mothers Days. Whenever I complained about something, she told me I didn’t have to feel like this. It felt like she blamed me for my problems. I didn’t know what was going on in her head, so there indeed was some unavoidable distance. It felt like she changed the way she saw things and the way she felt about people; like she almost seemed to live by some new truth.

This affected me. Every now and then, she would tell me some vague-sounding philosophical advice that was supposed to solve my problem. It was always about me changing myself. I always acted like I wasn’t listening, like I had no time for philosophy. But on a few very rare occasions, I heard her. I didn’t always understand what she meant, but I certainly heard. And, in some inexplicable way, it seemed to help.

Now, I don’t know why, but I was curious about how this had happened. I wanted a meta-analysis of sorts. I found it interesting how thoughts translated into actions, and these actions were interpreted into thoughts by others. The brilliantly understated manner in which these ideas moved utterly fascinated me.

There is a general path by which ideas are transmitted from person to person and, somewhat virally, from community to community. Everything said or put forth is an idea, sent into a person’s mind. The mind processes it and either denies or accepts it. This process works similarly in a parent-child relationship, but some aspects are somewhat intensified. A young child has two main spheres of knowledge to draw from: genetics and experience. And at that young age, most experiences involve the parents, resulting in the child magnifying and studying religiously every thought and belief their parent shows to them. To a young child, the way a parent lives is how all life is generally lived. Their parents’ actions are the tenets of their perspective, the basis of what is and what isn’t. Whether or not they keep these ideas later on in life is a different thing, but these are the fundamentals. These are what form the laws of our newly formed skull-sized kingdoms, as a certain Dave Wallace would put it.

An analogy I find useful is comparing this effect with migration. A person migrates when they desire a better life. That same concept applies here, but instead of a physical space, it occurs in a mental one. My mother must’ve yearned for a better life, enough for her to immigrate to a state of thought that clearly made her life better, a state of thought I wish I understood. 

Going with this migration metaphor, it’s interesting to consider how this effect trickles down through generations. What happens when my children see my adopted tenets as their base tenets? We know people are a combination of their genes and their environment. We know people with similar genes diverge when in different physical environments, but I’m curious how a person will act when they’re in different mental landscapes, when the very core framework of their mind is different. Would their baseline happiness be higher? Lower? How about general life and relationship satisfaction? Unfortunately, I don’t know the answers to these questions. Too many variables, too personal of a study. Maybe this is one of those things everyone knows, but doesn’t know for sure. Still, I really wish I did.

Some of you might be wondering why I didn’t just ask her. I could’ve just spoken to her about what happened, and I’d have spared all these mental gymnastics. That is a fair point, and so I did exactly that. I got over the somewhat Indian awkwardness that is asking your parents about themselves. I sat down beside her and asked away. At first, she smiled and told me she never thought anyone noticed (I wonder how she’ll feel when she finds out I wrote an entire column about her). She gazed at the television for a bit, paying it no attention. She told me she felt mentally trapped. That for whatever reason, she felt she had no anchor, that her state of being felt eternally tied to her husband, her friends, her children, essentially everyone other than her. She said she didn’t feel in control of her life, and she had to fix this somehow. Finally, I wondered if she thought this change in mindset would have changed the lives of her children. She replied no, that if there indeed was any effect, it was inadvertent. 

Regardless of events of the transitory period, I’m genuinely happy she’s content now. Whether she knew it or not, it did affect me. I’d like to think that, after all this, I’m a bit more understanding, a bit more accepting of life and its people and its events. While I cannot yet articulate all the ways, I do know something for sure: that my mother, as usual, was right. She smiled when I told her that.

I wish I had some sort of moral to tell you, something beautiful and profound that would make your life a little better. All I have are my own experiences and my own perspective. I wager that there is worth in simply being conscious of yourself and your actions. There is also worth in knowing that, while you don’t have control over many things, you do have control over yourself, and you have the power to do with it what you want. In our own personal times of need, we might all have to be migrants. My amma was one, and she exists contently. Who knows. One day, if we’re all really lucky, we might get to live like her.

Bharat Nair can be reached at bnair@umich.edu.

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