February 22, 2021

The World’s Annus Horribilis – and Mine

By Kenneth Ring

Not to be born at all
Is best, far best that can befall,
Next best, when born, with least delay
To trace the backward way.
For when youth passes with its giddy train,
Troubles on troubles follow, toils on toils,
Pain, pain forever pain;
And none escapes life's coils.
-- Sophocles

It’s now been a year that we have all lived under the threatening COVID cloud, fearful that its pestilence would rain down on us – as indeed it has during this time. Just in the United States, half a million people at the time of this writing have died of COVID, and about 28 million Americans have been infected. And the deaths and infections will continue, even if their incidence will diminish during the coming year. This is a dark anniversary that marks a year of national mourning and unbearable heartache and suffering for so many in our country, and indeed, for the world.

And of course it has not only been the pandemic that has brought so much sorrow to us. Just to focus on the U.S., all of us remember the wave of protests that followed the shocking death of George Floyd and other Black persons killed by wanton police cruelty as the Black Lives Matter movement brought home the longstanding stink of racism that has affected and infected our country since before we were a nation. This was followed by a fractious and tumultuous election campaign that went on for months, and once the election was over, it wasn’t. It was during this time that then President Trump continued his delusional claim that he had actually won (by "a lot," he said) and went on to stoke the flames of insurrection among his more rabid followers that led to their assault and invasion of our capital on January 6th of this year. And these are just a few of the lowlights that made this past year one of almost ceaseless woe, worry and sporadic mayhem and unchecked violence. An annus horribilis, if ever there were one.

Compared to the traumas of this past year, my own sufferings hardly deserve mentioning, though as you can anticipate, that won’t stop me from disclosing some of them to you. Like many, I had a tough year, though my difficulties weren’t due to COVID as such, but to the terminal disease with which I am afflicted – aging. It will kill me in the end, but in the meantime it is content to inflict Jobbian indignities to a body that has clearly outlined its expiration date. At 85, I have reached the stage of life where my telomeres are breaking off and my body is breaking down. At night, I imagine I can hear it creaking, and in the morning, I could sometimes swear that rigor mortis must have already begun. In any case, I am in a daily battle with my enemy, decrepitude.

I realize that an old man’s complaints about his bodily infirmities are as trite as they are tedious. After all, everything that lives will suffer eventually; it’s just my turn now. So what? Big deal….

Still, if you’ll indulge me for a paragraph or two, you should know that I’ve had a severe case of spinal stenosis for several years now, so that I can barely walk down my block and back, and live like a virtual shut-in, shuffling around my house like a zombie at times. I have a torn right rotator cuff, too, that makes it difficult to lift my right arm. Dressing myself in the morning can sometimes take twenty minutes or more. In August, after I had done a lot of typing, I developed a cervical problem on my right shoulder that became progressively worse and before long resulted in severe pain. That went on for four months during which I could no longer write or even read books, either by hand or on my computer. All my professional work and almost all of my e-mail contact had to be shut down. During those months, I felt I had come to the end of the line as I was no longer able to work and write. At night, the pain was often so intense, I wished I could die. I knew I would not take my own life; I just wish it would be taken from me. Decrepitude I could handle; despair was harder.

I have no talent as a poet; I am not even a lowly poetaster. All I can do is write doggerel, and since my life in those dark days was going to the dogs, anyway, I banged out the following one morning:

On Growing Old

It is a misfortune to grow old
You will learn that soon enough
Eventually if not soon
Unless you are one of the lucky ones
And get to leave before your time

It is a myth that with age comes wisdom
Quite the contrary, my friend
With age, as you will see, comes decay
The body and its parts begin to falter
And then, one by one, begin to fail

And the mind, too, will start to shred
Its rich storehouse of memories
What gives you a sense of your identity
Begins to unravel and fall apart
Forgetfulness instead will be your lot

But you remember the days when you
Could run and hike with lively tread
Those days, too, are gone.  Instead
You go from striding to walking, and then
To sauntering, shuffling until you can only just sit

You recall the days, or, rather, the nights
When you could sleep straight through
And dream of siren women and foolish things
But now you piss the nights away, spending
More time in the bathroom than in bed

And what of all those romances past that
Kept your loins aflame with desire
They, too, have begun to fade from view
And the faces of your lovers likewise dim
Even their names you can’t quite recall

You have lived beyond your expiration date
But your body has failed to expire
So you remain immured inside your 
Body’s fortress, a prisoner of its
Capricious will, waiting for release

Yet each day brings you closer to death
Which means a time without a future
But each day you must live lashes you 
To that unwanted future – when will it end?
Like the Sphinx, it remains stonily silent

So you wait, powerless to control your fate
Though that doesn’t mean that
You don’t think about how to end it
The nights are long, but the stars still shine
And people love you – you live for them

Eventually, I found some relief from an epidural injection, but it wasn’t until I had a second one in January that was a special targeted epidural that I was finally free of shoulder pain and could write again. I’m "in remission" now since I was told that, with luck, I could expect it to last about three months. I could then have another injection, but because of having to get vaccinated, that will have to be postponed. So I can write without (much) pain now, but who knows for how long? And even tonight, I can feel some discomfort. Nevertheless, I’m grateful beyond words to have my life, such as it is, back now.

However – and this is the last thing in my litany of woes – two days after my second epidural, I had a sudden series of diarrhea episodes, followed by constipation, and back and forth it has gone, with stomach distention and lots of crap (literally) you don’t want to know about. During this time, I have lost seven pounds and have tried everything to get it under control. It’s been six weeks now, and the end is not in sight. Oh well, what the effing hell – it’s always something! You have to laugh.  

I guess I could say that I’ve lost everything but my hair and my sense of humor, and I hope to hold onto both until the end. And these days, I am actually feeling more cheerful than I have in a long time. This may have been a grim, and indeed, a ghastly year, but we must all find ways not to succumb to the gnawing fear that the COVID cloud will never lift. It will, and most of us to live to see that day. Meanwhile, I recommend that we pursue the kind of distractions that give us pleasure.

For example, some of you may remember that I am an ardent tennis fan, and particularly a proud Fedhead – a follower of the great Roger Federer. But you may know that not only has this year been a dismal one for us sports fans, especially for those of us for whom life has become a spectator sport, yet it has been worse for Federer himself. He has not played in a year owing to two knee surgeries, and at 39 his career is pretty much history. Hard as this year has been for me personally, to live without being able to watch Federer play was a thought that I could hardly bear to contemplate.

Still, I have found that there is still pleasure to be had by watching the Australian Open this month, even without Federer. Maybe Naomi Osaka, who just won her fourth grand slam title, will be become my new tennis raison d’etre. Maybe there’s tennis life post-Federer after all.

I’m still writing doggerel about the trials of aging, but now with a lighter touch.  I try not to take myself too seriously. I enjoy what I can, and the hell with the rest. I’m lucky to be here, and my body ain’t me, is it?

When You’re Old

Everything hurts
And nothing works
When you wake
You only ache
As for sleep
There’s nothing deep
Too many bathroom trips
Just to see how your penis drips
And when you dream
You hear Munch’s scream
At night, you feel the chills
By day, you try to avoid more spills
Even when you go to talk
What comes out is just a squawk
Your hearing is going, too
Your vision? Think Mr. Magoo
You are no longer bold
Just do as you’re told
And that, my friends,
Is what it’s like
When you grow old!

Finally, harking back to Sophocles’ lament about the sorrows of aging, the late George Carlin had a brilliant solution, which I think someone should bring to the attention of our Creator. Let George have the last word:

I want to live life backward
You start out dead and get that out of the way
Then you wake up in a nursing home feeling better every day
Then you get kicked out for being too healthy
Enjoy your retirement and collect your pension
Then when you start your work, you get a gold watch on the first day
You work for 40 years until you are too young to work
You get ready for high school: drink alcohol, party, and you are generally promiscuous
Then you go to primary school, you become a kid, you play, and you have no responsibilities
Then you become a baby, and then...
You finish off as an orgasm.
I rest my case.

February 1, 2021

What Anne Frank’s Diary Can Teach Us About Living In the Eye of a Storm – and Finding Our True Self

© Hitendra Wadhwa, 2020

Some of you may remember an essay I offered last year in my Ringdom corona diary blog series that was written by a friend of mine and a very exceptional being with an unusual name, Hitendra Wadhwa. That essay was entitled, "What Death Has to Teach Us."

Early this year – in fact on January 1 – I received another post from Hitendra that struck me as both very timely and very perceptive. And certainly, like other pieces I have read from this man, thoughtful, sensitive and provocative. [You will find more information about the author at the end of his article.]

In its original form, however, it was too long for a blog post, so I had an editor abridge it for me. Alas, this took some time and some glitches occurred in the process, so it’s taken over a month before I could get it to you.

Nevertheless, I believe when you read it, you will agree it was worth the wait.

- Kenneth Ring

When my daughter Mrinalini was twelve, she discovered the Diary of Anne Frank. The book had an instant and deep impact on her, and the two – Mrinalini and Anne Frank’s Diary – became inseparable. She would keep the book by her bedside, and carry it around with her. Once I asked her why the book had to go along with us when we were going out for a walk. She was hugging the book more than holding it. She whispered to me, conspiratorially, "People think this is Anne Frank’s Diary. It isn’t. This is Anne Frank. She is my friend, and I take her wherever I go."

So in this year of the pandemic, as many of us were forced to live with social isolation, I decided to dust this book off the shelf and read how Anne Frank coped with her years in hiding during the Second World War. Perhaps there would be lessons to learn from her trials for us too, I speculated.

Even Mrinalini’s adoration hadn’t prepared me for what I experienced. Anne was a revelation. I now place the results of my investigation in your hands, in the article below. I hope her journey will provide as much upliftment to you as it has to me. I do not hug the book, but yes, Anne Frank now is my friend too, and I take her in my heart wherever I go.

What would you do if you were forced into lockdown in a small living space, with people you didn’t always get along with, month upon month, as the world outside seemed to careen out of control? This year, my mind often drifted to Anne Frank and her tumultuous years in the Secret Annex. I wondered what we might learn from her journey given the disruptions our lives have experienced; after all, her conditions were much worse, and she was only thirteen. So finally, over the holidays, I picked up and read Anne Frank’s Diary, and emerged shaken and stirred in ways much deeper than I had anticipated.

There is a lively, endearing, human side to Anne that struggles not just with a stormy outer world but also a stormy inner world. She has just turned into a teenager, is finding her own voice and being rebellious. This is an Anne we can all relate to. But there is also the spiritual, soaring, heroic side to Anne that reflects, loves, learns, thrives and grows. She cultivates a pure heart, envisions her future impact on the world, and finds her true self lying deep within. This is an Anne we can all be inspired by.

This holiday season, we can learn so much about our own selves from the diary of a thirteen-year-old, not simply from the suffering she bore but the happiness she cultivated, not simply from her outer chaos but her inner clarity, and not simply from her tempestuous relationships but her tranquil heart.

Note: Anne Frank was thirteen when she and her family were forced into hiding in 1942 in a Secret Annex of a building in Amsterdam to escape the persecution of Jews by Nazi Germany. She lived in that confined space with her parents, sister, and four other people for two years, writing about her experiences and reflections in her diary, before the residents were finally found and arrested. Anne Frank’s Diary was published after the end of World War II and continues to receive international acclaim.

In the first several months of her hiding, Anne struggles with anxiety, depression and fear.

But in the midst of the tumult, she strives to gain dominion over her emotional life.

Last night I went downstairs in the dark, all by myself, after having been there with Father a few nights before. I stood at the top of the stairs while German planes flew back and forth, and I knew I was on my own, that I couldn’t count on others for support. My fear vanished. I looked up at the sky and trusted in God.

Her small steps toward inner mastery, over time, become big leaps, and near the end of her two years in hiding, she observes with some satisfaction the progress she has made.

I face life with an extraordinary amount of courage. I feel so strong and capable of bearing burdens, so young and free! When I first realized this, I was glad, because it means I can more easily withstand the blows life has in store ... I’ve often been down in the dumps, but never desperate. I look upon our life in hiding as an interesting adventure, full of danger and romance, and every privation as an amusing addition to my diary.

Anne brings a remarkable capacity to commune with nature.

It’s not just my imagination - looking at the sky, the clouds, the moon and the stars really does make me feel calm and hopeful.

"As long as this exists," I thought, "this sunshine and this cloudless sky, and as long as I can enjoy it, how can I be sad?" The best remedy for those who are frightened, lonely or unhappy is to go outside, somewhere they can be alone, alone with the sky, nature and God. 

How often in recent days have you and I looked up at the starlit sky with childlike wonder? How can we deepen our attunement with nature so it makes us ready to face every blow with courage and brings us solace for every sorrow?

And she finds opportunities to be grateful.

It’s amazing how much these generous and unselfish people do...

That’s something we should never forget; while others display their heroism in battle or against the Germans, our helpers prove theirs every day by their good spirits and affection.

How rooted are you and I in a practice of gratitude, in scanning for actors in our community who are playing their role beautifully in the drama of our times?

She resists her mother’s guidance to forge her own pathway to happiness.

At such moments I don’t think about all the misery, but about the beauty that still remains. This is where Mother and I differ greatly. Her advice in the face of melancholy is: "Think about all the suffering in the world and be thankful you’re not part of it." My advice is: "Go outside, to the country, enjoy the sun and all nature has to offer. Go outside and try to recapture the happiness within yourself; think of all the beauty in yourself and in everything around you and be happy."

What an important lesson for every parent among us, to not assume our children, just because they look and act as children, are bereft of innate wisdom in resolving life’s greatest challenges.

Like us all, Anne wishes to become her ideal self, but is plagued by doubts and relapses.

I know I’m far from being what I should; will I ever be?

I had an occasional flash of understanding, but then got selfishly wrapped up again in my own problems and pleasures.

And yet, in those two years, she advances in her quest for self-improvement in no small measure.

Every day I feel myself maturing, I feel liberation drawing near, I feel the beauty of nature and the goodness of the people around me. Every day I think what a fascinating and amusing adventure this is! With all that, why should I despair?

Wishes, thoughts, accusations and reproaches are swirling around in my head... 

I want to change, will change and already have changed greatly.

She takes a searching look at humanity’s soul, and therein finds beauty and grace.

It’s difficult in times like these: ideals, dreams and cherished hopes rise within us, only to be crushed by grim reality. It’s a wonder I haven’t abandoned all my ideals, they seem so absurd and impractical.

And yet, when I look up at the sky, I somehow feel that everything will change for the better, that this cruelty too will end, that peace and tranquility will return once more. In the meantime, I must hold onto my ideals. Perhaps the day will come when I’ll be able to realize them!

I've found that there is always some beauty left -- in nature, sunshine, freedom, in yourself; these can all help you.

All of us are born with a basic goodness ... people are truly good at heart.

How can Anne, in the midst of World War II, with all the mayhem it brought especially to the Jewish community to which she belonged, maintain this ennobling view of human nature? What might we gain if we expand our heart in the same way?

Of course, many people were not behaving in noble ways in her time, and Anne is not blind to that. But she still sees the untapped potential in people to grow and reform themselves.

How noble and good everyone could be if, at the end of each day, they were to review their own behavior and weigh up the rights and wrongs. They would automatically try to do better at the start of each new day and, after a while, would certainly accomplish a great deal.

In a world exploding with complexity, when we feel overcommitted and have no time on our hands, Anne has offered us such a simple model to develop our character. An army of behavioral scientists in modern times would applaud her for this insight into the psychology of personal growth.

While Anne zestfully plays the role of the protagonist on the stage of her life, she is also increasingly stepping on the balcony to observe, critique and direct herself. She is, as Yogananda would have described it, "in the world, but not of the world."

In everything I do, I can watch myself as if I were a stranger. I can stand across from the everyday Anne and, without being biased or making excuses, watch what she’s doing, both the good and the bad.

How often do you and I step above the fray to coach ourselves from a place of calm, dispassionate observation? Would we become better at taming those impulses that get us in trouble if we build this self-regulating mechanism within our mind?

She develops an understanding of the inner source of happiness.

I don’t have much in the way of money or worldly possessions, I’m not beautiful, intelligent or clever, but I’m happy, and I intend to stay that way! I was born happy, I love people, I have a trusting nature, and I’d like everyone else to be happy too ... Riches can all be lost, but that happiness in your own heart can only be veiled, and it will still bring you happiness again, as long as you live. As long as you can look fearlessly up into the heavens, as long as you know that you are pure within, and that you will still find happiness.

Are you and I clear about the relative role money, worldly possessions, beauty, intelligence, fearlessness and purity are playing in creating lasting happiness in our lives?

She wishes to bring the same understanding to others – not of what treasures await them on the outside, but of what treasures await them on the inside. To Peter, the son of the van Daans, she counsels:

Peter, as long as people feel that kind of happiness within themselves, the joy of nature, health and much more besides, they’ll always be able to recapture that happiness. Riches, prestige, everything can be lost. But the happiness in your own heart can only be dimmed; it will always be there, as long as you live, to make you happy again.

Whenever you’re feeling lonely or sad, try going to the loft on a beautiful day and looking outside. Not at the houses and the rooftops, but at the sky. As long as you can look fearlessly at the sky, you’ll know that you’re pure within and will find happiness once more.

When was the last time you and I looked fearlessly at the sky to know that we are pure within?

Her two years in the Annex lead to much self-discovery. The more she writes, the more clarity she seems to gain on what her outer purpose is meant to be.

I want to be useful or bring enjoyment to all people, even those I've never met. I want to go on living even after my death! And that's why I'm so grateful to God for having given me this gift, which I can use to develop myself and to express all that's inside me!

How deep are the inner dives you and I do to tease out the intuitive wisdom at our core about what we are meant to manifest in the world?

How much have you and I explored our core ... our purer, deeper and finer side ... the one that takes the stage when we are alone ... the one that is happy on the inside?

Three days after the final passage, a car pulled up at the building with the Secret Annex. The Gestapo found and arrested Anne and her fellow residents. Anne, her sister and mother died in concentration camps over the next few months, along with the van Daans, just as the Allied forces had begun to liberate Europe. Anne’s father survived, returned to Amsterdam, found her diary and arranged for its publication.

If you have read this article to this point, then I know, dear Reader, that you will join me in sending this thought to her. Anne, thank you for your life, for your struggles, strivings and growth, and most of all for the purity you preserved deep down within. We want you to know that you have, just as you wished, been useful and brought enjoyment to all people, even those you never met. You have gone on to live even after your death.

Anne’s greatest gift to future generations may be to show us, through her own journey, what each of us is capable of. She once wrote, "Everyone has inside of him a piece of good news. The good news is that you don’t know how great you can be! How much you can love! What you can accomplish! And what your potential is!"

Who would have thought that in the twilight hours of this tumultuous year, a thirteen-year-old girl from 1940’s Amsterdam would leap out of her diary straight into our hearts, showing, through her 25-month sojourn in a Secret Annex, how much purpose, wisdom, love, growth and self-realization we can all nurture even in the midst of our pandemic lives?

(Editor's Note: This article is condensed from a piece on Professor Wadhwa's site. To read to full version click here)

Hitendra Wadhwa is Professor of Practice at Columbia Business School and Founder of the Mentora Institute, Hitendra has coached dozens of Fortune 100 C-suite executives and taught 10,000+ MBAs and Executives. His class on Personal Leadership & Success is one of the most popular at Columbia Business School, for which he has won the Dean’s Award for Teaching Excellence.

Hitendra’s mission is to discover, codify and teach the laws of success in life and leadership. His research integrates the latest science of human nature, ancient wisdom, studies of great leaders, and the personal journeys of everyday heroes. Hitendra brings a mathematician’s rigor and a truth-seeker’s spirit to some of today’s most vexing questions about authenticity, success, leadership, human potential, and more.

Hitendra is the founder of Mentora Institute, which is at the forefront of creating a new model of leadership for the 21st century that is agile, authentic, and attainable, where executives achieve ever-growing Outer Impact through ever-deepening Inner Mastery.