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Truth in the Bathtub

Truth in the Bathtub
Published on Apr 19, 2023.

It’s hard to describe what it does to a kid when they’re told over and over, by all the adults that they respect and look up to, that they’re special. That they’re uniquely talented. That they’re gifted.

It didn’t exactly make me happy. But it didn’t exactly make me sad either. It just made life a series of highs punctuated by periods of waiting for the next one. The high came from the moments of recognition, when I was told I was special. But as soon as it ended, as soon as people turned their attention to other things, that high, that glow of being in the spotlight, went with it. The light turned off, the high was gone, and I was left in the dark craving the next one.

So I’d work diligently for the next hit. I’d repeat the same techniques, if they still worked, or if they didn’t, I’d figure out the new game. Because it was always, ultimately a game. What do I need to do to bask again in that transient glory?

Of course, at that age, I had no conscious recognition that this is what I was doing. I just knew that those highs – those moments of achievement recognized by others – felt so good. It was at those times that I felt complete.

It’s funny how the mind of an addict works. Despite differences in addictions, they tend to use the same words: “high”, “chasing”, “complete”. Life is given meaning only by fleeting moments when the craving is satisfied. It exists in a permanent binary – high or not high – and the only thing to do when you’re not high is to get high, or die trying.

I’m not exaggerating when I make this analogy. My psychological dependence on recognition was nothing short of an addition that carried on for decades. It drove me to some of my biggest achievements – which were done always with some desire for recognition. I don’t remember exact times that I may have done something and gotten no recognition – but I remember that feeling that it was a waste. If you put a bunch of effort into something, and there’s no one around to recognize it, is it still an achievement that matters?

This addiction had profound consequences for my life. It would drive me to the heart of the most powerful institutions of our time – one plodding, conformist step at a time. I’d end up chasing recognition in its ultimate forms – the pedigree of an elite university, the brand of a company that everyone knew, the kind of jobs that garnered significant respect and awe.

Fortunately, my addiction for recognition was not the only thing shaping my decisions. I had, somewhere in me, a deep desire to know the truth. A curiosity that drove me. One separate from the subjective, fleeting moments of recognition. One that is objective, universal, permanent.

One of my earliest memories – actually, probably my earliest – is from when I was around 4 or 5 years old. I was in the bathtub by myself, watching the water gush out of the faucet. I used to sit there, just watching the water, and running my hand through the stream. I could do this for hours. When my parents asked me what I was doing, I’d tell them I was “thinking”. For a long time, they thought I had a problem.

But I was actually thinking. I loved it. I felt like just by thinking enough about a question, just by playing with it in my mind, turning it around here and there, I could discover things about the world around me. And that feeling of discovery always felt like a phase shift – like I’d suddenly woken up, realized something, and the world was completely different than what it had been just a moment ago.

This particular day, for som reason, I started thinking about small people and big people. There were small people, kids like me. And there were big people, adults like my dad. That seemed simple enough. That’s the way it had always been. But something wasn’t sitting right. Earlier that day, or maybe the day before, I’d seen an old photograph of my dad. It was one of the earliest pictures of my family. They’re on a beach in Mumbai, my grandparents a young couple with a few young children. One of those children was my dad.

So, I thought, my dad is a big person who had been a small person once. And next to him in the picture was my uncle. Another big person who had once been small. To my, 4-year-old mind, this was new and off-putting. I’d thought small people are small and big people are big, and that’s just the way the world is. I thought they never changed.

Suddenly, I saw the chain of life. Small people grow into big people! One day, I would grow into a big person, just like my dad. But then – what would happen to him? He’d become like my grandfather. Old. And then what? Where was my grandfather’s father? He wasn’t around anymore. He was gone.

In a flash of insight, I understood. From childhood to adulthood to old age to death. This was the moment I realized that everyone dies.

I jumped out of the bathtub, dripping naked, and ran through the house crying. I found my dad in the kitchen, and I clung onto his leg as hard as I could. I was crying hysterically. “What’s he matter?” He asked. “I don’t want you to die, I don’t want to die, I don’t want mom to die, I don’t want dada to die.” I just kept saying this over and over, through the sobs.

My dad didn’t say anything for a long moment. I just kept clinging onto his leg, crying and shaking like my little grip could single-handedly keep him from the grave. Finally, he said really the only thing you can say to a 4-year-old, who has just discovered the ultimate truth of life before he knew how to handle it. “No one’s gonna die,” he said. “I’m not gonna die. Your mom’s not gonna die. No one’s gonna die. We’re just gonna stay right here.” What else can you say?

I believed him, for a few years. But eventually I realized I was right. That just by thinking about it, I’d stumbled onto an inescapable truth. I’d found that there are hard truths in this world, and after the shock wore off, I felt a lot better knowing it, even if it made me sad, than living in the blissful ignorance I had earlier. If some truth is right in front of my face, at least I wanted to see it.

This belief in truth, and a desire to seek it out, became the other pole in my life, a juxtaposition to my addiction for recognition. And to the degree that I took a different path from others around me, and ended up with a very different set of beliefs about the world, it might just be because of the seed planted in me a long time ago, that day in the bathtub, when on my own, I came to undestand the truth.