The redwoods of California are tall, magnificent trees that have been around for more than 2,000 years and reach towering heights of 75–90 meters. They have withstood fires, earthquakes, floods, strong winds, and storms. To support a living thing so strong and long lasting, how deep do you think the roots must go? The interesting fact is that the roots of redwoods go down only 1.8–2.4 meters—not much more than the height of a person.
What is unique about the root system of these Sequoioideae is that instead of growing deep, the roots go outward and connect with the roots of other redwoods, interlocking with each other. When one redwood starts to weaken because of old age or sickness, the roots of the others strengthen their hold and provide extra nutrients to the sick tree to nourish it back to life. The redwoods feed and support each other, but in order to do so they individually have to stay strong. As the old aphorism goes, a chain is only as strong as its weakest link.
In order to survive we need to be individually strong, and in order to thrive we need to have a strong support system. But what happens when our support system—that is our family unit, our schools, our universities, our work places—fail us?
We are now living in the best of times since the beginning of mankind. Many of us enjoy a higher standard of living than ever before. Life expectancy is at an all-time high. We live in smart homes, drive smart cars, carry smart devices that can answer any question at the touch of a button, we can swipe right or left to say yes or no to a date or hook up.
Yet we are more disconnected, disillusioned, discontented, and lonely than we have ever been. According to the September issue of the Harvard Business Review, loneliness is the next big epidemic to hit the modern world. Thanks to our smart devices, we can be connected with people thousands of miles away, yet we are disconnected from those closest to us and, more importantly and sadly, we are disconnected from ourselves.
We have no idea who we are or what we stand for. We feel empty and hollow. And in order to fill that emptiness we give in to temptations that are all around us. Everywhere we look we are promised a happier life if we look a certain way, drive a certain car, carry certain bag, wear those shoes, go to that university, or get this job. We believe we are not good enough until we get “enough.”
My own “not-enough” journey started when I was about nine years old. When I was seven, my father was posted to an army unit called 18 FAD. It was a small military base with one train coming through that only stopped if an army officer was being posted in or out. Every time an officer was posted out, the entire train would be decorated with flowers. As a seven year old, I fell in love with that beautifully decorated train and could not wait for my father to be posted out so that I could sit inside.
But that was not meant to be.
Exactly a week before my ninth birthday, my father passed away. Instead of flowers we returned to Delhi engulfed by tears and excruciating pain. My 31-year-old widowed mother, my four-year-old brother, and I moved in with my grandparents who were extremely strict. From then on I started hearing “no” a lot. Everything was rationed, including expressions of love and affection. We never sat together and laughed and we never had enough money, so most conversations were about money or the lack of it. I never had enough clothes or shoes. I remember going to a wedding and not having a nice pair of shoes, so I borrowed my neighbor’s shoes, which were a size too small so by the time I came home my feet were almost blue.
The feelings of insecurity and not enough became deeply ingrained. We all have our own fears and insecurities yet no one ever teaches us to how deal with them. Unknowingly or knowingly, we often pass these fears and our aspirations on to our children. Unless we work on ourselves and excise our fears, we will continue to create a society that is weak and insecure. We will continue to look for external validation, never trusting in ourselves.
This is what we need to change.
My personal journey of change began about 12 years ago. I had reached a point in my life that seemed extremely difficult. My childhood insecurities had never been put to rest and, as I faced ever more setbacks, they were compounded.
I had a breakdown. And as I became open to help, help started appearing from all sides. On an international flight one day, I found myself sitting next to the famous Buddhist monk Matthieu Ricard. That eight-hour flight from Sydney to Hong Kong turned out to be a life-changing experience. I picked Matthieu’s brain for hours, and kept asking him to teach me how to be happy. He told me the best way to become happier was to accept myself the way I was, to let go of the past, to forgive the people who may have hurt me, and to bring happiness to those around me.
Matthieu explained that we are all connected and that my happiness is directly proportional to the happiness of the people around me. Soon afterward I had a chance to practice what that learned monk had taught me.
One day I was cleaning a bookshelf in my house in India when I came across a diary. Opening it, I realized it belonged to my mother-in-law. Like any good and dutiful daughter-in-law, I began reading. As I turned the pages the color of my face grew brighter and my temperature hotter. Each page was full of angst, sadness, anger, frustration, and pain. The chapter on me was so vitriolic, so full of anger and hatred, that I could not read beyond three paragraphs.
By now I was seething and I stomped down the stairs right in front of my mother-in-law, diary in hand. As soon as I showed her the diary, she became very uncomfortable and asked me where I had found it. I was still upset and hurt, so I answered curtly that it did not matter where I had found it, what mattered was what was inside.
Then I remembered what Matthieu had told me: let go of the past, forgive the people who may have hurt you, and bring happiness to those around you.
Before my mother-in-law could say anything else, I put the diary down and placed my arms around her, saying, “I am so sorry to have caused you so much pain!” Tears spilled from our eyes as we hugged, then we lit a fire and burned that diary page by page. From that day on, my mother-in-law became my best friend. Just like the redwoods, we ended up supporting and holding each other.
So what do you want to create?
We all dream of living a life of comfort, joy, happiness, love, and abundance, but are we willing to see what role we play? We are all connected, yet somehow we have forgotten. We never know what effect our actions will have; one small change can have a huge impact. When I hugged my mother-in-law, I set in motion a whole new trajectory. From then on my happiness quotient went up dramatically and so did that of the people around me.
We often hear that the system is broken, but my question is: who creates the system? We do. Each of us has the ability to impact the system. The moment we blame, we give away our power. Instead of blaming and waiting, start by giving yourself and others what you need. Give yourself the gift of love, appreciation, kindness, and compassion. Then take these gifts and share them with others. Our individual strength lies in the strength of the collective.
We can change societies, systems, our relationships, and ourselves simply by becoming aware of our thoughts, words, and actions. With awareness comes an understanding that leads to empathy, compassion, and acceptance. This is what leads to connection, which is the key to sustainability and strength. The redwoods stand tall because they hold each other and offer nourishment and support to the weaker trees.
It is our human imperative that we stand strong and support each other, nourish each other, validate each other, and create a society of which we want to be a part. In this day and age, when machines are becoming ever more sophisticated and ubiquitous, the one thing we must hold on to and cherish is our humanity and our interconnection.