In May I am about to become a father for the first time. As I prepare for that, many thoughts pass through my mind. But one line of thought in particular is close to my heart. This new phase of my life is also the end of an old phase.
That old phase began when I was 16, when the idea of being a monk, in spirit if not in actual practice, gained a powerful foothold in me. I was convinced the middle class life of the American dream – presumably the reason my family moved here – was not for me. Instead I was captivated by the image of a Shankara or a Vivekananda dedicating themselves to a spiritual life. I assumed that was my life – or ought to be. I uneasily accepted the scenic privileges of Cornell and the prestige of Harvard, feeling uncertain whether I really belonged there. At college wide faculty meetings at Bryn Mawr, while faculty debated how much of a pay increase we should get, I argued we should take a salary cut to highlight the spiritual vocation of academia which I feared was being lost. My colleagues looked at me with bemused annoyance, rightly thinking I didn’t have a mortgage and kids to worry about.
Why was I so drawn to this idea of a monk? It’s an interesting question. I never actually even visited a monastery, or do a retreat at one. It was the concept that held me enthralled, and the actual practice left me unmoved.
If asked at the time to explain the importance of the monk idea for me, I would have said: “I want to dedicate my life to God. I want to help raise society to a higher level of consciousness. If I am married and have kids, I will be too focused on my local concerns to think about the bigger picture. Marriage and kids are good. But at least some people ought to make humanity their family. That is what I want.”
This view marked a deep disagreement between myself and my father. He was my first philosophical interlocutor, my first philosophy teacher. In his youth he too had pondered taking the path of a monk, but – as was his style – once he decided to pursue marriage and the middle class life, he committed to it fully. Without feeling that in any way he had to sacrifice his spiritual life. By the time of our conversations, he had become convinced that in fact being married was the best way of being spiritual, since he felt it challenged one’s emotions in a way that a Buddha or a Vivekananda didn’t have to experience.
There is of course no such thing as the path of spirituality, as if being married or not determines how far one gets. I see now that my father also didn’t think it mattered too much. His vehemence about the importance of marriage and kids to spirituality was probably more a reflection of his love as a father for me. He must have wondered, “Why is my son so resistant to the middle class life? What is the pain behind that?”
I have wondered that too. I got married ten years ago. A couple of years ago I bought a house in the suburbs. Now I am about to be a father. The middle class life I resisted from ages 16 to 31, now I have fully embraced at 41. I feel my father’s experience is now my own. This progression into American suburbia doesn’t make me feel less spiritual. To the contrary, it makes me feel more spiritual, closer to God, confident that this is the path God has for me.
So, psychologically and sociologically, why did I resist the American middle class life so much? That too when my father didn’t?
When we immigrated to America in 1988, my father was 47 years old. His formative experiences were in India, and he came here fully formed. He was proud to be an American, and he identified fully with his new country. But culturally, he was very much Indian – in his food, his family habits, his cultural references, and ultimately, the spiritual texts he loved the most (The Bhagavad Gita and The Upanishads).
I was 11 when I came here. I was a boisterious fun loving kid. I got along with all of my extended family. But equally importantly, I had a thriving social life in India. Some of my most vivid memories are playing cricket with friends in the neighborhood park from end of the school day in the afternoon till sunset. I still can remember that feeling of being with friends who looked and talked like me, whose parents knew and talked to each other, whose lives were linked through the Telugu culture of Hyderabad, and of Indian culture more generally. Age 11 was the last time I experienced as a kid a seamless connection between my family life and the broader society life.
Once in America, in middle school and high school, there was a split between my family life and the school life; between how I spent my weekends with my extended family and how my friends spent their weekends, going out to dinners, movies and baseball games. Even as I remembered my cricket playing days and how central they were to my life and identity in India, I could feel it was all part of a hazy past as I stepped on to the baseball field and felt just a little out of step with the ease with which my friends played the game.
When I looked to the broader American society, and the history I learnt of America in school, my teenage mind saw a country that was mainly white and black, and Latino, and perhaps East Asian. In each of these cases, there was the assumption of the privileges of the immigrants from Europe contrasted with the bigotry faced by African-Americans, Mexican-Americans, Japanese-Americans, etc. I didn’t know then of the bigotry faced by Jews, the Irish, and others in America.
But one thing seemed clear: I wasn’t like any of these people. I wasn’t white but I was also not black. My parents were not rich, but not poor either. We lived in Westchester County, one of the richest counties in America, and without really yearning for it, I ended up at Ivy League schools and then at a tenure-track job on the Philadelphia Main Line, one of the centers of old, East Coast wealth.
As a sixteen year old I looked to the broader society of my country and asked myself, “Where is my identity here, not just in terms of a job and what kind of car I want to drive, but culturally and ethically? Who am I as an American? Who can I be? Where do I belong in a land of whites and blacks, Native Americans and Latinos, of the Chinese who helped build the railroads and the Japanese who were interned during WWII?” In response I was faced mainly with silence. Blankness. Uncertainty.
What I wanted was a cohesive blend of my inner Indian life and outer American life. Where was the connecting line between the spiritual, meaningful life I was awakening to at 16 while reading the Gita and the outer American life where I was taking the SATs and watching Mets games?
Somewhere in my unconscious the link was made to how Americans thought with admiration of India since the 60s: as a land of spirituality. As I discovered that sprituality was the center of my parents’ lives, I also discovered that Indian spirituality was a dominant theme in American life since the 1960s. It was a connecting point – a thread which bound together the disparate parts of my life.
My growth into a public identity in America became merged with having a public, spiritual identity. The way my friends or family members wanted to be baseball players or rock stars or politicians or computer scientists or doctors, I wanted to be a monk – a synthesis of India and America in which I could be whole. What I wanted first and foremost was a career or simply a way to make money, but rather a way to find myself as the American that I am.
A good part of my 20s, when I was grad school, I actually yearned for the cultural, institutional and spiritual turmoil of the 60s. I felt that in that turmoil was the root of my American identity, and that the humdrum American life of the 80s and 90s had somehow covered over the soil within which the seed of my growth was planted.
Identifying with the 60s in this way meant being basically counter-culture and counter-establishment. To look upon suburban life as comatose conformism, and even career seeking undergraduates or academics as not caring about the bigger issues of life. Ironically, the way I sought to find a home in America through the framework of the 60s actually kept me alienated from America.
This is coming to a close now. I no longer feel the need to understand myself as an American through the categories of the 60s, with its sharp dichotomy of hippy spiritualists versus the ticky-tack house suburbanites. I am free now to find my own mode of being an American, just as I am, in my own time and in my own life.
I had assumed that wanting to be a monk was a reflection of my spiritual yearning. But I see now that it was more a reflection of my sociological yearning. It was understandable, but now the phase of seeking that kind of a sociological grounding for my life is over. There is no more a question of what will my life as an American be. That life is here. I am living it now. I am an American of this kind – the kind that I am, and that I am being.
Freed of the link to this sociological need, now my spiritual life guides me as I am, without worry about how I ought to be spiritual. Just as I am an American as I am, so too I am spiritual where I am and how I am, with the job and the home and the wife and the kid to be that I have.
Embracing myself wholly as I am, and embracing this moment and each moment as it is, that is the sociological and also the spiritual foundation of my life. It doesn’t depend on which decade I am living through, or which country I am in, or where my home is, whether I have kids, or if I embrace a middle-class life.
There is a freedom and a life full of meaning in each moment, waiting to be found in each moment. With that sense of openness and freedom, I am looking forward to being a father.