On Defining Moments

07 May 2018 Comments Off on On Defining Moments


“We all have life-defining moments. They are like open-book tests, but we don’t know we have been examined until it is over.” – John Bevere
We all have defining events that change the course of our lives and shape who we are. Or perhaps, since our lives are much less dramatic than those of the characters we create, is it likely that not just one, but a collection of events shapes us. And then through the rest of our lives, these shapes we grow into define us. People who experience the acute lack of something in childhood grow up obsessed with attaining it as adults. Such a perceived lack defines their lives; they are constantly measuring themselves and their achievements in order to see how close they have come to the attainment of this object of desire. (On the other hand, whatever blessings you do have as a child are taken as they come, accepted without question or comment, with little gratitude for their presence.)
For a character in a story, it is easy to define a moment that separates their life into two clear-cut portions. We can measure how a defining moment changed their life and how it affects everything they are and everything they do. We can speculate how different their life would have been if not for the presence of this defining moment. For Harry Potter, it was the manner of death of his parents that set the course for the rest of his life. For Paul Atreides from “Dune,” it was his family’s move to the planet Arrakis that turned his world around. A child whose parents were kidnapped, as in “When We Were Orphans,” becomes a detective. A neglected child, Naruto, aspires for attention and recognition.
Trying to identify the defining moments for real people is harder. Real people are more complex; you are unlikely to be privy to the all the important moments they have lived through. In fact, they themselves might not have access to the memories of all the events that made them who they are. But in principle, if you know enough truths about a person, you ought to be able to pinpoint the incidents that have defined their life. You could try to figure out why your mother always warns you about the things she warns you about. You could try to determine why your father wanted you to be a doctor. Or why your best friend is belligerent while eating.
Since, in theory, we know ourselves best, it ought to be a simple matter to hold a mirror to ourselves and pick out the events that shaped us. We ought to be able to do so with as much precision as we can for fictional characters. But we have too many memories – some hidden, some available but inaccurate – for inspection. We also have bias. But despite this, each of us can probably point to a few incidents that changed us.
So think about this with me: What was one of the defining moments of your childhood, and how has it made you who you are today? You have dreams and aspirations, but where did these dreams and aspirations come from? Why this dream and not another? What pushed you or pulled you toward this specific dream? What could this dream tell a complete stranger about the life you have lived? In the most fundamental sense, a dream is something you would like to have and found was lacking in your life. What you aspire to become can be a direct way to obtain what you felt you lacked in childhood.
And truthfully, you can want to achieve something only if you have experienced its lack excruciatingly. After being tormented, one feels the need to not be tormented any more and so tries to find a way to end the torment. This provides the motivation needed to achieve tasks. Unless you are motivated, you cannot really give your heart and soul to the task at hand, and thus you place extreme limits on any “infinite potential” you may have. So if you are tormented, you have the possibility of emerging from that torment to achieve bigger things. In a Bollywood movie called “Rockstar,” a wanna-be musician is told: “It is a different kind of life that makes artists out of people; songs can only arise from broken hearts.”
So being tormented is a great thing. In stories, characters have a plethora of hardships, which makes the good times they see even more precious. Then, the need to ensure that factors that contribute to the good times remain intact leads to heroic deeds. Most often, the good times are a result of the company of a beloved person – a child, or a friend. When such a precious bond is threatened, characters go all out and wreak havoc on what would take away the good time–inducing people. Since such a strategy increases drama and tension, it is perhaps overused in popular literature, but you get the point: being tormented is good. If you are not tormented, you are unruffled and have little room to grow. But living under constant torment is not easy. So I suppose a good life would be one where torment is interspersed with times when that torment is relieved to reveal tranquility and contentment. And when you think about it, that is exactly what our lives are like. We have our “good times” and “bad times,” sometimes in the same day, or even within a few moments of each other.
So, if you are having a hard time, know that it is normal and know that your reaction to it will shape you. Try to make the best of your hard times. But try not to exhaust yourself. Hopefully, everything will work out. Good luck with finals!