As the century turned, so did our lives... it has been a decade of frenetic change.

It seems only very recently that the entire world came together in a true expression of globalisation and watched with bated breath, near-panic and a sense of impending doom as y2k happened. Mercifully we are, against the run of prophecy, still alive and kicking to talk in hushed tones of the ‘good old y2k days’. However, as the century turned, so did our lives - upside down. As an avid people and society watcher, at no time in my life have I witnessed as frenetic a pace of change as I have in the last decade, globally, regionally and locally. Life, as we know it, has been taken roughly by the scruff of the neck and irreversibly churned up.

And, needless to say, this pace of change has left in its tumultuous wake, several casualties, notably in the sphere of human relationships.

It is no longer uncommon to see marriages breaking up within a month of the wedding on grounds that seem astonishing to those who got married in the pre-y2k era. People do not like staying in a job for more than two years for this may end up ‘looking bad on their CVs’. Legislation is on the anvil making it mandatory for children to look after their aging parents. Self-help books by home-grown writers become instant best-sellers, much to the chagrin of literary fiction aficionados. The corporate world hires ‘change management consultants’ who help people get comfortable with cheese that has acquired a nasty habit of always moving. Paradigms that used to keep shifting until a few years ago are now being lost and eventually regained. Brands do not chase yuppies any more, they are after the EEMI (English-speaking, Educated Middle-class Indian). People no more wait until they are ‘mad’ or ‘mental’ before they see a shrink. Accents are no more American, English, Australian, South Indian or North Indian; they are severely neutralized by Accent Neutralizers (although this sounds like a terribly painful and surgically mangling procedure, I am reliably informed that it is no such thing!).

Yes, a lot has changed in the last decade. Except my editor’s unyielding insistence on sticking to an unchanged word count. So, I am going to restrict my comments to two very significant phenomena that are representative of the manner in which we deal with rapid social change. The first of these has to do with the tightening and compartmentalization of relationship boundaries.

When we are overwhelmed by external events as we today are, all of us feel the need to protect ourselves from the battering – either real or anticipated – that our changed environment has in store for us. For we are all creatures of habit and derive our sense of comfort and well-being from the familiar and well-trodden. When things around us become unpredictable and quirky or the external world seems to engulf us, we usually tend to dig our heels in and create our own mini-worlds or personal microcosms. This we do by defining tight boundaries around ourselves, so that external unpredictability does not drown us completely. We seek and find familiar touchstones like our religious beliefs, nationalism even of the jingoistic variety, our communal identity and so forth, since these, even though they place us at risk for xenophobic behaviour, also help us luxuriate in liberatingly familiar ritualized behaviours. And since we live in rigid compartments, we learn to behave differently in each of these.

The other phenomenon that has made its appearance is the explosion offrustration intolerance. As children, we are usually taught that all our needs cannot be gratified instantly and therefore we learn to tolerate our frustration when the gratification of our needs is delayed. Indian society of a few decades ago placed a high premium on the attribute of tolerance not amounting to stoicism, and tolerance was considered not only a sign of maturity but a value absolutely fundamental to the fabric of Indian social living. However, that has changed now. As we have learned to tighten our boundaries and live in smaller and smaller personal microcosms, the emphasis has shifted to the here and immediate. We demand instant gratification. And when this does not happen, our frustration levels go over the edge and we lose it in one form or another. You only have to look around you or, if you are more honest, at your own self, and you will see hundreds of day-to-day examples of frustration intolerance in your own life.

The trick to dealing with change is to accept it, to embrace it and to enjoy it. The more you resist it, the more constricted and frustrating will your life become. Change is here to stay. Our lives will have to be re-organized, our relationships will have to be re-aligned, our touchstones will have to be re-defined. But through this process, we do not have to lose out on our essential identity and spirit, for no one can take that away from us. And what’s more, we won’t have to make our personal microcosms tinier and tinier, and we will be in a position to take frustration in our stride. And the world need not seem such a bad place. Actually, it isn’t.

The writer is a Chennai-based psychiatrist and can be contacted at vijay.nagaswami@gmail.com(864 words)