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Wallet, photocopy and “What I have lived for” October 22, 2007

Posted by Sharath Rao in contemplation, KREC, reminisces-2000.

For a long time my book reading algorithm has been running as follows –

1. Get book

2. Read blurb, appreciation.

3. Read contents, foreward, preface and acknowledgements

4. Read chapter 1.

5. Put the book away.

6. Months later return to a random page on the book. Read until bored/distracted which easily happens

7. Back to step 5.

Along the same lines, sitting in the KREC library sometime in Dec 2000, I found the autobiography of Bertrand Russel. I opened the book to the preface. I remember being so impressed by it that I went up to the Library photocopy center known for those notorious delays, misplacing material and never having change for any amount over Rs. 10.

Yet I took it on. I kept a photocopy of that preface in my wallet for a while. In April 2002, a bunch of friends gifted me a new wallet (lets call it wallet A) as a token of appreciation for having moderated a group discussion their club conducted. This photocopy promptly found a place in that wallet.

Just before I boarded me first flight out of India on August 8th, 2004, my father gave me a new wallet (call it wallet B) in which I kept the dollars, cents and all that I needed for my journey and after. And among the few things that went from wallet A to B was this preface copy which after 4 years in several different wallets was beginning to look soiled. As I left India, I swapped wallet A for B. When I landed in Bombay for the first time on Dec 22nd, 2005, I just swapped my wallets again. It already had everything I needed and therefore, the only thing that jumped from one wallet to another was, yeah, this piece of paper now 5 years old. And the whole thing repeated when I left for Pittsburgh 3 weeks later.

3 years of wear and tear on wallet B and last month I bought a new wallet. As I started moving contents from wallet B to wallet C, I saw this piece of paper which by now was so soiled as to be almost unreadable. I decided that this paper is better left somewhere safer than exposed to the elements, wither away.

But just what was the preface all about and why did it mean so much. Read on.

What I have lived for

Three passions, simple but overwhelmingly strong, have governed my life: the longing for love, the search for knowledge, and unbearable pity for the suffering of mankind. These passions, like great winds, have blown me hither and thither, in a wayward course, over a great ocean of anguish, reaching to the very verge of despair.

I have sought love, first, because it brings ecstasy – ecstasy so great that I would often have sacrificed all the rest of life for a few hours of this joy. I have sought it, next, because it relieves loneliness–that terrible loneliness in which one shivering consciousness looks over the rim of the world into the cold unfathomable lifeless abyss. I have sought it finally, because in the union of love I have seen, in a mystic miniature, the prefiguring vision of the heaven that saints and poets have imagined. This is what I sought, and though it might seem too good for human life, this is what–at last–I have found.

With equal passion I have sought knowledge. I have wished to understand the hearts of men. I have wished to know why the stars shine. And I have tried to apprehend the Pythagorean power by which number holds sway above the flux. A little of this, but not much, I have achieved.

Love and knowledge, so far as they were possible, led upward toward the heavens. But always pity brought me back to earth. Echoes of cries of pain reverberate in my heart. Children in famine, victims tortured by oppressors, helpless old people a burden to their sons, and the whole world of loneliness, poverty, and pain make a mockery of what human life should be. I long to alleviate this evil, but I cannot, and I too suffer.

This has been my life. I have found it worth living, and would gladly live it again if the chance were offered me.

In December 2000 when I first read this as that impressionistic, idealistic 19 year old, it was almost as if Russel was speaking to me. Although I have read it a few times in the intervening 7 years, as I read it now, I remember how I was so passionate about it, about showing it to a friend who was not as impressed, but unswayed, deciding I will have a copy nonetheless.

Today, although I have no disagreement with what the preface says, I feel more attached to that piece of paper than what it says. In other words, its an attachment and respect for my passion from another age than for the object of that passion. (Okay, I wont spent another sentence explaining this, I know you get it 🙂 )

Linked from here.



1. Jennifer - March 15, 2009

I found this searching for the text of “What I Have Lived For” remembering a typed copy of it that I kept in my wallet for many years, after having discovered it at the similarly idealistic age of 17. Interesting shared experience. 🙂

2. Jennifer - March 15, 2009

in fact, it occurs to me now by the math in your post above, that we would have discovered/walleted this passage in the same year. 🙂

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