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The Non-Linearity of Life

By | 9/9/2023

Wouldn’t things be so much simpler if life progressed in a straight line and predictable manner? As everyone can attest, nothing could be further from that expectation. And yet despite these lived experiences, we continue hoping, praying, and wishing that things turn out the way we want them to (and when we want them to) manifest in a certain expected manner. How much fret and struggle when that turns out, often enough, to not be the case.

If one steps back from it all, it’s easy to conclude even in a mundane manner that life’s events and trajectory is inherently non-linear. Even when making progress, it is often two steps forward and one step back or sometimes more steps backwards (or sideways) and only a few in the right direction.

It can even seem at times that one’s overall journey itself is heading in a downward or wrong direction and we find ourselves questioning the divine merit during such perilous or confounding periods in our life. We rarely ever doubt the universe’s intent when the developments are reversed in their appeal, and we are unexpectedly (or sometimes even seemingly undeservingly) propelled forward with little or no effort.

Here’s how I have drawn meaning in (and from) the non-linearity of life.

We expect things to follow a linear logic when there are only a few pieces of input that predicate the expected output. Think 1+1=2. Even in something as predictable and dependable as arithmetic, we advance to the concept of non-linearity when multiple variables are involved and the relative importance of these variables is not equal. Try 11x22x33=108! To the mathematically uninclined or uninitiated, the above equality (referred to as a hyper-factorial) might appear like black-magic as to how a handful of small numbers can create such a large result.

Incidentally, the number 108 is significant in many Indian religions. For instance, in the Buddhist context, this number is the product of the six senses (sight, smell, sound, taste, touch, and mind with the three types of experiences (pleasant, unpleasant, or neutral) with the two sources of their generation (internal or external) with the three timeframes of occurrence (past, present, or future) bringing us to 108 different feelings (6x3x2x3 = 108).

In Hinduism, the number is considered auspicious for a variety of reasons and as such, there are 108 beads in the prayer rosaries. The oldest known ancient Hindu scriptures, the Upanishads, are 108 in number. 

To amplify strength in unity, people often use the phrase “1+1=3”, or the version I prefer, “1+1=11”, inspired by the Hindi catch-phrase that spells out that equality to dramatize the value of the simpler version, that implies that sometimes when two things come together in powerful and complementary way, the output is greater than can otherwise be expected intuitively, thereby hinting at the potential non-linearity or the inexplicable variable that creates the multiplier effect.

If we look at the nearly infinite factors that impact our every move and action in terms of starting point, environment, and effort, it will become easy to conclude that we can hardly expect anything in our lives to follow a straight line.

Even going to the grocery store can have surprises like unexpected weather changes that might slow us down or an important food item being out of supply that might force us to rethink the dinner menu, let alone things like completing one’s education, which can offer lots of twists and turns along the way.

The knowledge that life is non-linear can actually be a liberating insight if viewed in a positive light. When we align ourselves with the wisdom and will of the universe, it need not be an unsettling realization that we can’t predict what comes next or when.

My appreciation for this gem came with the realization that all life outcomes and long-term trajectories tend to be relatively evenly distributed in the favorable, unfavorable, and neutral orientation. When I feel stonewalled in a pursuit despite repeated and well-meaning effort, I step back and accept that the timing (or even the essentiality) of that outcome may not be right.

If I’m being truly honest, up to now I have received far more in life than I have distributed to others or returned to the universe. And thus, despite any non-linearity, life and the universe have been very kind to me even if it may not seem as such in a given moment. In fact, I feel a debt of gratitude for all of life’s blessings that I (must) continue to look for ways to pay it forward.

As I continue to reflect on this gem of apparent non-linearity, I do often wonder if but to the all-knowing universe that these life phenomenon are rather intuitively governed by some higher order calculations that my limited mind is not yet developed enough to grasp.

As such, the decelerations in the journey of life are increasingly as welcoming and meaningful as the accelerations, and the confidence that I am marching steadily towards the ultimate goal doesn’t leave room to bemoan any unexpected hurdles.

Manish Chopra


Date: 9/10/2023

Thank you for your insightful and informative article. The cycle of life is indeed a mysterious and magical journey. I’m looking forward to be reading more articles from you.

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