It is a cliché that we have all heard. Life comes with no guarantees. Yet many of us remember times when we conveniently forget this phrase and begin to expect results that we want, simply because we want them. Remembering the phrase is a good way to keep working, doing things we love, regardless of what happens as a result of our work. We have all seen people who are driven by what they do, not because of rewards their actions might bring. They try to do their best in every situation. They get up every day, go to do the work they love, and produce their best, regardless of whether someone pays them a compliment or promises a reward. Four years ago, I saw one such man. He was the surgeon who performed a few operations on my elbow that I had severely injured. I slipped on ice in one of the worst Iowa winters. As I fell, I must have landed on my right elbow, which bent out of shape and became limp. I stood up, refusing help from the passers-by, and tried to jolt my arm straight, but it remained boomerang-shaped. I knew then that I had just delayed my course-work, my dissertation, my graduation, and everything else.
At 40, I thought the delay was a cruel card handed by my fate, appearing at just the wrong time (as if there is any right time to fall a victim to a serious injury). However, no amount of whining was going to do me any good. I understood that as surely as I did potential consequences of my injury. In the weeks that followed, I underwent four surgeries on my elbow. At the time of the last one, when it was time to see if my bent arm would straighten, I asked my surgeon what he thought about my chances. He replied, “We will see. There are no guarantees.” I did not like his answer but understood it. When the wheeled stretcher came to take me into the operating room, I went in without a thought. I knew I was in good hands, and I knew that I had done the best that anyone in my situation could do. That there were “no guarantees” did not matter. What mattered was what had to happen, what needed to be done, and I was willing to do it. Frankly, what other choice did I have?
In the next few months, I recovered completely. Today, I have to tell people about my injury before they notice a slight line on the back of my arm indicating the cut from my surgery. I have heard this phrase (this cliché) a few other times, and some of those have been significant moments too. I remember leaving India after resigning from a safe, government job and boarding a flight to Las Vegas to study what I had never studied before: Creative Writing in Fiction. I remember being told by more than a few concerned colleagues that I should reconsider my decision and that I was about to commit professional hara-kiri. I remember a gentleman my wife (who joined me after a year) and I ran across at the Memphis airport. When he learned that I was a graduate student and that my wife had just joined me, he called me mad to my face. That he had himself decided to spend his retirement years in a new country and baby-sitting his daughter’s kids was somehow a more logical thing to do. Surprisingly, I remained quiet and tried to politely reason with him. That there are no guarantees is a good reminder. I know I need it.