Trying to live a meaningful life

Qualified Entry: Non-Fiction Category

By: Matt Sundakov

I remember myself clearly from the age of seven. At that age I began to realize myself as an individual who is me and nobody else. Until then I had only a few fragmentary, though bright, pictures in memory related to one of the most difficult periods in the history of my native city – Leningrad (which was built more than 300 years ago by the most famous Russian Tsar Peter the Great).

For example, I remember vividly how my mother was sitting with me in her arms at our dining table covered with an old oilcloth. There is nothing on the table except crumbs of bread. I am leaning forward and carefully pick up these crumbs using my right forefinger, and then slowly drag them toward my hungry mouth. (Later my mother told me that it was during the siege of Leningrad by German troops in the exceptionally cold winter of 1942, when hundreds of thousands of people, including my own father and grandmother, died from starvation).

Apart from this and some other colourful pictures engraved upon my memory forever, the war fortunately passed me by. By the time I turned seven and had to go to school, Germany, and soon after Japan, capitulated. The world celebrated peace, but life around me was a far cry from tranquillity.

My mother worked in a large Department Store. She left for work at 9 o’clock in the morning and came back about 9 p.m. She worked very hard to feed her two schoolchildren and her second husband, who regarded himself as a good musician and did not want to do any other job but playing his accordion. In the post war city, considerably destroyed by bombs and artillery shells, musicians were not the most sought after people, unlike builders, plumbers, electricians, and so on. Thus, my stepfather preferred to stay home and enjoy his music, generously giving to my mum, a tiny and fragile woman, a wonderful right to be the breadwinner.

He was a scandalous person. He yelled at me when I tried to play my modest children’s games in our living room, because it distracted him from his music. I just did not have any other place to go, because our family only had one room in a flat shared with two other families. “Bastard,” he shouted at me, “Will you keep quiet? Otherwise I will throw away your miserable toy!”

Probably my toy was indeed miserable: a primitive, small (about five centimetres long) car, which could not even sound a horn, and forced me to provide this facility instead. Insulted and humiliated, I kept quiet …… for a while.

My brother, who was nearly five years older than me, was much more confident and sometimes tried to argue with this honorable musician, when the latter made similar remarks toward him. Fistfights followed; I tried to intervene verbally, persuading

my stepfather to be fair and stop beating a child who was certainly weaker than he. Sometimes it worked, and I wondered why I protected my brother, who himself was often quite cruel and ruthless toward me.

Hearing the noise of fights and arguments coming from our flat, a mob of young thugs used to gather under the windows. They laughed, shouted abuse and even threw stones at us.

Coming home from school, before I could play with other children outside or do my school assignments, I had to go to the shops and buy what my mother asked me to buy in her note left on the dining table. Shopping had to be done each day because we did not have a fridge, let alone a car. Everywhere there were queues, everything was rationed, and sometimes I had to spend up to five hours just to buy half a kilo of sugar or flour. People in the queues were unfriendly and embittered. From time to time they exchanged verbal insults, which in turn could easily grow into a nasty fight.

The world around me was cold and hostile. I could not understand why. I felt that people do have their reasons to be angry and frustrated; indeed everyday life was a constant struggle for survival. Too much time and effort was spent in order to satisfy just the very basic needs. Too little space was left for happiness.

Still, it was difficult to understand why people so often pushed and insulted each other instead of trying to help. Why could not they have imagined themselves in other people’s places? Why could not they have appreciated how a defenceless child feels, or a helpless old woman? Why did my elder brother treat me as his slave instead of trying to help? Why did he never share our house duties with me? Why did I need to do all the shopping and cleaning myself? (I knew that if I objected, he would give me a good hiding.)

I realized that most people complained if somebody was unjust to them. But they would forget about justice when it concerned others. If they felt stronger than you, they would threaten you with their force, unless you did whatever they wanted.

God only knows how much I suffered and cried, feeling extremely vulnerable and helpless nearly everywhere: at home, at school, on the street.

Too often unjustly humiliated and abused, I probably may have eventually become an evil, aggressive and vengeful teenager. Fortunately, it did not happen.

There was something in me which always resisted all this injustice. I kept telling myself: “I will never behave as these cruel people do. I know what it means to be abused, I know too well a physical and spiritual pain. I do not want my future children to go through a similar experience.”

I knew that I would be different, that in spite of, or thanks to, my own sad experience I would always have a positive attitude to life. I would try to be the best in everything: as a son, as a friend, as a husband and as a father. To be able to do this, I would try to gain a good education and be a good worker. I would always try to improve myself as a person. I would always try to do something useful. I WOULD ALWAYS TRY TO DO MY BEST!

I think this positive attitude and motivation worked as a good engine which drove me through life more or less successfully. On my way I had many obstacles, I made quite a lot of mistakes, sometimes I failed completely. But I never gave in. I never stalled – I always tried to move forward.

But it was not a movement in the dark. I always had a goal. Sometimes, especially in the early part of my life, a goal chosen by me was wrong and naïve. But as soon as I realized this, I tried to find something else to live for, and threw myself forward again.

Not all I wanted I managed to achieve. But I worked toward my dream until I had at least one chance in a million. Only when I felt that I had practically explored all avenues and still to no avail – I accepted my defeat and quickly began to look for another worthwhile goal.

As everybody else, I had my own “ups and downs.” But I never allowed myself to be put down as a person. I continued to climb toward my personal summit.

Trying to achieve our goals or just going through the routine of everyday life, we often can fulfil only a small part of what we intended to do. It happens not only because of our physical and mental limitations, but also because we all depend on the actions of other people – and these actions cannot always be predicted.

Life would certainly be much nicer and easier if all peopled followed just one very simple rule: TREAT OTHER PEOPLE AS YOU WANT TO BE TREATED. We need to recognize that each of us is a small but very complex world and when a person is abused, a whole world is abused.

Each of us has only one life which is also quite short. In these circumstances it would be extremely unreasonable to waste the only opportunity we have in this world by not doing our best. If during our life we were useless or, even worse, harmful creatures, we would most certainly feel great remorse, shame and misery when the time came to say farewell to this world (which perhaps is not exactly a Hollywood dream, but still an exciting and challenging place to be).

Life, to a big extent, is a lottery. When, where, to what kind of parents you were born – all this does not depend on you at all. For you as an individual it is all a matter of chance. Your sex, your appearance, your physical and mental abilities,

your temperament and character – everything seems predetermined for you by a blind chance.

Nature is obviously not democratic. On the contrary, it is very much arbitrary and does not give you any choice at all. Some people get everything from their birth: born in a prosperous, democratic and stable country to wealthy, kind and educated parents, they are also beautiful, talented and healthy. At the other end we can find people who are deprived of everything: poor, ugly, physically and/or mentally handicapped, growing up in the middle of constant violence, brutality and hatred.

You can do nothing about it. You are chosen by fate at random for better or worse. If you received an unlucky ticket, you could complain and wonder why it is you who is so unfortunate and miserable, why, for example, you could not be born to a royal family instead. But it does not change anything at all, does it?

Certainly if you enjoy your misery, go ahead: cry, complain and curse – you will soon reach the bottom of your unhappiness. But if you have a positive, constructive attitude, if you have enough will and energy, if you are prepared to put in a lot of effort in order to change your life, you can achieve absolutely amazing things, even if you have had the most disadvantaged background.

Desire to learn and creative thinking should be developed from very early childhood. In this case it would actually become part of you for the rest of your life. Conversely, if you were not used to this when you were young, it would be much more difficult to develop at a later stage of your life.

This can be compared with the learning of a foreign language. If you were brought by your parents to another country at the tender age of a pre-school child, you would start to speak the new language fluently in a couple of months, just playing with the local children. Your transitional period would be quick and nearly painless.

If you arrived in a new country at the age, say, of between ten and fifteen, you would need, probably, about one year or so before you could feel yourself as “one of them.” Yet, your complete rebirth would still be possible. Gradually you would even lose your native accent.

However, if you started a new life in a new country at a more mature age, the learning of a new language would become the most laborious task for you: it would take years and years before you started to feel confident enough. The time would most probably never come when you could say that now you know your adopted language as well as your own.

Human life is a constant struggle for survival. Of course, the extent of this struggle can be quite different for different people in different places at different times. Quality of human life ranges from a great happiness and full enjoyment to a

complete misery and absolute horror. But even the luckiest people in the world do have their problems.

Certainly everything is comparative. Problems of wealthy and healthy people shown to us in many soap operas, e.g. “Dynasty,” “Dallas,” “Falcon Crest” etc., mean absolutely nothing when we think about the millions of people starving in Sudan or fleeing for their lives from Rwanda.

Still, we can find some common ground for all human problems. The majority of them are caused by people themselves. The history of the world is the history of wars. People have always had great difficulties in communication even within the family. Problems of interpersonal relationships have existed in all ages and have been analyzed in countless novels and true stories.

…Well, now it is my turn if not to analyze, then at least, by using my own experience, try to help any potential reader of this essay to realize how much they can change their life for better (not for worse).  I have already lived a long life, which was not always easy and enjoyable.  However, it has never been boring.  On the contrary, it has always been versatile, stimulating, and hopefully I have managed to fulfill some useful tasks and help many people who, on some occasions, needed my help in their studies, work, or just in everyday life.

I have never been a hero, I have never rescued anyone, and I have not created anything outstanding, even though I always did my best.  Therefore, my name will not become part of the history and will be written down only on my grave stone with not much more than inscription of 2 dates: date of birth and date of death with a little dash between them.  However, by writing this essay, I hope to make my modest contribution by motivating other people to always do their best, by using their abilities in full and living a truly meaningful life.