The first catastrophe in my life happened when I was five years old: I said goodbye to my best friend, as his family packed his bags and departed for the United States.
When I was five, my birth city of Tehran was being bombed by Saddam Hussein’s fighter-bombers in the darkness of night. At first the power plant went out and with it, the luxury of the light switch. Then, we lost our carefree existence in front of any glass window. By the time I was eight years old, I had experienced the first taste of homelessness, sleeping with my family and relatives on the banks of a store a hundred kilometers up the mountains, because we were too afraid of sleeping in our own beds at home. The whistle of falling fear inched closer and closer every night from the dark sky. So you’d expect that I’d be a terrified child. But I was happy and optimistic.
My life changed when Professor Abbas Milani (now teaching in Stanford University), the father of my best friend, decided to leave the country. At the age of 5, I experienced losing my best friend. It was in that moment that a silent thought became an automatic belief in my mind: “I will die a catastrophically lonely death."
In Tehran, women were fully covered in the 80’s and early 90’s. It was part of the revolutionary “cultural cleansing”. As a young boy, you didn’t see feminine faces. You barely spoke to women your age, past the age of 10. If you were lucky, you had neighbors who had daughters that you could say hi to, and an older cousin to make you understand the closest thing to a kiss on the cheek by a stranger. Enduring a decade without understanding the opposite sex must have been terrifying to a growing child; but to me in reality it wasn’t. The terrifying day arrived when at the age of 14, like every Summer, we visited my uncle’s house outside Tehran. And the cousin who taught me how to dance, for the first time, refused to kiss me on the cheeks. It was again in that moment that the silent thought returned to my mind: “I will die a catastrophically lonely death."
Indulgence in permanent friendships and obsessive relationships simply led to one disappointment after another, until I grew numb. Reality took decades to soften my distorted mind. I now maintain only a handful of friendships, and the one relationship I care about, with hardly any time left to spare. I live only a few miles from Stanford University, where the father of once my best friend lives; and I’ve never seen him once for 30 years. The cousin who taught me to look beyond the veil speaks to me from the other side of the planet once every two years. Technically speaking, I live a lonely life.
I’ve come to be at peace with an interesting reality: that I’ve spent decades anxious about a single moment of catastrophic reality that never arrived. The worst that could happen did happen: I spent decades disconnected from friends and family whom I loved. But the worst wasn’t catastrophic. I’m still alive, after decades of lonely and anxious struggle, writing an upbeat story. The catastrophic death that I’ve always predicted never actually arrived.
At large companies, I’ve often been the first to know entire departments are sinking. Perhaps you need to be a child of war to be able to smell mass-denial in the air: The competition (“The Enemy”) is often belittled and ignored, the exhausted cause champions (“The Martyrs”) are praised and elevated, and the coming disruptive change (“The Final Battle”) is always won by us, the good guys, until it isn’t. And you would expect, with my knowing that I’m on a sinking ship, that I’d be terrified. But I never am.
The terrifying day for me has always been to muster up the courage to face the Senior Vice President of the large company, "The Boss”, to tell him or her that the ship is sinking. Anyone climbing the rungs of the ladder of power knows that you never criticize the boss; there dies your career.
In face-offs with probable adversity, our automatic prediction is often that of catastrophe.
But having actually lived through the worst of circumstances and having left the best of the corporate world, I reflect in the familiar darkness of night, when my anxious heart pounds on the doors of my mind, warning about impending worst case catastrophes at 2 in the morning:
The next bad thing is coming.
So now I get up, grab a blank piece of paper and in the blindness of the night write a question to myself: When the worst possible scenario happens, can you still find happiness? And if you can embrace happiness after the worst will have happened, shouldn’t you accept happiness right now, when things are actually not terrible? And then I chuckle at the dark comedy of catastrophic predictions.
The only refuge in the world from The Worst That Can Happen is in this present breath.