As children—and it’s still something we do from time to time—we always aimed to be the first to say A pinch and a punch for the first of the month! This had to be followed up swiftly with White Rabbits and No Returns! so that the unfortunate recipient of the former, who had also failed to secure an entire month’s worth of good luck, would be prevented from retaliating in kind with A slap and a kick for being so quick! Come to think of it, it was quite a nifty one-two punch: the first part securing one’s personal fortunes by violent means and the second ensuring that no negative consequences redounded upon oneself.
That childhood magic spell would come in handy right now. Looking at my To Do list, I have quite a number of returns to deal with. There are the literal returns, liabilities all, items I purchased or ordered but didn’t fit or suit me, or broke immediately, and sit around taking up space until I get around to finding the original receipt or warranty, re-packing them to ship back to the company, or sallying forth to do battle at the store where I bought them.
Then there are the more complicated returns, also consequences of my actions and decisions. Some of them are less tangible, but no less necessary to dispatch. There are the Incompletes granted to delinquent students in a moment of weakness, which always result in late work being submitted, sometimes months after the course is over, requiring me to locate the records, inevitably buried under piles of papers, and to take time out from my current teaching tasks to recalculate the final grade and resubmit it to the Registrar’s Office. There are favors to return and long-overdue promises to fulfill. Inevitably, postponements come due again at some later point in time, knocking ever more insistently at one’s door. Oh, for “White Rabbits and No Returns” and a clean slate!
In Vedanta philosophy this world of name and form is ruled by the Law of Cause and Effect. It is a simple law of nature and there is no sidestepping it: one acts, and results ensue. Wisdom may give one deeper insight into what constitutes right action at a given time, but no wisdom in the world can control the results. In other words, there is no such thing as No Returns.
Even this eminently rational philosophy has an escape clause: transcending the dualities of the world allows one to override cause and effect. But that is a trick involving a magic I know not how to invoke. For all my desire to defer, I must deal with returns; I know no other way.
But wait: there are other Returns, ones that we welcome. As each successive birthday circles back around, we wish our friends and family members Many Happy Returns. Even as we know that this world must involve sadness and loss, we never stop wishing that Love will make it all worthwhile. When Nikhil was a teenager and final exams loomed, he and his friends would cram themselves on the couch in the den to watch and re-watch Moulin Rouge!, a classic romantic story of unrequited, followed by fully-requited love, and finally, tragic loss, redeemed only by love. But the line that recurs in it is:
The greatest thing you’ll ever learn/Is just to love and be loved in return.
All the lesser returns are a pain, nuisances we simply have to deal with; but the greatest is this freely-given and received Gift, with no expectations of return.