I remember as an infant there being an imposing portrait of Gandhi over my bed. My mother had been deeply moved by him when he had passed by her home during his famous Salt March. As an adult I am, like him, a British-educated Indian from Africa.  And the only movie star I have ever been compared to is Ben Kingsley. But here ended the resemblance. I am sure my mother must have been disappointed that I had quick temper. Other boys in school thought not fighting back was weak and cowardly. Part of me agreed. But as I grew intellectually, I admired Gandhi’s brilliance, his tenacity and the ideal of non-violence. It made perfect sense. It is rational and civilized to abide by the truth, to return love for hate, to stand your ground without a sense of ‘the other’. Practically, however, I struggled against the force of my own reflexes. It was instinctive to reply racial insults with equally caustic ones. It was natural to bark at shopkeepers who cheated me. It felt normal to assert my presence when strangers treated me as though I were invisible. People in a big city tend to move about with a sense of entitlement that always trumps everyone else’s needs. Intellectually I understood that these problems were minor compared to those of people in war zones or very poor places. All the same, when I felt threatened, revenge came effortlessly. All of Gandhi’s wisdom and truths would return in a flood of guilt afterwards.

I should not have retorted. But what was the alternative? To meekly accept the scorn and disrespect of others? I imagined Gandhi would have. However, that did indeed feet weak and cowardly. There developed in me an intense  conflict between the ideal that Gandhi represented( as I then understood him) and my own inability to live up to it.  The loop was vicious: provocation, retort, regret, self-condemnation. There seemed no way out.

Then one day I realized that I had misunderstood Gandhi rather profoundly. The principle of satyagraha, was not simply a doctrine of passive resistance. It was really about actively engaging in non-violent conflict resolution. Far from being a weak doormat, Gandhi challenged injustice when it was appropriate (usually for the benefit of the many). He questioned people’s basic assumptions without belittling or insulting their intelligence. He put forward his case, only he did so without malice or hatred. This was a very transformative insight for me. It gave me such strength. And strength was what I had been lacking. To be stubbornly polite in the face of hostility  requires enormous spiritual muscle. To stand your ground calmly and objectively when your instincts tell you that there is danger requires great courage.

I began mustering every ounce of strength I could to restrain any impulse I had to react. All that is needed is a few seconds of will-power for the adrenalin rush to subside. Then the rational thinking steps in. It assesses the situation, it gauges the degree of danger and then formulates an appropriate response. I discovered that by not reacting externally, I had the upper hand in any conflict (rude bank clerk, racist shopkeeper, ignorant name-callers on the street). I was seen by others as the morally superior one. The perpetrator was exposed as the one in the wrong. This exactly what Gandhi had done against the British. His behavior was so unassailable that in the end even the British themselves agreed they were morally corrupt.

Initially breaking this habit loop felt like pretending. Inside I would be seething. But the tone of my voice was measured, my speech was polite and truthful.  The more success I had with this new habit, the more natural and effortless it became.

Very often in a conflict, when one complains to authority, it is your word against the other’s. I see now that by always taking the moral high ground, one gains a respect and a reputation for being truthful and fair.

It is true that doing nothing is weakness. It is cowardice. But I see now that a sissy fights injustice with his fists. A weak man fights with violent words. But a strong man fights with reason.


There is a rather extraordinary man I encounter each week during my shift at the homeless shelter. At first, he puzzled me. He lives on the streets and yet has a quiet dignity about him. He is unable to make eye contact if I speak to him, but he is clearly respected by his peers. He is polite, reasonable and respectful of others and their property. He helps out at the shelter and in return is allowed to sit indoors (away from the cold) in the afternoon and watch TV. He  loves tea, and takes great delight in preparing it for  himself. I have seen the other men come to him for advice and whatever I have overheard was very sensible. I wondered what his story was and tried to engage him in conversation several times, but with no success. He is unable to look me in the eye and feels very shy. As a volunteer,  I am, apparently, the ‘other’.

It occurred to me that this man has a great deal of self-respect but very low self-esteem. I have always used those terms interchangeably, but I now see they are very different.

Self-esteem is the term that gets all the press. I think of it as very American, very Oprah. Self-esteem is your sense of worth based upon your peers, your family, your status in society. It is about comparison, it is a judgement based on guesswork. The very word esteem is derived from estimation. You estimate what others estimate you to be, that is self-esteem. It seems to me it is entirely dependent upon external criteria. I am a man of modest means, I do not go on expensive vacations, I do not drive fancy cars or wear designer clothes. Yet at the homeless shelter I am a rich man. We can observe this shift in self-esteem  among the working class Westerners who land in Cancun or Bangkok and suddenly find themselves treated ( and behaving) like royalty. Self-esteem is fragile because it is dependent upon time, place and peers.

Self-respect, it seems to me, is internal. It is about what you think of you. Only you know how far you have come because you now where you started from. You are intimate with your hardships and have a sense of the skills and values you employ in facing them. We may lie to the world, but it is very hard to lie to yourself. In childhood, my Christian teachers at my school used to talk about conscience. This is now a very dated term but it is key to self-respect. I believe that when you consistently act according to your conscience, you gather self-respect. A guilty man can never have self-respect.

Self-esteem is a scale. On any given day you can be anywhere between one and ten. Self-respect is binary: either you have it or you don’t.

Some of these celebrities who crash and burn (Whitney Houston, Charlie Sheen) demonstrate a lack of self-respect. They abuse their bodies and their gifts, but they have high self-esteem because of their wealth and status. The result is arrogance. Self-respect combined with high self-esteem is self-confidence.

Among terminally ill people (such as HIV or cancer) I have observed that only some people follow a regime of  self-care. They exercise, eat nutritious meals, wear clean clothes, take their meds and come to blogs like this one for support and information. They may not always feels good their situation, but they have self-respect. Others are angry, resentful, bitter. They demonstrate their lack of self-respect with drug-abuse, alcoholism, promiscuity. Even suicide.

A man with self-respect will show compassion when a friend or neighbor has a difficulty. A man with no self-respect may relish the misfortunes of his acquaintances because it temporarily boosts his self-esteem.

Having self-respect can inoculate you from  low self-esteem. I recall as a schoolboy that popular students were particularly self-conscious if I (a nerd) attempted to initiate a conversation. They would give me the old up and down look-over, then avert their head away from me. The same dismissiveness can happen in the dating scene. It used to bother me back then. I used to think there must be something wrong with me. It effected my self-esteem.  Now in my fifties, I do feel the need for approval of strangers: I now have self-respect.

Afterlife

May 10, 2012


A friend of mine passed away this morning after a long battle with cancer. Her biggest concern was for her two young sons, young men in their early twenties. This is understandable. However, sometimes a mother can guide her sons far better in death than in life.

I know it was the case in my life. I was twenty-five when my mother passed. Carefree and oblivious to the fact that I was unprepared for life. Then mother had a stroke, and then another, a total of four within six months. The last one incapacitated her and she was unconscious most of the time. We were advised that there was nothing more the medical profession could her. They would make her as comfortable as possible while nature took its course. I resolved to remain by her bedside as I did not want her to pass alone.

These sons did exactly the same for their mother.  Without sleep or food, they found the inner strength to keep vigil. The sight of them brought back memories of that strange but transformative time of my life. At twenty-five I took life for granted, never questioned what it was. The fact of seeing the life slowly and systematically drain from my mother’s body made me distrust everything I had believed or assumed. I realized I had no answers. I knew nothing. I do not still have the answers, but I feel the act of questioning for all these years has been of benefit.

What these boys do not yet realize, as I had not in the days and months after her death, was that a mother does not stop guiding her children, not even in death.

There was her presence, at unexpected moments. Her fragrance, her essence as well her voice. I would hear me tell things. She would sometimes warn me about obstacles, and other times she would comfort me by predicting a favorable outcome. At the time I used to have a long commute to and from work. The bus on the final leg came once every half-hour. I disembarked from the train to find a bus waiting on the platform. Naturally I hurried to board it. But then I heard her whisper to me to let this one go. There would be another one soon, take that one, she said. I obeyed. When the next bus did arrive I found a comfortable window seat and was buried in my thoughts as the bus moved along, when we passed by the bus I had let go. It had broken down and all of its passenger crammed into our bus. Not a life-changing warning, I know, but to me it was sure indication of her loving guidance. There were many more significant incidents later, and I was receptive to her voice because she had proved her presence to me with this small but concrete prediction.

I dreamt of her frequently in the months and years after. Vivid dreams where we had long dialogues. I never doubted that this was she, communicating to me. It made sense to me. She was now a mind without a body. In dreams we are also a mind without a body. It made perfect sense that she was able to make contact me through that state.

I believe, it was she who set on the path of self-inquiry.  It was she who brought the right books and the right teachers into my life.

I anticipate that my friend will similarly guide her two boys.

She was a deeply spiritual woman and a genuinely beautiful soul. This was evident during her final moments. She was in excruciating pain. The nurse woke her while holding a needle in her hand. “Is that for the pain?” my friend asked the nurse.

Yes, replied the nurse.

“Make that two.”

Even in her agony, her composure, her humor, her dignity was in full display. I have seen often with patients that when they are suffering, they revert to default personality. All culture, all social inhibitions, all manners are absent. In her case, her default personality was cultured, was serene, was polite. It was who she was without trying. This is the gift of her years of spiritual awareness.

My life, since my own mother’s death, has been an attempt to be as compassionate and serene as my friend was. For me it is still efforts, and sometimes I fail. My friend was unique in her effortless and it is my hope that in my deathbed I can make that two.

How to Beat A Bully

May 4, 2012


Rosa Parks stood up to bullies.

Rosa Parks stood up to bullies.

I was scheduled for surgery and was given an appointment for pre-admission a few days prior. The signs in the hospital pre-admission area were clear, I walked confidently towards the wicket with my hospital card in hand. Before I reached the wicket I was waylaid by a volunteer: “Where you going?” He asked threateningly, with a menace in his voice. To pre-admissions, I replied. “What you want there?” His brows were knotted, eyes bulging, he was tensed up. To pre-admit, I answered. He scanned  me suspiciously. “You have an appointment?” I was aghast. He was rude, threatening and hateful.  Yeah, was all I could say. He waved me his consent to continue where I was heading. Then it hit me: was I just bullied? The scenario was eerily familiar. Walking down a school hallway, minding my own business when someone decides: hey, there comes a victim. Who would have imagined that age fifty-three I was still prone to bullies?

What made is worse was his maroon jacked. All volunteers at Toronto hospitals have the same uniform. I have one just like it hanging behind my bedroom door. The difference being, I volunteer because I care about people. I go for my shift to exercise compassion, not to flex my bully muscle. As I sat down in pre-admissions I began to feel violated, angry, victimized. It was a wonder I had managed to stay calm during the incident. I asked to speak to a manager in order to lodge a formal complaint. The manager was most sympathetic, she listened with her heart. Then the nurses came, one by one, to perform one test or another. In between, the manager came in to inform me that she had spoken to the volunteer supervisor. It seems this was not the first time this volunteer had bullied a patient.

I should have felt relieved. I ought have felt I won. Instead I still felt victimized. For days after I went over every detail of it to figure out what I could have done differently. I wished it had never happened. There just had to be something I could do to avoid being bullied again. Nothing came to mind. There were moments I wished I had smacked the man for picking on me. I felt disappointment in myself whenever those thoughts arose. I was failing to live up to the Gandhian ideal of returning love for hate. I was angry at myself for feeling angry. I couldn’t think of a good enough excuse to forgive him. This was a clear case of “anger being punishing yourself for the sins of others.”

Finally, someone shed some insight that freed me from this bully’s (and perhaps all bullies) shackles. It was pointed out to me that I had thwarted the fully bully cycle. What was that? I asked. Bullies provoke in order to get a rise out of the victim. Had I responded with anger, with violence (verbal or physical) he would have succeeded. I would have given him a reason to call security. He would then been the hero, having spotted a ‘trouble patient’ before anyone else had. Instead, by maintaining a rational, calm demeanor (despite an irrational incident) I became a credible complainant. The manager would not have believed me nor would she had taken steps against the bully if I had retaliated.

Though the incident had reminded me of my school days, it was different. Back then I had not retaliated either, but meekly accepted their abuse. I now realize I can speak up. I should speak up. This bully had perpetrated this kind of abuse on others. Perhaps others who were too timid to speak up, or perhaps could not articulate themselves. By keeping my cool, I helped disarm this bully form ambushing others.

Now I know what to do the next time.

1) Keep calm.

2) Be unfailingly polite, even under attack.

3) Seek out his superior (everyone has someone) and lodge a rational, logical complaint.

4) Let it go. Once you have done the above steps, do not allow the bully to soil the clarity of your mind. This was the only step that I did not fully accomplish this time. Next time, I am prepared. For this insight I am grateful, and also to this bully for providing the learning moment. Finally, I have a reason to forgive him.

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