kkkDillon blushes as he gets up on stage to receive his citation for bravery from the Fire Chief. Being fourteen, almost anything can make him blush, but being called ‘a hero’ is particularly embarrassing. He hears that a lot lately, ever since he went back into his burning house to rescue his baby brother and nine-year-old sister. “I just did what anyone would have done,” he shrugs. But is that true? Would we risk our life for anyone, or only certain people? Or no one at all?

According to geneticists such as J.B.S. Haldane there was nothing altruistic about Dillon’s action. Handane called it kin selection, an extension of the selfish gene idea, he maintained that we are ready to lay down our life for those who share our DNA only because it is a strategic way to ensure its continuance. So Dillon was not being heroic at all: Pretty canny there, Dillon! George Price even came up with an equation to calculate the probability of someone risking his life for another based upon the percentage of shared DNA.

When I listen to such theories I can’t help but remember a dog named Jazz. She was a Border Collie, much like Lassie, and no less heroic. She risked her life to save me. She put up her body as a barrier to  shield me from danger. I was only a visitor to her home, I never fed her or took care of her. She certainly had no genetic advantage in leaping to my rescue. Jazz is not the only animal in recorded history to have risked its life for a human. Nor is this phenomena unique to animals.

In 1996 a black teenager named Kiesha Thomas was among the protestors of a neo-Nazi march happening in her hometown of Ann Arbor, Michigan. The police in riot gear were there to protect the Nazi’s from the protestors who were confined to the other side of the barricades (the US does not have anti-hate laws as other places do). One of the protestors spotted a man with a swastika tattoo on his arm milling  among protestors. “Kill the Nazi,” shouted someone and the protestors channelled their anger towards this lone man on their side of the barricades. Kiesha did not know the man but she knew his life was in danger. For all she knew he was perhaps someone who might have harmed her given the chance. Yet she threw herself to shield him from the angry mob. Why? “Because I know what is like to hurt,” she said. She was so familiar with being singled-out and hated that she could not tolerate anyone else subjected to the same.  In other words she empathized with him to the millionth degree.

Dillon, Jazz and Kiesha did what we all routinely do when faced with urgent action, they acted out of emotion rather than reason. We do not weigh the pros and cons before we act in an emergency. The intellect and the logic are absent during an adrenaline rush. We do not have time to calculate the Price Equation (even if we understood it). The decision to risk yourself would be an instinctual response, like raising your arm to shield your face. And surely the emotion that drives that instinct is love?

Oh, I don’t mean the cliche of love found on Valentine’s Day cards, or the sentimentality of a Jennifer Aniston movie. I mean an empathy so strong that the sense of the other disappears. In that moment of emergency the division between the other and I disappears. This is not a theoretical or mystical experience, but an emotion each of us is capable of feeling. Dillon experienced it, as did Kiesha, as did Jazz. Each risked his life because of a kind of self-love. Except that his definition of self had broadened to include everyone. A kind of empathy to the millionth degree. It is this emotion that I think deserves inquiry.

So for whom would you risk your life? For me this question is more than cocktail party banter. Through investigation of it, can this emoiton lead me to someplace greater than myself?


Contrite or Self-serving?

Contrite or Self-serving?

“It was like a thousand pounds were lifted off my shoulders,” said the corpulent mayor of Toronto after his confession that he was a crack addict. The city was stunned. It was as though the said thousand pounds were now upon the citizens. He had confessed and was asking for our forgiveness. If we refuse him that forgiveness then we were the ones morally in the wrong. I wonder, is that how confession really works, by shifting the guilt?

We keep secrets because we are ashamed. We know what we are doing is wrong and that others would disapprove if they knew. ‘Fessing up, it seems to me, only relieves the burden of keeping something hidden. In my time I have witnessed many ‘pride’ parades: I grew up in England in the Seventies when the “Keep Britain White” movement was at its peak. These parades through the centre of town were designed to encourage other people not to feel ashamed for feeling hateful. These racists were publicly confessing their beliefs not as an apology, not as contrition, but for as affirmation, for seeking approval. By coming out as a racist the fear of being caught out was gone, so the mind feels lighter. “I have nothing more to hide,” said Rob Ford. But beyond that, is there any other benefit?

“Depends,” says Ralph, a recovering alcoholic. “Confessing is not the same as professing. You can admit to doing something wrong, lots of criminals do,  but if it is not accompanied by active remorse then it is useless.” He should know. Ralph has spent each monday night for the past four years attending AA meetings where he stands up in front of strangers as he admits he has an alcohol problem. His confessions is step five of the famous twelve-step program. In fact he says making amends and taking preventive actions is the most important of the twelve steps. It is also much more difficult than just admitting guilt. Specially when you are backed into a  corner.

I think Rob Ford confessed only because the evidence of his wrongdoing was no longer deniable. Isn’t such a confession self-serving? The relief he enjoyed is that of hope. Hope that he will survive without consequences the discovery of his guilt. It is the same reason why spouses sometimes confess their infidelity. The wife thinks, “Better he hears it from me than a stranger.”

At this point I suppose I should make a confession of my own: I am a squealer, a rat, a snitch.  Throughout school and my work life I had no hesitation about reporting to authority the wrongdoing of others. That may be why my most successful career was that of an auditor. But being a squealer means I find myself confessing to people when I could have easily got away with it. Last year I applied to a hospice to work as a volunteer with the dying. The interviewer must have liked me, she spent two hours chatting with me. Then I made a shocking confession: I have a blog called awarenessisfree. That in this blog I write about events from which I have learned and grown. Apparently that violated the hospice’s rules. Despite my assurances, she was unsure that the patients’ confidentiality would be respected. When I received her rejection in the mail, I did chide myself: why did I confess? There is no way she would have known I have a blog. I appreciate I take steps to be respectful of patients’ privacy, but I also appreciate that I am squealer. I live by my conscience. The truth is important to me. Even if it means I shoot myself in the foot.

Oh, I am sure there are better examples of this type of confession. Every so often you hear about someone who calmly walks into a police station and confesses to an unsolved crime. The consequences are far greater than the loss of some volunteer job, but they feel compelled to confess by their conscience. Such confessions comes from a knowledge that you will grow in leaps and bounds because of this confession. The punishment is mere payment for that growth.

Of course confessions need not always be public. Diaries are a private confession, as are prayers.  Art is a kind confession. So is talk therapy. However all of these types of confession have the same underlying mechanism. They work upon the ego, this sense of me. We are each burdened by the certainty of this ego, which is a very strange creature indeed. It demands that it not be judged. It demands it be liked by everyone all of the time. It cannot ever be told it is wrong. Confessions come as a relief because momentarily the stranglehold of the ego is released. By allowing another into its secret, by permitting judgement the ego is stripped of its power. In that moment it has self-doubt. It is open to the possibility that it is wrong. If however it shies away from corrective actions then the stranglehold returns stronger than ever. For stubbornness is also the nature of the ego. As Rob Ford has demonstrated by his refusal to step down.


"Can we just forgive and forget about that?"

“Can we just forgive and forget about that?”

Greg Noack was an adolescent, out for a stroll on a park bridge one night when two thugs came up form behind and battered him with a baseball bat to within an inch of his life for no apparent reason. Greg survived this terrible assault but it left him with critical and chronic brain injury.

Today he is a therapist who helps others with acute brain injury. A deeply thoughtful and spiritual man, he is inspirational speaker and motivator.
When he had done telling us about his assault and subsequent journey into recovery, I asked him how he had managed to forgive the thugs who did this to him.

Greg was silent, at a loss for words.

It occurred to me that perhaps I had made a wrong assumption. Perhaps he had not forgiven the thugs. Maybe forgiveness from victims is asking too much?

I often wonder about other victims such as the three young Cleveland women recently rescued from years of brutal captivity. Can they ever well and truly forgive their perpetrators? Or does a piece of the criminal permanently reside within the victims?

“Forgive and forget” is almost a cliche. People say it to others without realizing the enormity of what they are expecting from the victims.

From a metaphysical perspective, all of our actions, even the smallest, affects others in someone way. You know, the old if a butterfly fluters its wings a star falls somewhere poetic idea. In daily life I know that we are  all so intricately woven together that even a stranger’s remark can leave our mood altered for the rest of the day. Why is it then that we should expect acts of sustained and planned cruelty be erasable? Of course the criminals have changed the course of Greg’s life. Of course they have a left a legacy within him. Why wouldn’t he think about them from time to time?

I think that when we have been the victims of horrific crimes, our recovery is a process not dissimilar to grief. The classic stages of grief recovery are: denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance. Nowhere is the word forgiveness used.

I think that acceptance of what happened to you, and that it was undeserved and unasked is the best we can expect.

Greg was gracious enough to give me an answer. After some thought he recalled how much better his life was now because of the injury. He was in a much better place emotionally and spiritually. He said he took comfort from that, and it allowed him not be too bitter about those thugs who did this to him.

What he said sounded familiar to me. Greg has made the best of a bad situation which was no fault of his own. Perhaps forgiveness means exactly that.

I can think of dozens of victims of senseless violence who became bitter, vengeful and mean-spirited. Their lives close in around them instead of opening up. Can we say that such people have chosen not to forgive their perpetrators? I think so.

Making the best of the damage done to you is an act of forgiveness but does that mean there are no regrets, no blame? If Greg could turn back the clock with full hindsight, would he undergo the experience? Does he wish the thugs would have not done that to him?

Each person must answer that according to his own reflection. For me I am beginning to see within my own life that some of the worst tragedies have been turning points. Because of my grief over my mother’s death, I discovered spirituality and my guru. Despite that, would I rather have my mother alive today?

My near-death, as physical and emotional traumatic as it was, remains the most profound experience of my life. But if I could go back and change some things, would I now undo it? Absolutely not.

Traumas are always life-altering events. I have watched my sisters endure the trauma of childbirth and then grow into wiser and more mature human beings. When they are hugging their children, I am sure none of them regret the trauma of labor, nor the pain and worry of the children’s growing years. Because motherhood is so immediately rewarding, they quickly realize that in the grand scheme of things the pain of childbirth and subsequent sleepless nights are insignificant in the bigger picture.

But that same perspective is lost when we are assaulted, robbed, injured, or left for dead. Yes there is much, much pain, but these events also change the trajectory of our lives, often for the better (depending upon the choices we subsequently make). But it takes so much longer that we sometimes get mired by resentment and blame for the perpetrator.

To me perfect forgiveness means no resentment. Forgiveness is accepting what happened and leveraging it to your advantage. But I don’t think that it is possible to be free from regret about what happened. Not while we are functioning through the mind. Any process of the mind fluctuates. There are days we have no regrets, no blame, and other days we are soaking in regret. The only way to have no regrets is to live beyond the mind, in pure awareness.

And all traumas are great aids in getting there.


insult1We have a toddler in our family. Certain sights /sounds/tastes/emotions attract him but the rest of the world just makes him cry. He is sensitive about whom he goes to. Makes sense. He has come into a world not of his making. A world which is a mixture of the pleasing and the scary. He is protecting himself. But then as adults we mature in our outlook. Or do we?

We surround ourselves with the objects that please us, the music of our liking, the people with whom we feel a kinship. Then there are those other areas of town we never stray into. The people of whom we are suspicious. The strange smells and textures of ‘foreign’ cuisines. All that falls into the ‘other’ which we avoid and we also advise our children to avoid marrying.

It seems to me this instinctive self-preservation we come into this world with, remains with us  of our lives. Unless, that is, we challenge it.

I had one such opportunity this week. Most of the guys I give free haircuts to are very polite and grateful. To serve them with love is really no effort at all. Then sat Mr. John Sebastian in my barber’s chair. He glared at me from the start with a look I recognized from my distant childhood. A look of unmitigated contempt. I suspected he was a racist and an overt one at that.

He did not disappoint. He came out with multiple slurs against various racial minorities (while carefully avoiding references to mine). He said nothing original, the same tired words we have all heard many times before. I knew at the outset whatever I did for him would be scorned and his dissatisfaction would be vocal. Sure, I could have refused to cut his hair. I could have reported him to the manager, a woman of obvious African ancestry. I chose not to. Not out of weakness, but as a test of strength. I wanted to push the limits of my ability to see merit in everyone–especially those biased against me.

O it is easy to see the goodness in those who are good to you. Any toddler can do that. But to see the goodness in a man despite his blatant contempt for me? Now that’s a challenge. I was grateful to him for that.

In my volunteer work I usually look for the goodness in others by focusing on the light in their eyes. It is this light which is pure consciousness. The same consciousness which gives life to my own body.

But when I looked into his eyes, I was continually met a look of contempt. Can I look past that at the life force which enlivens his body? The body’s electricity, as it were, which is impartial to what action and words it illuminates.

As I snipped and combed I observed his negativity with a neutral, disinterested eye. I did the same with the emotions it was bringing up within me. In the past I have fiercely spoken out against racial bias. I don’t hesitate to call people out on it. Some people are so overtly racist I have avoided their company. He would have been one of them. But here I was giving him loving service.

Later that same day, our condo had its Annual General Meeting. A kindly and gentle neighbor ( a white woman) whom I had never met before instantly displayed profuse and undeserved  love towards me. The complete opposite of the abuse earlier that day. It seemed to me that on this day life had chosen to show me its fearful symmetry.

William Blake wrote: “Tiger, tiger, burning bright

In the forest of the night

What immortal hand or eye

could frame thy fearful symmetry”

The day was bookended by displays of hatred and love in equal measure. Fearful symmetry indeed!

That night, as I reflected on the day’s events, I wondered if perhaps all of life is in such balance. Perhaps  over the years the love and laughter we receive is duly balanced by pain and contempt. I realize the young man spewed bile because he was filled with that at this particular juncture in his life. Similarly, the elderly woman oozed love and warmth because that is the contents of her mind at this moment in her life.

And me? I was a witness to both. I didn’t take the woman’s love personally, neither did I take the young man’s wrath personally. I feel just that little bit stronger for having done this experiment. It is the kind of strength I suspect Mahatma Gandhi must have cultivated before he took on the British Empire. Stayagraha, which is sometimes translated as truth force, has to be about adhering to that inner light in those who vocally proclaim hatred against you. It has to encompass both the pleasing and the repulsive. Isn’t that what growing up is about?


Yoko Ono's humilation as art

Yoko Ono’s humiliation as art

Eileen collapsed at home from a massive heart attack. She was lucky that her neighbor heard the thud and cared enough to summon the superintendent. Eileen is a fearless woman, she has had to be since her husband died some twenty years ago. When you are eighty-six, living alone is not for sissies.

She glowed while recalling the kindness of the nurses during her two months of hospital stay. All except for HER, that evil one with the round spectacles and cold, mean face.

I wondered which nurse she meant: most of them are very compassionate. Then in walked Nurse Ratched. She was after blood and she yanked Eileen’s fragile arm. Poor Eileen winced as the nurse stabbed her vein as though with a dagger. She was unmoved by Eileen’s pleas of pain and kept up her patrician facade.

When the nurse left Eileen began to list all the slights and meanness this nurse had inflicted upon her. Her litany consisted of the standard behavior of an abrupt, uncaring human being. “I don’t understand what I did to make her dislike me?” said Eileen. This question had so disturbed her that she submitted a formal complaint against the nurse.

It turns out this particular nurse was notorious for her mood swings. She has a complicated domestic life and when she begins her shifts the other staff take bets on which way the wind is blowing that day. Rationally I knew that the nurse was not singling Eileen out. Her dislike for people was more general than that. But I also understood why Eileen took it so personally.

When I got home I had a long think about the times people have taken a dislike to me. Sometimes the dislike has been justified, over something I did or said. Fair enough. But other times the dislike is based on ethnicity, gender, age, or any number of factors over which I have no power to change. More often than not, it hasn’t been about me at all. The person was stressed, in a foul mood, or just had some bad news. I couldn’t help taking it personally. I too questioned what was it that I had done wrong.

Then I had a long think about the times I had done the same to others. If I can forgive myself for inflicting that on them, don’t these others also have a right to do so to me? Is it necessary that everyone, at all times, in all places, should like me?

It is highly irrational and yet, even the most socially and intellectually powerful people have difficulty accepting not being liked. I know liberal democrats who go on marches with placards about freedom of speech–except when a friend or acquaintance does not like them. Then it’s, “He shouldn’t say that about me.” They sign hundreds of petitions advocating freedom of expression, but privately : “She has no right to treat me that way.”

The other day I was walking on a side street near my home, lugging a bag of groceries. Most times I walk slowly because of my damaged heart, my strides are sometimes laboured. A man bicycled past me, stared and laughed at the heaviness of my pace: “You’re a pussy,” he exclaimed. No doubt in his world that is what I am. At first it disturbed me that he felt at liberty to insult me, a stranger who had done him no wrong. Then I quickly recognized his right to his snap judgements and erroneous opinions. He is a flawed and ignorant human being–just like me.

I now find it interesting to observe whenever that sensation arises in me of why doesn’t he/she like me? This is when the ego exposes itself in all its rawness. The ego normally hides in plain sight, lurking behind our joys and distractions. In rare moments when it shows itself I get a chance to examine it, to question it. I have long admired an art piece of Yoko Ono where she invites the audience to cut slices into her dress while she sits silently on stage. I wonder what she thinks and feels? Does she also witness her raw ego?

It takes some effort at first, but I find it very liberating to accept others’ right to dislike me. It makes going about my business that much easier and so much more pleasant. While wanting be always liked is a human trait, it is a terrible burden to carry. I don’t mean being disliked in a threatening kind of way. That is something against which I take a stand. But the casual unfriendliness of acquaintances, the gossipy dislike of friends or colleagues. I recognize that insults and dislike can escalate into violence, however most times they do not. I am now comfortable with that type of not being liked.

Those of you who take the time to ‘like’ my posts and perhaps even ‘follow’ my blog, I want you  to know it means a great deal to me. If however, you think what I write is piffle, I accept your right to your opinion.


Berlin’s once impenetrable”Checkpoint Charlie”.

It’s amazing how self-growth works: within one week I have been called upon to define boundaries not once but thrice within the same week! Sudden, but not so strange when you think  about it. The more a man grows in self-awareness, the more inclined he will be to set boundaries in his relationships. Allow me to illustrate what I mean.

It was my birthday last week, and family and Facebook friends sent me cards, phoned, or wrote short, pleasant wishes on my Facebook wall. All except a niece in a far away city, who chose to use the the occasion to proselytize. She has converted to Christianity. Not mainstream Christianity mind, but one of those American evangelical cults. My Facebook wall was cluttered with a long tirade about her invisible best friend who died for my sins, yada, yada, yada. I was in a dilemma. This was not first time she had done something like this to me, she has been warned by her parents as well other family members. She was clearly in the wrong, but she is still a relative. A relative with mental health issues. Would it be unkind, uncompassionate to block her from Facebook, indeed from my life? Neither her words showed care for me nor her subsequent actions.

What compounded my dilemma was that I am raised to believe that defining strong boundaries was a symptom of selfishness. That it was an assertion of egotism. Enlightened persons have unconditional empathy, it is why they are compassionate. In my naivety I imagined good people are supposed to tolerate abusive behavior with good humor. I believed if I were to cut my niece out of my life, I’d be giving in to my weakness, strengthening stubbornness.

After some deep reflection, I decided that there was an important difference between making walls and setting boundaries. Walls are insurmountable, they are all or nothing. There is no communication possible with walls up. A man who sets up walls (as I once used to) is indeed defining his ego (and his ignorance). Walls are for the ego, it is indeed cutting oneself off from humanity. But boundaries define relationships, not egos. My niece has been warned before not to force her beliefs upon other family members. Yet she persists. There has to be consequences for breaching boundaries, otherwise they are meaningless. If someone is unable or unwilling to respect me, I have a right to make a choice about the extent of our relationship. I do not have to condemn him or her or be unkind. This is not unspiritual. In fact it is a sign of a healthy self-worth.

The very process of renegotiating relationships requires self-awareness, empathy, subtle consideration. And from the way the other party responds one can learn a lot about that person. Allow me illustrate from the past week what else I discovered. The person I live with made a rather disrespectful remark to me in front of company. Later, when I pointed out to him how unacceptable and inappropriate his words had been, he was dismissive of my feelings. Which made me feel worse, even more inconsequential. But then, in the following days, he demonstrated through his actions, gestures, small acts of consideration that he was sorry, though he was unable to ever say those words. I know from his subsequent behavior that he did not mean to disrespect. He is human and sometimes errs (just like I do). While his words did not show caring, his subsequent actions did. 

And it is only through action that a person’s true intent is revealed. For the past six months I have been guest blogging on another website. My hope was to get more  traffic for this blog (never happened). The web hosts on that other site have always been polite and professional in their communication with me, yet I was uncomfortable. I never received feedback of the type I get from WordPress. Here people leave me comments, likes, follows. I have of sense of communication with readers. I also am in control of grammatical and typographical errors. My articles on that other website always had obvious mistakes. No one proofread.  I was expected to churn out an article every two weeks, more often if possible. Reminders would be sent to me if were late in submitting. It all felt, well, exploitive, like they did not care about me, only what they could get out of me. Perhaps they did not intend to be so, perhaps they were just unaware? So I asked them for feedback, less pressure to keep producing articles every fortnight. They replied, very politely, that it was time to end our relationship. Their unwillingness to adjust, or even discuss the reasons why they could not accommodate any of my requests, proved I was being used. While their words were caring, their subsequent actions were not.

I no longer feel guilty when required to define boundaries. Boundaries require openness and listening, and they need to be in constant review. I think boundaries (unlike walls) are necessary for continued growth because help separate those in our lives who care about us and those who only pay lip-service.

Beyond The Golden Rule

July 30, 2012


Cleopatra by Alexandre Cabanel

Treat others and you would wish to be treated yourself. Reasonable enough. Irrefutably logical. Every religion has it as part of its creed. Atheists, humanists, liberals all agree on it in principal. Then why is it that so few humans live up to it? What is missing?

John, a friend who is an avid bicyclist, related this story: he had locked his bicycle on a stand along the sidewalk. When he returned from his errand, someone had chained her bicycle to his. He was livid. When the woman did show up, he could see she had mental health issues, and his anger evaporated. He mentioned this incident on his Facebook page. A dozen of his friends immediately wrote comments insulting this woman’s behavior. The most vitriolic of which was from one of his friends who has HIV/AIDS. I found that surprising. Here was a man who expects unconditional compassions from others, he demands that he not be judged on why or how he acquired his virus. Yet he was quick to express contempt for the woman’s shortcomings. Of course, he is one of a billion examples. It seems that to blame is a reflex but applying the Golden Rule is just a philosophical ideal.

Perhaps that is the key. Can it be that blame is an emotion, a primitive reflex, whereas the Golden Rule is embedded in the rational brain? Critical thinking is slower, it takes time and energy and intention to summon. Emotions happen by instinct. Dogs, cats, monkeys have the same reflexes. We blame first, and if we are immature, we are content with that. If we are a little smarter, we blame first, then regret it, perhaps even apologize. Surely, the wisest eschew blame and apply the Golden Rule first and foremost. But how to get there?

It was my sister who first gave me a clue. In those days we still had door-to-door salesmen, which I found as annoying as telemarketers are today. My sister declined each one politely, without the slightest rudeness. I asked her why she did that. It turned out that our older brother had once worked as a door-to-door salesmen, when he first arrived in the UK, a fact I had not known. What she had done, inadvertently perhaps, was apply the Golden Rule by proxy.  She treated each salesman as she would have wanted her brother to be treated. I thought that very smart.

One of the beautiful aspects of Hindu culture is that all elders are referred to as “Aunty” or “Uncle”. Sometimes, women of the same age are referred to as “sister” by the men. Even small girls are referred to as “Amma” or “Mother” by very cultured Brahmins. When such an epitaph is used, a shift happens in the consciousness. The baser, primitive emotional reflexes are supplanted by the deep feelings of love, respect that the words mother, sister, uncle symbolize for the speaker. While this tradition may be impossible to transplant in a Western social setting, the principle behind it can still be utilized, as my sister discovered. Remove the sense of ‘otherness’ by proxy. Any relationship where you have reverence will do. At school there was a boy who was a vocal racist, but he loved Jazz. Hence, he made an exception for African peoples within his racism. In a basic way, it seemed to me, this boy was seeing his Jazz idols in all African peoples. It’s a good start.

It actually takes very little effort to find a connectivity with most people you encounter. He is a male just like me. He is of my age group. She looks as stressed as I feel. Any excuse, no matter how flimsy, works. Even the love for a vapid celebrity (during the Michael Jackson crazy Eighties, many pretty white girls dated skinny black men sporting Gerri curls).

What is wonderful about applying the Golden Rule is that we lose the habit of assigning blame. By blame I do not mean the legal sense of responsibility, but the emotional sense of helplessness, coupled with a contempt for the other. Blame is not only illogical, it is most destructive for health and well-being. It is a shade of anger which, when left to fester, morphs into vengeance and violence. As far as I see, blame serves no useful purpose. I can’t think of an example in my life where blaming someone has helped the situation. And most importantly, I detest being blamed by others so much that why would I inflict that on  another? That would be illogical.

Why I Volunteer My Time

June 11, 2012


I was late for a shift at the homeless shelter and decided upon a taxi. The new immigrant taxi driver was genuinely perplexed why anyone would give up his leisure time for free? I pointed out to him that millions of people around the world do exactly that because it is rewarding in other ways. Even as I said that I was aware that during the thousands of hours I have given in the service of others,  not all of the work has been rewarding. Over time, however, I have worked out a few things about effective and satisfying volunteer work.

Be Selfless: The volunteer work I did in my youth was  motivated by loneliness. Not an inconsequential motive, loneliness is the malady of our times. I had hoped that by giving my time to causes I would meet a better class of persons, perhaps strike up friendships that spilled over socially. I discovered that, just as in paid work,  here too people move about in cliques.  Judgments are made based upon age, race, gender etc. People seek out tribes. Now I no longer have expectations for myself when I decide upon volunteer work. I let the work itself be the criteria.

Repayment of debt: In my youth I abandoned some work because I felt my contribution was not appreciated. But now I do not expect gratitude, and I am no longer disappointed. I see volunteer work as a repayment of a debt to society for taking care of me all these years. Hundreds of anonymous strangers contributed to my safety and well being, from policemen to taxpayers. Now I am clear in my understanding that whatever I undertake is for my own growth only, and appreciation is not required or expected.

Tool for Learning: New immigrants and students often complain about being rejected by employers because of a lack of experience. Volunteer work can give that experience or perhaps a chance to acquire new skills. Granted these are not selfless motives but they are a reason to try volunteer work. I learned to write because of volunteer work, and now, through the literary magazine Descant, I have acquired a level of literary expertise. While this may not land me jobs or riches, I feel learning and growing are important in life. Cognitive dysfunction associated with aging can be curbed by cultivating intelligent new skills. I use my mental faculties to further grow spiritually. My volunteer work at Descant is a tool in this important growth.

Compassion muscle workout: Particularly at the homeless shelter, I find what I do there is a sort of gym for building up my compassion muscle. I stand at a window and give out a bag lunch and a drink to the homeless and the poor. The food is donated by someone else and the staff or other volunteers actually make the sandwiches. The only thing I can contribute in the act of distributing this food is a smile, eye-contact, and a pleasant word. These are things of which the homeless are particularly deprived. Too often we want them to be invisible. We walk past on street corners ignoring their request for coins. I have discovered that the skills I have developed in respectful compassion, are spilling over into my whole life. I am kinder to the people in my life. I forgive more freely. I am less inclined to judge. Everyone is in need of a smile, eye-contact, a friendly word.

Feel thankful for what you have. One of the worst disabilities in life is self-pity. It can make you needy, selfish, entitled. The cure is easy. Find people who are worse off than you and spend time helping them. Slowly, almost imperceptibly, you begin to put your own problems into proper perspective. You appreciate the strengths in your life. This happens naturally, without any effort.

Be fearless: I used to dread the prospect of growing old. I imagined a lonely existence where my body was falling apart along with my mind. By volunteering with geriatrics, I have discovered that some old people retain their alertness and actually grow in their wisdom, despite an ailing body. Being alone does not have to mean being helpless or indeed even lonely.  Some old people have rich spiritual lives, they beam with joy through their eyes and speech. All that is a reward of work they put in their youth. Bhagwad Geeta is correct in saying that no spiritual work is ever wasted. It accumulates. I can now envision getting old but with a confidence of greater peace of mind. Most people in the last stages of their lives are not afraid of dying. They welcome  the rest while acknowledging the full, rich life they have experienced. This is a lot to learn from donating an hour a week.

I am puzzled why I ever expected gratitude for my time when I was young. Now I am grateful to the people whom I help for what they do for me.


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.

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