loveSo I am sitting with a group of younger friends when the topic inevitable turns to the perils of dating in the digital world. Wonder of wonders, apparently people on dating sites lie! Stop the press, write to your local M.P.

As if “in my day”, when people met face-to-face (as oppose to Facebook to Facebook), they were honest and upfront about their flaws? I wish. Dating has and always will involve conscious deceit: we all want to present ourselves in the best light so we bend the truth, exaggerate a little here and there, pad the resume as it were. Humility and modesty are admirable virtues but  not, it seems, in the dating world. “If only I could find that special one my life would be so perfect,” sighed one young man.

Dude, are you serious?

Apparently he was. All his problems would magically evaporate in the magnificence of “The One”, who coincidentally should be a mirror image of himself.

Is this how he believes relationships actually work? I sealed my lips but my smirk gave me away.

“Why? Is that not how it works?” He asks. Big mistake, Bud. Never invite a curmudgeon to pontificate.

Okay kiddo, where do I start? First off, there is no such thing as “The One,” there are dozens, if not thousands of compatible people you could spend a lifetime with, providing  if (and this a huge, gigantic IF), you have the skills to navigate relationships.

He looked deflated but still aroused, wanting to know what I meant.

“Do you believe once you meet your special someone you will just walk off into the sunset, finishing each other’s sentences?”I asked.

He nodded.

Well, Kid, Hollywood lied. Shocking, I know, but they peddle fiction, as do Romance novelists. Relationships don’t end with you ‘finding the One’, rather that is how they begin. And it is work, let me tell you, moment to moment. Sure, there is a honeymoon period when love is blind and all is peachy sunshine but slowly reality returns and the work begins of maintaining a healthy relationship. Despite having many things in common with your other half, this is still a union of two individuals and your moods, wishes, dreams and wants are never going to align perfectly every waking moment of your time together. For example, you may need quiet time for some personal reflection and deep breathing yoga while Love of Life needs to hear his/her favorite track Mental Banshees by the band Death Metal Steroids.

The art of Compromise is the first skill you will need to cultivate. Suggest for Love of Life to use headphones while you work on your heart chakra.

Despite nimble backroom deals, despite displaying a flexibility that a teenage gymnast would envy, said Love of Live will still retain a talent for driving you crazy. Know how to set limits: “Look, you can keep a pet alligator in the bathtub but I draw the line at you belting out Celine Dion in the shower. One more verse of My heart will go on and on and my ass will go on and on outta here.”

All of this maneuvering and contorting should be offset by the benefits of being in the relationship. Partners fulfill needs, often unspoken and deeply rooted psychological needs of which we ourself may not be aware. Needs such as a sense of security, a sense of being needed, companionship. Your partner should make you feel as though he or she has your back.

I hear so many reluctantly singles complain about their status, but what is more pathetic is that they blame the wrong things for their loneliness. You are not single because you don’t spend enough time at gym or don’t follow the latest fashion fad, if only pretty people found mates the world’s population would be no more than sixty-three. It has nothing to do your lack of wit or your inability to quote Proust in French either. Neither is it because you still live in your mother’s basement that you scare off suitors. Rather, finding a mate has everything to do with a person’s ability to listen to others, have empathy, negotiate, do things to please another even though it is personally abhorrent. These are skills worth investing in.

There was a potent silence in the room. One of the youngsters threw me a resentful glare. It was quick but I was not too old to have missed it. Then they went back to complaining about the problems with their latest dating app.

Ah well. I’ll just gather up my pearls and cast them elsewhere.













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.

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.

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.

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.

Taming Anger

April 20, 2012

When something is valuable, we tend to be protective of it. We do not easily part with it. Usually.

Yet whenever there is the slightest irritation, a whiff of change, or an unfavorable condition, why is it that we hand over our peace of mind so easily? Isn’t peace of mind our most valuable possession?

The topic is anger. We all experience it, but do we really understand it?

Spewing up like a red-hot volcano, anger is a primitive, biological response to perceived danger. A lava of adrenalin rumbles the heart rate, heats up the oxygen intake, trembles the muscles to either fight or flight. In addition, there is psychological smoke and dust, which cloud the mind to all our manners, our critical thinking, our wisdom. It allows the mind to fight or flight, which served our ancestors just fine on the plains of the Serengeti, running from a pride of lions. But at the office or on a downtown street, not so much. Without our reasoning and problem solving skills, there are regrettable consequences.

So is there a way out of our genetic destiny? I believe there is. It requires that we investigate and understand the whole mechanics of the psychology that leads to anger outbursts.

The trigger behind each outburst is always an unfulfilled need. The stronger the need the more violent the rage. The more there is at stake, the more fierce the vengeance. For example, if I feel like having strawberry ice cream and the clerk tells me he is sold out of that particular flavor, I may feel peeved, but I won’t say or do anything violent. If, on the other hand, my child has been assaulted by a stranger, I am going to be livid. Then the answer seems simple, find the trigger and solve it or avoid it.

But some triggers are unavoidable, external not under our control (like death and taxes). Some needs are so intertwined with many other needs that untangling the triggers is complicated. Yesterday I had an early morning medical appointment that was important for me to be on time. I had calculated that I needed to catch the 7.45 a.m. bus to make my appointment. That morning my alarm failed and I woke ten minutes later than I had intended. The elevator stopped a few floors down where a woman with three babies and a cellphone held open the door for her tardy husband. I could see the bus from across the street at 7.44. The traffic lights were against me. Just a I reached the bus, it drove off without me. I was angry, but whom to blame? The faulty alarm clock? The slow woman on the elevator? The mistimed traffic lights? The minute-too-early bus driver? And had the driver been familiar, it was tempting to take it personally. If the same thing had happened with the same driver recently, I am certain I would been very angry at him. Independently each trigger is a small annoyance, but by connecting the dots, it can grow into real rage.

Left alone, anger by itself is fragile. Ignore it and the adrenalin will subside, the mind will restore its composure, that is unless we justify the anger. Usually that happens so quickly we do not notice it. We act out of anger, say or do something(perhaps shout or bang our fist) and then we justify our behavior. It is easy to invent blame, to weave political and historical narratives on a personal insult.  This kind of woven rage fuels revenge and retribution, even war.

It is not our fault that we are wired that way. Remember, during anger our wisdom is deprived from us. If we can suppress the anger for a few second before reacting, we may be able to restore the reigns to our wisdom. Strong will-power can help. Though there a couple of qualities about will-power we need to understand. Will-power is a kind of mental muscle. I gets weak when it is tired from overuse. Thus it is unreliable. But like any muscle, it can be trained to have more stamina. Compassion is also a muscle that can be trained. Once bulked-up it can overcome any primitive anger reflex. Best of all, compassion and forgiveness can be trained to respond automatically, without having to think about them.

To effect such a change, one has to cultivate awareness. Awareness of the triggers, awareness of our physical onset of anger. Awareness of our mental warnings before the anger. By the time we have questioned the anger and its motives, it evaporates. It is fragile. If we are mindful as we move through  our daily routine, mindful of both our own responses and those of others, compassion floods through our being like a cold river. It is generous enough to quench the demands of our needs. The lesser our personal needs, the fewer our triggers. Altruistic needs, on the other hand, can lead to righteous anger which can affect social change. Think of Rosa Parks or Mahatma Gandhi. Or even John Walsh who channelled his rage at the murder of his son by heading America’s Most Wanted.

There is no denying this transformation will not happen overnight, and certainly not without effort and vigilance. But it will happen. Be patient. Taming anger is a process. You will fail from time to time, though the frequency and intensity will diminish. Trust me, I speak from experience.

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