Sunday, 29 July 2012

The Toughest Education

The toughest education. I am in the law profession. I am working in a law firm. I deal with all kinds of people everyday. I also have to advise on many legal and even emotional issues daily. I love reading and watching movies during the weekends. I am married and I have two daughters and one son.

Okay, so much about me. Nothing unusual. Routine is boring, I know. But my point here is that while we are only young once, we can be immature for life.  What is immaturity? Simply, it is never really feeling outside of yourself. It is empathy-deprivity. It is the refusal to care for others' feelings.

Here's where my boring family stats come into play. I believe that my formal education doesn't guarantee me a life of progressive maturity. It just doesn't assure me that I will care more about people and their feelings. It doesn't make me more attuned to their peculiarities and how I can respond to it with the highest regard and sensitivity.

As social animals, our schools do not equip us to effectively deal with the perplexing issues of human emotions. So, where do we get this "education" to grow in maturity? Where should we enroll ourselves in? What courses must we take?

Well, here's what I understand and it should be decoded in this narrative.  One day, a rock superstar was mobbed by a group of screaming fans, some of whom were hollering, "Superlover! Superlover!" The rock superstar calmed the fans and addressed them tenderly with this, "I am no super lover. The greatest lover is a man who loves his wife for life. That's a super lover."

Folks, that's the education that is life changing. That's the education that one should seek after. And the bottom line is that a true super lover is a person of towering maturity, and a man worth emulating. He is definitely worth his salt.  Surely he is still human, vulnerable to failures, and suffering from the usual human foibles. But as imperfect as he is, he is a master of control - the best that one can expect from a person this side of heaven.

A famous psychologist once compared the struggles of mankind as one between reason and emotions. He likened reason to a rider/trainer and emotions to an elephant. You can see how the tussle can be epic when emotions (elephant) run amok and go on a rampage.

At times, reason (the rider/trainer) gets the upper hand and manages to rein in the elephant. At other times, it's the emotions that create the mess. This is the essence of the struggle of maturity. It's all about keeping an even-mind, balanced and calm, amidst the chaos of the circumstances. This is where there is a fitting collaboration between the rider (reason) and elephant (emotions).  

Without reason, we become emotional; at times even neurotic. But without emotion, we become Vulcan-minded: stiff, rigid, turgid (inflated, pompous). Einstein once quipped, "Be careful not to make the intellect your god: it has great muscles but no personality."

So, this is the toughest education in life: the education to truly love. This is the greatest test of humanity.  You see, we can lead a superficial life, protecting our ego from hurt by distancing ourself from others, never showing our vulnerabilities, never allowing others into our inner emotional sanctum, and always weary of our loved one's intention.

This "unbrokenness" turns our life inwards; away from commitment and devotion, away from disappointments and pain. This life is well insulated and concealed. It's also a life of stillborn maturity.  One wise man says, "I'd rather be cheated a thousand times than to develop a heart of stone."

Why? Why rather be cheated repeatedly than to develop a heart surrounded by a six-foot high, lead based, steel solid wall? Because, for one and one reason alone, we never learn by taking the easy road. And the toughest road you can take in this life is the road to unconditional devotion.

Shun a life of unbrokenness. You are shaped much more by your pain than your joy. Opening your heart completely, without reservation, to your loved one will make you vulnerable. It will also disappoint you. You risk everything for everything. But it's a risk that will be rewarded if it all works out in the end. I would even dare say that it is one of the sublimest pleasures you'll ever taste in this life.

That's why this education is the toughest; and it is needless to say lifelong. Cheers

Saturday, 21 July 2012

God gives us room to be human

I cried like a baby yesterday (20 July). I was in the hospital. I was with a young mother; holding her hands, we wept together. On the hospital bed lies her 10 year old son, still and frozen. Her son met with a serious accident a year ago and was then discharged after many months of intensive care. He suffered from a serious brain injury. Now, he has returned to the hospital to treat a sudden infection.

What a beautiful boy, i thought to myself. His eyes were big. His smile was sweet. That cherubic face could melt any heart. But the accident has taken everything away. He is basically bedridden. He needs external aid to breathe. He is fed through the nostril. He can only take liquids. Over the one year, he has also visibly shrunk.

He is a mere shadow of his original bubbly self. All he could do now is to muster a smile whenever his mother strains a smile at him. I guess he must be wondering, "why is mommy crying?" I guess he's too young to take it all in.

I have three children of my own and I can feel how she felt; to a rough extent I guess. She shared with me that her life was over the day of the accident. She was then the sole-bread winner before she remarried recently. But still she could not afford the lifetime medical bills. She said that her only communication with her son now is through a machine, "beeping" now and then, but never ceasing, to tell her that she needs to replace a new syringe for her son.  

She has resigned to her fate and is prepared to be her son's personal nurse for the rest of either his or her life, whichever comes first.

We are all fractured beings. We are broken in some ways or another. Some of us thought our lives was perfect until something tragic happens like a death, accident or a terminal illness. Others experience it less abruptly but still no less painful. Take this lady Anna for example. Her pain is recounted in the book "Yearning" by Rabbi Irwin Kula.

Anna married an older man. A few years later, her husband was diagnosed with Alzheimer. His condition deteriorated fast and soon he could barely speak. He also could not recognize her. Once emotionally intimate and physically close, her husband was reduced to a patient to be taken care of.

Painful as it is, Anna's dilemma is of another nature. Recently she met a man whom she felt she could love. He was aware of her situation and had promised her that he would be understanding.

But, being a committed Jew and also conservative, she could not see herself committing an extramarital affair. Somehow, she felt really guilty and was petrified by the thought that her affection for her husband would change for the worst if she let go and give herself to her new lover.

Anna was a victim of own passion, straitjacketed by her religious conviction, torn by choices she cannot make, and groping for answers she cannot find. Indeed, all of us are fractured into many pieces and the sum of it all is somehow always less than its parts.

A philosopher once wrote, "Life is a succession of leaps into pathlessness." No matter how much we try to control our circumstances, sometimes, they just stubbornly defy our wishes. At times, they even determine our fate and we have no choice but to adapt and adjust our life around it. In other words, they become the millstone that we carry around our neck for most part of our life.

And in this enduring journey, this long unbeaten path to our mortal end, they become the burden that we bear in our conscience and we cannot but remain unchanged by them. This is the pathlessness of life, the risk we take for being born.

I believe that God gives us room to be human. And to be human is to fail occasionally, to experience pain and sorrows, to be vulnerable to temptations, and to break down in tears when our world caves in on us.

Let me end with this practical advice in the book "When Bad Things Happen to Good People" by Rabbi Harold S Kushner:

"People who pray for miracles usually don't get miracles, any more than children who pray for bicycles, good grades, or boyfriends get them as a result of praying. But people who pray for courage, for strength to bear the unbearable, for the grace to remember what they have left instead of what they have lost, very often find their prayers answered. They discover that they have more strength, more courage than they ever knew themselves to have."

Saturday, 14 July 2012

memento mori - a pessimist's muse

The 7th century china's empress, Wu Zhe Tian, the vicious ruler, was once asked by a court official how could she expect her subjects to pledge their allegiance to her if she slaughter them off at her whims and fancy? She then invited the court official to her chamber one evening for the answer.

Fearing for his life, the official entered the dark chamber expecting an executioner to be waiting for him. Instead, he found the empress holding up a fire touch.  As he drew closer, he saw moths flying towards the torch and one by one the moth marched to their death.

Immediately, it dawned on the official that people are drawn like flies to the bright lights of power and wealth - even if it cost them their lives. And those who hold the torch can do anything they want.  This is the cold, raw reality of dark power and wealth in this world.

The truth is, those who hold and wield it hold and wield the lives of people subjected to it.  We are all suckers for power and wealth and, just like poverty, it is all a product of civilization. This is in fact the story of mankind and it's evolution. Let me trace our evolutionary footprint...

It all started with the strive to survive. We hunt, we scavenge, we kill, we reproduce, all of which were to ensure our survival and the propagation of our species.  Then, as the hunting groups grew, we started to organize.

From savage beasts that we are, we became social animals. With better equipments, better food and bigger brain, we launched the agricultural revolution.  Essentially, we became farmers who held on to our land. Here, we develop a primitive form of property ownership. That was about 10,000 years ago.

Since then, tribes grew bigger, rules formed, justice institutionalized, leaders emerged, empires flourished, dynasties thrived, and democracies entrenched.  In lockstep with civilizational growth, comes territorial conquests for scarce resources.

It is essentially a bloody history of tribal rivalries, dynastic feuds and nation-states' wars. Just as in life, death has always been a part of us. Killing, murdering, massacres, pogroms, genocide, executions, and torture became as natural to us as the oxygen that we breathe. As life renews, death recycles.

In the course of this ugly human history, swath of land became more valuable, surplus harvests were exchanged, trade developed, merchants converged, money as a medium of exchange facilitated commerce and industry, technology and inventions accelerated modernity, and lending institutions sprouted to cradle the mercantile system into a global social and economic behemoth.  This is where we are today. This is all evolutionary happenstance.

It evolves from dispersed groups of agrarian-hunter-gatherers to complex nation-states with nuclear capacity. And it seems like diversity is itching to unsuccessfully integrate once again into one political singularity under a governing head.

The above example of Wu Zhe Tian's ruthlessness is just an example of how a small actor in our long enduring evolutionary history monopolized and manipulated power to ensure self-survival. The world may have changed but the rules are everywhere the same: kill or be killed, enrich or be enslaved, live long or die young. The malevolent empress may think that she is at the center of the universe, wielding absolute power.

But, in the context of our evolutionary timescale, she is just a blip that faded off when her time came; thereby making way for other ruthless dictators to take her place, to perpetuate his reign at the expense of others, and to prosper for as long as time permits before he too return to the dirt where he came from.

This is the ugly truth of our lives on earth. This may also be why king Solomon lamented, "all is meaningless, all is futile." So, the next time we are tempted to toy with the idea of our own self-importance, it helps to stay grounded with the above narrative.

Let me end with this Latin phrase, "Memento Mori". It means, "remember you too will die."  When a roman general returns from a victory battle, a slave would be tasked to run alongside to remind him of his mortality by repeating, "memento mori! memento mori!"

Imagine this, a slave reminding a general the fragility of life in the midst of a victory celebration! Talk about being a wet blanket.

 Indeed, we will all die one day and in the larger scheme of things, in a world where the greatest love co-exists with the vilest carnage, where defeat is just a flip side of victory, where success may be the beginning of one's failure, it helps to be told that death awaits. For isn't it true that life starts on the other side of despair?

So, let's always be mindful to do what matters most in the here and now. Cheers!

Friday, 6 July 2012

Postscript to "Be a Rescuer for God"

Postscript to "Be a Rescuer for God":-

The measure of a life well-lived is how much we give and how much we forgive. The equation I see is one of additions and subtractions. Every time we give something of ourselves, our time, our knowledge, our love and devotion, our resources, we add to life’s scorecard.

Every time we take from others, their time, their resources, their attention, we subtract from it.  We move forward by giving and forgiving; we regress by taking and begrudging. It is said that hatred is a coward's revenge for being intimidated.

Nothing consumes our spirit more than to bear a grudge and to consciously nurture that grudge to full blown hatred. Unforgiveness retards our personal growth. Unforgiveness closes all doors once opened. Unforgiveness kills hope, saps strength and strangles love.

Make every day count by giving and forgiving. Be kinder, humbler and gentler. Be a pursuer of what is good. For what is good is always beautiful but what is beautiful may not always be good.

Imagine a world where lives’ scorecards are always positive; where giving and forgiving are the norm; where old scores are wiped clean and new lasting relationships are formed.

A world like that has no room for racism, bigotry, arrogance, and misogyny (hatred of women). This world is conceivable, achievable and self-sustainable. It demands only that we make small, daily and consistent efforts to add to our scorecard more than we subtract from it.

For in the end, the more we loose ourselves, the more we gain in God. This noble and powerful truth is best expressed by Mother Theresa, “The prize with which God rewards our self-abandonment is Himself.”

Be a Rescuer for God

Having considered all things, balancing priorities and taking the wide-angled view of life, I seek to make this one mission my lifetime pursuit:-

"Be a rescuer for God".

This message was born out of the fiery furnace of September 11 tragedy.

A man was asked by the media what should parents tell their children about the terrorist attacks and his answer was simple:  “Keep your eyes on the rescuers.”

What a hopeful message to carry in our heart and an equally empowering one too. Instead of looking at the carnage, subjecting one to wallow and lament over the loss, or finger-pointing, blaming and cussing, the right focus should be on those mighty and unbreakable spirit, fighting to save every life and making a difference amongst the living.

The mentality of a rescuer is unique and extraordinarily resilient. They are seldom distracted by the worries of life; even their own. They are always the positive force in the worst of circumstances. They may be surrounded by tragedy wrought by evil men, but there is only one overriding thought in their mind:

"How to make a difference?"

The rescuer’s mentality knows little of self-interest. At the core, they are self-denying and self-sacrificing. However, they do not see their conduct as acts of heroism. They see it as ordinary and natural as feeding a child or giving a meal to a street beggar. Charity is their badge and anonymity is their cover.

A rescuer’s life is unique because he/she celebrates life by giving and not taking, he/she finds joy in serving and not being served, and he/she overcomes personal setbacks by focusing on others.

This is in line with what Jesus commanded: “Love the Lord your God with all your heart…And the second, Love your neighbor as yourself. All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.” (Matt 22:37-39)

In the book, Why good things happen to good people, by Stephen Post and Jill Neimark, the authors recounted a rescuer’s life in a doctor named Richard Fratianne. He was a director of a Burn Care Center at MetroHealth Medical Center in Cleveland.

In the good doctor’s own words, he said, “I was successful in treating patients with life-threatening, serious burns. But they’d leave the hospital badly scarred and go on to live their life in the shadows, with big floppy hats and long sleeves. I couldn’t send my patients back into the world without returning a sense of dignity and wholeness to their lives.”

Empowered by this conviction, Dr Fratianne transformed his burn unit into a living, breathing love center. He decided to love his patients back to life. He assembled a team of caring doctors, psychologists, and social workers, all of whose aim was to help the patients heal both body and soul. The results were life-changing for both the patients and the medical team.

“No other work could have brought me so much fulfillment,” exclaimed the doctor.  He then went on to describe a four years old girl named Lucy who was nearly burned to death in a fire. Lucy then needed twelve surgeries, prosthetic legs and months of therapy at the Center. However, this little-four year old had a formidable spirit and we have much to learn from her.

“Lucy always celebrates life,” recalled the doctor. “She comes to our burn camp every year and participates in everything, rides horses, plays tug-of-war, swims like a fish, and if you look at her with pity she gives you a big smile as if to say, “I’m happy, I’m good, I’m okay, and glad to be alive.”

Dr Fratianne then concluded, “Tomorrow is promised to no one. Every day is precious. This is what my work with burn patients has taught me.”

Lucy was able to face the world with beauty and confidence beyond the superficial because she had a group of dedicated caregivers who chose to make a difference in her little life by becoming her personal rescuers. They gave her reasons to cheer up, hope to face the world without shame, and meaning to live life with courage. And her life in turn touched many lives.

A rescuer is therefore a keeper of meaning. Every thought and every act impart hope and meaning to those lives whom the rescuer has touched. A rescuer’s contribution imbues courage in their victims to overcome their own life’s obstacles.

We can similarly make a difference in the lives of our loved ones by becoming their rescuers. The only requirement is for us to always put them first before ourselves. Ultimately, this is what it means to be human, to be a child of God.

Victor Frankl, a survivor of the holocaust, once wrote, “Being human always points, and is directed, to something, or someone, other than oneself – be it a meaning to fulfill or another human being to encounter. The more one forgets himself – by giving himself to a cause to serve or another person to love – the more human he is and the more he actualizes himself….”

Being a rescuer for God starts with our neighbor and our neighbor are the ones closest to us. Always bear in mind that everybody, no matter how well off they may seem to be, needs to be “rescued” from something. And it is within your power, however small, to extend a helping hand.

A wife sometimes needs a hug. A husband occasionally needs some space and understanding. A child needs to be encouraged. A friend needs to be assured. And the bereaved needs a listening ear. These are simple needs that can easily be fulfilled by us as rescuers.

We can rescue our spouse from the stress of work by being more empathetic with their irrational outbursts. We can rescue our children from taunting at school by taking the time to assure them of their worth in the eyes of God. We can rescue our friends from loneliness by spending time with them. We can make a difference in the lives of others just by a simple act of sparing both thought and time for them.

As a rescuer, we are not expected to do what the billionaire Bill Gates had done and that is to quit his job so that he could run his charitable organization called Gates Foundation, full time. Neither are we expected to give US$40 billion dollars away to charity like what investment guru Warren Buffet did in 2006; that is, to quit our job or give away the bulk of our fortune.

Always remember that it is the simple and small acts that accumulate to make the appreciable difference. You can make a little difference in their lives by being a little more sensitive to their needs, a little more patient, a little more understanding, and a little more helpful. Its the little more that starts a chain-reaction of the "much more".

Mother Theresa once said, “we can do no great things; only small things with great love.” This is the guiding motto for the true blooded rescuer. Love is the long Archimedes' lever which moves mountains.

This world no doubt needs to be changed but it takes every small, daily and consistent effort by rescuers to change it. And the first change has to start with us.  A rescuer is a rescuer at heart before deeds. It is the heart that makes the difference.

Let our life be the message - a living, breathing testament to our spouse, children and friends. Remember that a candle loses nothing of its light by lighting another candle. In passing that little flicker to our loved ones, we are unknowingly brightening our lives as well as the lives of others.

An Anglican bishop who lived in Westminster Abbey 900 years ago once wrote, “When I was young and free my imagination had no limits, I dreamed of changing the world. As I grew older and wiser, I discovered the world would not change, so I shortened my sights somewhat and decided to change only my country.  But it, too, seemed immovable.

As I grew in my twilight years, in one last desperate attempt, I settled for changing only my family, those closest to me, but alas, they would have none of it.

And now as I lie on my deathbed, I suddenly realized: If I had only changed my self first, then by example I would have changed my family. From their inspiration and encouragement, I would then have been able to better my country and, who knows, I may have even changed my world.”

This is my takeaway from the bishop's words above:  "Don’t wait until you are drawing your last breath to realize that the change you wish to see in others is in fact the change that is first required of you."

It therefore bears repeating:  "Be a rescuer for God."

This is the only way we can find self-fulfillment. This is the only way we can overcome our own problems and afflictions. This is the only way others can see the glory of God in our lives.

It therefore comes as no surprise to me that a Time magazine poll of over one thousand Americans found that the first four major sources of happiness were all about securing the happiness of others:-

"a) For 77 percent, their children were the major source of happiness.
 b) Friendships were a source of happiness for 76 percent.
c) Contributing to the lives of others made 75 percent happy.
d) Their relationship with their partner was a major source of happiness for 73 percent."

After all is said and done, the secret of happiness is to put others first. We can therefore stop spending money on clothes to make us feel good. We can stop frequenting bars and clubs to look for love or to feel loved.

We can stop working with no end in sight in order to make our family happy (for in the end, it is not the bacon on the table, but the man who brings home the bacon that they miss most). We are therefore happiest when we make others happy and we do so by giving ourselves to them.

Even in our own affliction, we can still draw strength and hope in lending a helping hand to those in need, regardless of how bad our own situation is.  This is best illustrated by Rabbi Harold S Kushner in his bestseller, When bad things happen to good people.

In the book, he recounted an old Chinese tale about a woman whose only son had died.  This is the tale as it is written, “In her grief, she went to the holy man and said, “What prayers, what magical incantations do you have to bring my son back to life?”  Instead of sending her away or reasoning with her, he said to her, “Fetch me a mustard seed from a home that has never known sorrow. We will use it to drive the sorrow out of your life.”

The woman set off at once in search of that magical mustard seed. She came first to a splendid mansion, knocked at the door, and said, “I am looking for a home that has never known sorrow. Is this such a place? It is very important to me”  They told her, “You’ve certainly come to the wrong place,” and began to describe all the tragic things that had recently befallen them. The woman said to herself, “Who is better able to help these poor unfortunate people than I, who have had misfortune of my own?”

 She stayed to comfort them, then went on in her search for a home that had never known sorrow. But whenever she turned, in hovels and in palaces, she found one tale after another of sadness and misfortune.

Ultimately, she became so involved in ministering to other people’s grief that she forgot about her quest for the magical mustard seed, never realizing that it had in fact driven the sorrow out of her life.”

Beloved, it is only when we discover that the “magical mustard seed” that we have been looking for is in fact in the act of giving of ourselves to others, relieving of their pain, and contributing to their recovery, that we are able to heal our own pain and sorrow.

The “magic” is therefore not in any mustard seeds, it is in the search. The journey is the answer not the destination. It is in being rescuers to those in need of being rescued that our journey is made complete. In fact the journey doesn't end until we come to this realization. The journey starts and ends with us.

In a magical sort of way, helping others keep us from dwelling on our problem. The distraction is a blessing because helping others increases our sense of self control. When we relieve another of his or her problem, however small the progress, we experience a pervading sense of personal satisfaction and achievement.  The more people we help, the more we feel accomplished.

This build up is self empowering and we unknowingly add to our inner reserve of hope, strength and resilience to overcome our own problem. The empowerment is therefore self-reinforcing. The more we help, the more empowerment we feel, and the more empowerment we feel, the more we are able to resolve our own problem.

Here is an amazing testimony of a man who was born without arms or legs.  He lived in the outskirts of a village in a little bamboo hut of the Himalayan kingdom of Bhutan. When people brought him small gifts like food, blanket and radio, he would look at them and laugh, “What could I possibly need?”

Despite his condition, this man became the village adviser. When the village has problems, they would go to him. He brought comfort to everyone who came to him for counseling. The man without arms and legs found happiness in helping others. His inspiration for life is to be an inspiration to others.

Indeed, every life has its moments of quiet heroism, no matter how ordinary the heroic act is. The man in the above story has found his purpose of life and it is a purpose beyond himself, beyond his handicap, beyond his disability.

A wise man once said, “When you are inspired by some great purpose, some extraordinary project, all your thoughts break their bounds. Your mind transcends limitations, your consciousness expands in every direction, and you find yourself in a new, great and wonderful world.” This is the strength you garner to lift your own load of troubles after you have lifted another’s.

So, press on to be a rescuer for God. Nothing is more rewarding and more fulfilling than to be another’s benefactor, to be a keeper of meaning, to be a mentor to the young, and to leave a lasting legacy of love to your children.

Let me end with these simple, heartfelt words penned by the philosopher Jeremy Bentham, shortly before his death. In a letter written as a birthday advice to a friend’s young daughter, he wrote:

“Create all the happiness you are able to create: remove all the misery you are able to remove. Every day will allow you to add something to the pleasure of others, or to diminish something of their pains.

And for every grain of enjoyment you sow in the bosom of another, you shall find a harvest in your own bosom; while every sorrow which you pluck from the thoughts and feelings of a fellow creature shall be replaced by beautiful peace and joy in the sanctuary of your soul”.

Cheers out!

(ps: check out the postscript to this letter)