Tuesday, 30 July 2013

A Better Me?

A better me? I wonder what a better me would look like? I guess it's not hard to wonder. A little self-reflection would reveal that a better me would be a kinder me. It would be more empathetic. It would put the needs of others first before itself. It would be introspective. It would be more conscious of its own faults and not nitpick on the faults of others.

A better me would be more sensitive to the needs of the less fortunate. It would not ignore a street beggar for fear of bringing unwanted attention to itself. It would give of its time and resources to the poor, the distressed and the helpless. It would do charity without publicity. It would give without reservation, live without ostentation and love without conditions. It would understand the needs of others as more important than its own.

A better me would be patient with the flaws of others. It would listen more than it wants to be heard. It would wait longer for people to change for the better. It would judge less, understand more and forgive more. A better me would wish for the best for others and celebrate their milestones in life. It would learn to be genuinely happy for the successes of others and sincerely share with their failures. It will not gloat. It will not be envious. Neither will it commiserate. In all things, it would be considerate.

A better me would also be a gentler me. It would be careful with its words. It would spare a thought for the feelings of others. It would not say things for fun, for pleasure or for a good laugh at the expense of others. A better me would control its tongue and not use it to boast about itself or its own achievements. A better me would choose words to encourage rather than words to discourage. It would be in touch with its own feelings and communicate with the aim to foster greater understanding, deeper relationship and closer fellowship.

A better me is a lesser me. Lesser in the ways of self. It would gradually decrease so that others will ultimately increase. It would learn to bless others with whatever it has. It would divorce itself from greed, from opulence, and from pride. It would live a measured life, defined by timeless principles and derived from biblical enrichments. It would learn to starve its appetites in order to feed its spirit. It would be mindful of things unseen and put its trust in things eternal instead of putting all its eggs in one worldly basket.

A lesser me is also a leaner me. It seeks to live longer and healthier for the sake of others, especially loved ones. It eats better, exercises regularly and enjoys life more. It doesn't take things too seriously and will always see the lighter side of things. It makes hay while the sun is out, dances with silly abandon in the rain and walks barefoot on the beach. A leaner me will always seek to contribute to the good will and betterment of others and understand that growth cannot come without discipline, industry and consistency.

A better me is a forward looking me. It is hopeful, prayerful and at most times, thoughtful. It will not allow failures to become final. Neither will it allow successes to become terminal. A better me knows better. It knows that failures are stepping stones, mistakes are life's lessons and death is inevitable. It looks to hope in the future and is guided by experiences in the past. It treasures every moment of the present and learns to live one day at the time. It is realistic to its chances but is nevertheless motivated to do better. Because a better me believes in a better future, it sees the past as soil, the present as seeds and the future as harvest.

Finally, a better me is a wiser me. It is wise to overlook more than it overreacts. It sees the long arc of a man's life and judges the fruits of his labor rather than the labor of his lips. A wiser me understands sorrow and the imperfection of men. More importantly, it understands its own imperfections. It knows with hindsight that the mirror of truth tells the inescapable pain in every life, including its very own. And as such, every life is never beyond redemption. If given the time and the opportunity, a wiser me knows that people will change. With enough love, hope and attention, they will all change for the better. And that's what makes a wiser me a better me.

When all this adds up, I guess a better me would be a happier me. The kinder, gentler, lesser, leaner and wiser me would make me a lighter me. Shed of the emotional baggages and the past deadweights, the better me would travel light with less worries and more hope. It would no doubt understand that life is difficult. Sometimes, it is even tough and seemingly insurmontable. Yet, the better part of me would remain steadfast to the end with feet firmly on the ground, hip balanced and shoulders squared off to meet and overcome all of life’s challenges ahead.

So a better me is not hard to imagine. All it takes is more deliberation and less procrastination. Sure, it is a slow and steady process. But imagine this with me. If all of us take steps to be a better me, then this world cannot help but be a better place for all to be. Cheerz.

Saturday, 27 July 2013

Being Mandela for one day

When Nelson Mandela was asked, “how has prison changed him?” He hesitated a little as if to find the question pointless and replied, “I came out mature.” 

Imagine spending 27 years in prison, most of them in solitary confinement. Not the longest sentence in history no doubt but surely enough, or more than enough, to change a man, or any man for that matter. Misunderstood, mistreated, and branded as a terrorist, Mandela had indeed seen it all, felt it all and experienced it all.

Notwithstanding all that, Mandela never lost hope. In his autobiography, Long Walk to Freedom, he wrote, "I am fundamentally an optimist. Whether that comes from nature or nurture, I cannot say. Part of being optimistic is keeping one's head pointed toward the sun, one's feet moving forward. There were many dark moments when my faith in humanity was sorely tested, but I would not and could not give myself up to despair. That way lays defeat and death.”

I have always been inspired, if not intrigued, by the hardscrabble life that this tough-minded and unassuming man had gone through. He endured the death of his mother and eldest son in prison. When he learned of their death, he wrote that “suddenly his heart seemed to have stopped beating.”  

In one of his letters, he expressed this soul-wrenching pain as such, “Many people who ponder on the problems of the average prisoner tend to concentrate more on the lengthy sentences still to be served, the hard labour to which we are condemned, the coarse and tasteless menus, the grim and tedious boredom that stalks every prisoner and the frightful frustrations of a life in which human beings move in complete circles, landing today exactly at the point where you started the day before. But some of us have had experiences much more painful than these, because these experiences eat too deeply into one’s being, into one’s soul.

Yet, despite the seemingly inconsolable pain, Mandela carried out his daily prison routine and labour as if it was just another ordinary day. This was what made Mandela the man he is today. His is a formidable spirit that clung on to hope just as a baby would cling on to his mother’s breast. “Hope is a powerful weapon even when nothing else may remain...This fact endows my spirit with powerful wings,” so wrote Mandela.

Prison has indeed steeled him. He has emerged not only triumphant but wholly transformed. And as he so simply puts it, “I came out mature.” I guess this is what he meant when he said, “I was not a messiah, but an ordinary man who had become a leader because of extraordinary circumstances.” 

And as mundane and monotonous as prison is, unchanging, predictable and at times, unbearable, it is still an unpretentious place of "extraordinary circumstances” that forces one to prioritize life from top to bottom. Like news of one’s pending death, it reverses the order of things by dethroning what once seems urgently important like chasing the wind of worldly possessions whilst enthroning what was once overlooked as less important like the love of family, the heart of remorse and the soul of character. This cherished quote from Mandela says it all, “There is nothing like returning to a place that remains unchanged to find the ways in which you yourself have altered.”

Mandela had many teachers in life and prison was one of his greatest. In his private letters, he wrote, “Indeed, the chains of the body are often wings to the spirits.” He went further and quoted Shakespespeare, “Sweet are the uses of adversity, which like a toad, ugly and venomous, wears yet a precious jewel in the head.”

The aggregated force of 27 years has taught Mandela to take the long view of life. He learned to play the long game and to postpone personal gratification. Mandela saw himself as a long distance runner and a long distance thinker and prison was his marathon. Because of this, he learned to judge a life in its totality. He learned to follow the arc of a man’s life to its unembellished end. 

His collaborator Richard Stengel once asked Mandela whether he was happy. In the book Mandela’s way, Lessons on Life, he noted Mandela’s response to that question. “He frowned. It is the sort of question he regards as both superficial and intrusive - not a good combination. But eventually he did begin to talk. He talked about how his father had died too early and mostly a broken man. He talked about how his mother had died thinking that her son was a jailbird, perhaps a criminal.

One of his regrets is that he never helped his mother understand the struggle. He alluded to the challenges faced by his own daughters. And he mentioned the ancient Greek writers he had read and enjoyed in prison. They took the long view. He could not recall the writer, but he said that there was the story of Croesus asking a wise man if he could be considered happy. And the wise man replied, “Count no man happy until you know his end.” He (Mandela) agreed with that, and that is in part what made him so prudent and so cautious.”

I guess claiming that one is happy before his end is like eating a cake half baked or expecting a child to run a conglomerate. Every life has a long arc and it bends toward a finality that deserves our patience, understanding and good will. This also applies to failure as much as it applies to success.  

Life is an enduring marathon and not a sporadic sprint. It is judged not by one’s occasional successes. Neither is it judged by one’s transient setbacks. It is in fact an indispensable mixture of both and much more. If carried to its fruitful end, successes and failures should always be viewed as pleasant surprises planted along the way to self discovery. One misdeed or misstep does not define a life. Neither does one triumph or good fortune conclude it.  

In the end, along this journey we call life, we must accept that every event we encounter all aim to impart a lesson about ourselves that we have yet to discover. And this life is very much a life of discovery as it is a life of overcoming. In other words, it is very much a road of wonderment as it is a road of betterment. And the wonderment of life is in the things we often overlooked or missed out in our daily busy living.

One author puts it this way “Life is not a problem to be solved; it is a gift to be opened. The color of the sky, the song of a bird, a word of kindness, a strain of music, the sun on our face, the companionship of friends, the shape of clouds in summer, the red of maples in fall – these and a thousand tiny miracles punctuate a single day in a precious human life. If we are so preoccupied with plotting out future success or failures, we unintentionally impoverish ourselves by ignoring the astonishing harvest of these small gifts, piled one upon the other, that accumulate without our awareness or acknowledgment.” (Wayne Muller, “A life of being, having and doing enough”) 

For this reason, Mandela always saw the good in others. He once shared that seeing the good in others improves the chances that they will reveal their better selves. He is a person who rather err on the side of generosity than to get it right on the side of quick judgment. Despite how he was treated in prison, despite the many many years of incarceration and abuse, the most amazing side of this generosity is that Mandela refused to bear any grudge against those who were responsible for his plight. He led the way by forgiving and reconciling. He essentially turned the blame game into handshakes of forgiveness and set the example for all to follow. He once said, “As I walked out the door toward the gate that would lead to my freedom, I knew if I didn’t leave my bitterness and hatred behind I would still be in prison.” 

Indeed, the man’s generosity is in his ability to see beyond the seemingly indissoluble hurt and to reach out despite of it. This is also the same man who made this observation, “In real life we deal, not with gods, but with ordinary humans like ourselves; men and women who are full of contradictions, who are stable and fickle, strong and weak, famous and infamous, people in whose bloodstream the muckworm battles daily with potent pesticides.”
I guess Mandela harbored no delusions about the fallibility of man, including himself. I believe that his generosity is very much deepened by this admission that no man, however adored or admired, is perfect and it is often our mutual imperfections that make us readily understandable and therefore deserving of our unqualified compassion.

Personally, I have learned a lot from reading about Mandela’s life. I guess it would be a great privilege for me to spend just one day with him and to understand a fraction of what he understands about life. This is the same man who once said that fearlessness is stupidity and courage is not the absence of fear but not letting it defeat you. This is the same man whose greatest act of leadership was to renounce it. He served only one term of the presidency but remained active throughout his life helping others behind the glamor and glare of publicity. He was also described as being indifferent to almost all material possessions, that is, he cared or know little about the names of cars, couches or watches. And Richard, his collaborator, once summed up Mandela’s life as "someone who will always stand up for what he believes is right with a stubbornness that is virtually unbending."

Let me share an exchange between Mandela and Richard which can be found in his book Mandela's way. "He (Mandela) once recited for me (Richard) the parable of the young Xhosa man who left his small village to search for a wife. He spent years traveling all around the world looking for the perfect woman, but did not find her. Eventually he came back to the village without a bride, and on his way in saw a woman and said, "Ah, I have found my wife." It turns out, Mandela said, that she had lived in the hut next door to his all her life.

I asked him (Mandela), "Is the moral of the story that you don't need to wander far and wide to find what you are looking for because it is right in front of you? Or is it that sometimes you must have wide experience and knowledge in order to appreciate those things that are closest and most familiar to you?" He thought about this for a moment, nodded, and then said, "There is no one interpretation. Both may be correct.""

This is my takeaway from this exchange. I imagine replacing the word "wife" with the word "happiness" and replacing the young Xhosa young man for myself. I imagine leaving my homeland to look for happiness. But after a long exhausting search, I came home disappointed, empty handed, until I see my wife and children, loved ones and friends, eagerly waiting for my return. It then dawned upon me that happiness has always been waiting for me at home. And, in the tradition of Mandela, the question for me to reflect here is this, "Will I have realized this truth if I had not embarked on the journey to discover life for myself?"

Just as it is for Mandela, who had traveled long and far, enduring and overcoming 27 years of freedom denied, the death of three of his children and one great granddaughter, a troubled nation held bondage under apartheid, and prostate cancer, I guess I have my own life's journey to travel, to experience, to discover and to learn from it. And throughout this journey, I will not give up hope by reminding myself that “every chains of the body are often wings to the spirits.”

Let me end with this tribute to an ordinary man who had lived in the most extraordinary of times as expressed in his own words, "I have walked that long road to freedom. I have tried not to falter; I have made missteps along the way. But I have discovered the secret that after climbing a great hill, one only finds that there are many more hills to climb. I have taken a moment here to rest, to steal a view of the glorious vista that surrounds me, to look back on the distance I have come. But I can only rest for a moment, for with freedom come responsibilities, and I dare not linger, for my long walk is not ended." Cheerz.

Friday, 19 July 2013


When I think about the sufferings in this world, I am inclined to be discouraged, to be despondent, and to cry in my heart. The pain is unbearable. The hurt is deep. At times, you feel like giving up and letting the world go to waste. It's that raw and hopeless to be honest.

But then, this is against the blueprint of life, the DNA of human thriving. We overcame not because we are hopeless creature prone to suicidal thoughts and nihilism. We overcame because being alive is the greatest reason for living. The fact that we are not six feet under forces us to think about how what little we can contribute can make a difference in the lives of others. That's the privilege of living and should never be taken for granted.

Here's where I go off a little. Honestly, how many of us are grateful when we finish doing our toilet business in the morning and we turn around to reach out for the toilet roll, we find an abundant supply of it? Imagine that you are in a rush and then discover to your horror that you have ran out of toilet paper. For me, one of the most dreaded situations is to be left hanging with grease in your bottom and having no way to clean it up! My point here is blue sky. Let me explain.

This rainy season is very much dreaded because of the mischievous rain; it is more than a wet blanket sometimes. I am a jogger and rain is a bane to running. But then, the rain, even continuous heavy downpour, is the only reason to hope for a sunny day thereafter or eventually. The aphorism, "sunshine after the rain", is most apt here. So, hopelessness is a prelude to hope just as pain is a prelude to growth. 

This is my point: what good is the sunshine or blue sky if there's no rain for comparison? So, drawing on the toilet paper parallel, what good is a full supply of it without once in a while experiencing the dreaded consequences of a used up toilet roll? I know I sound silly or frivolous but it is no less relevant.

Here's the gist of it. Life is difficult. No one can change that. But it is surely not hopeless. And that is a positive change of event that you can always count on. Let me now go to the heart of it all.

I woke up one morning with my two year old cuddling up to my body. She usually prefers her mother as she is still being breastfed. But this exceptional morning, she came up to me, cuddled up in my arms, and expected me to hug her tight. It was really unprecedented. It was a heart thawing experience.

Against all the angst I have of the cruelty of humanity, the pain of innocent suffering and the hopelessness of a fallen world, I have a baby who wholly depends on me. She literally cannot live without me. To her, I am her everything. This is why I say it is no less relevant because this is one life amongst others that I can shape, mold and change for the better. I can make a difference in her life. And that's a privilege of aliveness; that's the hope of living.

In a nutshell,  the hope of living is the definite hope that what seems hopeless at first is but passing dark clouds, which merely hides the sunshine from our view. It is therefore not an irreversible solar burial of the sun but just a temporary covering of it.

So, here's what I would holler out at the mountaintop: Be hopeful! We find hope in many things around us. Even the most trivial, and sometimes silly (erm...like that toilet paper thingy), reminds us of how alive we are and this simple realization should make all the difference in our life.

I refuse against my most natural morbid instinct to give up hope, or give in to hopelessness, because to do so is to be dying inside while pretending to live outside. I think it takes infinitely more energy to pretend to live than to live unpretentiously.

I know I can make a difference and however trivial, I can do it. That makes a difference in my life and the lives of others. This is my hope and it makes life worth living.

That being said, being hopeful, or choosing to be hopeful, I am nevertheless not a sandcastle-in-the-sky optimist (or one suffering from panglossian cluelessness). I am aware that for every reason to be happy, I have at least five or more reasons to be unhappy. I repeat: Life is difficult. It has always been. And it will not cease to be just because I have hope.

But still, I choose not to see that my effort and labor are in vain. I choose to see every struggle bearing its fruits in due season. I choose to see a blue sky after a thunderstorm. I choose to see an ample supply of toilet paper waiting for me.

I see hope in my dreams, in my words and in my actions. Most of all, I see hope blossoming once in a while when my baby huddles by my side, smiles and whispers, "I love you daddy."

These are precious moments I save up for a rainy day. This is my hope against a future tainted by dread. And most relevantly, it is said that we are given a second chance always, and it is called tomorrow. And I will live today for tommorow because regardless of what happens today, I have tomorrow to make things right. Cheerz!