What Icebergs and Conflict Share In Common

News headlines are sagging under the weight and bulge of people in conflict. North Americans are conflicted over — well, I don’t need to list all we’re in disagreement about because it’s front and center stage global news.

It seems that, like South Carolina’s 1 in a 1,000 year rain, the U.S., if not much of the global community is journeying through an epochal period of polarization.

Given widespread conflict and disagreements of perspective, opinion, and value:

How can two or more people with significant dissimilarities attain a respectful, dignified and trusting understanding of one another?

Three days post-Umpqua Community College’s mass shooting I re-shared a Facebook posting of a picture of Last Week Tonight’s John Oliver with his hands out and his palms open, expressing what I assume is incredulousness. The caption above his head read, “One failed attempt at a shoe bomb, and we all have to take our shoes off at the airport,” and the bottom-concluding caption read, “31 school shootings since Columbine and no change in the regulation of guns.”

One friend decided this was an opportune moment to inject his opinion on this “stupidest of comparisons.”

Other friends weighed in, too, mostly anti his perspective. Wasting no time, I simply responded that his opinion seemed to derive from Fox News (“Bullshit Mountain” as Jon Stewart and The Daily Show re-named the network), and that he should practice his own advice on “thinking,” because all he seemed to be communicating was raucous vitriol.

An example of how not to develop trust and build bridges of understanding!

To my shame I singularly presumed ignorance and negative intent on his part, particularly given my past association. I responded only to his words and my perception of his attitude and intent; ignoring formative and unknown-to-me influences that most certainly shaped his worldview and values. And I sought to win the battle of opinion with minimal expenditure of effort and inconvenience.

Like icebergs, whose above water visibility reflects only one-ninth its real size, so, too, words, both in ordinary conversation and especially during conflict, reflect only a fraction of what co-antagonists think and feel.

As Difficult Conversations: How To Discuss What Matters Most demonstrates, people’s unspoken, invisible-to-the-eye feelings are “usually where the real action is. Difficult conversations do not just involve feelings, they are at their core about feelings. Engaging in a difficult conversation without talking about feelings is like staging an opera without the music.”

Conflicts or difficult conversations, therefore, are seldom if ever about “getting the facts straight.” They’re about differing perceptions, assumptions, interpretations, and values, with all sides each and on every occasion contributing something to the discord no matter who might legitimately be “most wrong.”

Conflict generates, perpetuates and escalates around accusations of blame, which in turn threatens punishment, which naturally, then, meets with save my (own) bacon denial and counter accusations.

Sadly we default to negative and embittered exchanges, rather than inquisitive discourse that seeks to imaginatively understand each other’s life story—aka, the formative experiences, persons and information that we don’t have access to, yet which shaped and influenced our antagonist’s worldview, interpretation of sensory input, and his/her subsequent words, actions or beliefs.

Funny story. When my middle child was six she shared a bedroom and a bunk bed with her older sister, “Mana.” One night she was lying on her top bunk ranting and wailing because of some disciplining “act of parenting.” After a prolonged period of wailing, their room went silent, after which a quiet, quivering, six-year-old voice asked her sister, “Mana, what was I crying about?” After her older sister reminded her why she had been crying, loud crying again ensued!”

Translated: Conflict and blame take on lives of their own, when, in fact, often times and over time the precipitating facts and feelings are forgotten.

To minimize conflict and difficult conversations, Stone, Patton and Heen argue that we should intentionally and by disciplined practice, move away from a “message delivery” (i.e., “I’m right and you’re to blame”) stance to a “learning stance”—one in which we “walk around the sculpture of our own feelings and observe it from different angles.”

That is, we need to become more adept at asking thoughtful questions when conflict occurs and emotions are heightened. Questions that seek to imagine oneself in the other person’s life story. Questions that seek to understand one’s own inner, vulnerable, and complex emotions and sense of identity.

Or as Chapter Two aptly summarizes it: “Stop Arguing About Who’s Right” and instead “Explore Each Other’s Story.” Regrettably, most disagreements—including that of my classmate—center on proving “I’m right and you’re wrong”; a heated exchange of conclusions, rather than an openness to hearing one another’s stories.

Listening and expressing feelings are critical tasks during conflict. When feelings are expressed, the urge to blame subsides. Ironically, an inability to listen well to one’s adversary is symptomatic of an inability or unwillingness to express one’s own feelings well. Why is this so?

“Good listening requires an open and honest curiosity about the other person, and a willingness and ability to keep the spotlight on them. Buried emotions draw the spotlight back to us. Instead of wondering, ‘How does what they are saying make sense?’ and ‘Let me try to learn more,’ we have a record playing in our mind that is stuck in the groove of our own feelings: ‘I’m so angry s/he treated me like that!’”

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On Loneliness & Listening | A Lesson From Nature

Given my bilateral, high frequency hearing loss I’m unable to hear alarms emitted by digital watches or small appliances. It’s ironical given my linguistic faux pas of 1990. In response to a question asked by a South African woman I mistakenly replied in my beginner’s Tshivenda, “I have big ears like an elephant.” So, despite my elephant ears I can’t hear the smallest of high frequency sounds!

Unlike me, you may not have physical hearing loss, but likely you have chronic deafness of another kind: to the invisible yet real words, conversations and anguished cries of people all around you.

Like the everywhere-yet-undetected airwave frequencies that cloak our lives, there are invisible-yet-real conversations that occur incessantly both in the human and animal worlds—if only, like science correspondents, Chris Joyce and Bill McQuay of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, we had the willingness and imagination to listen when most people listen not and hear nothing.

This is the motivation for National Public Radio’s recent summer series, Close Listening: Decoding Nature Through Sound. Cara Philpin writes, “whether you’re a night owl looking to sympathize with those crack-of-dawn bird calls or a beach bum jolted by that brassy seal bark, it’s good to be a human who knows how to listen.” (emphasis added)

Are you a human who listens well?

Are you one prone to hear the anguished subtlety of words and emotions of those who occupy your daily personal space—your children, spouse, neighbors, employees, and colleagues?

Or do their fears and unspoken messages remain undetected because you, yourself, perpetually live your life running ten minutes behind schedule, too hurried, harried and worried to hear your own racing heart, let alone someone else’s troubled heart?

As newlyweds my wife and I lived with my grandfather for three years soon after my Mamaw died of cancer. I frequently and shamefully remember a conversation he and my 25-year-old self shared one evening. He was 83 and had begun dating a 59-year-old divorcee.

A fear of co-opted inheritance prompted his four, much-older-than-me children, to ask if I would confront him with his error of choice if not moral misstep. Regrettably my youth conceded to my elders’ request.

So one evening prior to my young family’s relocation to South Africa he was sitting in his favorite hunter green Lay-Z Boy chair peeling an apple, as he ritually did each evening before bed. I walked in to his room and shared his children’s misgivings with him, after which a deep silence ensued. Then, through a soft, tear quivering voice, this gentle, kind, simple but not simpleton blue-collar worker shared this—“All I know is that I don’t want to be lonely.

Air Supply’s 1982 hit song, “Two Less Lonely People In The World,” with lyrics “when dreams are wearing thin and you’re lost,” still speaks to human collective experience.

My granddad’s dreams were in the twilight phase, “wearing thin,” and the lostness he felt at the death of Mamaw, wife of 50+ years, and of my family’s imminent departure after three year’s of shared residence jolted his familiar life. Loneliness became his greatest fear.

An endemic, shared experience of loneliness in the twenty-first century is irony to the n-degree, given how social media connected we are. Individuals have hundreds if not thousands of Facebook “friends,” equal number of Instagram “followers,” and similar LinkedIn “connections.” Despite North Americans’ impressive “virtual connectedness” daily evidential experience indicates disturbing self and relationship disconnects—a pathology, of kind. No wonder at least 1 in 4 people suffer from mental health illness.

As Julia Cameron sadly observes in The Right to Write, “Ours is a perishable age. We have cup of soup meals and entire relationships. We talk on the phone. We say, ‘I love you. I miss you,’ but, as the truism correctly has it, actions speak louder than words. . . .”

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A Child’s Death | Universal Bereavement & Opportunity to Care

Losing a child, how must it feel?

How it must affect the totality of life and existence!

I wonder, though: What role does the loss of a child play in fomenting global conflicts and instabilities?

Parents are gifted to love their children from conception through dirty diapers and croup, from crawling to pulling up to faltering steps then to running, potty training, the “terrible twos,” the teenage identity-in-formation and hormone raging years, then transitioning into adulthood with all its attending responsibilities and complexities.

South African friends inexplicably and suddenly lost their eldest child one week ago, a beautiful, bright young woman. Twenty-three years young—yet still their baby. My daughter posted pictures on Facebook—four girlfriends lying on a bed together laughing—reflecting a much earlier time when women were girls, and girls were wannabe women.

For sure, parents losing children is not uncommon or infrequent. Such incidents and stories were part of my childhood:

A little girl struck by a bus as she too excitedly stepped out to welcome home for the weekend her elder siblings from boarding school; a child jumping on the bed with no sense of the imminent danger of a nearby pair of scissors; another child oblivious to the fact that her dress caught in the door of a departing bus; and yet another, having fun white water rafting with Dad and his friend on the Zambezi River, when fun turned to tragedy as their boat flipped over, and after both adults reached shore, turning to see the teenager grabbed in knee-deep water and dragged under water by a large Nile crocodile.

As a middle-ager now, incidences of parent loss haven’t lessened, and is unlikely to as long as death continues to be the great social equalizer.

Loss of a child among one’s concentric circles of relationships occurs frequently, although irregularly. And although I can’t peg dates to days for many friends’ and acquaintances’ tragic losses (like we do with a September 11, 2001, aka 9/11 type incident) nevertheless, those many moments of shock upon hearing of the death of someone loved are indelibly seared into my consciousness.

For instance, a first memory of my family’s relocation to KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa, was attending the funeral of the eldest child, a son, of a prominent Indian family, who died from gunshot wounds after a botched hijacking. Or of a former colleague, whose son died of a seizure as he raced late one night to a not-near-enough hospital for emergency care, or of an extended family member’s son—a friend to my children—who likewise died in transit to critical care treatment—only this time, not in a speeding car late at night, but in a small medevac airplane flying from Kenya to South Africa.

All these shared incidences of loss are tragic, indeed, yet with the exception of the young Indian man shot to death, they were “natural,” in that they were either the result of an unknown at the time, and invisible to the outward eye bodily ailment or condition, or “natural” in their sheer freakish and accidental occurrence.

But what about the millions of parents worldwide, who have suffered the loss of babies, young children, teenagers and aspiring-to-be young adults due to the indiscriminate, flesh and bone-piercing shrapnel of munitions or flesh-eating toxic gas/chemicals often times traced back to our own “developed” nations, or even to hunger and disease resulting from inequitable economic systems and institutions, that privilege those that have with more, and those with little-to-none with even less?

How many hundreds of thousands of those we label in the West “rebel,” “terrorist” or “terrorist sympathizer,” were first parents, and whose political sympathies and activism were ignited the day they held either their own or a neighbor’s limp child’s bloodied body across their outstretched arms?

It is difficult enough to fathom holding the lifeless body of my own children, (such as the following story of a young child’s loss) and unimaginably painful to contemplate holding one of their bloodied, disfigured and lifeless bodies as we daily see via media coverage from war-torn areas such as Syria, southern Sudan, Iraq, and Palestine.

The following is my doctoral mentor’s recollection of day and occasion when he lost his fourth child, a boy:

“On Boxing Day the family decided to go for a picnic along a nearby river. The children were playing together. I was chopping wood and preparing the fire to boil water for tea. We called the children for the meal. David was not with them. The next 7 hours were ‘gethsemane.’ David was nowhere to be found. I must have run miles, hither and thither, up and down stream, tormented, exhausted, panic-stricken. Exhausted and dejected, with encroaching darkness, as the sun was setting, my brother-in-law ran up to me and informed me that David’s body had been located at the bottom of a pool, near the picnic site. As David’s body was being lifted from the water, I recall taking hold of his damp, cold, lifeless body and hugging him to my chest. . . . I felt demented as I carried this treasured child, now cold, limp, and lifeless up to the farmstead. Everything was in a state of disarray . . . what was – no longer mattered. High hopes, expectation and promise had evaporated. The future ceased to be. . . .”

Demented . . . state of disarray . . . what was no longer mattered . . . evaporation of hope, expectation and promise . . . the cessation of all future . . .

Such is one person’s feeling about life and living in the days and weeks following the death of a beloved five-year-old.

It’s to be expected and probably healthy to immediately feel outrage against and demand retribution toward any person or persons, who violently takes or contributes in taking the life of another person.

Society, for instance, should naturally feel outrage against the alleged three men who yesterday murdered Officer Charles Joseph Gliniewicz, a 30-year Chicago veteran with four sons, and we should similarly be incensed against Vester Lee Flanagan, who one week ago shot to death on live TV both anchor woman and cameraman, or the individual who stood over and shot 15 bullets into a Houston officer at a gas station.

We cannot allow ourselves, however, to be naïve, simplistic and detached-from-reality in terms of perception and interpretation of causation of violence or calamity. We can’t allow ourselves to feel unmitigated hatred against individuals who act out violence, without feeling equal or greater indignation against systems, institutions or “cultures” (e.g., “gun culture,” “socioeconomic privilege culture”) that in one way or another are complicit in the social ills poignantly evident in moments of national grief and outrage.

At least two of the above incidences were committed by mentally ill persons, who, in turn, had easy and legal ownership to firearms. There’s something insanely idiotic and skewed when records indicate that more people have died by firearms in the U.S. since 1968 than by all our wars combined, yet as a nation we do little-to-nothing about gun and mental health reform.

Black South African university students were asked a Zen Buddhist riddle (a koan) by their white professor. They were shown a picture of an unbroken bottle with a goose inside, and then asked, “How do you get the goose out of the bottle without killing the goose or breaking the bottle?”

The students perceived this mostly white oriented, Western philosophical question to be superfluous, contemptuous, and insensitive to their daily life reality under apartheid. The real question, they said, should be—“Who would put a goose into a bottle and why?” Their solution? Obliterate, smash the bottle (i.e., the structure, system, institution of racial discrimination and oppression)!

Oxfam predicts that unless inequity is drastically reversed, within a year or two one-percent of the world’s people will own more than the combined wealth of the other ninety-nine percent.

Given the predominance of worldwide conflicts and inequity it’s imperative that we begin seeing each other as gift, family, and co-sojourner.

Even the United Nations is currently experimenting with virtual reality with a purpose to enable/facilitate those who live in relative seclusion and isolation from the “real” world the rich and powerful to be able to identify with and experience empathy with the poor and suffering people of the world.

Perhaps Desmond Tutu’s wise and elderly words are a fitting close to this thought piece. In God Has a Dream: A Vision of Hope for Our Time, he states,

“You don’t choose your family. They are God’s gift to you, as you are to them. . . Can you imagine what would happen in this world if we accepted that fact about ourselves—that whether we like it or not we are members of one family?

Only when we care about each other’s dead can we truly learn to live in the same world together without our irrational prejudices and hatreds. Perhaps this will be possible when we eventually realize that God has no enemies, only family.”

To my South African friends who lost a most precious child this week please know how broken we feel with you; how loved you are as family; how much our lives benefited by knowing your daughter, yet how impoverished by her passing.

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Presidential Wannabes, How About Giving Us Tangible, Optimistic and Inclusive Competing Narratives

A young, black South African cashier took a second glance at my unusual looking Southwest Airline Visa card. We struck up a conversation with me informing her that I once lived in Johannesburg and had returned for a two-week holiday. With a tired and bewildered look she sighed, answering an unasked question, “The only good thing about South Africa is the weather!” For sure, it promised to be a sunny Highveld day with a temperature near 70F, yet given my past overwhelmingly positive experience of the rainbow nation’s peoples I queried, “Only the weather? What about the people?” She deeply gave thought to my question before again despondently responding, “No, only the weather.

A country of 53 million, almost twice the size of my home state of Texas, South Africa is a nation grappling not only to come to peaceful resolution of the residual yet resistant-to-change affects of apartheid, but also to lessen an eon’s old pandemic of violent crime, while simultaneously struggling with the challenges of the rapid onset of a 1980s infectious and second national pandemic—HIV/AIDS.

South Africa’s 2013/14 statistics reflect a sobering daily reported human suffering tally from violent crime: 180 sexual assaults, 50 murders and equal number attempted murders, and 510 assaults with the intent to inflict grievously bodily harm. It was easy, then, for me to be sympathetic to a young woman’s national dismay—particularly when it’s all too statistically likely that she, herself, spoke as either violent crime or AIDS victim. During my family’s 15 year South Africa residence, we had direct and indirect personal linkage with about 15 to 20 murders, and 40 to 60 assaults.

In terms of daily human suffering from HIV/AIDS, if memory serves me even marginally well, I recall the daily infection / death rate to have been in the region of 1500/1000 as of mid-2010.

It’s no secret that those who suffer most by violent crime and AIDS in South Africa are its majority black populace, who, contrary to a too common, wrongful, and high (often “Christian”) moralist, largely Western mindset see AIDS as divine retribution for gross sexual improprieties—or, as I’ve regrettably heard on more than one occasion, “Africans failure to ‘condomize.’” Egg on mostly white faces, however, because HIV/AIDS was an import to South Africa – mostly likely from two (white) homosexual South African Airway stewards, who contracted the disease during a trip to the United States’ West Coast (see Shattered Dreams? An Oral History of the South African AIDS Epidemic, by Gerald Oppenheimer and Ronald Bayer).

To be fair – and more hopeful – during my two weeks in-country I went on to hear more upbeat and hopeful remarks about South Africa’s present and its future, from mostly young adult South Africans, who either idealistically spoke of being part of a national effort to build a new democratic South Africa, or energized by the economic prospect of easy and abundant profit for those with access to cash and credit.

Since my brief exchange with the cashier four weeks ago, her bleak perspective has provoked me to ask myself, “What, if anything, is different or good about my own United States of America?

It’s a more difficult question than you might imagine because I’m a so-called Third Culture Kid, who grew up, then worked in Africa, yet a U.S. citizen as well. Of my own admission I’m bicultural, “African-American.” Although my birth certificate and passport are stamped with the U.S. official seal, my worldview is decidedly and preferentially African – especially Africa’s underlying ethos of Ubuntu, in which persons, communities and relationships are of far more importance than individualism and consumerism.

It’s a difficult question, too, because like The New York Times contributing op-ed writer, Arthur C Brooks, in his recent piece “We Need Optimists,” I’m more realist than optimist, which makes me an optirealist, I suppose. I know you’re thinking, “There’s no such thing as a realist, only optimists and pessimists,” but I disagree. A pessimist singularly perceives negative.

I recall the humorous story of two hunters (remember: I’m from a gun loving culture). The optimist owned a retriever dog, which he was sure would be able to win over his pessimist friend. The three were sitting camouflaged and crouched among the dense lakeside reeds when some ducks flew by. The friends rose up, shot, and watched a duck fall. The optimist could hardly contain his excitement when he instructed his dog to “fetch.” The dog dove into the lake, but incredibly, instead of swimming out to the bird, she walked on top of the water, gently retrieving the bird. After a moment or two, the pessimist exclaimed, “I see your dog doesn’t know how to swim!

As to the at times unreal, unhelpful positivism of an optimist . . . well, let me share Brooks’ opening paragraph, which makes light of those who share in common optimistic spouses: “My wife, Ester, and I had just endured a difficult parent-teacher conference for one of our teenage children. It was a grades issue. The ride home was tense, until Ester broke the silence. ‘Think of it this way,’ she said, ‘At least we know he’s not cheating.’”

I’m near overwhelmed at times by what Brooks describes as the United States’ “environment of competing pessimisms” or “competing pessimists.”

Pessimists are distinguished by their negative view of people. People are liabilities to be managed and controlled, burdens and threats to be minimized. Pessimists utilize fear and anger to solicit and arouse support.

A positive, more optimistic perspective and vision is politically less appealing. Presidential hopeful, Donald Trump, is the quintessential model of dour politics’ mass appeal with a sour mood public, as is FOX News.

As Brooks persuasively argues, however, as a nation we are and will pay “a steep price for our politicians’ choosing the dark side,” which, ironically, is a missed strategic advantage for competing candidates. Why? Optimism is not only a highly esteemed character disposition—a proven core trait of successful executives—but also an outlook associated with some of our nation’s most popular presidents, e.g., Reagan and Clinton.

Optimism requires hard work to be effective. That is to say, leaders, especially, must be willing to risk becoming comfortable with being uncomfortable. For example, “A positive vision requires the hard work of winning over new friends, which means going where politicians have not been invited, and enduring less-than-adoring crowds.” That is a much more demanding and riskier task than merely regurgitating (sorry for this distasteful yet apt analogy) calloused and hardline perspectives, which one’s followers already hold to anyway.

I regret that I could not convince the cashier that South Africa’s greatest strength and asset is its people in all their diversity—not its weather.

I believe, like Brooks, that people the world over are grappling with a “growing mainstream depression” about their respective nations’ futures, yet simultaneously hoping that public leadership would turn from their competing pessimisms to “a true competition of optimistic visions for a better future.”

In other words, stop telling us what and whom you’re against. Instead compete for the prize of most compelling (transformative) narrative—which, contrary to politicians’ over-inflated egos, will rely not on their singular ability to affect change, but on a belief in and reliance on the goodness, potential and resiliency of each nation’s citizenry.

Politicians the world over should take a queue from teachers, my postgraduate mentor included, who began each new university-level class by standing in front of his students, sweeping the room with his eyes, pausing to catch each person’s gaze, raising both hands in the air, passionately and with zero degree uncertainty declaring the following in a rich South African accent:

Class, you are not merely human beings . . . You are human becomings!”

It’s what Adam Saenz spoke autobiographically of to returning-to-school teachers in “From Jail to Harvard: Why Teachers Change the World”:

“In a few days you’ll stand in front of a group of students and I can almost guarantee that there will be at least one ‘Adam Saenz’ there, a kid who has potential and doesn’t know it, a soul who could change the world a little bit if they could only get the right instruction and encouragement to lift them out of their false sense of who they believe themselves to be.”

Amidst our own national gloomy environment, let’s individually and collectively commit to support whichever candidate(s) proffers the most tangible, transformative, optimistic and inclusive of national narratives—narratives of what we can individually and as a nation become.

#HopeAndBecoming.

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Airline Classism & An Appeal for Intentional Mindfulness of The Majority Unprivileged

On a recent trip from South Africa my daughter and I re-discovered that privilege has many benefits. There are multiple levels and shades of privilege, I realize, so when driving in east Austin (my hometown) or touring the former townships and rural areas of South Africa I’m aware that in comparison my family are an economically privileged percentile.

On August 11th, however, our OR Tambo International departure date, we were massed with about 350 Lufthansa Airbus 380 economy passengers in a cordoned off pre-boarding seating area, which butted up against the inaccessible First and Business Class ONLY pre-boarding seating. Whereas economy had limited seating and zero amenities, First and Business had a ample seats and a magazine rack stocked with every imaginable language newspaper to help bored passengers pass the time.

Boarding began (Lufthansa seems to have no boarding protocol, so all customers converge en mass at the gate like livestock at a corral or dipping chute) and almost immediately we noticed the check-in agents were reaching around and over one another, tearing up previously issued boarding passes and reissuing new ones. Wondering what the agent chaos was and why, upon delivery of our boarding passes to the agent (the day before we paid via online a modest dollar amount to be upgraded from “regular” economy to “premium” economy) we were instructed to exit the economy line and proceed to board via First and Business.

It did not register with us what was happening until the First/Business Class agent congratulated us on having been upgraded to business class – I perceived the agent’s unspoken message to be, “Congratulations! You have been selected among all your undignified travel companions to share and bask in the glory of business royalty and identity!” My just-turned eighteen-year-old daughter was simultaneously ecstatic and incredulous, which I’m sure made the Lufthansa agent feel especially good. Apparently the flight was overbooked in economy and in an effort to fill up every seat they upgraded some.

Our shared euphoria and callousness to the plight of former travel companions lasted several hours—through the pre-takeoff sparkling wine served in elegant wine glasses by the purser himself, through the self-exploration of all the Business Class amenities, including the amazing 180-degree reclining seat with lumbar and cushion firming adjustors, large screen TV, Bose headset, personal care kit with toothbrush and shaving kits, ear buds, sock footies, eye mask, et cetera.

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The cherry on top of purchased privilege had to be when the purser came around and asked each of us if we wanted to be woken for breakfast – noting our response on his flight pad. Menus were visually detailed and elegantly presented, with three-course meal offers, plus a wide (free) selection of alcoholic and non-alcoholic drinks. Unlike economy, which serves food with all plastic containers and cutlery, BC meals came in courses, served on fine china with stainless steel cutlery. Even the rolls were hot, with a wide selection of fine German breads, and the purser incredulously kept asking us, “Is that one piece all you want?!”

It wasn’t until post-dinner and movie, when I had reclined my seat fully and settling into an unfamiliar five-hour, in-flight snooze that IT hit me. IT being both conscience and consciousness of my unexpected privilege relative to the majority of passengers.

Did IT compel me to get up, go downstairs to economy and offer my privilege to someone else? No, but IT did cause me to: be mindful of my privilege, give thanks for an underserved privilege, and resolve that if life ever allowed me this (or any other) gift of opportunity/privilege on a regular basis that I would make it a discipline to forego my privilege on a not infrequent basis so as to never lose sight, experience, sensitivity, to what the majority of life sojourners experience on a daily default basis.

I wish leaders and celebrities of each and every imaginable type and geographic place would be like-minded and like-willed. Perhaps, then, we might live in more equitable, peaceful and social justice minded communities and societies, where the proverbial religious Golden Rule was neither golden nor a rule, but merely the essential and everyday mindset of one and every person for another and all persons.

While I recognize some of you who regularly fly First or Business Class – or daily live a privileged life – will rationalize that you pay for your privileges, and work hard to afford them, it’s also true what The New York Times op-ed columnist, Nicholas Kristof wrote in a recent piece entitled, U.S.A., Land of Limitations? – “Success is not a sign of virtue. It’s mostly a sign that your grandparents did well.”

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(Humorous) Lessons of Life from Tee Offs to Fairways

I’m not a lover of golf; at best a friend, and these days a mere acquaintance. Up until 2000, however, I played maybe once a month, and that, because it was my dad’s game of choice. When I began the over clichéd doctoral life of “poorer by degree,” a minimum $40 green fee and six hours of play commitment inevitably weighed too negatively against my family’s need.

Still, in fairness to the leisure sport, my life has benefited in a number of ways from the game, and it’s my hope that a few of my yesteryears’ recollections might be of at least humorous benefit to some.

Earliest golf memory? Infancy post-colonial Kenya, specifically Nyeri (near Mount Kenya).

Through a memory glass faded I see my first or second grade self: hot, thirsty, exhausted, then swinging, no, hacking at a dimpled, small, white ball, with a much-too-long-for-a-young-boy adult 3-iron.

The typical result of all my early swing effort? Well, let’s just say this . . . I now understand only too well the humor of my South African mentor’s telling of how the Zulus of southeast Africa came to name certain European sports unfamiliar to them. Since in isiZulu a noun is frequently prefaced by an “i” (pronounced “ee”), the Zulus, for instance, gave to soccer the name “i-football,” and to cricket “i-cricket,” but with golf they were in a conundrum. Therefore, they decided to give it the name they all-too-frequently heard on the course—”i-dammit.”

No lesson learned, save maybe one. Interested in introducing a child to the sport? Invest in a junior set of clubs, and sacrifice $100 for a video taped one-hour local pro lesson—to establish the basics of grip, stance and swing.

The next golf memory originates from Nyanza Club in Kisumu, a city nestled up against Lake Victoria, purportedly the second largest fresh water lake in the world, where I spent my fourth to sixth grades.

My golf skills evidently didn’t increase much, because my older siblings grumbled each time my dad allowed me to accompany “the men,” presumably because the pace of play suffered. One new entertainment addition to the game, though, were spectators! By this I mean local Luo teenagers and young men, who would gather en mass at all water hazards waiting and watching for errant golf balls.

By water I mean mostly the murky, foul-smelling variety. On one particular Back Nine, par three hole, you had to hit over a snaky looking, sewer tainted waterway. In case you’re unfamiliar with the game of golf, players with the highest score each hole hit last at the next hole. Of course, that was always me! As I teed my ball up I heard the usual excited chatter and rustling of feet as all our caddies hastily repositioned themselves, one against the other, so as to be nearest the projected flight path of my almost always miss hit ball.

On that occasion I fooled them all, however. After completing my customary pre-hit swing routine, much like baseball batters nervously do when they spit and tweak their cap, shirt, cleats and private parts prior to the ball being pitched, I finally followed through with a full swing.

Well, I have no recollection of my golf ball’s arc—if it even made it off the tee—but what I do remember is the panic I felt when I saw my 3-wood flying through the air in the direction of the waterway! Ka plump, into the water! Let’s just say that the usual ball finder’s fee went up a few shillings on the particular day.

Lesson learned: Someone is always ready and willing to do someone else’s shitty, dirty work. Do not think of them as less than yourself, for most certainly so too were your forebears in earlier times—and, in this era of globalization, so might you, too, one day.

I laugh as I wrote this remembrance because the incident reminded me of another, unrelated to golf incident that occurred during boarding years at high school—also in Kenya. My dad, best friend (also Scott) and I were bass fishing near a reed bed off a boat in Lake Naivasha, a lake with a healthy population of hippos, when all of a sudden I heard a huge splash. It caused my heart to skip a few beats, not knowing whether a hippo had broken the surface near our boat. LMAO (Facebook lingo), but if it wasn’t Scott jumping in to the lake to quickly retrieve his fishing reel, which had somehow detached from his rod!

From Kenya my family moved to Tanzania, specifically, Moshi, a town at the near base of Mount Kilimanjaro. Golf at Moshi Club was a combination experience: like a pristine and prestigious country club in terms of prime and scenic location, yet pasture and scrubland like in terms of playability—it wasn’t uncommon to have to play around grazing cows and goats.

This course is memorable for two reasons (apart from visible Mount Kilimanjaro). First, it was a newlywed shared experience during a six-month stint between undergraduate and graduate studies, when I was able to introduce my new bride to Africa. And, secondly, for the horrendous play my dad exhibited on one particular par-four hole.

From tee to green he seemed happy playing in the extreme rough (thick grass). Typically he’s a very respectable player, skills wise, but on that occasion he must have swung at and hit the ball ten to fifteen times, each time the ball traveling no more than a few meters forwards—or sideways, it seemed. I don’t think I’ve ever heard my dad curse, but on that occasion he kept mentioning two individuals’ names called Pete and crying-out-loud, as in, “Oh, for Pete’s sake!” and “Oh, for crying out loud!” Anyway, I recall suggesting to him, “Why don’t you just pick your ball up and either play on the green or from the next hole?” His reply: “No, I know it’s (his game) eventually going to get better.”

Lesson learned: There is a sun shining above and behind most dark and dreary clouds. Keep slogging, while simultaneously striving to be conscious and thankful of the gift of life, beauty and relationships that are most certainly around and about you during that difficult period of life.

One final golf remembrance, a links course called Prince’s Grant, situated alongside the Indian Ocean, 70km north of Durban, South Africa, and within minutes of the town of Stanger, where my family and I lived for four years. It’s my understanding that Hugh Baiocchi, a South African professional golfer and winner of twenty-plus U.S./international tournaments, together with his dad, also a golfer of some renown, developed and were part owners of Prince’s Grant.

One sunshine December day my older brother and I were teeing off a stunningly picturesque first hole, a par 4. My brother hit first, and regrettably, from my perspective as contender, split the fairway in half—a very good first shot, given our relative body stiffness that morning. As I teed my ball up and went through the pre-hit motions that attempted to assure any would-be club house guest that I was a competent golfer, I sensed a foreboding presence at my back. Turning, I saw Hugh Baiocchi standing with his arms crossed against his chest on the retaining wall located almost within arm’s reach of our tee. Worse, he was standing and staring at me.

“Never mind, I’ll show him,” I thought to myself—after all I was at that time a relatively self-confident early 30s male! I swung, felt nothing, but looked forward anyway down the fairway path to see where my ball went. Seeing nothing I looked back down at my tee, where the ball was lying inches away on the grass. I had whiffed the ball (hit air). Catching my pride, I quickly turned to Baiocchi and with a smile on my face asked, “Do you give golf lessons?” He replied in his English accent, “You don’t need lessons. You have a good swing, you just need to keep your head down and your eyes on the ball!”

Lesson learned: So many lessons to choose from this experience! Only one, though . . . When you’re young and overconfident it’s easy to think you’re invincible, and that you can contribute to solving many of the world’s problems. And, in each and every place of work you find yourself, there will always be relationships in conflict, with each side clamoring for your input or participation. DON’T!  FLY ABOVE the bickering, backbiting, and baiting. FOCUS: keep your head down and your eyes on your own work responsibilities, and on relating to and treating others as you yourself would appreciate being treated.

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White Supremacy, Black Experience: A Lesson In Listening

“Americans make choices constantly as they try to navigate through the racial landscape. And their first choice is how they listen. Blacks and whites do not listen well to one another. They infer, assume, deduce, imagine, and otherwise miscommunicate. They give each other little grace and allow small room for benefit of the doubt. Dialogue is exceedingly difficult. Nor do blacks and whites listen well to themselves as they stigmatize, derogate, slur, slight, and otherwise offend. . . . It takes practice to learn to listen.”  (A Country of Strangers: Blacks and Whites in America, by David K. Shipler, ©1997)

With 36 years Africa experience, most of it in a relatively volatile, post-colonial and post-apartheid context, you would think of all white males I would know better.

My wrong?

Among a diverse group of professionals I recently spoke analytically to the contentious topic of white supremacy, or its equally bitter-tasting kin—white privilege.

My cerebral statements understandably met immediate (black) resistance and reaction. Understandably, because my colleagues had been sharing painful personal and past experiences of racially tinged or infused injustices, and of a local city’s white establishment’s historical misuse of political and economic power in disenfranchising entire African-American communities.

Some of my friends contended that white supremacy, aka, institutionalized and/or racist white power structures will be eradicated globally within a relatively short time period.

Instead of simply listening to my friends’ pained narratives, or vocalizing my solidarity with them against past and present social injustices, I intellectualized what up to that point had been a mostly emotionally laden discussion.

At the time, my “invisible, weightless knapsack of accustomed white privilege,” as Shipler coins it, processed our dialogue with two rational thoughts—

First, “How can we talk of eradicating white supremacy, when it’s both a local and global belief that people hold, specifically, a belief that whites are superior to all others different, and therefore entitled—for the betterment of society—to control the mechanisms of power?”

And, secondly, “I agree. We can and should dislodge unjust white socioeconomic and political power structures, such as occurred with slavery America and apartheid South Africa, but we’ll never eradicate white supremacy, or any other color of supremacist belief, as my colleagues seemed insistent on.

Thinking the best of each other, I’m sure my black colleagues knew I wasn’t advocating for white supremacy or arguing against efforts to unseat bigoted power structures, just as I knew they weren’t naive to think supremacist thought could be annihilated.

Perhaps a greater sensitivity and awareness of our respective cultural differences might have mediated our group’s differences of opinion. At least for me, anyway.

How?

By reminding me that lack of passion on my part, or a mere intellectualizing or pondering of social injustices, will not communicate support or understanding.

Whether any part true or simply another racial generalization, I’ve read somewhere that passion, emotion, the ability “to stir up” are traditionally valued traits for many African-Americans—perhaps a survival tool during the slavery era—explaining in part, perhaps, the appeal of the rapper, the preacher, the impassioned politician.

Regrettably, only in retrospect did I see that my lack of passion, and my mere intellectualizing of an issue so close to many of my black colleagues’ life experiences, simply communicated (white) insensitivity to and self-denial of the persistent, everyday realities of scores of millions of historically disenfranchised and displaced people in the U.S. and around the world.

While I regret my misstep, I don’t lament risking encounter and dialogue. As Shipler rightly notes, “The journey does not have to be a (white) guilt trip; it is just an encounter with the facts of life.” Dialogue—talking and talking and talking—opens new “pathways to closeness” among people and cultures different. Each person must LISTEN to the other, however.

 

 

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