Category Archives: Family

Hurtful Charity | A New Year’s Appeal To The Kind-Hearted and Well-To-Do

You’ve likely heard the adage, Give till it hurts, yet it’s unlikely you’re aware just how hurtful those acts of giving can be.

I’m not referring to charity of international aid type, which at times hurts more than it helps people and countries. This, because money is frequently wasted on minimal impact, culturally insensitive, and non-humanitarian programs, or alternatively, pilfered by greedy and corrupt individuals.

Rather, I’m speaking to some portion of the billions of dollars given each year by individuals, especially North Americans, to charitable causes, whether in cash, clothing, household items, or vehicles, and whether given to needy individuals who knock on one’s front door, stand in line at soup kitchens, or donated to residential or virtual non-profits such as Goodwill or Invisible Children.

Too frequently, it seems, the needy occupy a dumping ground for the well-to-do’s excess or discarded items, with little thought given to what it must feel like as human becomings, persons, to be so struggling that you’re reliant on the sometimes whimsical and charitable gifts of individuals or government–especially in the U.S., where 24-7 exposure to affluence is so pervasive.

“Excess benevolence” is predictable, particularly in capitalistic societies such as the United States, where home garages are more often used as storage containers than for their intended vehicular use, where garage sales serve to free up household space so that new items can be purchased, and where multi-storied, climate-controlled Public Storage is booming business and architectural landscape features.

Given realities that, one, “the poor will always be with us,” and, two, excess benevolence will persist irrespective of what I say or anyone campaigns against, what I’m trying to speak for is a more compassionate thoughtfulness toward the economically struggling, plus speaking to a prevalent attitude people have toward those who of necessity live at or below the poverty line–an unconscious versus pejorative attitude, perhaps, yet definitely condescending.

By compassionate thoughtfulness I speak for the dignity of those who by society’s definition are “poor” or “needy.”

Donna Hicks defines dignity as “a feeling of inherent value and worth,” and argues that a desire for dignity is humanity’s highest common denominator, as well as the missing link in understanding conflict.

She, more than anyone else, articulates what I am appealing for in this thought piece—

developmental shift in understanding, from our typically egocentric worldview and cognitive understanding, to a primal empathy.

Primal empathy calls for each one of us to develop a heightened emotional sensitivity and identification with those who suffer indignities.

That is—each one of us is capable of, and should more intentionally versus merely accidentally develop the capacity to “feel what the other’s life is like,” even to the point of “feeling the indignities they experience.”

Duplicity of intention, whether in the form of benevolence, generosity or “love,” is acutely felt and experienced at the nub of self-worth and self-identity by charity recipients.

Examples . . .

Pointing the finger at myself.

I wager that most of us will not perceive ourselves to be well-to-do. Comfortable, perhaps, but not wealthy. After all, one has to earn upwards of $400,000 annually in order to attain status as the “one-percent” richest in America.

Prosperity is fickle / relative, however.

For instance, although my non-profit take-home salary in South Africa was in the $30k’s, low by U.S. standards, benefits such as tuition remission for my children, rental housing allowance, healthcare, company use of vehicle, et cetera, took the figure upwards to a U.S. respectable $70k’s figure. At the current exchange rate, my salary equated to almost 750k rand, high above the average South African minimum income of 24k.

Our 100-year old rental house with Jacaranda tree, Kensington

Our 100-year old rental house with Jacaranda tree, Kensington

My family frequently had clothing, accessories, luggage, linens, even aging electronics like laptops and cameras, which despite still being wearable or operational, were, nevertheless, well-used. How convenient that we had one, sometimes two “needy South Africans” who worked as domestics for us ! It was easy to think: “Surely they will want and be able to use these items.”

Our "family" minus our son, who was in Germany studying.

Our “family” minus our son, who was in Germany studying.

Shamefacedly I admit that I have offered our well-used, soon to be discarded or replaced items by expressing the following type statement–“I’m going to throw these items away. Do you want them?”

Such “gifting” communicates the following attitude: “We recently bought new, and these used items are no longer desired or good enough for me or my family. But I thought to myself, ‘Given you and your family’s evident economic need, I’m sure you could use them.'”

The truth is: My own unconscious, yet condescending attitude toward the poor, didn’t slap my conscience until which time that my family and I were experiencing economic struggle ourselves.

The past three years have been a grateful awakening–despite them being painfully emotional ones–to what many people experience on a daily basis, including the many jobless and economically struggling in Austin, Texas, as well as many of our South African friends, colleagues and acquaintances. They likely felt the pain of “having less,” and perhaps, even, (wrongfully) perceiving themselves as “being less than” when in the presence of our material trappings of success.

Several personal comparisons:

Whereas our African friends heard us excitedly talking about going on this or that family vacation to the beach, mountains, or some international destination, I now experience my own Texas friends talk excitedly about their impending trips to Vegas, Hawaii, Vail, or similarly, reminisce about recent past trips to New England, Lake Tahoe, Paris or Cuba, while my own kids pine for glimpses of the life and experiences they once knew, while finding substitute in a 12-hour road trip to visit Abuelita in El Paso.

Whereas African acquaintances, even friends, perhaps, saw excess money in my family–that is, a means to enabling a better life for themselves, such as assistance with education expenses–I now experience that same temptation to hint at financial need to help offset my wife’s graduate study debt or enable vocational re-education/training for myself.

Whereas South Africans saw my family drive new or new-like vehicles, I now experience Texans test driving $100k electric cars, while my family makes do with a ’98 Honda and ’02 Toyota, which despite their age and my longing to drive a more updated and spacious vehicle, are still far more “life enabling” than required reliance upon foot or taxi power.

Whereas African friends and guests walked into our relatively large rental home and were no-doubt dumbstruck by its size, spaciousness, furnishings, amenities, security apparatus, et cetera, my children now experience leaving Texas homes, conscious of how constricting their shared and small bedroom is. While I’m truly grateful to have a roof over my head, I’m in awe of the extra spaciousness of some homes, which so effortlessly accommodates an office/study space, which as an academic I pine for.

What, then, should the (relatively) well-to-do do in light of such pervasive social need?

It’s tempting to advocate what is recorded in the Bible about the early community of Jesus followers, that “they were together, having all things in common, selling their property and possessions and sharing them with all as each had need.”

I do believe that a greater sharing of wealth and its privileges is essential not only for a more just and equitable society and world but also for a more peaceful one. I’m grateful for the rich and celebrity trend setters, in such persons as Bill and Melinda Gates, Bono, Warren Buffet, and Salman Khan, all of whom we should be grateful to for helping co-create a more equitable world.

Within a Christian or faith context, sharing beyond tokenism or for tax deduction benefit, as well as sharing in and alongside life with those whose life narrative is one of struggled existence would definitely restore a measure of credibility to “American religion,” perceived by many as elitist, segregated, socially reactive and disconnected–at least my own Baptist context of meaning.

Being realistic, however, I’ll settle for more compassionate and conscientious thoughts and acts of charity toward the poor and economically struggling.

I seldom reference the Bible in thought pieces, but it speaks to “offending the consciences” of those who are weak. Seems to me that those gifted with the “benefits of capitalism,” as well as a non-volatile/violent life setting in which to live, raise a family and children, should strive to live and engage the world with greater sensitivity and understanding, always mindful and sensitive to our shared and collective humanity.

 

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“A Good Fight” | Essential for Forever Relationships

People, like carriage horses with blinkers on, tend to restrict their social engagement to people and circumstances they find emotionally safe and comfortable. Pugnacious individuals are rare.

horseblinkers

While holidays such as Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year are perceived and celebrated as family centered and joyous occasions, a common yet under-acknowledged fixture to each–like angel ornaments are to Christmas trees–is interpersonal and familial conflict.

My family is excitedly waiting this Friday’s midnight arrival of our eldest daughter and her husband. Despite only 1,326 miles (2122 km) separating our home from theirs in North Carolina, we’ve not seen them (apart from Skype) since December 2012.

Two days out, minds are singularly and excitedly fixated on the immediacy of family reunion: bear hugs at the airport, as well as laughter and squabbling in the minivan as each one-eighth member of our family vies against other family contenders to inject and condense 365 days life experience into a single 30-minute drive home.

cropped-kids.jpg

Inevitably, though–whether a few hours or days into our reunion–differences of opinion and perspective will occur, resulting in varying degrees of conflict.

A South African friend, who our middle child is named after, loved “a good murder” on the telly (TV).

Similarly, contrary to what some people, in particular couples, allege (i.e., that they never fight) it’s my family’s experience that wholeness and longevity of relationship occur only because of “a good fight.”

A “good fight” is

-An oft times emotionally charged conversation over differences of perspective and opinion . . .

-In which everyone involved stays engaged/committed (often through coaxing or by one another’s insistence) . . .

-Despite frequent and intense impulses to flee from the associated unpleasantries of conflict . . .

-And which, persists however long until either respectful and/or affectionate feelings and actions for one another return.

A representative example is Noah Calhoun (Ryan Gosling) angrily pleading with Allie Hamilton (Rachel McAdams) to remain with him instead of running back to her fiancé in The Notebook; a romance drama set in the 1940’s, in which a wealthy teenage big-city girl and a much poorer, small-town boy find true love over one summer, and how their ultimate forever love for each other was nearly sabotaged by Allie’s meddling mother and overly austere father.

Toward the end of the movie, the following discourse occurs–

Noah: “Would you just stay with me?”
Allie: “Stay with you? What for? Look at us! We’re already fighting!”
Noah: “Well, that’s what we do! We fight! You tell me when I’m being an arrogant son of a bitch and I tell you when you’re being a pain in the ass, which you are ninety-nine percent of the time. I’m not afraid to hurt your feelings. You have like a two-second rebound rate and you’re back doing the next pain in the ass thing.”
Allie: “So, what?”
Noah: “So it’s not gonna be easy, it’s gonna be really hard. And we’re gonna have to work at this everyday, but I wanna do that because I want you. I want all of you, forever. You and me. Everyday.”

Strong, forever relationships are not only messy, but more often than not occur at inopportune moments of life. They require more work (fights) than one has the patience or time to give at the end of an overly crammed work day or week.

Ultimately the potential wholeness and longevity of relationship comes down to whether or not one or more persons really want or value the relationship.

In my family, truth be told, we often frustrate, irritate, and fight with each other.

No, we haven’t to date engaged in physical altercations, or, to my knowledge, rattled off a litany of profanities against one another (although I understand via the sibling grapevine that I have been called “a dick” at least once). One or more of us, however, have been known to slam a door, hurl a hair brush from the car on to the lawn, slam down hard some ready at-hand object like a glass or a book, or get up and stomp away from a discussion while the other person is still talking.

Fingers crossed . . .

So far conflict has only strengthened versus inflicted any fatal blow in all immediate family relationships of mine, although regrettably, it has effectively ended several friendships.

In the case of friendship losses, they resulted in large measure, I believe, because they chose to disconnect . . . to walk away from, and to stop fighting for the relationship.

Evidently the necessary hard work and discomforts associated with conflict–e.g., as in The Notebook, sometimes hearing or sharing the hard and painful truth that one’s being a big pain in the ass, or acting like an arrogant SOB–outweighed for them the value of having relationship.

 

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The Power of One . . . of Madiba . . . of You

I’m seldom a willing, let alone enthusiastic viewer of animated children/family movies. This, in contrast to a former South African friend of mine, who not only has a special tolerance for watching the latest kids’ movies, but also a knack as a minister of a small faith congregation for crafting clever, individualized marriage messages using themes and characters from the movies for soon-to-be married couples.

I have one exception, however. Madagascar. I laugh every viewing at the wit and humor of its colorful and animated characters, especially, of course, narcissistic King Julien, whose self-admiration is equal to Phoebe and Monica’s old friend and fake Brit, Amanda Buffamonteezi, in the 2003 Friends’ episode, “The One With Ross’s Tan,” in which, reuniting after years of having not seen each other, she tells her two friends to, “Look at me! Look how young I look.”

madagascar

Flipping channels two nights ago, as men stereotypically do, I hit on a rerun of Madagascar, in particular, the section where Alex (Ben Stiller, aka the lion) is alienated from his friends on the beach. It’s night, and feeling a desperation to escape the confining “wilds” of the island for the bright lights and accustomed comforts of mainland New York City, Alex erects a huge HELP beacon from the trunks of coconut trees.  He intended to set it alight immediately upon sighting of a rescue ship on the horizon.

Unfortunately for Alex, a storm brews, and lighting strikes, incinerating his help beacon, but not before the camera captures his emotional state of mind and life predicament.  That is, the in-flame “HELP” transforms by videography editing into a flaming message of “HELL.”

If my sense of observation is even in the ballpark of proximity, then there are more people than is comfortable to be aware of, whose lives right this moment are teetering on a paper’s edge between desperate unvoiced pleas for help, and life or work circumstances and relationships typified as hellish versus happy.

A case and area in point: My wife’s an advanced practice nurse, specializing in palliative care. Palliative implies “relieving pain” or “relieving symptoms,” and while it isn’t synonymous with death and dying, it frequently manages patients who are nearing the end of life’s journey.

This past week she learned the potency (defined as: “the power of something to affect the mind or body”) of touch combined with words as a “tool” of compassion and healing.

It’s a given that every palliative patient’s family has, is and will journey through an excruciatingly difficult period of life struggle. Emotional struggle, certainly (as in a spouse or child grieving the gradual yet persistent decline of their loved one’s physical health), but for many patients, the emotional is exacerbated by distracting lesser–but by no means little–stressors such as interfamily conflict (i.e., current spouse contending with former spouse, children and relatives over estate or end of life directives), creditors, impending repossessors, anxieties over the impending loss of a family’s primary income earner, et cetera.

Each family member affected by the chronic illness of a loved one struggles, no, agonizes over making the best life and death decisions she or he can under stressful circumstances, and obviously less than best choices are frequently made.

What my wife learned last week is how meaningful a touch on a shoulder, and a few acknowledging and affirming words to a struggling family member can be–“You’re doing a great job!” or “You’re doing so well given your family’s difficult circumstances!” or “I can’t imagine how painful this must be for you.”

Struggle is not the apropos time to offer personal opinion/counsel or critique, unless, of course, the one struggling point-blank asks for your input, which, even then, is seldom a request for you to solve their problems as it is a plea for you to recognize and acknowledge their situation, their struggle, their pain.

Eyes fill and shimmer with a rapid onset of tears, which until your kind gestures lie just below the surface of emotional struggle. Glistening eyes are voiceless expressions of gratitude that you bothered to take notice of their life and situation–“You can’t imagine how difficult it has been! But thank you for acknowledging and affirming my personal struggle and that of my family.”

From my perspective there exists an alarming incidence of walking wounded, at least in the United States, and I’m not even referring to the hundreds of thousands of war veterans suffering from post traumatic stress disorder. People’s deep and “multiple woundedness” becomes horrifically evident for the entire world to see during moments of crazed acts of mass violence, but is no less present on “average days,” and in quieter, less visible ways and places.

As Harvard’s Diana Eck instructed her fellow Americans to “Open your eyes and look around you,” this, regarding the changed and rapidly changing cultural and religious landscape of the United States, so too, all of us need to open our eyes and look at the telltale signs of the many who share our life and work spaces, and who are living yet struggling on the brink of Help and Hell.

The immensity of social, mental health and emotional need often evokes donor or benevolent fatigue and a mindset of “What can I possibly do that will make any positive, let alone lasting difference?”

I say–

This week the world is commemorating and eulogizing one ordinary at birth, yet extraordinary human becoming and African man in the person of Nelson Mandela. Let our lives be his continued legacy. Don’t minimize or discount the potency and power of one! One kind word, one sacrificial act, one compassionate touch, one shared tear, one hour of shared conversation . . .

AP photos at WPRI.com

AP photos at WPRI.com

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The Power & Gift of Acknowledgement | Inspiring a Child To Walk

Two brief stories, after which I’ll tell you my “secret” to getting a young child to walk.

Story #1 — Yesterday, during my weekly volunteer work at Austin State Hospital (ASH) I was making my round of client visitations when a female, African-American staff member and I crossed paths. We’d met once before, three weeks prior when I literally and only said, “Hi. Is Maurice working today? No? Please tell him Scott says ‘Hey.'” Yesterday’s encounter was even briefer. I was walking toward an entrance door. She was walking away from it. This time I mumbled a greeting in passing, whereas, despite weeks having passed since our initial introduction, she responded, “Hi Scott!”

Story #2 — This morning I made a rapid Costco shopping incursion to buy a few last-minute meal items to celebrate my sister’s, dad’s and son’s birthday, all of which occur on consecutive days this month, yet which we’re celebrating altogether tomorrow afternoon.

My dad's 80th BD card. Inside: "At least you don't have detachable parts."

My dad’s 80th BD card. Inside: “At least you don’t have detachable parts.”

As I was wheeling and weaving my shopping cart toward the exit, while simultaneously extracting my receipt from my pants’ pocket for the obligatory purchase verification check by Costco’s “highlighter gatekeepers,” there standing and staring at me just inside the main entrance was Tom — more of a Sunday-only acquaintance, than a friend in the true sense of the word, which is not to say I don’t wish we were more acquainted with each other’s lives.

Unlike the ASH staff member, who surprised me by remembering my name weeks after hearing it for the first time, Tom knew my name no problem. What pleasantly surprised me was his thoughtfulness in enquiring into my well-being by referencing my last and most recent blog, which, if you happened to read Secondary Fidelity | The Risk & Reality of Living Apart you’ll agree isn’t something you’d read to get inspired.

You see, it’s too easy given the frenetic pace of life to become 99.9-percent self-absorbed, and become blind to the despondency and struggle of people’s lives — everywhere visible, in every imaginable nook and corner of life in these United States of America.

The true exceptionalism of these two “friends” of mine lay not in their being American (*I disagree with current US congressional/presidential rhetoric that boasts to the world of “American exceptionalism,” when, in fact, I believe it should be significantly qualified as “nominal exceptionalism”), BUT in their practiced demonstration of the “golden rule” of all religious faiths — “Do To/For Others What You Wish They Did To/For You” (a positive-negative statement is equally true – “Do not do to others, what you would not wish they did to you”).

Story #3 — Zipping through my photo files last week I was reminded of a good example of the power of acknowledgement — encouragement.

During my family’s six-year residence in Johannesburg, South Africa, my family — especially my wife — frequented Hannah Kitele’s St Jane’s de Chantal Charity, a foster home for children, whose parents, typically single mothers, struggle to survive, let alone care for dependents, who relinquish care of their children to Hannah for a temporary period until which time they manage to regain their life footing.

One day I acted as delivery driver for a large pot of arroz con pollo, a chicken and rice dish my wife learned to cook from her years growing up in the Dominican Republic, and which she cooked on a weekly basis for Hannah, so as to relieve her of one small but important weekly obligation.

After I carried the steaming hot-pot of food to the kitchen, I stood leaning against one bedroom door frame and chatted with Hannah, who had just finished tending to a newborn. Sitting quiet and unusually still on the floor was a shy and cute as cute could be little girl. She was young, but old enough to be walking. Hannah informed me that she had never taken a single step due to her from birth chronic illness.

In her short span of life to date, this little girl had become accustomed to being overlooked and left behind.

I remember squatting down from my 5-foot, 11-inch frame of reference and reaching out and gently placing her small little hands in the palm of my own, and then simply holding them for a short period of time, all the while saying the little and silly things adults do to children when they want to interact with them. I then stood back up and carried on in conversation with Hannah.

It wasn’t long before we noticed out of the corner of our eyes this little girl struggling to her feet using the side rail of a single bed for support. We watched with a degree of trepidation in case she fell, but also with excitement at what she was undertaking. With a bit of coaxing she took one, then another itty bitty step, all the while putting on a smile that would disarm the cruelest of dictators.

girl1

Acknowledging someone is the essence of respect, as well as the makings for “miraculous” accomplishments and human becoming-ness.  Will you join me in daily striving to be more intentional and disciplined at being less self-preoccupied and more acknowledging/encouraging of others?

girl2girl3

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Secondary Fidelity | The Risk & Reality of Living Apart

The Context:

Five years ago I upset a sweet, old lady; the grandmotherly type, who hugs and kisses on little children irrespective of whether they have been good or bad, and who would whip up a meal from scratch if you showed up unexpectedly at her doorstep.

My crime? I dared share and sympathize with a gray-area story in an adult Sunday School class. It’s a story that muddles the clear moral boundaries, and traditional-conservative understanding and teaching on sex and marriage fidelity, by sharing many non-white South Africans’ historically disadvantaged economic and life realities.

Evidently I was touching a nerve, similar to Pope Francis’s recent admonition of the church for its singular obsession with homosexuality, abortion and birth control

In 2008, as national director of a United States Agency for International Development (USAID) memory work training project, I attended a global development conference in South Africa. Typical of most conferences there were any number of presentations running concurrently. I chose one in which the results of a U.S.-funded, HIV/AIDS research project among South African miners was being reported on. My ears perked up at one research finding on “secondary fidelity / faithfulness” — a term I had never heard.

Apparently, among South Africa’s mostly male mining community, both in present day democratic as well as past apartheid South Africa, the economic obligations and strains of relocating far from traditional families and rural homes to the congested, concrete and competitive urban jungles, such as the Witwatersrand, where Johannesburg is located, induced such acute loneliness and physical / emotional need among the mostly black miners, that relationship/marriage fidelity, as defined in so-called civilized and Western societies, was most surely desired, yet experienced as impractical and impossible given the miners’ prevailing life hardships.

Under duress of physical, emotional, geographic and long-term separation from wife and family, many miners opted for “secondary fidelity.” That is, they engaged in sexual and emotional urban trysts, yet when the very rare, perhaps only once-a-year opportunity occurred to return to their “real” and rural home, family and community, they feigned fidelity so as not to embitter and cause undue emotional pain on their wives.

Similar, perhaps, are the tragic stories of “real” or de facto slaves, who, themselves, surely desired, and many times enjoyed monogamous, long-term committed relationships, yet who were forcibly separated and abused by the greed of human traffickers and the cruelty of newfound owners, such as the African-American experience recently depicted in the movies Django, The Help, and The Butler.

Given my bi-cultural heritage and middle age bearing, I have discovered that many economic and politically privileged people, particularly, perhaps, in the Bible-Belt (southern), aka Ted Cruz-ian swaths of the United States, lack a depth of understanding and empathy for the billions of the world’s struggling-to-survive humanity.

This inability to understand, identify — however you may define it — is evident in negligible or token lifestyle changes when confronted by widening socio-economic inequities, or perhaps in asinine statements made about HIV-positive people. Millions of HIV-infected and affected individuals are viewed and stereotyped in one American’s incredulous, yet not uncommon statement to me, “I don’t understand why they (Africans) can’t just use condoms?” She might as well have said, “I don’t understand why they are so stupid as to have unprotected sex! They deserve what they get.”

The Present:

A reality of the current and protracted global/US recession is the number of spouses or partners, who, of economic/job-related necessity, live distant and separate lives for extended, even indefinite periods of time. If in 2006 3.6M married Americans lived apart, imagine what those numbers are today — not merely among Americans, but spread across the globe?

It’s all too easy to be patronizing, condescending, contemptuous of others’ “immoral” lives and lifestyles when one’s own life is cocooned, cushioned, comfortable or “Christian.” Take that away for any extended measure of time, however, and I assure you the reality and hardships of life will reshape one’s perspective of most things and relationships previously thought inviolate. Experience is the great equalizer and sympathizer; the inquisitor of faith and “truth” as people know and too glibly pronounce it.

My family relocated from South Africa back to the United States and Austin in mid-2010. I voluntarily opted out of full-time work for the past three years so as to manage home and kids while my wife enrolled in and completed a 3-year MSN degree at UT-Austin.  Upon her recent graduation and my ensuing search for full-time work the prospect of living apart from my wife and kids is assuming a newfound reality.

Obviously, it’s not a reality my wife and I wish for, nor is it a problem with a simplistic solution, such as many people advocate for AIDS.

Fortunately my wife and I have developed trust and a willingness to risk vulnerability over 28 years of marriage by talking about, and hopefully beyond most any subject matter, including my blunt admission that living apart for any prolonged period of time –as I am now entertaining the thought of doing–will possibly to likely result in either or all of these realities: infidelity, separation or divorce, a charade of keeping the marriage together “for the sake of the kids,” or adoption of a “secondary fidelity” mindset for the occasional family get-together times, so as to shelter my wife from the painful knowledge that my physical and emotional needs are being met, or at least supplemented, in my distant-from-family residence and place of work.

Our wedding picture for Order of Ceremony

Our wedding picture for Order of Ceremony

Conclusion:

Like the Hugh Jackman and Jake Gyllenhaal movie, Prisoners, which my wife and I watched this week, this blog is a narrative without a clearly defined, neat and as of today happy ending. For the many people privileged to live in daily and close fellowship with spouse, children, family and friends, there are many others, who in striving to provide for life’s daily bread and a more hopeful future for themselves and their families, all-too-frequently experience the near-overwhelming darkness of despaired struggle and loneliness.

In case you misread this blog, let me clarify:

NO, I’m not advocating for secondary fidelity.

But, YES, I am appealing for kinder thoughts, kinder attitudes, greater effort to understand, more dignified responses toward the many millions, whose “immoral” or “sinful” lives one might be tempted to write-off with a nonchalant, “They’re getting what they deserve,” or “They’re reaping what they sow.” After all – hopefully not – it could be me and it could be you one day.

Prisoners

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4 Life Takeaways from “We Bought A Zoo”

If you can overlook that the actual zoo, Dartmoor Zoological Parkis in England instead of Southern California, as well as the fact that Matt Damon, aka Jason Bourne, is simply a widower with two young children versus a trained assassin or a futuristic car thief / Robin Hood, then you might (like me) agree with We Bought A Zoo‘s 3-star rating and enjoy watching or re-watching it.

DZP

I recently re-watched the last half with my two younger daughters, and took away 4 reminders:

1.  “Sometimes all it takes is twenty seconds of insane courage . . . And I promise you, something great will come of it.”

It seems that being human is to opt for the easy and convenient over the hard and difficult. What prompted you to read this blog? Its promised “4” takeaways?

If we resolve to lose weight, consistently exercise, run a marathon, climb a mountain, learn a language, become a millionaire, ace the SAT/GRE/or MCAT, or even something as mundane as cleaning house or “doing” the yard, we typically seek out the short-cuts.

If only we took seriously, were ever mindful of the residual power in seconds or small steps; especially those first few, which are critical in helping you overcome the inertia of inactivity and progress toward an established habit and discipline.

I don’t have a “Yard of the Month” yard, but I have succeeded in growing a healthy lawn and ten double knock-out rose bushes, which total strangers have been known on more than several occasions to stop their cars, get out, walk to our front door, ring the door bell, and ask what I did to produce such lush, green grass and beautiful red roses.

I have no quick-step answer other than a little bit of effort and a lot of sweat spread out over many days, weeks, months, and now almost four years. I don’t use weed killer. I simply am relentless in pulling up a few weeds each and every time I walk the perimeter of my yard. Truthfully? I think they (the weeds – especially the nut grass) are afraid of me! 🙂

Let’s view achievement / greatness as a series of small steps, or as the sum of many steps (small acts), and learn to silence the inner voice (demon) that insists we leapfrog ahead or use a cheat sheet.

2.  Like the animals but love the humans.

I grew up in East Africa and many of my happiest childhood memories revolve around animals, whether pets, such as our two Vervet monkeys, or family excursions to famous national reserves like the Masai Mara or the Serengeti to witness the annual 1.5 million wildebeest and zebra migration.

I still love animals, but like Fanning and Johansson, I’d choose people over animals if I had to.

If polled, I wonder if most Americans would agree?

It often seems that equally or more money, time, kindness, love and respect is shown to pets, than to children, the elderly, the immigrant, the unemployed, or the hobo.

Lately I’ve been struck by how many Austin drivers let their pets “drive with” them in the front driver’s seat. Meanwhile my kids fight over which of them get to ride in the front passenger seat, even if the distance to be traveled is less than one mile!

What about you? Do you give equal or more time and affection to your pet than to your child, spouse or friend or neighbor?

3.  “The secret to talking is listening.”

We’ve all read enough Dear Abby-type relationship advise columns and books to know that men are typically less verbal when it comes to expressing matters of the heart (emotions, vulnerability, et cetera), yet more verbose when it comes to fixing problems: your problem, their problem, anyone’s problem.

Wise men have learned that the way to a girl (Elle Fanning’s) or a woman’s heart (Scarlett Johansson) — or even in matters non-romantic, to achieving greater organizational synergy (defined by Stephen Covey as “valuing difference” or “the whole is greater than the sum of its parts”) — is through more listening, less talking.

Many men simply don’t care whether their percentage of speech to listening is skewed, however, because they’ve either achieved some senior management position in an organization and can’t be bothered by any underling, let alone a woman’s suggestion or advice, or because hearing the sound of their own voices and perspective has become habituated over time, in large part because men traditionally have held the monopoly on positions of power.

Now, I risk voicing a truism; namely, that women are very capable of talking and thoroughly enjoy doing so! Research demonstrates they generally are more verbal, and not infrequently more verbose than men.

A difference between the sexes seems to me to be: Men typically talk to resolve; listening with more an ear to actively fixing whatever might be wrong or perceived to be wrong, rather than listening with all one’s senses so as to hear the many unspoken words / emotions that speak themselves through glistening eyes, quivering lips, faltering voices, rapid and defensive / angered responses, etc.

4.  Grief and mourning can be delayed, but not bypassed . . . If, that is, you want to re-engage life and living.

For 10 of the last 13 years I have worked in a senior management capacity with non-profit organizations in South Africa that focused on mitigating the cause and effects of violence and HIV/AIDS.

A recent article A Save-the-World Field Trip for Millionaire Tech Moguls describes one man, Scott Harrison’s “sexy” effort to provide clean and plentiful water to those in the world without. Through his non-profit, Charity: Water, he has managed to facilitate the drilling of thousands of water wells and the installation of an equal number of hand pumps.

Incidentally, and perhaps reflective of the demographics of his donor base, each pump has an attached metal plaque with each donor’s name etched on it. Desire for legacy, recognition, seems to me a decidedly American fixation, as is our so-called exemplary charitable generosity, which in reality would not be near so generous if it did not hitch a ride on the coat tail of income tax reduction.

In contrast to “sexy” development work, coming alongside and participating in life with hurting people, particularly those who have suffered or soon will suffer loss, as well as trauma of any variety of types and degrees is far from “sexy.” Yes, your name is surely invisibly inscribed on the hearts and in the lives of those you shared vulnerable life moments with, yet seldom is there any acknowledgement of your sacrifice, no public recognition for being a “Well Member” – a donor, who pledges $24,000/year to Charity: Water, for three or more years.

My point is this:

It’s much easier and less demanding to give money to the needy of the world, than time, toil and tears (lest you misunderstand me, yes, social development organizations need both, including the Charity: Water’s of the world).

Benjamin Mee (Matt Damon) lost his wife and struggled daily through a labyrinth of inconsolable grief (e.g., avoiding looking at photographs of his wife, certain grocery aisles, as well as previously favorite coffee shops). It took years and the collective, consistent and caring support of family and zoo staff friends for him to travel through grief to a place of acceptance and re-engagement with life and living.

I welcome “life truth” wherever it reveals itself. I’m grateful to movie and cinema for important life reminders.

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6 Habits of Effective & Influential People | Lessons from a South African “Domestic”

A few months after we relocated to Johannesburg in January 2003, the buzzer at our front security gate sounded. I looked out to see an elderly South African man wearing blue coveralls (typical uniform of manual laborers). I walked out and we greeted. He worked as a gardener for neighbors a few houses down, and wondered if we, too, could use outside help. I quickly discovered he was speaking on behalf of a son, Eddie.

This gate-side conversation initiated a relationship with a Northern Sotho young man and his family, which spanned eight years, and would have continued until “death do us part,” if not for my family’s emergency need to relocate back to the United States. As it is, we speak by phone twice a year.

mokoborofamily

This blog is too insufficient a tribute for this young man who gifted mine and my family’s life. A meaningful friendship was improbable, really, because Eddie spoke and understood little English and I/we knew no Pedi (Northern Sotho), his mother tongue. We communicated in either hand gestures, several word sentences, or when something was really important and required detailed instruction I would solicit translation help from a friend.

An example of a typical communication between us is detailed in my blog “Post Office Memories and Cultural Apropos Uses of the ‘F-word,'” part of which I repost below:

One morning I went outside to water the garden and could not find the water hose attachments. I asked Eddie if he knew where they were. His face told me “yes,” but the difficulty was telling me where and what happened to them.  Eddie spoke hesitantly, communicating a short, crystal clear message: “dogs . . . fucked up.”

You see, in South Africa “f#@ked up” is an expression that unambiguously communicates that something or someone is beyond repair. Eddie was telling me that our dogs, who were capable of destroying even a purported to be indestructible dog bed made out of sisal, were the culprits responsible for destroying my hose attachments.

We laugh when we recall how Eddie informed us that his day’s work was done, and that he was leaving for home. Typically my wife might be busy in the kitchen cooking dinner, unaware Eddie was either in the doorway or right outside the kitchen window. He would startle her by loudly, almost shouting, “I GO!”

Unlike many, whose talk exceeds their walk, Eddie, in the absence of a command of English communicated by life example / demonstration. What follows are six habits, or disciplines of Eddie’s that daily communicated a highly effective, highly principled life, which I imagine Stephen Covey would agree with.

First, slightly different from Mayor Bloomberg’s Secrets of Success of “arrive early, stay late, eat lunch at your desk,” Eddie demonstrated a work ethic of “arrive on time, eat lightly – healthily – drinking only water (during work hours), work steadily and persistently, and leave on time so as to prioritize self-care and family care.”

I’ve known no harder work in my life than Eddie. Instead of motivating him to work, I had the opposite problem – getting him to take a break, or take an afternoon or day off.

Eddie2

Second, break down or divide the oft-times near-overwhelming mass or totality of a large job or assignment into smaller, more manageable pieces.

Of the three locations we lived during these eight years, Eddie always established a routine for each task at each place for each week, resulting in a showcase yard and a pristine house.

Third, one’s perspective / attitude is everything!

Depending upon which study or news source you read, upwards of 71-percent of working Americans are dissatisfied with their jobs, and some of us are without jobs.

Despite officially being defined as a “domestic” – defined in South Africa as anyone working 24-hours or more per month for a household – Eddie demonstrated pleasure and pride in each day’s work, irrespective of how menial the task might be. He’s especially been my inspiration these days, since assuming my family’s many daily and so-called menial tasks of home management.

Fourth, be willing to assist the organization and/or your colleagues when necessary (without complaining or drawing attention to self) by doing or getting involved in tasks that technically either lie outside your own job description or that seem beneath your status or dignity to perform.

Initially I hired Eddie to work outside in the garden. Upon relocating to Pietermaritzburg from Johannesburg, our inside house-helper was unable to relocate with us. I felt it would be disrespectful to Eddie to ask him to assume inside duties, in case he viewed this as “woman’s work.” After moving, my family initially went about doing all household chores. No more than a few days passed before Eddie insisted on assuming both inside and outside responsibilities – insisted by simply doing, before we were able to; never a word being spoken.

He did what needed to be done. He did it without complaint. He worked as if striving for perfection.

Fifth, choose teachable moments to demonstrate or communicate desired change in leadership or organizational process, rather than reacting by engaging in embittered backbiting or lobbying.

I’m quite sure Eddie thought my family and I were wasteful, as in spending needless money on “extras” that we had no real need of. After all, you don’t develop a habit of counting pennies unless you need those pennies.

We had several hunter green, plastic patio chairs. Being plastic and relatively cheap it wasn’t uncommon for them to break. One day I tossed one chair in the trash because the arm of the chair broke in two, length-wise. I took little cognizance one day of what Eddie was painstakingly doing. Later that evening when my wife and I sat outside on our patio (verandah) for a cup of coffee together, as we routinely did, I noticed that Eddie had taken an ice pick, plus copper wire, and had effectively sewn the chair’s rip up. He first poked a series of stitch holes along each seam of the crack, then he took the wire and sewed the two pieces together. The finished result was not only a stronger-than-new chair, but also a lesson to me to be less wasteful and more resourceful.

chair4

Sixth, never be too busy or self-absorbed that you are insensitive to the needs and struggles of others within your circle of concern.

Develop the discipline of sharing time and showing kindness (respect) to the least visible, lowest profile (status) people within an organization – even to their children, or especially to children.

Eddie and his family, will always be to my children and our family the 9th to 12th members of our now blended family, yet who just happen to live in South Africa. All the more so, since Eddie named his second child after me!

We feel such affection toward Eddie and his family because he/they invested time, effort, hospitality, laughter and meals with us, and especially with our children – this, despite having negligible disposable income, plus their total home space being no larger than most moderately affluent Americans’ master bedroom.

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