Category Archives: Mentor

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.

Advertisements

Leave a comment

Filed under Africa, Death and Dying, Dialogue, Diversity, Inequity, Leadership, Life, Loss, Memories, Mentor, Pedagogy, Relationships, Success, Violence

(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.

2 Comments

Filed under Africa, Family, Golf, Leadership, Life, Memories, Mentor, Pedagogy, Perspective, Relationships

A First Act of Life Was Learning To Walk | Why Have We Forgotten How?

I was Born To Run. At five years of age I was The Flash. Like the gingerbread man who ran away from the farmer’s wife, I recall breaking free from the confinement of a nurse’s home office in Nyeri, Kenya, this, despite people’s restricting grip, and bolting panic-stricken across the lawn, like a young Thompson gazelle pursued turn-for-turn by a cheetah, toward what I perceived to be a sanctuary–a distant dairy shed. Despite playing dead (hiding), as a gazelle might do, eventually I was caught and carried kicking and squirming back to the nurse’s inoculation needle.

Come third grade I ran to impress, showing off my calloused feet and speed by sprinting barefoot round-and-round our family’s crushed quarry stoned driveway in Kisumu (“kiss-a-moo” as my grandmother called it).

From then until high school graduation I ran like the wind of Forrest Gump, obeying his Jenny’s instructions, “If you’re ever in trouble, don’t be brave. You just run, OK? Just run away.” Run I could. Run I did. Despite my young age it seemed I always was the Lone Survivor in the tag/tackle game of American Eagles, and my running athleticism earned me the rugby nickname “shadow dancer.”

Teenage sprints morphed into young adulthood jogs, where I ran non-competitively in mid-to-long distance races.

In young middle age I now occasionally run, but more often walk. If pressed for why I blame my wife (her ailing knees prevent us from jogging together), but truth be told I prefer walking.

Why, you ask?

Partly blame it on life having more problems than I can reasonably manage, accommodate and resolve.

FIRST, walking, unlike running, helps you think on your feet.

As Willard Spiegelman notes in Seven Pleasures: Essays on Happiness, for those of us whose profession has more to do with words and ideas, than motorized giant Caterpillars, sledge hammers, or physical exertion, walking involves and unites “mind, body, and breath (spirit) in a harmonious process that at once releases and excites different kinds of energy.”

Walking, therefore, is an effective prod or facilitator of self-knowledge, meditation and contemplation. In a real sense, walking enables, even encourages self-change, self-revision, self-remake, self-reinvention, and self-modification. In this, Spiegelman is spot on.

Søren Kierkegaard reputedly wrote his niece, “When I have a problem I walk, and walking makes it better. Do not lose your desire to walk; every day I walk myself into a state of well-being and walk away from every illness; I have walked myself into my best thoughts, and I know of no thought so burdensome that one cannot walk away from it.”

If Kierkegaard felt compelled to instruct his niece on the importance of walking in the early 1800’s, how much more we, who live in so-called developed twenty-first century countries need to be reminded!

During a 2001 academic conference in Geneva, a Scottish colleague’s first, and apparently lasting impression of a recent visit to the West Coast of the United States was how shoppers park in front of one shopping mall entrance, enter, purchase, exit, then drive to others points of the mall versus walk its relatively short length.

Accustomed to motorized transport, we forget that walking used to be our primary means of transportation.

A SECOND reason I now prefer walking over running is that walking offers a combination experience of ordinary plus the unexpected.

Each time I walk in the neighborhood across from my home, which unlike my own adjoins a nearby eco greenbelt, there’s a constancy that combines allure, monotony, and the unexpected.

To date, I’ve discovered about $20, found myself suddenly parallel and within five feet of a skunk on the prowl, come upon a house that was lit up like a bonfire replete with emergency personnel and an entire neighborhood present for what seemed a giant s’mores or weenie cookout, informed a home owner of a large yet harmless snake that crossed the road in front of me and slithered up alongside their house, pitied a young screech-owl that evidently was hit by a passing motorist, seen near collisions of car and deer and witnessed newborn fawns with their mothers, documented neighborhood political rivalry, and seen first-hand the aging and changing demographics of a neighborhood, which mirrors that of our nation.

If I’m able to document these few or more type experiences–from mere one-hour walks, several times per week–how much more of the ebb and flow of life am I, or you, or we, missing out on because we’re speeding past in a motorized “two-ton piece of metal” or entombed within the protective yet insular walls of our own home castles?

The FINAL, perhaps most important reason to become a more frequent, intentional walker, is that “like dancing, walking becomes an exercise in civility.” It results in an increased “inner awareness and an imaginative sympathy with, and for, other people.”

I’m a new participant in Richmond’s Community Trustbuilding Fellowship, a training initiative begun by Initiatives of Change. It’s a five weekend program that develops “community trustbuilders.” A trustbuilder is an individual, like myself, who has a passion for, and receives methodology training in facilitating community dialogue. The objective, as I understand it, is the transformation of communities polarized by race, culture, politics, economics, education and social inequities, into communities of trust, which, then, of course, it is hoped will become more effective in addressing and acting upon symptom and systemic inequities and injustices.

Week Two is entitled “Healing History,” where we’ll take a walk around Richmond. We will retrace the many “slave steps,” in an effort to better understand and develop a sensitive understanding of what life was like for so many enslaved people. But–in the spirit of understanding opposing positions, and facilitating dialogue between polarized communities, we’ll also gain a more appreciative understanding of the “white experience,” often synonymous with “white privilege.”

US Panel 3 HIC (KEG)_0

My doctoral method of study and training in history of religions is phenomenology. Basically, it’s a method of learning that prioritizes awareness, understanding and knowledge acquisition from the underside of history, the ordinary, or “common” person’s perspective versus history’s “victors’ perspective,” which is the narrative of most history textbooks.

In other words, phenomenology requires experiential, personal engagement with the object of one’s study (people of different culture, socioeconomic, political or religious faith) versus mere textbook knowledge, or that acquired from media sources or so-called “experts.”

It’s a transformative method of learning or unlearning, depending upon one’s perspective, because the resulting “relationships of trust” you experience with “different others” not only are informative in terms of knowledge, but also destructive of pre-existing stereotypes, plus, they are self- and other-transformative, in that your/their own life will likely be positively changed simply by experiencing and participating in the life of “the different other.”

SO . . . whatever your profession or life situation, do yourself a favor and become more frequent and intentional in taking walks. Start small. Walk the block. But while you’re walking keep your eyes, ears, mind and heart open. Who knows what or who you might unexpectedly encounter, which might not only change your own life, but contribute collectively to the transformation of your community, and ultimately, one person by one person, the entire world.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Leave a comment

Filed under Diversity, Family, Leadership, Life, Loss, Memories, Mentor, Pedagogy, Perspective, Prejudice, Race, Relationships, Religion and Faith, Uncategorized

Leadership | Of Donkeys and People

“One night it’s a donkey, another night it’s a person!”

So matter-of-factly stated an Afrikaner police officer to a colleague of mine, one 1990’s midnight in a North West Province, South African town.

My colleague had been driving a van full of visitors on a return trip to our hotel from a day outing to the luxury resort and casino, Sun City, aka Sin City, when he struck and killed a pedestrian.

Upon arrival at the nearest police station to report the incident, the on-duty officer in all probability simply tried to lessen my colleague’s anguished state of mind by making the “donkey/people comment,” yet in so doing unwittingly voiced his acquired perception of non-white people’s worth and significance:

1 Black Person ≤ 1 Donkey

donkey_blob

Sometimes it’s easiest and more effective to describe the essence of something by depicting its opposite, which is my intention with the donkey story in this thought piece on leadership.

Leadership (at its best) is an inner state of being that feels, perceives, and interacts with all persons as individuals of equal value and dignity to oneself.

Every imaginable leadership book title exists, including 7 Habits, 5 Levels, 6 Steps, 10 Steps, Leadership 101 and 21 Irrefutable Laws, to name but a very few, yet all of them, from my perspective, primarily focus on the external—style or method of leadership, and not leadership’s core essence.

Acquiring leadership expertise by means of habits or steps is enticing because it promises quick results and zero to minimal risk or vulnerability. For instance, seldom will a reader or conference attendee be challenged to say to a child, spouse, subordinate or superior, “I’m sorry,” or “I was wrong,” or to ask, “Will you forgive me?”

Nor will most “instant leadership” books or conferences ask you to contemplate what the other person must be feeling, or what their life circumstances must be like on a day-to-day basis. Rather, focus is on compliance.

Fortunately for those who aspire to a deeper level of leadership significance, whether work, family, or community, this is exactly the type “out of the box” transformational leadership style The Arbinger Institute advocates for in its two bestsellers—Leadership and Self-Deception and The Anatomy of Peace.

We are frequently blind to, self-deceived, when it comes to daily patterns of personal thought, speech or behavior, which hurts people and poisons relationships.

In-the-box leadership operates from an unconscious, yet constant need to feel justified or always right. Feeling justified always requires that someone else be wrong, blameworthy, or a problem.  Only when someone else is at fault or a problem can one’s own life feel good or justified in thought, speech or act.

As Leadership and Self-Deception expresses it, “There’s a peculiar irony to being in the box.  However bitterly I complain about someone’s poor behavior toward me and about the trouble it causes me, I also find it strangely delicious. It’s my proof that others are as blameworthy as I’ve claimed them to be—and that I’m as innocent as I claim myself to be. The behavior I complain about is the very behavior that justifies me.”

How does one get “out of the box” of insecurity and self-justification toward others, and thereby demonstrate Leadership outside-the-box?

By developing a point of feeling for the humanity of all “others” who occupy your concentric circles of shared space, concern or influence. Because at that point of affection or emotion, you’re seeing him or her as a person with needs, struggles, hopes and worries, just like yourself, versus an obstacle, problem or inconvenience.

As nineteenth century Anglican bishop to southeast Africa, John William Colenso, similarly stated, “It is not the outward form alone that makes the immeasurable difference between man and other animals. Wherever we find human affections, there we know we have got a human being.”

Habits, levels, laws, steps, or principles of leadership, therefore, are little help in resolving recurrent or deep-seated interpersonal conflict because they simply “provide people with more sophisticated ways to blame.”

People, whether our children, spouses, enemies or colleagues respond more to how they feel we view and regard them than they do to our particular words or actions toward them.

“Most problems at home, at work, and in the world are not failures of strategy, but failures of ways of being. . . . If we have deep problems, it’s because we are failing at the deepest part of the solution.”

In the spirit of The Arbinger Institute, then—Let’s get busy with the deep things!

 

 

 

2 Comments

Filed under Africa, Culture and Africa, Death and Dying, Diversity, Family, Leadership, Life, Loss, Memories, Mentor, Pedagogy, Perspective, Prejudice, Race, Relationships, Religion and Faith, Success

10 Statements That Shaped My Life | Perhaps They Can Yours, Too

Julian Fellowes’ superb historical piece drama, Downton Abbey, is chock-full of pearls of wisdom if you listen closely. A Season 4 episode has Violet Crawley (Maggie Smith) telling young Tom Branson (Allen Leech), “Life is all about solving problems and then you die!”

By no means exhaustive or ordered, I recently compiled 10 statements, which over time and through life’s ebb and flow have transformed into 10 pearls of wisdom.

1. “Focus on the grass”

To understand this statement a farming image and true story from Mooi River, South Africa, might be most helpful. You can then apply the principle to your personal situation.

How to turn a profitless, underperforming dairy farm in a tight economic market, into a competitive contender and revenue generating one?

The answer? Focus on the means of increased milk production–grass. Everything on the farm took a temporary secondary position to the primary. The farmer increased his time, effort and resources on pasture. Good grass meant happy cows, resulting in increased milk production and a healthy profit margin.

*I wrote at greater length on this in Frazzled, Frustrated or Fearful? Focus on Your “Grass”.

2. “Walk on the grass but don’t make paths”

You’ve seen the signs on groomed landscapes–“Keep Off The Grass.” Who would have ever thought they convey a life message? This is the response I got from my South African PhD mentor when I asked him to tell me his philosophy of life.

Transliterated–

“In your search after life’s meanings and truths, courageously risk veering off from your too-familiar life path, and into a pathless wilderness, which might appear at the outset murky, messy, even ominous. Risk the journey, whether it be into the depth of human thought, or the much more unsettling kind: face-to-face encounters with people different.”

3. “Writing is in the editing”

On my Research, Writing and Teaching seminar’s first day, my professor was wise to warn us, “Start your term papers early, because if you want an A-letter grade, good writing only happens in the editing.”

If truthful, we each and all aspire for instant success. It’s not mere vanity, but reflective of our daily struggle to balance life’s demands over and against a 24-hour clock.

In life, like in writing, we want each first act or draft to be near perfect. This is even more true for anal-retentive persons.

So no matter how much we might pursue instant success in life, relationships, vocation, politicking, et cetera, remember that like writing, life is in the editing, in the falling down and getting back up, or in the dogged determinism to keep taking one step forward, even though you know it frequently will result in two steps backward.

4. “Do no harm!”

Fact–In life there are assholes too numerous to count or categorize. This realization and personal experience prompted Stanford University professor of management science and engineering, Robert Sutton to write The No Asshole Rule: Building a Civilized Workplace and Surviving One That Isn’t.

The important point here is that you don’t have to be an asshole! And the way to avoid being perceived as or labeled one is to live, think, love, speak and act by the credo, “DO NO HARM”–to yourself, to others, to the environment.

5. “Think and hope the best of people, but be prepared for the worst”

Aka, Mental Health 101. It’s a truth that has helped me avoid incarceration when my life has been persistently frustrated by Robert Sutton’s subject matter above!

People are essentially good––definitely, at least, “more good” than bad. What “evil” they are or possess is much more reflective of nurture (environment and neuroplasticity) than of nature. In fact, it is this positive perspective of human nature that enables one to think and hope the best of people, yet be prepared for the worst.

6. “You can’t parent or love well if all you have to give are your leftovers”

Everyday and ever-present is a ghost of the so-called Industrial Revolution. Industrialization initiated many new mechanized and now technological wonders, but one intangible yet irrefutable feature it brought to all peoples is a rapid change of pace and way of life.

We seem to learn only after fallouts and break-ups that meaningful life relationships take an immense quantity of time, effort and shared experience. If you’re in the process of falling out but haven’t quite yet fallen down, then please read statement #6.

7. “For every new responsibility or relationship you take on, you will have to sacrifice another”

North Americans have a very “can do” mindset. It’s reflected in the slogan of the U.S. Army, “Be All That You Can Be,” and in our willingness to work excessively hard and long hours so as to attain and maintain an accustomed way of life.

The hard truth is this: With too full lives already, for every single new event, role, responsibility and relationship that we choose to involve ourselves in or with, some previous event, role, responsibility or relationship will suffer neglect.

8. “All you need is 20-seconds of insane courage”

You likely will recognize this statement from the movie We Bought A Zoo. It was Benjamin Mee’s (Matt Damon) explanation to his children of how he found the courage to walk up to a total stranger at a cafe and introduce himself. She later became his wife and the mother of his two children.

Every day and in many ways I’m reminded that it only takes 20-seconds of insane courage and action to change negative circumstances, contexts or dour moods into positive ones, and even if the change is small and less-than-transformative, at least it might be big enough to help you re-engage life and its struggles for one more moment or day.

9. “Break the overwhelming into bite-size pieces”

Likely you’ve heard the expression, “How do you eat an elephant? One bite at a time.”

Like focus, this, too, is an especially hard statement to put into practice. College graduates remember only too well the first day of the academic year and perusal of each course’s curriculum requirements. Panic!

Every professor seemed to think s/he was our only class. Professional work pressures soon made college expectations seem like child’s play. Yet the same lessons learned apply–break the overwhelming into bite size, daily tasks, and you’ll pleasantly be surprised how much can be accomplished.

10. “What’s the worst case scenario? Can you live with it?”

Aka, Mental Health 201. Fear is a, if not the greatest paralysis. While this statement of question likely provides small comfort to someone given a terminal diagnosis (at least initially), it does provide a modicum of relief for that “punched in the solar plexus” feeling, which makes for a grievous and sleepless night, and which likely resulted due to unwelcome and unexpected news, such as a termination letter or a lover’s betrayal.

Leave a comment

Filed under Family, Life, Memories, Mental Health, Mentor, Pedagogy, Perspective, Relationships, Religion and Faith, Success

Haggling | Customary Business Transaction or Another Means of Exploiting the Poor?

I grew up as an expat in East Africa. A part of my childhood experience and memory is haggling with hawkers/vendors/traders, whether for farming produce in the open air market or for curios made out of a combination of ebony wood and elephant ivory.

Ebony walking sticks

Ebony walking sticks

Baseball caps, in particular, were a popular trading item. My family kept a ream for just such occasions. Economic transactions of one baseball cap for one or more carvings was always disproportionately financially skewed to favor the buyer, and gifted the buyer with a smugness that s/he got the better of the merchant.

My family learned this “cultural practice” as it were from other expatriates, and probably, truth be told, from Kenyans and Tanzanians themselves, never having personal reason or conscience to rethink a practice or game, depending upon one’s perspective, that everyone seemed to participate in.

It wasn’t until years later as a young adult living in one of South Africa’s self-proclaimed “Bantu homelands,” Venda, that I became conscience-stricken over my acquired attitude toward and manner of engaging people, who just happened to be street vendors.

Venda, a small and veritable garden of Eden exception to the much more arid homelands the apartheid government created in an effort to falsely convey to the world a “separate but equal” racial policy, was renowned for its fresh produce of litchi (lychee), mango, papaya, banana, avocado, and pineapple.

Early during my family’s three-year residence in Venda, I discovered that local roadside traders refused to haggle over price. The price listed–most often times scrawled on a cut-out small piece of cardboard–was the cash expected. Full stop.

I asked our language and culture tutor about this, referencing my experience in East Africa. I remember him looking at me with a puzzled expression before replying, “If anything, you should pay more than the asking price. Never less than.”

Our mentor’s surprised facial expression was similar to a Germiston Afrikaner police officer’s two years later, who, when I asked why South African law did not allow motorists to turn left on a red light (called “robot” in South Africa) after coming to a complete stop and checking to be certain no cars were oncoming (as motorists are allowed to turn right at most stop lights in the United States) looked quizzically at me and stated emphatically, “Because the light is red!

These random memories came tumbling to mind this morning when I was reading the former South African Pulitzer Prize novelist and anti-apartheid activist, Nadine Gordimer’s short story, “The Train From Rhodesia” (now Zimbabwean). In it, she describes a sleepy Rhodesian backwater, where the only social stirring and economic activity occurred when the “creaking, jerking, jostling, gasping, train filled the station.”

An old man attempts to entice a young white woman and her male compatriot passenger to buy a lion, one “carved out of soft dry wood that looked like spongecake; heraldic, black and white, with impressionistic detail burnt in.”

The woman hesitates to buy the lion carving, uncertain of how it will look back at home or where she’ll put it. As the train lurches to movement again, the young man, thinking that he’s doing his lover a favor, quickly tosses the old man “one-and-six” pence for the lion (just a bit more than one penny in old British currency, I believe).

Once the train is moving he arrives in the carriage doorway breathless, “shaking his head with laughter and triumph. Here! he said. And waggled the lion at her. One-and-six!”

What was merely a fun-filled argument (haggle/barter) for him, was perceived and met with angered incredulity on her part.

She almost shouted, “If you wanted the thing, her voice rising and breaking with the shrill impotence of anger, why didn’t you buy it in the first place? Why didn’t you take it decently, when he offered it? Why did you have to wait for him to run after the train with it, and give him one-and-six? One-and-six!”

 

 

Leave a comment

Filed under Africa, Culture and Africa, Family, Life, Memories, Mentor, Pedagogy, Perspective, Prejudice, Race, Relationships, Religion and Faith

Speak Your Mind | A Tribute

Bumper stickers not only entertain, amuse, and sometimes offend. They also educate.

I came across the following bumper sticker in the parking lot of Austin State Hospital several months ago: Speak Your Mind, Even if Your Voice Shakes.

Apparently the words originated from Maggie Kuhn, an elderly Presbyterian educator and activist, who I had no knowledge of until I googled her. After a forced retirement at 65 she went on to found the Gray Panthers, an advocacy initiative focused on social issues specific to the elderly and women.

Wikipedia notes that in her social gospel advocacy, she refused to give any of her seminarian students a passing grade unless they each one risked venturing out and away from their respective comfortable confines of neighborhood and church–to seek, find and involve themselves in local impoverished communities.

The National Women’s Hall of Fame records this of Kuhn–

“Her advice to activists interested in creating social change shows the strength of her convictions: ‘Leave safety behind. Put your body on the line. Stand before the people you fear and speak your mind – even if your voice shakes. When you least expect it, someone may actually listen to what you have to say. Well-aimed slingshots can topple giants.'”

This blog isn’t about Maggie, however. It’s about my friend Will who passed away this week. Nevertheless, Maggie and Will evidently shared at least two commonalities: feistiness (scrappy/determined) and candor (speaking one’s mind).

I won’t sugar coat what is likely the truth about any individual who is feisty and candid: They’re not going to win a popularity contest–not on planet earth, anyway! That’s not to say they aren’t liked or loved, because Will will have more people attend his funeral than I’m sure will be at my own.

Let’s just say that Will had a will! He, like Maggie, was an influencer, a mover and a shaker, a seeker of the real and meaningful in life (versus platitudes and popular culture), an advocate of equitable and wellness of life and opportunity for all people.

One thing that endeared Will to me, but might repel you, was his unabashed use of expletives, especially when confronted by today’s all too common and pervasive gobbledygook religious and political perspective and power, which over time has assumed a venerable, yet erroneous inviolability as “truth-Truth with a capital ‘T'” (what I wish I hadn’t overheard one church-going man tell his four religious brothers at a Panera Bread table yesterday morning).

I’m going to miss my hour-long chats in his “office”–a patio situated just outside the back door, looking out on a small but beautifully landscaped garden with a loaded Meyer lemon tree.

I regret that I never shared a smoke with Will, similar to what close friends J. R. R. Tolkien and C. S. Lewis did customarily with their pipes.

You’ll be greatly missed, always loved, and forever remembered my friend!

 

 

Leave a comment

Filed under Death and Dying, Life, Loss, Memories, Mentor, Perspective, Relationships, Religion and Faith