Tag Archives: suffering

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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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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Infamous Dates | A Personal Reflection on 9/11

*I invite you to share your remembrances of any infamous date under “Leave a Reply.”

Mind numbing transformations of life and ways of living occur in the briefest and most unexpected of moments. . . .

– The December 7, 1941 Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, that prompted President Franklin D Roosevelt’s December 8th “Day of Infamy” speech.

– The December 26, 2004 southeast Asian tsunami, that took the lives of more than 250,000 people.

Between these two dates and events too many unconscionable natural and human-on-human atrocities including, of course, September 11, 2001, when at least and especially for North Americans, the world suddenly seemed too bleak and too frightening a place to galavant (roaming and playing) about in after 19 terrorists affiliated with al-Qaeda commandeered four planes.

Two months prior, July, 2001, I was studying and traveling about in Switzerland and Germany as part of my PhD studies in history of religions. Coincidentally, and perhaps ironically given the ensuing Islamophobia that developed in the United States post-9/11, one of the seminars I attended that July at the Ecumenical Institute at Bossey was on reconciliation.

Like many, I remember where and what I was doing the morning of 9/11.

A new academic year had begun just one week prior, and because my doctoral mentor was undergoing leukemia treatment, he had traveled to Houston’s renowned “cancer hospital,” MD Anderson. I taught his 08:00 – 09:20 Introduction to World Religions class, and we were half-way through the 80-minutes when a student, who I had marked as absent, suddenly opened one of the two rear classroom doors.

Distraught and crying she told us of the planes, the Towers, the unknown number dead, and that she had a sister who worked in one of the towers, but who she discovered was safe. I immediately dismissed class without comprehending the magnitude or severity of events, nor with any sense of the implications of the day’s events on the next day, or the many tomorrows that extended into months, years, and now into a second decade.

All over campus students, staff and faculty gravitated toward each other and to TV’s. I still remember the density of people congregating around two large screen TV’s in Baylor University’s SUB (Student Union Building). There was an uncharacteristic hush throughout the SUB, except for the voices of the news anchors, analysts and political pundits.

Equally, if not more unsettling to me, was September 12th, because for the first time in (my) living memory not a single aircraft was heard or seen in the sky. Even birds in flight seemed an anomaly.

I’m ashamed to say, but it was only after sitting down to draft this blog, and with my mind unconsciously racing here, there and everywhere in its search for associated memories, that I became mindful, re-minded of other equally or greater calamitous events to 9/11, in terms of loss of life – genocides like the Holocaust, Cambodia and Rwanda; the World Wars – hell, most wars; colonization of countries and their people; civil wars like Syria; et cetera. My shame demonstrates how myopic, how forgetful, how self-absorbed, and how provincial our lives can become, and why memorials are so important.

911memotial

I’m not suggesting one calamitous event is worse or less worse than another, for they surely are equally tragic for those who lost and lose loved ones and friends.

For those personally untouched (no friend or family member affected) with each colossal tragedy – apart from the added life inconveniences “suffered” as a result of an event – perhaps it’s a reminder, a wake-up call that we should live lives more daily attuned to our fellow humanity. Truly, no person or nation is an island.

This morning I heard a woman talking on her cell phone to a friend, explaining with a degree of frustration why her upcoming weekend plans were changed – stating, “it’s because of some kind of Jewish holiday.” Obviously she was referring to Yom Kippur, only the holiest of Jewish days in which repentance and atonement accompanies a full-day of fasting, yet which this lady had no knowledge of, or interest in, because she likely had no Jewish friends or acquaintances.

Our own life is difficult enough, I realize. But, perhaps, if we took small, daily measures like being willing and disciplined enough to wean ourselves from total co-dependency on our smart devices like Charlene deGuzman accidentally did one 24-hour period in I Forgot My Phone – a humorous YouTube clip that has garnered more than 22-million hits.

Maybe then we might discover enough time, energy and empathy to give thoughtful pause, prayer (if you’re a person of faith) or praxis (thoughtful action) toward the lives and suffering of so many of the world’s people – individuals with a history and a family, just like the more than 3,000, who lost their lives in New York City on 9/11. Perhaps, too, such moments of reflection would help orient our lives and living in a direction that encompasses and embraces the world and not merely my own private world.

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Fate or Providence | How To Interpret Life’s Misfortunes?

This blog is about the mystery or wonderment of life’s TIMING.

Several friends of mine are avowed atheists, which, truthfully, draws me to them versus detracts. Why? I appreciate their candor. To me their professed lack of belief communicates a serious searching for meaning in life. I wonder how they – and you – might interpret the following “life’s timing” story.

A primary reason my family returned to the U.S. from South Africa in 2010 was to be nearer my wife’s aging and ailing mother, more especially since my wife is an only child and her father is deceased.

“Bueli,” who my girls and I visited barely one week ago, and who I wrote about last week in Grandparents | Person and Place Specialness was suddenly admitted to hospital this past Saturday with an elevated white blood count of about 133k. Today she was “officially” diagnosed (after a painful bone marrow biopsy yesterday) with chronic leukemia.

This blog isn’t a “Why me Lord?! Why Me?!” type bemoaning of a Queen Latifah in the movie The Last Holiday (in the movie she’s mistakenly diagnosed as having only 3 weeks to live), which, of course, is easy for me to say since I’m not the one lying in a hospital bed. You see, my mother-in-law is well beyond retirement age, and given her long-term health struggles is really either a walking miracle, or a testament to the resilience of the human body and will power – or all three.

Rather, in the case of my mother-in-law, the question is not so much”Why did this happen?” or (if you’re a person of faith) “Why did God allow this?” But rather, “What are we to make of, and take from the extraordinary timeliness, and sometimes fortuitousness of events, relationships, et cetera, in life?

Her situation is “fortuitous” only in the sense that her hospital admittance comes a mere three weeks after my wife graduated with a 3-year in length MSN degree – less than 48 hours after she completed her national CNS credentialing exam – and in-between her search for full-time work. Any earlier (or later) and she would not have had the time and opportunity to hop on a plane and be with her mother 24/7 during this difficult and fearful time.

You see, my theology, as it were, doesn’t wrestle (much) with the skeptic’s scornful question – “If there is a God, why does s/he allow suffering?” Suffering, to me, is largely part and parcel of having been created with the inestimable freedom of will and choice.  Like my doctoral mentor, whose memoir recounts carrying the wet, cold and lifeless body of his 5-year-old son out of a South African river, what’s of more life-giving-meaning to me than resolving the enigma of immense suffering in this world is a belief that “God” (whoever ultimate reality might be for you) participates with and suffers alongside us in our day-to-day lives.

Therefore, like many of you I’m contemptuous of simplistic platitudes and theologies that convey belief in “God’s will” for this and that calamity or atrocity, such as ‘God plucks his most beautiful flowers,’ and ‘Take comfort that this was the will of God.’  I don’t think the MANY people – in my experience mostly Christians – who persist in holding and professing such belief ever pause to truly consider the many day-to-day life implications of what believing in that “type of God” entails.

So . . . I’m not arguing for God’s existence based on this one very personal and sad event, whose timing appears beyond the coincidental.

I’m merely suggesting that during the many very difficult days of the past three years of our family’s struggling through graduate studies alongside my wife (those of you who have a postgraduate degree know what I’m saying about graduate studies being a “family thing” versus merely the lone student’s achievement), this one tragic event’s timing gives us grateful pause.

I suppose I’m also saying that if I have to choose in life between living with either a belief that a compassionate and loving Being participates in life alongside you and me – in good times and through suffering – or in a world of mere happenstance and fate.  I’ll choose the former.

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