Desiderata 12

desiderata12

Desiderata is a poem loved by many for its wisdom and quiet optimism. This is the 12th blog in a series on the poem, as we mine its riches line by line.

“Nurture strength of spirit to shield you in sudden misfortune.  But do not distress yourself with dark imaginings. Many fears are born of fatigue and loneliness.”

You may have heard the analogy of having your emotional “tank” full or empty. When you’re running on empty you’ve got nothing left to give, and are dangerously close to breaking down in one form or another. The remedy is simple – spend time with the people/things that fill you up emotionally and give you a sense of wholeness again. Unfortunately that’s not always possible, and in such instances you have to work out how to keep going on the smell of an oily rag.

But Desiderata isn’t really taking here about having your tank full (though it helps!). He is talking more about nurturing your own inner ability to be strong. Whilst filling ourselves up emotionally is a really good idea, we still need that strength of spirit that says “I’m going to keep standing as long as I have to, and I’m going to see this through”. 

It’s true that some people are born with an amazing (and sometimes infuriating) tenacity and stubbornness. Like Winston Churchill, they are the kind of person to say “Never give in, never give in, never, never, never…” and back it up with their unflinching determination. But many of us aren’t like that. Whilst I have a good deal of tenacity, I lack that ironclad, immovable, unshakeable faith in myself and in what I am saying or doing. Chances are you’re similar to me in that regard – I’m pretty sure I’m no Robinson Crusoe here.

But strength of spirit is crucial to all of us. Without it we simply won’t make it. Oh we might survive and even live long, but our lives will be broken, or empty, or somehow less-than, if we are not able to gird our loins in the midst of adversity. We need to be able to keep ourselves together and not give up on ourselves. Those who have given up on themselves (and no judgement here, we don’t know what they’ve been through) sometimes never really recover.

The author of Desiderata gives us no clues as to how to do this. And this is no self help blog, so I have no intention of listing any tips or tricks. But I will say this: be aware that you need to do this. Make sure you build yourself up, not with flattery or ego, but with the simple understanding that times will come where you will have to stand alone. Whilst we need each other and can expect that others will come to our aid, be sure of this – there will be times when no-one can or no-one will be there for you.

In every marriage, for example, there are going to be times when your spouse just can’t or won’t provide what you need. That’s just reality. When that happens, it’s not the time to berate them or to wonder why you married them in the first place. That’s often a manipulative attempt to get others to carry you. No, it is a time to draw on your own inner resources, and sometimes even just be there for them, until things return to normal. I believe it’s a sign of a healthy marriage when both parties have the ability to stand on their own two feet when’s it’s absolutely necessary. It creates respect and it can even draw people closer once they realise each other’s inner strength. There’s an old saying – the ones who are really ready for marriage are the ones who don’t actually need to get married.

Desiderata  doesn’t leave us on our own though. In an about turn, he says in effect “Now don’t overdo it. Don’t be perpetually on your guard, expecting the worst”. We can read too much into things. I know – I am guilty 100 times over of fearing the worst and then finding there was nothing to fear in the first place (so much so that I’m now suspicious of my fears and don’t give in to them so easily). There are some people I know that stand like a rock all on their own all the time – and that’s sad.

We need a balance then, as always. On the one hand, to be internally strong enough to get by during periods of personal drought and hardship. Without it we become too dependent on others or on circumstances. On the other hand, to not make ourselves an island, one constantly on guard, keeping people and opportunity out. That way lies loneliness and unfulfilment.

Desiderata

Go placidly amid the noise and haste,
and remember what peace there may be in silence.
As far as possible without surrender
be on good terms with all persons.
Speak your truth quietly and clearly;
and listen to others,
even the dull and the ignorant;
they too have their story.

Avoid loud and aggressive persons,
they are vexations to the spirit.
If you compare yourself with others,
you may become vain and bitter;
for always there will be greater and lesser persons than yourself.
Enjoy your achievements as well as your plans.

Keep interested in your own career, however humble;
it is a real possession in the changing fortunes of time.
Exercise caution in your business affairs;
for the world is full of trickery.
But let this not blind you to what virtue there is;
many persons strive for high ideals;
and everywhere life is full of heroism.

Be yourself.
Especially, do not feign affection.
Neither be cynical about love;
for in the face of all aridity and disenchantment
it is as perennial as the grass.

Take kindly the counsel of the years,
gracefully surrendering the things of youth.
Nurture strength of spirit to shield you in sudden misfortune.
But do not distress yourself with dark imaginings.
Many fears are born of fatigue and loneliness.
Beyond a wholesome discipline,
be gentle with yourself.

You are a child of the universe,
no less than the trees and the stars;
you have a right to be here.
And whether or not it is clear to you,
no doubt the universe is unfolding as it should.

Therefore be at peace with God,
whatever you conceive Him to be,
and whatever your labors and aspirations,
in the noisy confusion of life keep peace with your soul.

With all its sham, drudgery, and broken dreams,
it is still a beautiful world.
Be cheerful.
Strive to be happy.

Max Ehrmann, Desiderata, Copyright 1952.

Desiderata 9

More on being real

desiderata-9

Desiderata is a poem loved by many for its wisdom and quiet optimism. This is the 9th blog in a series on the poem, as we mine its riches line by line.

“Especially do not feign affection. Neither be cynical about love, for in the face of all aridity and disenchantment it is as perennial as the grass.”

Prior to this verse, Desiderata has exhorted us to “be yourself”. Then the author goes on to single out feigning affection as the thing especially not to do. That’s a big call. Why this one thing above all others? It makes me wonder if he had a bad experience himself and was particularly sensitive to this specific kind of deception. Is he speaking out of personal hurt, or does he really think that affection is the most important thing not to feign?

Let’s face it, lots of people feign affection. Either they don’t want to offend and so come across as friendly, or they want something and are trying to get into your good books. Think of a teenage kid who has got him or herself into trouble, and goes all smiley and cute/charming (never worked for me!) to soften the punishment or avoid it entirely.

Maybe it’s because affection, once it’s found to be false, hurts more than other forms of deception. But even then, it probably only hurts if you have already let that person get a little close. If I know someone isn’t particularly my friend and they all of a sudden turn on the charm, I can usually tell that they’re after something, so I’m not taken in. But it isn’t always that simple.

Recently, a guy who worked in the same building with me and got on well with me, moved on to another job, helping to build up a new electricity company. Although we got on well, (we seemed to hit it off on a number of levels) I wasn’t sure if he enjoyed my company quite as much as I enjoyed his. A few months passed, and he contacted me out of the blue. I was really pleased because I had missed our chats (though I tried to be pretty casual over the phone!) and after we chatted a bit, he said I must come over some time when I’m in the area to his new place of business. I’m on the road occasionally as part of my job, so I readily agreed and sure enough a few weeks later a window of opportunity opened up and I popped over to catch up.

When I got there, to my surprise he brought another guy into the room with him, someone new to his business. but who also knew a couple of people that I knew. I was expecting just to chat with my friend, maybe over a coffee and a bite to eat. Anyway, we chatted amiably for a while, and then just as I was about to leave, my friend asked if I wanted to switch my electricity across to his new business. I agreed (he had earlier offered me a great deal), and found out later that the new guy he had introduced to me was the one who would be the contact person on my account.

As I made my way home, a sinking feeling slowly came over me. I felt we had met under false pretenses, and it hurt a bit more because I had felt some connectedness with him in the past. And of course, surprise, surprise, I haven’t heard from him since then.

I must confess it hurts a little even now. And it makes me wonder, just a little, if he actually has any close friends. He is a private kind of guy with a lot of emotional baggage, but I wouldn’t have thought he was capable of this. Maybe it was because he was consumed by his business that he stooped to this level. Maybe he’s not even aware of what he has done. Maybe he thinks that he was just doing me a favour, even though none of that surfaced while he was inviting me over.

What happens to us when we feign affection? I suppose we become a little less real, a little less grounded. We are denying who we are, to some extent, by pretending be be somebody else. Affection is, in my opinion, a cornerstone to any long term relationship. Fake that, and just maybe you don’t have a relationship at all. People become disposable, and you become shallow.

Many other ‘deceptions’ might be forgiven – you might pretend to be smarter than you are, or richer than you are, or more athletic, or confident when you’re not, or more knowledgeable on a particular subject, or more relaxed when you’re really quite anxious. Chances are people can see through your subterfuge, and may (or may not!) still like you. But pretend to be affectionate, and once it is found out, people will leave you in droves.

Now, this can sound a little over the top. I’m sure all of us have got ourselves out of trouble by sucking up to someone, and as long as it’s a rare occurrence then we’re probably pretty safe (and really just a little bit human as well). But if it becomes something we routinely do, then we become known as someone lacking substance, not real, even if people can’t quite put their finger on it. My hunch is, though, that they probably can. Most of us can spot a faker from a mile off, just not all the time and maybe not straight away.

Feigning affection surely must hollow us out. We’re not being true to our own emotions, and over time we may lose touch with what we really feel. And that’s the tragedy. Maybe that’s why Desiderata goes on to say next “Neither be cynical about love…”, a comment we will unpack in our next blog on Desiderata.

Desiderata

Go placidly amid the noise and haste,
and remember what peace there may be in silence.
As far as possible without surrender
be on good terms with all persons.
Speak your truth quietly and clearly;
and listen to others,
even the dull and the ignorant;
they too have their story.

Avoid loud and aggressive persons,
they are vexations to the spirit.
If you compare yourself with others,
you may become vain and bitter;
for always there will be greater and lesser persons than yourself.
Enjoy your achievements as well as your plans.

Keep interested in your own career, however humble;
it is a real possession in the changing fortunes of time.
Exercise caution in your business affairs;
for the world is full of trickery.
But let this not blind you to what virtue there is;
many persons strive for high ideals;
and everywhere life is full of heroism.

Be yourself.
Especially, do not feign affection.
Neither be cynical about love;
for in the face of all aridity and disenchantment
it is as perennial as the grass.

Take kindly the counsel of the years,
gracefully surrendering the things of youth.
Nurture strength of spirit to shield you in sudden misfortune.
But do not distress yourself with dark imaginings.
Many fears are born of fatigue and loneliness.
Beyond a wholesome discipline,
be gentle with yourself.

You are a child of the universe,
no less than the trees and the stars;
you have a right to be here.
And whether or not it is clear to you,
no doubt the universe is unfolding as it should.

Therefore be at peace with God,
whatever you conceive Him to be,
and whatever your labors and aspirations,
in the noisy confusion of life keep peace with your soul.

With all its sham, drudgery, and broken dreams,
it is still a beautiful world.
Be cheerful.
Strive to be happy.

Max Ehrmann, Desiderata, Copyright 1952.

The abuse of power

More and more we hear of abuses within institutions

lock and key

Just recently another institutional atrocity was splashed across the headlines of our Australian newspapers and media outlets. Video footage was released of a young aboriginal in a youth detention centre being bashed, stripped naked, and strapped to some kind of chair restraint for hours. The video showed multiple events that had occurred over a long period of time.

Ill treatment of people in custody or under the authority of others is unfortunately commonplace. In recent times we have been reminded of sexual abuse not only by priests, but also in educational institutions and the defense force (notably against women but not confined to that). And of course abuse is not limited to sexual aggression.

What is it about institutions that makes such behaviour common? How can it be so prevalent that it has come to be expected, to be almost the norm?

I think it has something to do with power. When we are granted power over someone else, it is a potentially dangerous position to be in. There’s a saying that power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely. The possession of it can work insidiously, much like the ring that Frodo had to carry which ended up corrupting even him, who was apparently the most incorruptible person in the story of the Lord of the Rings.

But it’s more than that, surely. I don’t believe everyone in positions of power become corrupted, and possibly not even most. For example, I know a man who worked as a guard at a prison, had to handle some of the worst prisoners. But he had a great heart and set up an organisation to work with troubled kids, attempting to instil hope in their lives. I’m sure he is not alone in being a kind man in a brutal environment.

Perhaps some abuses of power are due to frustration. People, frustrated by what is happening in their own life, respond excessively to an inmate (or school pupil) and their frustrations boil over to those  under their care. They are in a position of power and so they exercise it as a form of lashing out.

People in custody would hardly be role models of good behaviour. I can imagine that a smart mouth and a rebellious attitude could lead to excessive force in response. I’m not justifying that behaviour, just trying to understand it.

So we add a preoccupation with your own lot in life, coupled with frustrations based in your career or personal issues, coupled with power over others, an establishment that allows excesses to occur (even if that’s not its intention). Throw in some people who are difficult to deal with (whether a student, an inmate, an infantryman or subordinate) and there you have it – a recipe for disaster.

Even then, there still must be more to it than that. Does the priesthood or the educational system attract paedophiles? Maybe. Like firefighters – some of the worst arsonists are firefighters. They join because they love fire. Surely at least some teachers and/or priests take on those roles because of their repressed or not so repressed tendencies.

And maybe that’s more to the point. Institutions provide the breeding ground for people who, by reason of their character, disposition and personal demons, are attracted to that particular kind of power or opportunity. They may not even be particularly aware of the attraction. But they join up, and find that their circumstances allow them to act out their aggression, hostility, need for power, or sexual tensions.

There’s a lot of ‘what if’s here, – you can tell I’m just trying to make sense of it. But I do feel that I’m zeroing in on some of the more pertinent issues. Maybe they need to be refined or seen from another perspective, but I get the feeling that there’s some substance here.

So what is the solution? I have more questions than answers, but here goes…

In the end solutions must deal with the regulating of power. Perhaps another person has to sign off before a disciplinary action is taken (but surely this already happens?).  Or perhaps varying levels of discipline require increasing levels of authority, so that people further up the chain of command have to sign off on. But even then, such processes don’t often allow an objective 3rd party to speak. It becomes the word of the guardian against the guarded. And of course, there are abuses that occur behind closed doors and no-one knows what’s happening.

Perhaps a rotation of staff, moving them regularly from one position to another so that entrenched behaviours or pacts with other staff and authority figures (ie others who become complicit with the abuse)  don’t get the chance to firmly develop. Not sure how that would work with schools though….

I’m struggling here. But it truly breaks my heart to hear of institutional abuse in all its forms, because I would hate to be the one who was at their mercy. Unfortunately, institutions will always exist, whether they are initially set up that way or not. It seems to be the way of the world.

Pretty heavy duty blog (sorry about that). What are your thoughts on this topic?

Daily Prompt: Confused

via Daily Prompt: Confused

(I know it was a couple of days ago – I never post things straight away!)

If the truth be told, we’re all a bit confused – that is, if we allow ourselves to be. Opinions are all around us – left and right, right and left, front and back, back and front. As many opinions as you would care to shake a stick at.

About what you ask? Just about everything! It’s almost fair to say that if you’re not confused, you’re not thinking! But confusion is not a pleasant place to be, so we tend to work our way out of it as quickly as we can.

I remember reading a book by Helen Garner (the First Stone) written back in the early nineties about a provocative event that had occurred at the time – something about a head of a university department being sacked for making a drunken pass at a female student. The book was compelling reading as Helen weighed in to it all, trying to sort out what had really happened and whether the punishment fit the crime.  She was concerned that, even if the guy was guilty, the backlash was way out of proportion to the crime, and driven significantly by feminist goals. Well, that put her fair and square in the sights of prominent feminists in Melbourne.

Months after the book had been released, and after responding to attack after attack on her views and the book’s contents, one commentator stated that the most endearing feature of her book, her uncertainty, had long since gone. She had had to defend herself and in the process became certain and dogmatic about a lot of things. Interestingly, many have still not forgiven her. Feminists of today routinely blame her for siding with the guy (which I don’t think she was doing), and for ascribing any kind of sexual power to the girl in question (which is fair enough but at least it should have been, even briefly, examined). My impression from the book was that she was simply trying to make sense of things objectively rather than apply a feminist pattern to the event, and that was what I appreciated most – not whether she was right in the end or not.

As I mentioned, she ended up becoming quite dogmatic in her stance. And that’s the problem. It would be easy to remain confused, to admit we don’t have the whole picture, but life moves on, and often we need to make a decision. So the confusion gets sorted, because it has to, and we may end up convincing ourselves that we really do know what we believe and why. But do we?

I know these blogs help me to work out what I believe on something. I start off with a topic, bend my mind to what I think, let things pour out, gain some insight, tidy up my blog to reflect that insight, and post it. But do I really know that I’m right?

No, of course not. I am much more clear in my thinking, and that’s a good thing. But woe is me if then decide that I KNOW the answer now. No, all I know is that I’m further down the road with that topic, and I would be wise to be as open as possible to being corrected or educated by someone or something else.

The fact is we can’t afford to remain confused. Life is busy – we have to move on. And that’s okay – that’s the way it should be. But let’s not hold on to our own views as if they are gospel truth. By all means let’s defend them against trite and weak arguments, but let’s not fall into the trap of defending them against all comers. That way lies bias, prejudice, and delusion. God forbid we let that happen – there’s already too much of that in the world as it is.

Desiderata 8

Be yourself – it’s harder than you think

desiderata 8

Desiderata is a poem loved by many for its wisdom and quiet optimism. This is the 8th blog in a series on the poem, as we mine its riches line by line.

“Be yourself. Especially do not feign affection”.

Surely all of us would agree straight away with this part of the poem. What more needs to be said? We’ve all heard that we need to be ourselves. Let’s just heed the advice and move on.

Not so fast. We need to ask, “if this is so obvious, why is it in the poem at all?” It’s because it’s so easy to lose sight of, and harder than you think.

“Be yourself”. That motto has to be the cornerstone of most of the self help books and advice that is on tap these days. The reason it is so pervasive in modern self help is because it’s in such short supply. Being yourself is hard to define, and even harder to live out.

Who are you anyway? Sounds like one of the questions a counsellor would ask you as you lie on the couch (just kidding – most counsellors don’t have couches). Are you what you do? “I’m a painter/architect/stay at home mum/policeman/analyst/stock broker/carpenter…… “. No, that’s not the answer.

Is it your social standing, your position in relation to others? A woman/man, son/daughter, wife/husband/single person/widow/divorcee, rich person/poor person, boss/employee, lover/guardian. I doubt it.

One clever person came up with the idea “it’s who you are when no-one’s looking.” Sounds good to me, but chances are most of us are too confused to know who we are even when we’re alone. About the only difference is that we drop the pretense that we masquerade around others. Admittedly there are a few people who are supremely self confident and comfortable in their own skin – hence they probably have a good idea of who they are. If you are such a one feel free to skip this blog!

For the rest of us, it is a genuinely tough thing to know who you are, let alone let yourself be it. I remember a young man said to me once “I hate who I am, so how can I just be myself?” When he dropped his attempts to please others, he was left with someone he didn’t know and didn’t like.

I trust you’re getting the picture. This phrase “Be yourself” is the single most recurring theme of Desiderata. If you read back through the previous posts, you will see how often the author’s advice comes back to protecting who you are and not losing sight of it.

I’ve been around for a while, and I think I know a thing or two on the subject. I’m not the best role model for self acceptance, but I’m all I’ve got, so I’d like to explain a little of what I’ve learnt.

I’ve got my share of weaknesses and foibles. This is not a confessional and I don’t intend to go into detail here, but I dare say as you read my blogs you’ll get some idea of what I am talking about (because I do tell on myself every now and then). And I have worked hard to overcome things that I haven’t liked about myself – had some successes and some failures too. And I don’t intend to stop now. But one thing I have learned – I know my limitations and I won’t hate myself because of them.

What’s the point of hating myself? It won’t change me – it won’t change you. It will only get in the way. Now you’d think that just accepting your weaknesses would mean you’re on the road to overcoming them. Well maybe – but maybe not. Accepting your weakness means just that – it’s there and it’s unlikely to go away easily. There are some things I’m just not good at, and some of those things I really, really wish I was good at. But I’m not. And though I’m open to growing and improving, I have come to accept that some things are not likely to ever change.

That means when things go wrong in some areas, I don’t get upset. I don’t set myself up for failure by trying to do something that I know I can’t do. Now that sounds a bit defeatist, and I don’t want to encourage that kind of attitude, but all I can say is that when the time comes you’ll know the difference between ‘giving up’ and having the wisdom to know not to expect too much in a certain area.

I’m reminded of an episode from the British TV series “Doc Martin”. He’s an irritable, easily upset person with atrocious people skills who happens to be a brilliant doctor in a small town. Someone in the village actually falls in love with him, and he with her (genuinely), but she eventually finds him impossible to live with. Cut a very long story short, she ends up deciding to stay with him because she loves him and accepts his oddness. Doesn’t try to change him. Doesn’t set him up by expecting him to do things she knows he just can’t do. Accepts that he loves her, and she loves him, and if they’re an odd couple, so be it. (See episode 6 of Season 8 if you’re interested).

Being yourself is no easy feat. And regarding the young man I spoke of, I can so easily understand his frustration. How hard is it for a young person, who so wants his life to be successful, to accept some things about himself which will most likely inhibit at least some of his life goals, but find peace in the rest and just get on with it?

I should say that just as I have accepted my flaws, I have also accepted what I’m good at. I won’t brag about them, and certainly not here, but when the occasion arises I have no trouble saying I’m good at something. And for the most part (maybe not always) I do so without pride. I am who I am. I’m good at this – I’m not good at that.

I haven’t addressed the second part of the quote -“Especially don’t feign affection”. It intrigues me that the author has singled this out more than anything else, but I’ve run out of room with this blog, so we’ll stop here and pick it up next time.

Desiderata

Go placidly amid the noise and haste,
and remember what peace there may be in silence.
As far as possible without surrender
be on good terms with all persons.
Speak your truth quietly and clearly;
and listen to others,
even the dull and the ignorant;
they too have their story.

Avoid loud and aggressive persons,
they are vexations to the spirit.
If you compare yourself with others,
you may become vain and bitter;
for always there will be greater and lesser persons than yourself.
Enjoy your achievements as well as your plans.

Keep interested in your own career, however humble;
it is a real possession in the changing fortunes of time.
Exercise caution in your business affairs;
for the world is full of trickery.
But let this not blind you to what virtue there is;
many persons strive for high ideals;
and everywhere life is full of heroism.

Be yourself.
Especially, do not feign affection.
Neither be cynical about love;
for in the face of all aridity and disenchantment
it is as perennial as the grass.

Take kindly the counsel of the years,
gracefully surrendering the things of youth.
Nurture strength of spirit to shield you in sudden misfortune.
But do not distress yourself with dark imaginings.
Many fears are born of fatigue and loneliness.
Beyond a wholesome discipline,
be gentle with yourself.

You are a child of the universe,
no less than the trees and the stars;
you have a right to be here.
And whether or not it is clear to you,
no doubt the universe is unfolding as it should.

Therefore be at peace with God,
whatever you conceive Him to be,
and whatever your labors and aspirations,
in the noisy confusion of life keep peace with your soul.

With all its sham, drudgery, and broken dreams,
it is still a beautiful world.
Be cheerful.
Strive to be happy.

Max Ehrmann, Desiderata, Copyright 1952.

Desiderata 7

Cynicism can be a cancer, but there is a cure..

Desiderata 7

Desiderata is a poem loved by many for its wisdom and quiet optimism. This is the 7th blog in a series on the poem, as we mine its riches line by line.

“Exercise caution in your business affairs, for the world is full of trickery; but let this not blind you to what virtue there is; many persons strive for high ideals, and everywhere life is full of heroism.”

The first part of this stanza is probably self evident to all but the most naive, so I’m not going to spend much time talking about it. We know that we can be ripped off and that there are scam artists out there. What interests me more is the balance the author brings by reminding us that it’s not all bad. Indeed, the opposite is possible – high ideals do exist. And not just that – many people strive for them.

It’s so easy to become cynical, and the older you are, the more likely that you can become jaded by the hypocrisy, lies, self interest and manipulation that seems to abound. People we once regarded as heroes have sadly been exposed as fraudsters or paedophiles. Whenever I see a documentary spouting the theme “exposing the real truth about (insert name)”, I just don’t want to know. I’m tired of seeing heroes fall and finding out that good people are not so good.

Indeed the world can sometimes seem to be full of smoke and mirrors. The Catholic church, for example, supposedly a bastion of Christian virtue, has been guilty of protecting and covering up the sexual sins of some of its priests, at the expense of thousands (millions?) of sexual abuse victims and their shattered lives. The very people that were entrusted to their care have become expendable in the effort to protect priests. We really don’t have to look far to become disillusioned. Things unfortunately are often not what they seem.

This cynicism, though justified, is not good for the soul, and can harden us from the inside out. Compassion, joy, and light heartedness are its casualties. The author of Desiderata would spare us that by reminding us that a hard heart is not unavoidable.

For example: we have all heard of, and no doubt experienced personally, businesses that rip us off and don’t deliver what they promise. Yet I am in business myself (as a financial adviser), and though I certainly want to make a profit, I occasionally have found myself wanting to help my clients in spite of a lack of remuneration. And I’m not alone – I have heard many stories of other professionals genuinely helping clients above and beyond the call of duty. Add to this tradesmen, mechanics, and a whole range of other occupations where they have, at times, gone the extra mile. Most of you (hopefully all of you) have had such an experience at least once. If you are in business yourself, it would not surprise me if you have done the same.

Yet it’s surprisingly hard to do something altruistic, as people have a hard time believing you are doing something for nothing. A couple I had known for years and who had served sacrificially in church positions all their life, didn’t have a whole lot of finances to show for it. When they asked me for advice I told them I would do it for free as a gesture to their faithfulness and what it had cost them to serve as they had. Financial advice can be quite expensive, and I could see them struggle with my offer, the wife in particular – she just had a look of scepticism on her face. I can only assume she was thinking “What’s the catch?”. Long story short, they didn’t take me up on my offer. And they aren’t the only ones who have looked at me sceptically when I offered to do something that didn’t make me a profit.

A different example: we see stories, too many to mention and with mind numbing regularity, about men and their brutalising of women. It would be easy, and certainly understandable, to regard all men with suspicion. But then we occasionally hear stories of the opposite kind. I read recently of a case where a woman, dead drunk, was being molested and no doubt soon to be raped, when two young men on bicycles who were riding by came to her rescue. That woman, though still traumatised by the event, now has a drawing of two bicycles taped to the ceiling of her bedroom that she gazes on when she lies in bed. It still gives her so much comfort to know that rescue had come and that there are good people in the world.

Thank goodness not all men are assholes. It is still helpful to remind ourselves that the majority of men actually can be trusted – the problem, of course, is knowing who.

So how do we strike this balance? How do we find a way to be cautious and yet keep our hearts open to the possibility (even the likelihood) of goodness and heroism?

It’s helpful to remember that no-one is perfect. I mentioned earlier that I don’t want to watch TV exposes of well known people. The fact is if any of us look too deeply at anyone, including me or you, we are not going to like what we see – or rather, we’re not going to like everything we see. We’ve all got skeletons in the closet, and I’ve reached the point where I just don’t want to know. No hero is perfect, but that doesn’t mean that he or she still hasn’t done good things. Their heroism, or altruism, can be real, even if it isn’t all of who they are.

So let’s not swallow a sugary pill that everyone is essentially wonderful. Disillusionment will quickly take root if we hold such an elevated view. But on the other hand let’s recognise the good that does exist. And I’m not interested here in delving into the philosophical discussion that surrounds this topic (eg that we are good only out of selfish motives). Regardless of motivation, in real life, in real ways, many people do strive for high ideals (I bet many of you do) and everywhere life truly is full of heroism, if you look for it.

I used to be a drug counsellor in a former life, and learnt first hand the devious and manipulative ways of drug users. It hardened me, and I found my compassion slowly draining away. But eventually I made the decision to give people a chance again – not with much, just a little, but give them a chance anyway. If I see a person begging on the street for money, my first thought is they’re going to use it for drugs or alcohol. Even if that’s likely, I can’t know that. So I have decided to give anyway.  If I get ripped off, then I haven’t lost much, and I have maintained my humanity.

The author of Desiderata would wish us the same – that we remain open to goodness as we cautiously step through life. In doing so we keep our souls alive and our humanity intact.

Desiderata

Go placidly amid the noise and haste,
and remember what peace there may be in silence.
As far as possible without surrender
be on good terms with all persons.
Speak your truth quietly and clearly;
and listen to others,
even the dull and the ignorant;
they too have their story.

Avoid loud and aggressive persons,
they are vexations to the spirit.
If you compare yourself with others,
you may become vain and bitter;
for always there will be greater and lesser persons than yourself.
Enjoy your achievements as well as your plans.

Keep interested in your own career, however humble;
it is a real possession in the changing fortunes of time.
Exercise caution in your business affairs;
for the world is full of trickery.
But let this not blind you to what virtue there is;
many persons strive for high ideals;
and everywhere life is full of heroism.

Be yourself.
Especially, do not feign affection.
Neither be cynical about love;
for in the face of all aridity and disenchantment
it is as perennial as the grass.

Take kindly the counsel of the years,
gracefully surrendering the things of youth.
Nurture strength of spirit to shield you in sudden misfortune.
But do not distress yourself with dark imaginings.
Many fears are born of fatigue and loneliness.
Beyond a wholesome discipline,
be gentle with yourself.

You are a child of the universe,
no less than the trees and the stars;
you have a right to be here.
And whether or not it is clear to you,
no doubt the universe is unfolding as it should.

Therefore be at peace with God,
whatever you conceive Him to be,
and whatever your labors and aspirations,
in the noisy confusion of life keep peace with your soul.

With all its sham, drudgery, and broken dreams,
it is still a beautiful world.
Be cheerful.
Strive to be happy.

Max Ehrmann, Desiderata, Copyright 1952.

The struggle to overcome

The optimists may be right, but its never easy as they say it is

In 2000 I remember going to the cinema with my brother in law to see the film “Cast Away”. Great film even now, for those who haven’t seen it. It was on TV last night and it all came rushing back to me.

It was a profoundly moving film for me, because it is all about decisions, crossroads, and helplessness. If you intend to watch the movie, then spoiler alert, because I want to unpack some of things that happened in the film and how relevant they were for me at that time.

The main character (Tom Hanks) ends up marooned on a small tropical island after a disastrous plane crash. He is not just alone on the island – he is also trapped. The waves and breakers conspire against him to stop him from leaving, as they are just too powerful to get past. He tries, fails, and hurts himself quite badly in the process. He watches the patterns of the tide over the months, and even though there are some times that are less impossible than others, he despairs that even then he still can’t get off the island.

After 4 years, fortune smiles upon him and a piece of bent metal washes up on the shore with which he successfully creates a sail for his makeshift raft. At the appointed time, when the waves are the least boisterous, he finally sails over the breakers and to eventual freedom.

This is so much more to the film than this, but I want to focus on the helplessness he felt in the face of something he could not overcome – the breakers and the tide.

The year 2000 was a very difficult year for me – financially, personally and emotionally. I felt trapped by a whole of range of things that appeared beyond my control. I was going through an early mid life crisis, and felt I had all but exhausted myself in trying to break through my obstacles. If there’s anything that I can lay claim to, it’s that I’m not a quitter, and I had tried my best, but to no avail. I was wrestling an alligator, and the alligator was winning with ease.

When I watched the film and saw his dilemma, I  became emotional. I related so well to the situation, but of course, from a completely different viewpoint. The breakers were my problems. And try as I might, I could not get past them.

When the moment came that his craft rose through and above the waves, tears traced their way down my cheeks. How I wished I could get off my island, past my daunting waves and move forward.

My story has a happy and not so happy ending. I made some momentous decisions that year that altered my life for the better. Big decisions that changed my vocation, my income, and my perspective on life. But not all my obstacles were overcome. I have to say the deepest issues, internal ones, ones that I personally wrestled with, are still with me today. I can say their roar has been dulled, and that I have developed ‘work-arounds’ to cope with how they limit me, and I have grown stronger in some measure as well, but I do still ache to move on past them.

The fact is not everything has a fairy tale ending. Tom Hanks found his piece of metal that he used (ingenuity and decisiveness there by the way) to win his freedom, but it wasn’t smooth sailing after that. He had major heartache and some big decisions  ahead of him.

I took some bold and scary steps and definitely moved on. My life is infinitely better now than it was back then, truly. But I suppose if I was to use an illustration, it would be that I once was paralysed from the waist down, and now I walk with a limp. (I think actually, that most of us do, but the gait is different for each of us).

So all the emotions of that film came rushing back to me last night, and I wept again. I still haven’t given up on those stubborn problems, but I have come to accept that if I never overcome them, at least I have learnt to enjoy life in spite of them. And there is something warm and fuzzy about tears -they bring their own kind of life. Sadness is curiously a part of being whole too.

And that’s all for now.