Monday, 20 August 2012

The Race is Not to the Swift...

The UK recently hosted the 30th Olympiad and we had the pleasure once again of seeing men and women going for glory striving to be faster, higher, stronger.

One of the many events of the games was the marathon - over 26 gruelling miles of pure effort, pain, sweat and tears.  In the marathon of life too, there is effort, pain, sweat and tears.  But while in an Olympic marathon the finish line is clear, in life we know not where our finish line lies.  Unlike the Olympics there is no single winner - each of us runs our own race and it is up to us to decorate our journey with the things that matter most.  We determine not only the pace at which we run but also how we run - the strategies we employ, the seasons we enjoy.

The Olympics are over and now is a time to reflect.  Where are you in your race?  What route have you taken?  Who’s running alongside you?  What have you accomplished?  How have you impacted the world?  Who defines your race?  Indeed, are you running your own race or are you following orders? Are you setting goals, breaking moulds, being creative or following the flock?  Are you focused or are you drifting out of your lanes? How will you be remembered?  What is your legacy? 

A winning athlete knows the importance of nurturing his talent; he understands the importance of preparation, dedication, passion and focus.  How important is winning to you?  What crown(s) are you pursuing? What seeds are you sowing?  Good athletes appreciate the fact that they first win in their mind.    We have all seen how the performance of sportsmen is adversely impacted when their mind is not at ease.  Your thoughts impact your actions and your actions have a bearing on your performance. Don’t worry about how far you have to go; think instead about how far you’ve come.

Steer clear of dangerous substances – those activities and people who tempt you to quit or cheat, for in the race of life we all have to account for our own actions.  There will always be naysayers around – people who believe in remaining average, those who can’t dare to be different.  They cannot see your vision or live your dream for it is not theirs to see or live.  Good athletes train with other athletes, not with their families, friends or acquaintances.  Indeed they invite their competitors to train with them. Nurture your spirit by hanging out with like-minded people, not people who tell you what you like to hear. Enrich your repertoire by relating to people from whom you can learn; people who speak your language and swim against the tide, and who encourage you to be faster, higher, stronger.  Don’t be afraid to figure among the pace setters; there is nothing special in being ordinary.

In this marathon of life we need not run alone.  Find a mentor.  Remember, a mentor is not necessarily someone who advises you; a mentor is someone whose advice you follow.  Learning is a lifelong process. Many successful people have documented their lifelong experiences in autobiographies and other texts.  Whose advice are you following?  The colour of success is not the same in everyone’s eyes; it is a personal prerogative.  If you believe in yourself you will define your own success and pursue the steps necessary to achieve it. Don’t be overly concerned if it is not clear to others, simply be true to yourself and remember to run your own race.

In the race of life we all can win.  There will be obstacles to discourage you, disorientate you or cause you to fall by the wayside.  “Our greatest glory is not in never falling, but in rising every time we fall” (Confucius).  Use those obstacles as stepping stones; gather your strength, build your confidence and determination and keep your eye on the goal.  Celebrate small victories and keep going, for the race goes to those who persevere to the end. 

Run your own race and run it well – apply character, dedication, focus, integrity, love.  Look around you and see who is cheering you on; who is supporting you and whom you support.  Remember to show gratitude and never cease to encourage others.  Keep going and don’t give up your place in the race for “yesterday's home runs don't win today's games” (Babe Ruth).  Do it, if not for yourself, for others.  Leave a legacy!

Monday, 30 April 2012

The Disabled Dilemma

When I learnt that my daughter would be born disabled I cried incessantly for several days.  I was hurting deeply and didn’t want to talk about it or anything else with anyone.  Feelings of inadequacy eroded my self esteem and I felt like I was a failure.  With the help of a few close family members it took only a short while for me to see the situation in a different light and soon the clouds cleared and I am now the proudest mom ever.

My daughter takes a longer time to learn activities that come natural to most of us but apart from that, she is a normal child.  Since her birth five years ago I have started my own company, written two books and have a series of published articles and paintings – activities that I certainly would not have had the time pursue if I were not forced to take time out to care for her.  She had to come into my life to help me to unearth my latent talents that otherwise might never be explored or shared. Many of us have experiences that change us, alter our direction in life. It is for us to appreciate the change that needs to be made and the opportunities presented, even if we do not understand or like the way they are delivered.  I have now set up a not-for-profit organization that benefits disabled children in my native Caribbean – a venture that would never have crossed my mind had I not had this experience.  I am now in a position to encourage others who find themselves in a similar position, an activity I would not have been qualified to conduct if the circumstances were different.

When you hear of or see a child with a disability there are certain protocols that you should bear in mind when making comments.  Unfortunately most people risk saying the wrong things.  Many people avoid contact with the family because they don’t know what to say.  This is unfortunate because this is the time that your friend needs you. 

First, it is important to understand what the family goes through when a child is born with a diagnosis.  Some people go through a grieving process as if a death had occurred.  Some grieve for the child; others grieve for themselves and what it may mean for their family.  This is no time to be judgmental; people have different ways of dealing with situations. Parents go through the grieving process at different rates. Some never make it all the way through. Many will revisit the process over and over again throughout the child’s life as limitations unfold.  Feelings of denial, anger, hopelessness and depression constantly vie for their attention. Those who are earnest persevere and often reach the point of acceptance and love.  As a mother of a disabled child who has experienced a wide range of emotions, I would like to share some ideas in terms of how to deal with parents and their disabled children.

Before I suggest what to say, I believe it is important for you to understand what NOT to say:

i) "I’m Sorry." "What a Shame." "How sad." "Poor thing.” or any statement that conveys pity
What are you sorry for? What did you do?  The child is an individual and must be seen in that light.  Surely they are not here for your pity.

ii) Statements like, "It could be worse." "At least your other child is normal." "He’ll never be able to drive a car." "How severely is he affected?"
No matter what the diagnosis is at the time nothing could be worse to the parent.  Who are you to judge?  The fact that the other children are “normal” does not erase the fact that this child has a disability.  It doesn’t help to hear of the severity or the impact of the condition; chances are, the parents are aware. Often these presumptions have no bearing on the truth and many disabled people lead normal, independent lives as adults.  For some parents these comments are like driving a nail in a coffin.  They are very unhelpful and does not reflect well on you.

iii) Any statement that puts blame on the parents or suggests that they had it coming
This is particularly true of parents whose children have been diagnosed with Autism or Attention Deficit Disorder and children with speech delays. Don’t say, "It’s a result of family problems." "I heard it runs in families, so I guess you are responsible for your child’s problems." Maybe if you were a better parent you wouldn’t have this problem." "What did you do wrong?"  I actually had someone asking me what my age was and when I told this supposedly intellectual high powered woman she said, “Well…” as if to say, what did you expect?  I wasn’t exactly 20 but young people have disabled children too. Now I think about it and wonder why I didn’t tell her where to go but I console myself with the idea that I was particularly vulnerable at the time and might have regretted any utterances I rendered.  What authority does anyone have to pronounce ill fate on people?  Words may be wind to some but it is death to others.  If you have nothing good to say, it is better to say nothing.

iv) Don’t suggest that God knows best
God has a purpose for every life; a purpose that will be revealed in time. When parents are grieving they sometimes become irrational.  They can appear to lose their faith (if they have any); they are not interested in being special parents, all they wanted was a “normal” child.  I have a friend who told me that God knows best and I asked her “Which God?” though I have been a Christian all my life.  By prophesying to parents you are not making the situation any better; chances you are making them angrier as they lament over the hand that they have been dealt. 

v) Greatness. Don’t tell parents "I couldn’t do it." I couldn’t handle it." "You are great."
These statements imply that disabled people are so terrible that only an extraordinary person would be able to love and care for them. In addition, it adds to the desperation of the parents, causing them to ramble in the tunnel instead of seeking the light.  Ordinary people have no real desire to be great at the expense of a disabled child.  They have the same dreams and hopes of other parents, they want their children to be healthy and to be able to reach their full potential.

People usually do not mean harm by the above statements. But always think before you speak.  Fear of the unknown should to be confronted by learning.  The comments are usually made with good intentions but try replacing them with the following which are usually more comforting and appreciated by parents:

1.  Say "Congratulations"
Yes, Congratulations. They are new parents after all. They did go through the pregnancy, and labor and delivery. Like any other new parent, they deserve to be congratulated.

2. Offer help
Actions speak louder than words. Friends and relatives that actually do something make more of an impact than any words they could say. Offer to baby-sit, make a meal, sort out the clothes, pick up things at the store, obtain information on the internet or any other useful chore.  This shows acceptance and makes the parents feel normal.

3. Compliment the child and the parents
"She’s a wonderful baby and lucky to have parents who love her." Use the child’s name.  If you feel that the parents need reassuring you can say "I’m sure this presents many challenges, but I know you will cope”. "Your new son will face challenges in life, but all of us do, and he has the best possible start with you”.  “What he needs most is something you have lots of - love." “Remember, that no matter what they tell you trust your instincts and s/he will be fine." “What a pretty smile!”

Parents do not feel strong at that moment and don’t want to be told that they are.  However, words of encouragement and support will go a far way in alleviating their fears without making them feel patronized.

4.  Point out resemblance between parents and the child
"He looks just like his Dad. She looks just like you did at her age. She’s got your nose."  By doing this you are taking the focus off the disability and placing them on other attributes of the child.  The parents will be appreciative of someone who sees something positive in their child.

5. Show acceptance of the baby
“I am really happy to know ___(baby’s name)____;  I’ll learn so much from him/her.  I look forward to seeing him each time I come around.  “You must be very proud to have such a wonderful child”. Parents do not want lip service and do not like hypocritical behaviour.  If you cannot honestly say these things about the child, don’t utter them; people can easily spot insincerity and that would make the situation worse.

6.  Talk to the child
You don’t have to comment on the child’s disability. Talk to the child, interact with him/her and encourage your children to play with him. This means so much more than words.  If you are able to interact with the child in the parents’ absence, relate to the parents any story of something positive you observed their child doing.  That is encouraging and comforting.

Although society may consider the birth of children with disabilities to be burdensome, most parents of such children do not agree.  As a parent of a disabled child I can attest to the wave of love I feel when my daughter hugs me or when she giggles or crosses little hurdles and achieves milestones which, at one time we did not know that she would cross.  I am not here to advocate life, for people live in their own reality.  I am not interested in judging those who decide to terminate just because I didn’t.  What I can say is that there are joys to be experienced if you do decide to go the distance.  If you welcome learning, there is no bigger lesson in life than what you can learn from this child and because of this child.  

Sunday, 25 March 2012

Metaphoric Life

Metaphor is a powerful tool which depicts situations or circumstances that would otherwise be difficult to put into words. It embraces emotions, feelings, dynamics and perceptions and is identified by the fact that the literal meaning of words is not usually the intended meaning. There is instead a figurative meaning which must be established by deduction from the context of the statement from cultural understanding and from an individual’s encyclopaedic knowledge. 

The inspiration for this article came from a conversation with one of my clients earlier this week.  We were conversing in French and I noted that his language was awash with metaphors as he attempted to explain how badly he needed to gain a particular qualification.  Metaphors are used in most, if not all cultures to aid explanation and facilitate comprehension. We all use metaphors and generally have an understanding of it as used in our culture. If we hear someone say:  It was raining cats and dogs we don’t peep outside expecting to see cats and dogs falling from the sky. 

As an individual of an artistic orientation, I have always found metaphor fascinating.  I can see how it can help us develop our creativity and our understanding and appreciation of life.  Not every situation can be literally interpreted and for those who do not share our cultural backgrounds, metaphoric scenarios can be difficult to comprehend.  Metaphors have been in use from time immemorial and many religious books including the Bible have their fair share of them. Some passages of the scriptures should not be interpreted literally and I cringe in awe as some of my Christian friends attempt to do this and justify their narrow understanding.  In writing this article I conducted a short survey aimed at ascertaining the views of individuals as to the identity of the apple that Adam and Eve shared.  No one I asked thought it was a Granny Smith Apple, a Gala Apple or any other agricultural produce.   

We use metaphor without thinking.  It has made its way into our lives and buried itself deeply into our subconscious, becoming a way of life.  In heated discussions, debates or games we may say:  “I’ll wipe you out”, or “you are dead”.  In the same breath we may use terms like:  “you are right on target”, or “they attacked his credibility”.  A life without metaphor would be dull and lack lustre, as metaphor adds flavour to language. 

What do we mean when we call someone a “dog” or a “snake”, for example?  Does the meaning change depending on geography?  I have heard on American Idol the word “Dog” used in a friendly manner, but never on X Factor here in the UK. Metaphor is subjective - I may think “he’s an angel” whereas you may think “he’s the devil himself”; or “he’s a wolf in sheep’s clothing”.  It therefore cannot be used to establish truth. 

In his book Animal Farm George Orwell uses animals to represent people.  Literary writing is awash with metaphors as creative writers seek to communicate their ideas in an abstract manner to add dimension to their craft. Metaphors are the heart and soul of literary compositions.  After the divorce, Jonathan was a tree in the wilderness.  That sentence conjures up various thoughts in our minds.  The word “divorce” may even be a metaphor in itself.  The man is a pig has nothing to do with pigs.  It refers to the amount of food he consumes, his manner of eating or his crude behaviour. Contemporary pop music is overrun by metaphors – “take a look at me now, I’m just an empty space”; “Islands in the stream, that is what we are”, “I’m that star up in the sky”, and the list goes on. 

What metaphors do you use and what metaphors can be used to describe you? Are you the rock in someone’s life?  Are you an eagle or a chicken?  Has a situation left a sour taste in your mouth?  Are you dragging your feet or are you preparing to soar?  Is your heart on fire?  Is your head spinning with ideas?  Are you shining your light for others to see?  How do people perceive of you?   

Contemporary organisations can use metaphoric scenarios to obtain information from and communicate messages to their personnel at inhouse staff development seminars.  These fora can unearth underlying issues in the workplace and prudent managers can learn a lot from the information gleaned.  An employee who perceives his organisation as a “spider web” for example, may be inferring that there is a degree of cohesiveness within the company and its operations are interconnected and efficient.  However, further exploration could discover that the employee is frustrated and feels that he doesn’t fit into this entangled web.  A web is often used to trap intruders.  The employee can feel like an outsider, not truly fitting within the organisation.  He may think that his input is not valued and this can lead to stress and adversely affect his performance.  The situation worsens when the employee lacks the necessary drive or autonomy to effect change, or where he is operating within an economically depressed culture. 

The Black Widow spider is considered the most venomous spider in North America, its venom being 15 times as toxic as the venom of the prairie rattlesnake. However, most spiders are small, inconspicuous arthropods which are harmless to humans.  Someone referred to as a spider may be seen as toxic, of immoral character, conniving and simply evil.  An employee who refers to his boss as a spider could be insinuating that the person is heartless, and working with that person leaves the employee feeling fearful and “endangered”.  An organisation whose culture stifles creativity may be reduced to a training ground as employees could simply be going through the motions in order to put food on the table, with no real commitment, loyalty or drive.  Such employees are highly poachable by rival organisations who may present them with opportunities that empower them and cultures that allow them to grow and determine their own destiny. On the other hand an employee may regard the spider as a good thing. He may see his boss as a skilled artisan who builds his team and fosters good interpersonal relationships; promotes inter-connectedness and cohesiveness and builds a strong organisation that protects and supports its workers. One employee perceives the web as cohesive; another sees it as divisive. What’s joke to you is death to me (Jamaican proverb) - people’s perspective of situations vary tremendously.

With the advent of the internet and the increased use of online chat, the use of symbols now depicts ideas.  It is therefore normal to see a directional “thumbs up” sign denoting agreement or praise, thumbs down to express disagreement or sadness, a symbolic “heart” to express love, “lips” to send a kiss etc.   Such metaphorical leanings have a basis in our physical and cultural experience but they are also understood on a global scale.   

One of the concepts that I learnt when I trained as a victim support volunteer was that many rape victims felt that they were raped by the interrogation following the physical act and again by the judicial process.  The fear of the second and third “rape” often allows perpetrators to escape punishment.    When individuals appear in court and find their integrity attacked they feel that they are victims again, being raped by the justice system.  The word “rape” is also used to denote territorial plunder – the idea that some countries systematically extracted natural resources from others for their own gains. The concept of rape as metaphor can be stretched in other directions and we can all look into our lives for evidence.  For example, as employees are we raping our employers by not pulling our weight, by stealing from them or by not giving a fair day’s work for a fair day’s wage?  Are we raping people by exploiting their generosity and using them for personal gain?  As employers are we raping our employees by not providing good working conditions when it is our power to do so?  Food for thought!

Certain complex situations and difficult concepts are often understood via metaphor. Using metaphors to expound ideas and explain concepts is often automatic as we switch between the roles of orator and audience.  Without thinking we employ metaphoric renditions to clarify our thoughts and ideas.   Metaphors are not just a matter of language, but of thought and reason. The language is secondary.   Thus we speak of ‘allies’ in politics and ‘friends’ in everyday life.  If, however, we were to reverse the use of the words and refer to our friends as “allies”, the connotation would change, inferring that there is some unspoken existing rivalry, rendering a deeper meaning than the word “friends” could evoke.   

Culture bears heavily on the use of metaphor.  In one culture we say, Time is money.  In another that statement may have no meaning whatsoever. Those of us who translate languages are constantly challenged to find equivalence in an attempt to communicate the speaker’s intentions.  In the absence of native cultural knowledge, a successful rendition is often found after arduous research and in-depth analysis. The metaphoric expression “many rivers to cross” cannot be translated literally as it would lose its meaning entirely, and worse, it would totally confuse target readers.  An equivalent rendition could be “many challenges I face”.  The target reader would then understand that the orator is not referring to “rivers” but to trials and tribulations. 

Metaphoric thought is simply commonplace and inescapable. The use of metaphor paints enormously rich pictures in our thoughts, adding colour, dimension and humour.  Life without metaphors would be dull and lack lustre, mere words without soul.  Metaphors are essential building blocks of human communication.  They help us convey our beliefs, ideas and convictions.  They are the essence of our attempt to describe our world.   By recognising and using metaphor, we can better appreciate and enrich our world. 

Sunday, 19 February 2012

Tough Love

I feel compelled to write this article about loving oneself because recently I have been wrestling with individuals close to me about the need to look after themselves and not only support their extended families.  The economic situation across the world has worsened in recent years and this has impacted adversely on people’s purchasing power.  People are often more resilient than they are credited for but many of us feel the need to save our people.

The particular friend that inspired this article has never taken a holiday, has not been to the dentist in over 5 years, needs to have his eyes examined and frankly he needs some new attire.  He claims he cannot afford these things but he works tirelessly and spends no money on himself and apparently not on his wife and children either.

Many individuals who were raised in developing countries are socialised to believe that they are investments of their families and their sole purpose is to return the favour of being born.  While we do owe it to our parents to ensure that they are comfortable in their old age, that responsibility often extends to siblings and relatives who expect us to show eternal gratitude for any favours they would have done for us when we were young.  They gloat on the misconception that we live in the land of milk and honey;  we then nurture that idea and the perception seemingly becomes reality.  The fact that life may be hard for those in the so called Third World does not mean that we have it easy in the West.  With adulthood comes responsibility.  There is an African proverb that states: You must judge a man by the work of his hands.   How then shall we judge those who are able to work but don’t?

We often have to juggle our commitments and share our time and other resources between our birth family and the family we chose to create in our adult life.  We don’t always get it right.  Loving oneself does not assume that you do not love others.  There is enough love to go around but if we fail to get the balance right we can find ourselves on a stressful, slippery slope. 

Why is it so difficult for you to love yourself?  The poor will always be with you (The Bible – Mark 14:7) and when you experience a moment of weakness, chances are they will still be poor and unable to offer you any meaningful support.  Most of us would have experienced or witnessed situations where one individual constantly bends backwards to help another but the moment that help is not forthcoming the individual becomes the worst thing on earth.  You may help someone 99 times but their short memory will only allow them to remember the one time that you could not oblige.    

How can you consistently support others at the expense of yourself and your family unit?  It is difficult, if not impossible to climb with a load on your back.   You cannot climb a bid of success with your hands tied up (African Proverb). It is more sensible to climb and position yourself in a better place and then help others to climb up.  Everyone cannot climb up together; you will never get to the top if you are always carrying people. If you need all that company you’re better off going for a stroll and forgetting about your goal.   The argument can be made – why the top?  Is it not the journey that’s important?  To that I answer, yes it is, but no one enjoys a long, arduous journey. 

Light your candle for others to see but once they can see they should be encouraged to light their own candles. Life is about giving and taking, not just giving! There will always be people who moan at life yet if you were to give them a solid start they would squander the opportunity and be back at the church door in no time.   

Some individuals can find work but they refuse to do so if it’s not a job they like.  The French say: Un sou est un sou (a cent is a cent – money is money)!  Chances are you not in your ideal job but you persevere.  There is a Jamaican proverb that says big blanket makes a man sleep late.  It means that those who have easy access to ‘luxury’ can afford to be lazy.  Are you providing a big blanket?

I must make an exception for people who are disabled, weak, ill or elderly.  Many disabled people lead fulfilling productive lives and this must be encouraged.  However, many societies fail to support and create opportunities for people with disability and this reduces their chances to reach their full potential.  If your family includes individuals in these categories you have no choice but to help (always seeking to empower) them.  My challenge is when able-bodied people, fully capable of working and contributing to their own survival, chose to depend on handouts.  Such people are often very good at emotional blackmail, expert at painting a picture that will deny you of the ability to sleep.  They bear tidings of the doom and gloom that is bound to happen if you do not put your hand into your pocket and save the world.  I am not impressed by these people.  I recall I gave my mother some money some time ago.  She used the entire sum to purchase a single dress which she wore once.  I could have bought three similar dresses with that amount of money and certainly I wouldn’t be wearing them only once.  Why do we think that these people are poor?

I can recall some male friends telling me that the wife of one of their very affluent friends was “a bitch”.  I later understood why they felt that way – the woman was trying to secure her family’s future and the friends wanted her husband to sponsor their adventures because he apparently had money.  His wife sensibly controlled the purse strings and for that reason she was hated.  How do we know that their family wasn’t experiencing financial challenges considering their lifestyle and aspirations?  Why do we assume that they are rich because on the surface it looks that way?  Do we know what goes on behind closed doors?  Chances are my friends were causing stress in that relationship because of their dependency attitudes.  Why should this man pay for their drinking sessions and their holidays?  Are they his children?

People will tug at your heartstrings if they feel they can get away with it.  If you were not there they would still survive.  Providing handouts does not empower people unless it helps them to get into the boat and start fishing for themselves.  There is a Spanish proverb:  El que no trabaje, que no coma (no bees, no honey; no work no money).  An eagle will feed its young for some time but after a while she will push the eaglet out of the nest and it must learn to fend for itself for its survival.  This is tough love but we must do it if we are to end this cycle of dependency.  There is no shortage of people who mistake your meekness for weakness and being overly “kind” does not earn you respect. Instead of providing handouts help people to find work or to explore their enterprise skills.  If you get it right they might just be there to help you should the tables turn.  Surely this is more desirable than nurturing the handout culture. Help the man climbing a hill, not the one standing below it (Finnish proverb).

How is this principle of loving oneself applied to the workplace?  Do you take on responsibilities that might be well or even better handled by others?  Do you needlessly take home volumes of work?  What do you have to prove?  If you are building a business you may find yourself working long hours to achieve success.  After all that hard work, do take some of the rewards for yourself.  No one is interested in a partner, mother or father who spends no quality time with the family. If you are generally busy, time is something that you make, not something that you have.  If you chose to have a family, you must make time for them. 

Is it tough to love yourself?  Try tough love!  You may be liberated by the experience.