Saturday, 17 May 2014

Circumstances Make People

From time to time it is reported in the media that parents are arrested for harming or fatally wounding their children.  It was recently reported in the UK press that a mother killed her three severely disabled children while she was left at home with them, their father being away on holiday with their able-bodied child.  This extremely sad case came as a shock to friends, family, neighbours and the wider society as despite the affliction of the children aged 3-4, the family appeared content.

No doubt the mother, who has been arrested and charged, will come under severe criticism.  As someone who is familiar with the challenges of caring for a disabled person, I can understand the desperation she could have felt.  I wonder how many of those who now point fingers at her offered a helping hand when she needed it most.  How many people reached out and touched her in one way or another, perhaps offering to babysit while she took a break?  Caring for three children under the age of five is no mean feat, a situation made worse by the fact that those children are unable to walk, talk or attend to their personal needs.  Those who know the mother say that she is a respectable woman, never in trouble or caused any trouble.  What went wrong therefore? 
 
“Man is the creature of circumstances” said Robert Owen - an Eighteenth Century Welsh social reformer and philanthropist. When our backs are against the wall we find ways of bouncing back, provided we are not ready to give up.  The situations in which we find ourselves often dictate the decisions we make and in some cases we make decisions that are contrary to our values.  Some call this phenomenon “survival”; others see it as “going off the rails” and, as in the case of the mother in this text, some call it “snapped”.  Our prisons are packed with people who snapped.

We all find ourselves changing our goal posts as we traverse through life.  Many of us in our early years would have said – “by X time I must have done Y” or when I grow up I will be Z.  As we mature our aspirations shift as environmental factors impact and we realise that our goals are no longer realistic.  There is an African proverb that says: “People are like chameleons – circumstances make them change their colour”. The direction and quality of our lives do not depend   on us alone, for we are but part of a whole.  Our interactions, the people we meet, the challenges we face - and overcome, where we live and a host of other factors impact on the nature and quality of the lives we lead. 

My life experiences have widened my understanding of human behaviour and I recognise that people have varying degrees of strength depending on the circumstances.  The fact that I am strong in the workplace does not mean that I am strong in the home or in a social setting.  Consider the following example: Several years ago I attended a colleague’s wedding reception; we had been waiting for the MC to arrive and as time passed it became increasingly worrying as it appeared that this person would not show up.  I was asked to step in for the MC, an area in which I had neither experience nor passion but I found it difficult to decline, given the circumstances.  Luckily 15 minutes into the programme the MC arrived and the day was saved.  The fact that I was a leader in the workplace led people to believe that I would be a fitting MC at the wedding.  I recognise that I had skills that were transferable and I rose to the occasion (albeit apprehensively), for circumstances make people.  

The fact that we find ourselves in an uncomfortable situation can be a blessing in disguise for it is that discomfort which may provide the stimulus to unearth our latent skills and propel us to discover new avenues for development and prosperity.  Had I been so inclined, the wedding scenario could have given birth to talent yet explored and who knows where it could have led.  An uncomfortable situation can ignite a spark and fuel the fire within - triggering innovation, entrepreneurship, creativity, growth.  Some people call it luck – being in the right place at the right time; some call it destiny, others see it as simply grasping opportunities that present themselves.  Renowned Motivational Speaker, speech coach and bestselling author Les Brown might have been uncomfortable when he was suddenly thrust into the role of radio DJ (a position he craved) but he excelled in the role and it essentially helped  him to launch his outstanding career.  If we endeavour to bloom where we are planted chances are our circumstances, coupled with a positive attitude will enable us to conquer greater heights.  

On the flip side, there are those who, despite a change of circumstances, do not themselves experience or embrace change.  I have a friend who is currently contemplating divorce because his wife refuses to bury her ghetto mentality, despite moving out of the ghetto.  Seeds placed in the ground can either be planted or buried; we must recognise that we cannot change people who do not want to change.  Circumstances will not “make” everyone!

World economics has impacted heavily in recent years but despite the challenges we can have a positive effect on others if we engage a caring attitude.  We must recognise that people often need help but are too afraid, too shy or too proud to request it.  On the other hand we are overly worried about being rebuffed so we adopt an attitude of apathy in order to protect our hearts.   Don’t be that person who could have helped but didn’t; don’t risk living a life of regrets.  The mother in this story shouldn’t have had to ask for help; from a distance everyone could see that she needed help.  We are too quick to close our eyes and mind our own business when really the human race is a single race and whatever affects one affects all.   That is why foreign aid for development makes sense, provided it is appropriately administered. You can close your eyes as much as you want; you will still see because you don’t need eyes to look within. 

It is said that people living in deprived communities are more prone to committing crime. While we must not use a broad-brush to paint all such people we have to recognise that if people are unable to meet their basic needs they will pursue unconventional ways of providing for their needs; they won’t just go away and neither will their needs!  Provide avenues for those people to earn their keep and chances are they will embrace the opportunities presented and start to contribute meaningfully to society.  Jamaican singer/songwriter – Buju Banton sings:  “Circumstances made me what I am; was I born a violent man?”  We all have the same basic aspirations – adequate food, clothing, shelter, safety/security, access to health care, a decent future for our children. 

In the workplace how do we relate to others?  As leaders of organisations do we choose to close our eyes to the plight of individuals who clearly are struggling but who nonetheless turn up day after day?  Do we explore and implement ways of alleviating their distress?  Too many of us know the right actions to take but fail to take them because of weak leadership or for fear of being accused of double standards.  We meander about like masked ogres – oblivious, or rather insensitive to people’s situations.  The changes we make do not have to be significant – small incremental steps such as introducing flexitime will allow employees more time to prepare their children for school and/or to benefit from reduced travel costs, being able to travel during off peak hours.  Being able to avoid peak hours can also reduce stress levels and boost productivity.   A small action can make a big difference.  There is a Jamaican saying:  When oders a jump pan two leg yuh betta jump on one; (when others are jumping on two legs, you are better off jumping on one) – don’t be afraid to be different; pursue the right course of action, unpopular though it may be.

Look at the bigger picture – caring for people means caring for ourselves for if our employees are consistently unhappy, the safety and security of our workplaces are at risk.  If we negotiate win-lose contracts, they will be unsustainable.  It is always better to care about others for if they are content, we will be too - for contentment is contagious.  If you continually push people into corners where they feel they are unfairly treated they will eventually rebel.

Life is increasingly stressful for many, without regard to their background, belief, financial status, or other defining characteristic.  We don’t know what it takes to push someone over the edge – it’s not always obvious!  Offering a helping hand often costs us nothing but that lowly act could prove invaluable - it could save a life - for circumstances make people.   

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