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Friday, August 15, 2014

The gift of choosing the moral path

In reading some online newspapers last week, a number of disturbing facts caught my eye: a district administrator was arrested on suspicion of accepting gifts for special services that never materialized; a school principal was accused of attempted manipulation of school success rates, with a sizeable amount of money involved; a minister of Social Affairs acted as Santa Claus by granting gifts to social institutions on his birthday (not from his own wallet, but from his formal representation budget) to boost his popularity; governmental institutions are scrutinized on suspicion of corruptive actions, and a sizable part of society distrusts its political representatives and government as well as government subsidized entities.  

Corruption is a social disease that is easy to lapse into. The reason for that is also easy to see through: if everyone does it, it does not feel so corrupt anymore. Corruption particularly manifests itself in trade and politics, and with that, it has almost grown into a rule rather than an exception in many governmental branches throughout the world. There is a wide range of motives leading to corruptive actions, from safeguarding of power and influence to bypassing unwelcome rules and regulations, and from accelerating processes to paving a fast road toward affluence or power.

The common factor driving business and politics is their heavy transactional orientation. In the simplest possible wording it boils down to this: I'll give you this if you give me that. And then you may go ahead and substitute any situation you wish: “I give you the title on this piece of land if you ensure a nice sum of greasing money under the table,” “I will get you a meeting with the big boss if you want to pay the price to be moved up,” “I will speed up the processing of your documents if you speed up my wealth”, or “I will refrain from punishing you for your actions and look the other way if you want to look into my bank account”.

As you can tell, corruption usually appears in the form of a reward or punishment avoidance, but there is always a gift involved, mostly in the form of money, power, or prestige. Whatever it is that drives people to corruption, the phenomenon remains one of the weak links in our civilization, and it is hard to imagine a human society that is void of it.  That, too, is understandable: where different people come together, you will find different characters and motivations, as well as different levels of ethical reasoning. And it is a fact that you can alert people about ethics, but you cannot really teach them moral values, because moral values are strongly linked to the culture and structure of the society in which we live and perform.

No society on earth is free from corruption, but in some it is just more obvious than others. It often coincides with local economies and existing inequalities. When large groups of people feel oppressed due to economic struggles, and when leaders are continuously engaging in unethical practices, corruption will find a fertile ground.

It’s true, there are quite some weak spots in human civilization, and corruption is one of the most striking examples. And you know what? Chances are that each of us has engaged in corruptive behavior at least once, albeit more out of necessity than desire. Unfortunately, there is no rosy endnote here, other than that each of us should think critically about our conduct, and evaluate whether the steps we are about to take will be worth disrupting our emotional stability. Once we have made up our mind, we should do as we decide, and accept the consequences. And that's all I have to say about that.

Thursday, August 7, 2014

The gift of now

This moment – here and now - is the only one that matters.

You may have heard that phrase many times before, but this may be the right time to savor it.

There is no other moment than this moment. All past moments, days, months, and years are just memories. All future moments, days, months, and years are projections that may or may not be realized.

This moment is the only one that matters. It’s one to be grateful for, because it is the moment all your past moments worked toward. It is the only moment in which you are your current self. In the next moment, many changes will have happened to you, physically and psychologically. Cells died off and others were created, changing the substance that is you forever. Impressions and experiences further contribute to the change: The person who woke up this morning is long gone by the time you lay your head to rest at night.

You change all the time, and that is a gift in itself. Accepting this notion will also make you more susceptible to other changes, because you acknowledge that change is an ongoing process, internally and externally, and that you are the ultimate manifestation of it.

Because you change all the time, there is no need to feel regret for situations, ventures, or relationships that went wrong in the past, because these were history teachers:  They taught you lessons you would not have learned if they did not present themselves.

Similarly, there is no need to feel excessively proud of your past achievements, because they were accomplished by someone that no longer exists. While there are elements of that person in you at this moment, the configuration has changed, and much of that past achiever has expired.

Understanding the gift of “now” can be a liberating as well as a daunting one, because it brings along the realization of its fleeting nature. It has all the ingredients of the famous quote, “This, too, shall pass”. If you are not too happy at this moment, you can rejoice in the realization that it will soon pass. If you cherish your current circumstances, you may feel melancholic about pending changes.

Yet, nothing can take away the gift of now. Anything that may happen next is not now. So, breathe deeply and be grateful for receiving the gift of now. It will soon be gone.

Wednesday, January 1, 2014

The "Other" Resolutions

People talk about resolutions for the New Year
And then see their determination swiftly disappear
So, here are some ideas that could mean a lot more
You can attain them much better than the ones before

  How about simply giving some more in the new year?
To those who suffer badly, in hardship and fear?
How about being more grateful for life as it is
Instead of always focusing on whatever’s amiss?

  How about more walking, not necessarily fast…
Just little strolls that will make your health last?
Or reading a book that’s different from your style?
Who knows! It may end up being worth your while!

  What about frequently telling people nice things…
So that you can witness the joy that this brings?
And what about being a bit more positive to YOU?
By ending that negative self-talk that makes you blue?

  And oh yes: you could also unplug now and then
Leave your electronics behind - regain your own zen?
You could stop seeing your life as overbearing
By simply deciding to stop comparing?

 You could motivate yourself at least once a day
And find how the pressure and stress fade away
How are these for some fun, easy plans for the New Year?
All the best to you and yours: may you be of good cheer!


Thursday, December 19, 2013

Thank You!

Dear Reader. Today I would like to thank you. First of all, because you are reading this text now. Whether you do this more often or today for the first time: I am honored. Even though I may not know you, and you may not write to respond to me, I am still grateful. You could read or do so many other things at the moment, but your eyes are gliding over these particular words, which I typed especially for you. It might be a hectic time for you, as it is for so many. I can empathize with that, because I have allowed many family Christmases to slip away in times when I was busy creating the Christmas spirit for others. Today I am not doing that anymore. I prefer instead to simply write here that I appreciate you. And this really has nothing to do with Christmas or the New Year, even though this is a great time to do it.

In December we think deeper on things. We don’t just spend more money to express our gratitude to others, but we also take a more thorough look at things that we might otherwise miss. Thoughts of loved ones who are no longer with us; relationships that derailed; family, friends or acquaintances that face troubles: our heart goes out to them more in this time than normal. And because we think deeper about the troubles of life, this is also an appropriate time to consider how we can help brighten the lives of others, as well as our own life.

How about the following: just call the first person that comes to mind, just to say something nice? You could, of course, also send an email, using very simple, but meaningful words such as: "I wanted to let you know that I thought of you," "I think you’re a great person, and wanted to tell you that today," "I want to thank you for your friendship," "I think you’re a go-getter and I am proud to know you," "I like your voice. It’s very nice to listen to," "You can always count on me," "I would love to help whenever possible," "you always make me laugh, and I am grateful for that!", "you still look very good!", "thank you that you are in my life!", "The world is a better place because you are in it," or simply, "I think you are a very special person."

There is no direct or even indirect reason to do this, but it may be the one thing the other person may need at the moment, more so than an expensive gift or a great party. We, humans, are sensitive creatures, even though we don’t always like to admit it. My heart goes out to all the people who struggle this month with suffering of any kind. Some may empower you, and others may criticize you, but only you know how it feels to be in the midst of this trouble. Perhaps the future looks bleak to you, but this valley also come to an end and the road up is near. It helps during such difficult moments to realize that practically everyone experiences troubles at some point, sometimes tougher and sometimes less distressing, but suffering, just like joy, is a part of life.

So, especially to those of you who try to stay afloat this month in the face of hardship I would like to say, "Thank you! Thank you for your courage. You're awesome for facing this squarely. Each problematic situation is on its way to a solution from the moment it manifests itself. Every day after the first clap of thunder is a step towards healing. Thank you for your perseverance and willpower. Thank you for your patience. Thank you for understanding that this is all a part of life. There will always be peaks and valleys. They have their reasons. Thank you for your strength." 

I wish you blessed holidays.

Friday, June 28, 2013

The Gift of Every Moment

You are changing every moment. You may not notice it in the mirror, but it happens nonetheless. Something changes in your body as well as in your mind – all the time. You are exposed to many impressions: perhaps you read on the Internet or in books, write, see things on television, get exposed to experiences at your workplace and on the street, reflect, or get information from others. All of that is a learning process. It changes your insights. You may, however, only see a major physical and psychological change when you compare yourself to the person you were ten years ago. Yet, the change did not occur in one giant step: it happened through a miniscule change process from moment to moment.

You absorb impressions, lessons, and countless other influences on a continual basis, and through that, you integrate those influences within. They become a part of you. The sun penetrates into your skin and becomes a part of you. The raindrops that fall on you do the same.
The wind that blows through your hair and the millions of natural and non-natural elements it contains: they also become a part of you – change you – re-create you.

Your food and clothing, your car and house, your bed and towel, they are prepared by so many people, who, thanks to their efforts, are a part of you now. You don’t know all those people, resources, and places, and they don’t know you, but that does not mean they are unimportant. The peanuts you just snacked on were planted by someone, after the soil in which they were planted, was prepared. The efforts of this person - or these persons - are now fused into you.
The pickers, transporters, processors, materials that were appended in the process, and the numerous other people that contributed to getting the peanuts in your kitchen, cabinet, or table, live forth in you now.

If you study your hands, you may see the likeness with those of your mother. When you smile you may resemble your father. As long as you live this will be the case, even if they move on. Your children also carry parts of you in them. It is through them that you will live on when you pass on from this stage.
Your family, colleagues and friends: they also carry parts of you, due to the connection that exists between you and them.

There are many people you care for, others you cannot stand, and yet others that you don’t have any particular opinions about. All of these people affect you, whether you like it or not. They all contributed into making you the person you are today and they will help reshape you into the person you will be tomorrow.
You are always changing, and the person that is now reading this piece is not exactly the same person that will do something else in a few minutes.

In you, there are also influences from ancestors whose bodies have turned to dust a long time ago. They also live on through you. Both their benefactors and their offenders, who once influenced them, are vested in you. You may be proud or disenchanted by what they did, whether they were hard workers or sluggards, oppressors or oppressed, yet, they have contributed to the person you are today.
All of this does not only pertain to you, of course. It pertains to everyone, no matter how trivial or far-fetched it may seem.

Next Monday, Suriname commemorates 150 years of formal abolition of slavery. I learned that a lot of celebrations are planned. Well, perhaps this is a moment worth celebrating. That depends on how you look at it. Some might consider it more appropriate to engage in reflection and gratitude for the blood, sweat, and tears of their ancestors, who probably came from everywhere. Regardless of what you choose: you are richer now, thanks to them: today more than yesterday; tomorrow more than today. Happy slavery abolition commemoration!

Wednesday, May 22, 2013

The gift of accepting your own reality


An absolute point to ponder when it comes to reality is perception. Our entire civilization is based on perception. The things we have learned to appreciate and those we have learned to look down on, the products and people we respect by virtue of their position, and those we reject because they behave or think differently; the brands we pay large sums of money for, and those we would rather leave untouched: most of it is based on perception. The value of precious gems and minerals is based on perception. Economic models, “real” versus “fake” art, fashion trends and value definitions: they are all based on perception.

Most things are seen in their current way because someone once defined how they should be looked at. The majority of people don’t think further whether they really feel that these things are worth what the status quo dictates. What makes a Van Gogh or Da Vinci so much more expensive than a perfect replica or a beautiful painting from an unknown artist? It’s perception. And it costs us a lot. People want to be seen with expensive purses, clothes, and shoes; they want to drive in expensive cars, and live in “upscale” neighborhoods, not necessarily because they are better, but because they are perceived to be. It takes courage to realize that, and even more courage to contemplate on it and draw your own conclusions.
Very few people dare to be bold enough to swim against the current, because that would mean that they are “different”, and “different” is a vulnerable spot to be in. Being different affects our sense of belonging, and if you remember, “sense of belonging” has a prominent place in Maslow’s hierarchy of needs! People want to be accepted by their surroundings, and being different means rising above that urge and facing your own values. Mama Cass sings about the difficulty of being different in the title song of an odd, old children’s movie named “Pufnstuf”(1970):

“Different is hard, different is lonely
Different means trouble for you only
Different is heartache, different is pain
But I’d rather be different than be the same…”

If you don’t have the courage to think for yourself about what really matters to you, what you can or want to afford, what drives your passion, and what you are happy with, you will be like 98% of humanity: victimized by mindsets that were dictated by others, oftentimes for their own selfish reasons, which are to become wealthy and famous at the expense of the ignorant ones. Of course, not all name brands, high end products, or prominent lifestyles are deceptive. Some really go out of their way to deliver better quality and represent a different experience. Still, they are often grossly overrated.

Creating your own reality does not mean that you can change all the things that happen to you. You may not be able to change those, but you can always change your perception, hence, your attitude. Sitting back and allowing yourself to be overrun by the status quo, or paralyzed by bad news or setbacks is not going to get you far.

Thursday, February 28, 2013

The gift of learning

Mark Twain was quite pointed and sometimes downright callous with his remarks, many of which are now elevated to famous quotes. You can’t help, however, to chuckle at some of them, such as this one, "First God made idiots. That was for practice. Then he made School Boards." Twain must have been aggravated about the way schools were managed in his time. Whether that has improved in our times I will not discuss here, because this piece is not about schools. It is about education. I believe that we all agree, to some extent, that self-development is a good thing. While not everyone may be equally enamored by formal education, we all seem to be in sync about the importance of learning, whether this happens in school or somewhere else.

Perusing through the “Ask the Expert” section of a Surinamese newspaper, my eyes fell on a letter from a man who expressed his concern about the fact that his wife wants him to return to school and finish his education. The couple had met when they were both still in school: she was studying to become an educator, and he was in the arts. She got pregnant and he exchanged his schooling for a full-time job. She finished her education, and continued it after the birth of their child to the point where she now holds a master’s degree. Having a good job now, the wife wants her husband to also elevate his education, but he doesn’t feel that this is necessary. He holds the opinion that he has a decent job, which served a good purpose over the past years, so why should he return to school in order to learn anything else?

I felt that the response from the expert to whom this letter was addressed made good sense. The expert understood the man’s complaints, but also invited him to try reviewing his circumstances from a different angle: when one part of a couple continues to educate him- or herself and the other doesn’t, a disparity may emerge. Personally, I believe that there are even more viewpoints to consider here, such as a positive self-image and more opportunities for the person who engages in continued self-development. So, aside from restoring the intellectual balance with his wife, this man could increase his opportunities in life, whether the couple would stay together or not. And this element of continued progress for the self (and not necessarily for others) should be a key driver.

Studying is like working out. If you have not done it for a long time you feel reluctant to start again, because you know you'll have to reactivate muscles that were inactive for quite some time. In the case of education you will need to put gray cells that may have been hibernating back to work. It is particularly hard in the beginning; yet, it becomes more fun when you immerse more deeply into it. And the outcome is priceless! At the end of the ride you are extremely proud of yourself!

Now returning to Mark Twain, I readily admit that formal education can be frustrating sometimes. There are many stuffy, obsolete policies and practices that remain unaddressed because they would require too much money, time, and effort: admission procedures are often unreasonable, structures often outdated, lesson plans often dusty, and teachers often stranded in theories that are no longer valid. Fortunately, there are many roads leading to Rome today: the Internet, for example, with its abundance of material online, and books through which you can engage in self-study. And let's not forget the many independent courses worldwide. These are dynamic times, and I make a bow to anyone who dares to resume the thread of his or her development. Good luck!