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Monday, June 27, 2011

The gift of tolerance

No matter how advanced we become, and regardless of the possibilities we create to connect with, listen to, and learn from brothers and sisters all over the world, there always seem to be groups that oppose others for as many reasons as there are stars in the sky on a clear night. As I was skimming through the news before writing this statement, I read about graffiti hate messages against gays, sprayed at several places in Lancaster, California. "Kills All Gays Now," was sprayed against one wall. "Gays Go 2 Hell" was sprayed on another. This rampage was probably triggered by the news that New York had just become the 6th and most populous state to acknowledge gay marriage. So, some people were obviously feeling that their convictions are losing ground, and they were outraged.

I often wonder what it is that drives people to be so intolerant toward others, even without knowing them. Aversions that are so hefty and so deeply ingrained have often been instilled over time by certain affiliation groups: family, social, religious, political, generational, racial, you name it. Hate is as old an emotion as love. It’s actually the counterpart of love, and it can make us even more aware of the value of love. But hate is not a constructive emotion. It doesn’t only consume the hater and make him or her a problem to his or her environment: it can actually be downright destructive to innocent people!

Intolerance is a destructive mindset, which we all could harbor if we open ourselves to it. But it is also the main reason why so many people suffer in the world. Intolerance makes people withhold things from others, hate others, torture and kill others, steal from others, and – what they often don’t realize: impoverish and cripple their own soul!

Let's all consider a gift we often overlook: the gift of tolerance. We may not always agree with everything, and that should not be a problem, as long as our disagreements don’t lead to pain and destruction of any person or group of people. Celebrating the gift of tolerance and seriously embracing this gift for the rest of our lives, is not only doing others a favor: it’s doing ourselves the greatest favor of all!

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

The gift of self-respect

It is only when we face enormous challenges that we realize what a gift self-respect is. Some of us may be well aware how hard it can be to maintain it, when we seem to lose everything else! Life can be unpredictable: today we can consider ourselves in full control and on top of the world, and tomorrow we may hit rock-bottom. For others, who witness our plight from a distance, it may seem ridiculous when we feel worthless, but they may not be able to relate to our experience and the depth of our feelings.

However, even when we go through extremely tough times, we should consider the one we always see when we look into the mirror. We owe it to that person to maintain our self-respect. I recently read in a Surinamese newspaper that a woman, who was desperate because her husband had intentions to leave her for a younger woman, visited a traditional healer ("bonumang") to save her marriage. The man did not only charge her quite some money for his "services," but advised her to do the creepiest thing: she had to visit a local cemetery in the middle of the night and sleep for three hours on a grave occupied with a dead body! The healer claimed that other people who did the same thing had been able to save their marriage.

The saddest detail of the story above is not whether the woman ultimately did what the bonumang advised her to do or not, but rather that she lost her self-respect by even trying to keep a partner who obviously wanted to be somewhere else with such a grotesque act. She may not have looked at it as such, but trying to keep someone against their will either indicates tremendous weakness or ruthless selfishness. Money or perceived security may, of course, have been a driving motive as well. But this woman has a long road ahead of regaining her sense of self-worth, and if she ever finds it, she will still have to try to forgive herself for her desperate behavior. And that can be a tough one!

Sunday, June 19, 2011

The gift of forgiving

There's an amazing story of this woman named Betty* who had to cope with one of the greatest challenges in life: the cruel killing of her child. Her daughter, Debbie, a promising 16-year old, was found in a creek, raped and strangled, and tied up with copper-coated wire. After the initial devastation and anguish, Betty became consumed by hatred. She felt as if the police were dragging their feet on the case, and hired a private detective. After several months of intense investigation, the trail led to… Debbie's favorite English schoolteacher! In spite of Betty's discovery, however, it took the police another dreadful couple of months before the wire was tested and found to be, indeed, similar to what the teacher had. He was ultimately arrested and accused of murder, even though he claimed not to have raped and killed Debbie. He was sentenced to life in prison, and Betty could finally start coping with her loss.

Six years after mourning Debbie's death, Betty started to work seriously toward healing herself by granting forgiveness to the killer. It became clear to her that her life was going on, and that she might as well try to make the best of it. She made a bold decision, and visited the alleged murderer in prison to tell him about her forgiveness. Not everyone who knew Debbie felt this way, which is, of course, understandable. It takes tremendous greatness and self-transcendence to forgive some of the things that happen in our lives. Betty was able to work up forgiveness toward the person who caused her one of the worst pains a human being can endure. There is no guarantee we would be able to do the same if we were in her shoes.

Nonetheless, Betty's decision is one we can learn from, because we often hold grudges for much smaller things than the challenge she faced. Hate, fear, anger, regret, shame: these are all negative emotions that withhold us from bringing out the best in ourselves. If we manage to forgive – others as well as ourselves – we can move on with our lives: wiser and more serene. Forgiving is a great gift, mainly to ourselves. Oftentimes the object of our negative emotions is not even aware of how we feel. Once we forgive, we free ourselves from an enormous burden, and enable ourselves to breathe again, and we finally rediscover how precious it is to love, laugh, and live.

* Adopted from "Betty's Story: a Mother's forgiveness" - http://abcnews.go.com/GMA/story?id=619021&page=1

Thursday, June 16, 2011

Gifts We Overlook: The gift of health

Gifts We Overlook: The gift of health: "The gift of health is one that we only think about when we don't feel well. Especially when we are young and vibrant, we tend to take this p..."

The gift of health

The gift of health is one that we only think about when we don't feel well. Especially when we are young and vibrant, we tend to take this precious gift for granted. It is so easy to think that we are invincible when we have never really suffered from any serious condition. But if you ask 17-year old Zheng from China's Anhui province today, he will tell you how precious health is. Zheng learned his lesson the hard way.

He wanted an I-Pad, and he wanted it so badly, that he started thinking of any possible way to obtain the money for it. His parents were not affluent, so that was not an option. But then Zheng saw an ad on the Internet, which stated that he could get the equivalent of $3,400.00 if he sold one of his kidneys. Without telling his parents, Zheng took off to the hospital listed in the ad, and underwent the procedure.

Upon his return home, Zheng's mother quickly realized that something had changed. First it was because her son had an expensive I-Pad, which he could have never been able to purchase under normal circumstances, but soon due to the complications that started, causing Zheng's health to quickly deteriorate! This is when he had to tell his parents what he did, and upon investigation it turned out that the surgery had been executed by team of unqualified individuals, who had rented part of a local hospital for their unethical practices. In hindsight, the perpetrators could not be found, and the case will probably be closed without any legal action against these ruthless people who prey on the immature desires of youngsters.

Meanwhile, Zheng regrets his thoughtless decision. He learned the hard way that health is a gift – and that no asset, not even a long desired one, weighs up against that.

Sunday, June 12, 2011

The gift of accepting our mortality

We all know that we will die someday, but very few of us want to think about that. Indeed, thinking about anyone's death is depressing enough. Thinking about our own death could make us extremely uncomfortable, especially because it inevitably leads to so many other questions: How will it happen? When? Where? Who will be around? What happens after our death? Will anything happen at all? It takes courage to contemplate on these existential questions, and many people therefore come up with a wide range of reasons why they would rather avoid doing so. Some might say that it is against their religious beliefs; others claim that they may get depressed and lose their zest for life, and yet others may simply feel that it's a waste of their time.

Yet, there is another side to accepting our mortality, which could lead to greater mindfulness in our day-to-day activities. Regularly realizing that we will die may help us in becoming less attached to all the things we now consider so important. The nature and quality of our decisions, relationships, and our entire way of carrying ourselves, could be greatly influenced by this realization. Those of us who lost close family members or friends can relate to this sense very well. When confronted with death, our awareness rises, and we review our lives from a greater distance. We suddenly realize the triviality of so many of our actions: our excessive focus on job security, our obsession for prestige and power, our eternal hunger for more money and other status symbols, and our overrated and enduring emotions when others say or do things that hurt our feelings.

The main reason why our mortality is not often acknowledged as a gift is because it does not seem like the most pleasant or cheerful one. Only when we think deeper about the positive effects this gift could have on the overall quality of our lives (less stress over things and positions, and more peace of mind), and the positive effects this could have on others, can we fully appreciate this gift – a gift that is ours, whether we want to accept it or not: the gift of our mortality.

Friday, June 10, 2011

The gift of gratitude

Our mind is a powerful thing. It can be a blessing or a curse. We can get up every day and find millions of reasons to be miserable, or just as many to be grateful. We all know exactly how and when we make ourselves miserable. It is when we compare ourselves to others and then think that they seem happier, live in greater affluence, know more prominent people, hold higher positions, have bigger houses, or date the partner we desire. Even if we don't compare ourselves to others, we can choose to focus only on the things that don't go well with us: our painful hip, meager bank account, lousy boss, car that doesn't want to start, lack of assertiveness, height, weight, skin color, age, hair, and all the other things that we feel self-conscious about.

Yet, we can also choose to adopt the attitude of gratitude – a mindset that does much more than just rhyme. Making a simple list of all the things we do have and can do, is the quickest way to realize our many reasons to be grateful. In depressing situations we can consider focusing on the positive things about the problem we are facing. Giving ourselves the gift of gratitude has everything to do with the wolf we feed inside us. Remember the story? A grandfather told his grandson that we all have two wolves struggling with each other inside of us, one being anger, hatred, greed, envy, self-pity, and disdain; the other being kindness, love, generosity, care, cheerfulness, and respect. The little boy asked his grandfather which wolf won, and the old man told him, "the one you feed."

Gratitude results in a more positive view of the world around us. It's a contagious mindset that can spread rapidly, and make our lives much happier. Let's grant ourselves the gift of gratitude!

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

The gift of being happy

So many people chase happiness and think it can be found in things they need to acquire: a great job, a new house, a perfect partner, marriage, divorce, children, a trip to other countries, financial wealth, fame, power, prestige, you name it. It seems that the label they put on the conditions of their happiness change every year: even when they achieve the goals they initially targeted, they find that they are still unhappy, so they formulate new criteria for happiness.

Finding happiness is no rocket science. It's the simplest thing in the world: it starts with our definition of happiness and the understanding that happiness is not a momentarily state of ecstasy that will subside after a day, week, or year. Many people confuse those peak moments of elation in their lives with happiness. Yet, it is so much simpler: happiness resides inside. You can only be happy when you dare to focus on what it is that you consider your purpose in life. For only then will you be able to work on that and discover the core of your contentment. And when you are content, you are happy -- not elated, just happy: an enduring state of deep contentment that makes you a satisfied, balanced person.

I once read a story of a cat that saw her kitten running in circles trying to catch its tail. She looked at this ridiculous game for a while and asked the kitten what it was doing. "I heard that my happiness is in my tail," said the kitten, "so I'm trying to catch it." The cat smiled and said: "When I was as young as you I used to do that too. But then I found out that when I stop chasing my tail and simply do what I want, it follows me everywhere I go." And so it is with us, human beings: we may find our happiness when we stop obsessing over other things.

Sunday, June 5, 2011

The gift of the present

As members of today's hectic society, we are always on the go. Our days consist of looking ahead to how, where, when, and with whom we can swing the best deal to secure the best future. In this materialistic treadmill, we may sometimes look at the past to gather some information and trends, or to remember some precious lessons. But the present is often forgotten...

An interesting word of its own -the present- it should be clear to us that this is the gift of gifts, granted by a providential, synergistic alliance of nature, existence, and countless cosmic collaborations. It's a moment that will never return, and that will be gone in the next instant. This fleeting moment is the only one in which we are sure that we are alive! There is no guarantee that we will see the next day, or even the next moment, let alone a distant future for which we make so many plans. And yesterday – well, that's yesterday: with all its gloom, glamor, and glory. There is no greater beauty than the here and now, in which we reside, communicate, connect, breathe, talk, laugh, love, and live...

If we can get ourselves to take a few minutes every day to really enjoy this fabulous gift that we so often neglect on our way to a fuzzy future, we could make our lives, and the lives of those around us, infinitely more beautiful...

Friday, June 3, 2011

The gift of keeping quiet

We live in a society where assertiveness is praised as a trait of the strong. If you don't speak up, you may not count. Statements like, "the squeaky wheel gets the grease" paint a clear picture of what it's all about: the bigger a talker you are, the more people will consider your opinion. That being said, it is rather disheartening to see what this mindset has brought about. Some people cannot seem to keep quiet. We have all encountered these characters in meetings, in classes, at parties, and in clubs: people who always run their mouth, whether it is appropriate or not. It is as if they are afraid of silence, or as if they need to convince themselves of what they say.

Sometimes, when I hear people talk for a long time, I wonder if they don't get tired of the sound of their own voice, and if they really think they entice their audience so much that they can go on and on the way they do. It is known that the attention span of an average listener is about 8 minutes. After that timespan the mind of even the most devoted audience member starts to wander. Speakers with some degree of emotional intelligence should consider this and keep their message as short and sweet as possible.

Unfortunately, some people are so self-indulged, that they love to hear themselves. They may be burdened by an oversized ego, and have not yet figured out how to reduce it. Yet, when we talk all the time, we don't learn others' perspectives, and more importantly, we are not as well-liked as we may think. People get tired of listening all the time and they may start avoiding those who talk too much. They quickly figure out who speaks effectively, and who is just full of empty words. Personally, I feel that there is no need to say anything if it is not meaningful. And if you don't have anything meaningful to say, the best gift to give yourself and those around you is to simply keep quiet.

Thursday, June 2, 2011

The gift of giving

Giving is an act, which so many of us don't see as a gift but rather as a duty, a strategy of exchanging, or a quick way of getting rid of things we no longer want or need. Yet, there is a form of giving that is really a gift, and Winston, an old friend of mine, recently provided a good example of that.

Winston had heard from his coworker George that he (George) had a neighbor who was experiencing some hardship. The man had lost his house, job, and would soon also have to give up his car. George told Winston that he had temporarily granted this neighbor a room in his own place, even though he was not too happy with the situation. The neighbor had not exactly lived the most righteous life, and was greatly responsible for the troubles he was now experiencing.

Winston did not know George's unfortunate neighbor, but as he was contemplating about the plight of this man, his heart went out to him. He remembered an old saying he had seen somewhere: "Hodi Mihi – Kras Tibi" (Today it's me, tomorrow you). He realized that life is full of unpredictable surprises, and that it’s not up to us to judge others. So, Winston went to the store for a good packet of groceries, and handed it to George the next day, requesting for George to give this to the unfortunate neighbor. When George wanted to thank him, Winston shook his head and said, "I wish we could all understand the importance of giving without expecting anything in return. I consider this an honor, and I know the universe will make a note of it."