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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!

Saturday, February 16, 2013

The Gift of Loving our Animal Friends

Molly is a horse with three legs*. Oh, she was born in perfect condition, but during the floods caused by Hurricane Katrina in Louisiana, she was abandoned by her boss. After weeks of wandering around in flooded areas, she was found and taken to a farm where abandoned animals were harbored. Unfortunately, Molly's misery did not end there, because she was attacked by a pitbull who mangled her right foreleg. As it usually goes with social cases, Molly was not a priority for the vet, because there was no one who could pay the bill. Luckily the vet saw her and was moved with compassion. He saw how careful Molly treated her damaged leg and how she would lay in ways that she would not acquire any additional wounds. He also saw how she allowed people to help her. This horse wanted to survive and the vet decided to help.

Molly's mangled leg was amputated just below the knee and she received a provisional prosthetic leg. From there on, things improved steadily. A prosthetic specialist made her a permanent prosthesis and thanks to her balanced attitude Molly regained her zest for life. Today, she even notifies others when she wants her prosthetic leg attached or removed and best of all, she even has a job! Molly and her new owner visit hospitals and other places where people, especially children, have lost the will to live. With her presence and the story about her survival many get encouraged to work on their recovery with renewed energy.

Stories like Molly’s can be found around the world. Animals can be our greatest friends if we let them. We only need to be receptive to their generous, giving nature in order to experience how kindhearted most of them are. And then, it should be self-explanatory that we should also be there for them when they are in distress.

It is this last part that is sometimes lacking among humans. We want our animals to be there for us when we need them, but when it is the other way around, we often feel as if we cannot invest as much time, love and energy in them.

I therefore welcome the initiatives of many animal shelters and entities who go out of their way to save abandoned or mistreated pets and try to give them a new, loving home. The most painful truth is that many people think they are animal lovers, and choose to remain in complete ignorance about their actions. Think of the many people who state that they love their birds, but keep them caged year after year? Or those who swear that they love their dog but keep them chained month after month with no running space and no time or chance to play? And think of all the people that walk around in zoos with great pleasure, totally ignorant to the suffering of those caged animals?

There's a nasty selfish basis in keeping animals captive for our enjoyment. It reveals our inability to relate to the fate of these animals that have received a life sentence without having committed any crime. However, we do have the ability to think and reflect, and I am inviting you to consider animals with more reflective depth -- not only your pets but all animals. Give them a chance of a life they can enjoy, please? Take good care of them. Feed them well, take them to the vet when they are ill, and grant them proper space to move and play? If your pet is always locked or chained because you are so busy, you might want to consider granting him or her some more time, or donating  him or her to someone who can muster more time and love? I do hope that you read this in the spirit in which it is intended: not as reprimand, but as a humble request from animal lover to another.