Reciprocation

I’ve seen myself walking a path through a barren land. In the distance, the very farthest end of the horizon, beautiful clouds gathered, non-threatening and cool in appearance. Rolling over itself casually as if waiting patiently for my arrival. I did not rush to meet it, because my companion was lagging behind. The sun where I stood circling in the sand, was beating down mercilessly. I could walk towards the comfort that awaited me, but my companion was looking worn and disheartened. From where she stood, the horizon looked very different. It was barren, just like the area surrounding us. She was too far back to see the clouds awaiting our arrival. So she slowed even more.

I too slowed down. I could see it for the both of us, so it didn’t matter that she couldn’t. What mattered was that we got there together. So I halted, waited, and slowly made my way back to her to help her along. Shielding her eyes with my hands in the hope that it may reveal the clouds, she continued to look back. Back at the barren land with traces of smoke still pluming into the sky from where she left. She kept looking back hoping for the smoke to stop, but it didn’t. And the smell still stuck in her nose taunting her with images of the horrors she had seen before leaving that place.

So I pulled her closer, steadied her footing, and gently nudged her forward so that we could start our journey again. The horizon slowly fading, even the clouds dissipating as I dragged the weight of us both towards that horizon. What little food and drink I had, I kept for her. She needed it more than I did. I could see the end in sight, and it gave me hope. She couldn’t see it, so she needed hope. And the little sustenance that remained was hope enough for her. If nothing else, it delayed the inevitable, as she peered over her shoulder again staring longingly at the plumes of smoke still barely visible in the distance.

She ate and drank and regained her strength, as I slowly wilted beside her. But I didn’t show my wilting spirit. She needed hope, and I needed to be strong. Each step drained me more, while each step infused a newfound sense of determination in her. As she picked up her pace, I started lagging behind. The clouds on the horizon now creeping into view for her, she finally saw what kept me going all that time. Almost spent, I needed a moment to gather my strength for that final push to tear us away from those plumes of smoke forever.

As I paused to rest, she grew impatient. I looked at her with the slightest smile on my face, as if asking her if she finally sees what I was pushing for all that time. Instead of a soft word, I received a scowl. I had now become the weight that was slowing her down to get to the destination that I fought to reach for the both of us. But that didn’t matter. The plumes were now gone, or even if they weren’t, she found hope to distract her from those plumes. Nourished with the little reserves we had left, she powered on and left me there, catching my breath, taking a moment to pause, to gather my strength so that I could stand up tall enough to get a glimpse of the clouds that was enough to feed my soul and my battered limbs.

The clouds. Even though I could no longer see them, I still knew they were there. She disappeared into the distance as I kept steadily advancing a single pace at a time, until I rediscovered my rhythm. The same rhythm that kept me going for the both of us before, was now more than sufficient to keep me going by myself. I gathered pace, and scanned the horizon. Suddenly, the clouds melted in a haze of heatwaves rising lazily from the sand. As I looked around, I realised it was a mirage, and to the right, a slight distance further, around the side of the rocky cliffs that flanked our journey for so long, it appeared majestically in lush green shades, and the whitest clouds. I wanted to call out to her to turn back, but she was gone.

[This attempt at a creative abstract personifies the journey that many of us take in our efforts to uplift others. Sometimes we expend ourselves to the point where we become the burden that we hoped to help others rise above. And sometimes, if we’re fortunate, we catch ourselves before we reach that nadir of our existence. That point that is so low, that looking up is too daunting, so we keep our gaze firmly fixed on the ground before us hoping for a sign as to when it will welcome us home. Today is not that day.]

Saturation Point

There is a price to be paid for believing in people before they give you reason to believe in them. That price extracts a toll that demands your contribution during the days when they see little reason to believe in themselves. It often results from years of betrayal or failed expectations, until eventually the way the world treated them became the definition of how they viewed themselves, and how they viewed you.

I’ve witnessed first hand how some rise to the challenge simply because they know that there is someone that believes that they can, while others recede and don’t even try because they know that there is no one that cares about the outcome either way. This resonates with me personally as well. I dropped out of school because no one noticed that I was uninterested and barely in school for a large portion of the year in the eleventh grade. So dropping out in the twelfth grade was an easy decision that went unchallenged. I didn’t particularly find it liberating or depressing. It just was that way, and at the time, the consequences were irrelevant. All that mattered was that no one noticed, so I had no reason to care either.

But that only lasted to a point. The complacency and lack of ambition annoyed me. It annoyed me because it felt like there was something missing. Something beyond the token of having completed school, or needing a job others would respect. That something was a need to be consequential. To make a difference.

Going with the flow never directed the flow. It only ever gave force to something already in motion. Sometimes, like dropping out of school, it felt irrelevant. Whether I was in or out didn’t matter, because the decision I had taken wasn’t a decision that mattered. I therefore gave up on the pursuit of something that seemed inconsequential because the effort to sustain something that I did not see any value in felt burdensome rather than purposeful.

Entering the job market in a menial role also didn’t matter. It was a means to an end. Career goals were not foremost in my mind and I had no intention of changing the world. I simply needed to sustain my basic needs and contribute to those around me within the limited expectations that they had of me. It worked, and human attachment didn’t feature at all.

That set the tone for things to come. At least it did until I realised that I always found a way to improve what I was doing even if improvement was not required. It wasn’t about reinvention, or fixing something that wasn’t broken. It was the excitement of realising that the little I had could do more than was originally intended. Whether it was a subconscious scream for purpose, or merely a frustration at seeing opportunities being wasted when someone could benefit instead, it drove me to constantly improve things without there being reward or recognition attached to it.

Without realising it, that became my overwhelming passion and ultimately defined what I saw as purpose in life. At the time, I did not see it as passion or purpose. It was simply who I was, and still am. But that’s how I perceive it (and me) to be. Anyone not party to that journey of mine simply sees a restless soul that is never satisfied or content with what he has before him. I guess such a view has merit, but it’s the same type of merit that suggests that planting a tree whose shade you will not live to enjoy is a fruitless exercise. Such thinking causes the child to be oblivious to the comforting shade of a tree. When that child discovers the comfort of the shade later in life, they then find themselves compelled to plant a tree whose shade they will never live to enjoy, so that another lifetime is not wasted in acquiring such comfort.

The energy to sustain such a drive for purpose in life is only acquired when the belief in the value it creates is held with conviction. That conviction fades when there is a constant barrage of critiques questioning the motives behind the contribution, rather than appreciating its outcomes or sharing its convictions. Eventually the conviction dulls and is replaced by the weightiness of ingratitude. That is the point at which caring becomes optional and servitude becomes obligatory.

We all have physical constraints and self imposed tolerances. We reach the saturation point of tolerance long before our capacity to contribute has been depleted. It’s easy to lose the essence of who you are in your service to others. A life invested in the upliftment of others often results in an under investment of the self. Like it has been so eloquently stated before, you cannot pour from an empty cup. What’s worse is that the cups that were filled by your investment are rarely willing to look back to see how empty yours had become in filling them.

Reaching saturation point means that the investment in what you saw as purpose starts to weigh you down more than the fulfilment of seeing its fruition lifts you up. It sets in when the contribution is constantly paid forward, but seldom is anything paid back.

[This is an incomplete and rather cryptic thought process, the value of which will escape most, and add yet another weight to the burden of investing in others. Perhaps it is an investment that was never intended to yield returns in this lifetime. Perhaps not.]

The Other Side Of Arrogance

This is the story of assumptions. Assumptions that we make about prickly characters and their tender counterparts. Assumptions we make about the motivation of people to act the way that they do, without realising that those assumptions are projections of how we believe we would act if faced with their circumstances, and then we judge them for it while cursing those that judge us under similar circumstances. 

Facebook is a social experiment for many, including its investors. More importantly, I experiment with it by occasionally mixing in populist sentiment with principled viewpoints that I know will make many people awkward or even infuriated. And every single time, it proves true that people only polarise towards those that make them feel good about themselves, and rarely towards those that force them to think critically. Everyone wants to have their struggle recognised, but no one wants to emerge independently from their struggles because most often, their struggles grow to define their significance. The arrogance that is reflected in this approach is not one that most would relate to because we assume by default that arrogance is only an attribute of those that live selfishly, abruptly, or obnoxiously. Most are incapable of separating arrogance from passion or conviction, much to their own detriment. 
Those that appear meek or subdued are often considered humble or downtrodden because of their apparently pitiful state, but there is an arrogance that runs deep in them as well. That arrogance is based on the belief that their state is so grave or overwhelming, that they should be celebrated for persevering, and they deserve all the compassion and assistance that their circumstance calls for. However, we’re too often so focused on the circumstance that we fail to consider their contribution towards enabling or causing their circumstance to arise. 

The arrogance sets in when we assume that we simply cannot be responsible for our woes. The unpleasant experiences of life must have been imposed on our soft and kind nature by other arrogant or selfish ones, and therefore we are the victims of their oppression long after they departed from our lives and left us with enough opportunity to choose differently. That arrogance is the belief that life owes us more, as if life is independent of our choices and our efforts to improve our state. 

The other side of arrogance emerges when we feel entitled to compassion, or we demand indulgence because we need an age old account to be settled before we let go of what’s holding us back. The other side of arrogance shows its ugly face when we define ourselves as damaged because we think someone else damaged us, while not realising that we subscribe willingly to being damaged and then abdicate responsibility for such a heinous choice. 

Arrogance is not the absence of humility. Instead, arrogance is the assumption of humility, and similarly, it is the assumption of feeling entitled to a kindness that is not yours to demand or expect. The moment you impose your expectations on others, regardless of how justified it may be, before you are willing to let go of a sour experience, you become arrogant, because what should be an act of conviction now becomes a transaction of emotional blackmail. 

Sadly, too many don’t realise this, and continue to live in self-constructed prisons while blaming the world for being cruel. 

Gratitude

I think gratitude runs much deeper than how we acknowledge those around us. Far too often we limit our expression of gratitude to affirmations, validations, or gifts. In some cases it’s my irksome peeve, the celebration of token events, like birthdays, mother’s day, father’s day, and the like. I think that if we stop for a moment to consider the decisions we make on a daily basis, decisions about how we respond to opportunities presented to us, we’ll quickly be able to determine how much we take for granted, versus how much we’re truly grateful for.

Those that take things for granted generally assume a complacent disposition, or at worst, are easily offended when their ego is hurt. This is probably one of the most destructive forms of ingratitude. I’m convinced that we shun good opportunities more than anything else when we find reason to take offence to not being validated, or choosing to believe that someone else’s inconsideration was a deliberate swipe against us. Whether it was or wasn’t is largely irrelevant. It only becomes relevant when we choose to acknowledge it, or act on it. If we ignore it and remain focused on the opportunity at hand, the swipe will remain impotent, and we’ll afford ourselves the ability to benefit from a situation that would otherwise have been lost to our egos simply because we pandered to their ego.

Gratitude is a simple thing. For me, it’s the setting aside of the ego in favour of the best possible outcome. Yes, there are a myriad of values and norms that we subscribe to that informs what that best possible outcome should be, but the point remains true nonetheless. From a practical standpoint, I think gratitude is as simple as waking up in the morning, taking care of yourself, and being true to your convictions. Everything else follows as a natural consequence from that point.

Being true to your convictions. Too many gloss over this notion as a philosophical idealism, while completely dismissing the fact that it is our abandonment of this notion that leaves us frustrated, demotivated, and mostly unfulfilled. Being true to your convictions is what will drive you towards being fair to others, celebrating the value that they add to your life, or simply paying forward what you benefited from in the past.

Convictions, I believe, is not defined by the statements we make about what is important to us, but instead, is related to the feeling we get in our chest when we waiver from the truth. That truth, again, is not something external in scriptures or policies, but rather that innate sense of fairness or justice that we subscribe to as human beings. That’s our natural disposition that we lose sight of when we’re driven by our egos. The ego is a slippery slope because it drives a reciprocal approach to life. It’s a constant cycle of repaying in kind the assumptions we make about being short-changed by others. In other words, we’re constantly looking to get even, or get ahead relative to someone else. This totally distracts us from whether or not we’re serving those convictions we hold within us.

The question then arises as to how well acquainted are we with those convictions? I’ve often said that knowing what to stop doing is often more important than knowing what to start doing. We’re so fixated on wanting to start a new behaviour that we don’t consider what we need to stop doing instead. Hence the placebo effect. It all ties together in the end, even though it seems complicated.

If I were to hazard a description of the cycle, I believe it will go something like this. We lose sight of what is important when we become distracted by what others think of us, without being grounded in how we want to be perceived independent of their preferences, and therefore end up serving a perception that we wish to be true, rather than the underlying substance that makes us authentic. In other words, when we lose sight of who we are, we become slaves to society. When we’re slaves, we falter in serving our convictions, but those convictions become increasingly foreign to us when we lose track of what we stand for. We lose track of what we stand for when we’re focused on gaining acceptance by fulfilling the expectations of others.

At this point, we become masters at knowing what they want, but in time, grow completely oblivious to what we need, or more importantly, what we need to contribute to others. Contribution is not the same as whoring for attention. The underlying motivation determines the difference between being fulfilled and feeling raped of your dignity when things don’t pan out the way you hoped. If you were driven by purpose, failure is just a lesson on your way to being more than you were yesterday. If you were driven by the need for inclusion or acceptance, failure can easily be the destruction of your sense of self.

Gratitude therefore rests precariously in the space between serving a higher purpose, and desiring to be perceived a certain way by others. Gratitude is what is expressed when you respond without considering what’s in it for you. Gratitude is expressed when you contribute because you can, and not because you need to be seen as a contributor. Gratitude is most sincerely expressed when you do for others what they need to live a less burdensome life, even if they don’t afford you a significant role in theirs. Gratitude is not based on tokens. It is not the events you celebrate on the calendar, but instead the life you live between those events. It’s not the birthday wish or the gift for the occasion, but the unexpected gift or the simple celebration of life that matters. Gratitude is appreciating what you have when you look to those that have less, rather than bemoaning what you don’t have when you look to those that have more. Affirmation of the loved ones in your life should be a natural consequence of the bond you share, and not a specific act that needs to remind them that they’re significant.

Gratitude. It’s what we let go of when we’re distracted by trophies.

The Ingratitude of Depression

During the period in my life when I was diagnosed as being clinically depressed, the thoughts that pervaded my consciousness were always focused on what went wrong, what didn’t work out, why it would be futile to try again, and so on. I felt abused and despondent, let down and betrayed. I looked around for an understanding glance, let alone an embrace, and all I saw were judging eyes and detached hearts. There were some that acted out of obligation, and others that meant well but didn’t have the capacity to contribute meaningfully, and then there was me. Isolated in my thoughts and frustrated at the cycle that kept leaving me on my butt.

The prescribed medication helped nothing except to give me a locked jaw and a dulled mind. When I emerged from my medicated state my reality remained unaltered, and my options were still bleak. It took a while before I realised that being a victim was a statement of ingratitude. As long as I saw myself as a victim, I discounted my blessings. Any acknowledgement of my blessings was always within the context of how little it mattered in the absence of everything else that I believed I was denied. I despised my state of being, and I was intensely unhappy with the way I was conducting myself.

Despite it not being a primary concern at the time, I remained aware of the responsibilities that I had towards those around me, although it was focused on the material and physical contributions from my side and little else. Meeting people with a cheerful disposition was optional, and being pleasant when being dutiful would suffice was a state that I seldom chose for myself. My dominant state was one of being occupied with thoughts of my unhappiness with the world, and with those around me that contributed to everything that I was denied. Those that didn’t speak when their words would have made a difference I saw as cowards and hypocrites, and often as opportunists. But even they were beside the point.

Remaining in a state of depression denied those around me of my non-material contributions that they had a right to. A pleasant environment, a sense of appreciation, a visible gratitude for their presence and contribution in my life, and so much more. It sounds contradictory relative to my complaints, but the truth is that even those that stay out of obligation contribute towards my experiences in ways I mostly only realise much later in life. One story that always comes to mind on this subject is from a workshop facilitator I met very early in my career. I remember him saying that his father was his greatest influence in life. His father used to spend every day all week sitting in his favourite armchair and reading the newspaper without any meaningful engagement with him. It was that persistent sight each day that inspired him to not be like his father. In the absence of that poor example, he may have followed the mainstream and never achieved any great moments.

But more importantly, it was his choice to take something positive from that experience that made the difference. His father failed him in his right to guidance, a sharing of wisdom, healthy debates and meaningful interactions that would feed a healthy self-esteem, but in the absence of that, he did not allow the actions of his father to define him. He moved on and pursued a greater purpose in spite of his upbringing. And that is what remaining in a state of depression denies us. It denies us the ability to pursue those greater callings, that higher purpose, that vision that seems so beautifully out of reach. In our state of depression, we not only deny the reality of that which we have reason to be grateful for, but we also deny those around us the motivation or reason to be grateful for their lot as well. We will never exist in isolation even when we isolate ourselves. The very nature of our birth tethers us to the human race.

But there is a rub in all this. As nonsensical as it may sound, neither is happiness nor depression a choice. Instead, they’re both outcomes of pursuing or abandoning a greater purpose respectively. When we lose sight of our purpose, or at least the pursuit of the same, we will find ourselves suppressing our needs for being associated with something greater than our selves, all the while convincing ourselves that we’re incapable or undeserving, only to be faced with the brutal reality of our betrayal while struggling to hold on to the last breaths of our existence.

Bad Investment

Investing in people when they’re down and out is one of the most painful things I do in my life, because when they’re over their trough of depression, they rarely want to know me. I think my presence in their lives beyond that point reminds them of their weakened state, and so to spare their ego, they’d rather block out the unpleasant phase and focus on being their new idea of awesome. 

In the meantime, I recede and watch from afar how they blossom now that they’re emerging from their darkness into a state of self-enlightenment, with a million questions forming in my mind about their present state, sometimes venturing as far as asking them a few, but receding again when my approach is ignored. And so the circle of life continues. For some, we’re here only to nourish them when all else fails, and for others, we’re only here to be nourished by them when all else fails. 

We can’t afford to be weak for a single moment longer than the time it takes to feel overwhelmed. The vulnerability is too scary, that’s why we have to detach ourselves from those that know of our weakness the moment we regain our strength, because we’re afraid that the reminder will hold us back, when in fact it only grounds us, and keeps us humble. But humility is not in vogue.