Insight of the day

‘If you are depressed you are living in the past. If you are anxious you are living in the future. If you are at peace you are living in the present’,  Lao Tzu

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This is my friend’s five year old.  While I was talking to his dad about future projects, our worries and the state of the world, this young man decided to enjoy his surroundings.  While the grown-ups’ talk was getting darker and depressive, this child found my Venetian mask and said he would put on a ‘funny face’.  As soon as we saw him, we all started to laugh.  The present moment was alive again.  I realised we were having a dinner party and we weren’t actually enjoying it.  We were drawn back to the present, thanks to the intuitive wisdom of a five year old!

De-cluttering: part 1

I have just come back, having spent a couple of weeks decluttering my elderly and disabled parents’ home.  One of the triggers for this was watching a Youtube video where someone was describing house clearing after their parent’s death.  Don’t get me wrong- I am not wishing for an early death of my parents but this is was a practical necessity as my parents do not have the time and inclination to declutter now. They were brought up in extreme poverty and have got into the habit of extreme saving.  They have kept everything from scraps of rags, my school books to letters, just in case, even though they no longer had any use for these.  There was a danger from not only vermin infestation and hygiene issues but also the clutter was in the way of them getting about their lives- my mother often fell down as she hit something.  I have often helped other people after their deaths to declutter but with my parents, I wanted to do it now to help them to make their lives easier.

The decluttering was physically and mentally very tiring- I had to stop often and rest.  It is also very interesting to see what people collect towards the ends of their lives.  In the case of the people I had helped in the past, I remember a man with over 40 mirrors and a  lady with a room full of scented soaps!  In my parents case, while they used only 20% of the space and contents, the rest was full of books and stuff left by my siblings.  They also had huge amounts of kitchen paraphernalia and crockery- mostly not needed now as they only used one or two plates.  While I was clearing the stuff, I also went through my own therapy. I saw how what my parents had collected was also reflected in my own home- too many books and crockery!  Why did I do this?  Even though my parents must have influenced me, I cannot blame my parents as I have had enough time to correct this tendency myself.  But I found it very interesting to see how my childhood in a cluttered home had led to my own clutter and disorganised home.

Some people react in different ways to their childhood environments- some children grow up to be very organised as an antidote to their parents’ disorganisation.  In my and my siblings cases, we had all become very disorganized and cluttered as we grew up.  So when I returned home, I started to take a deep look at what was in my home and where.  My mother is especially grateful to me as we managed to sell some of the stuff and make some money.  However, I am even more grateful to her for letting me do this and also take the decluttering further and clean up my own environment.  For those who want to declutter, it might be a useful thing to examine the place they grew up in- it might offer clues as to why you are what you are now.  This decluttering of my own place has had effect on my own children- they have naturally begun to give things away and keep their bedrooms tidy- a small trickle effect.  This is much better and more effective solution than nagging at your children to be tidy.

Now the clutter of my parents has a very different origin to my own but the effect is the same.  My parents wanted to save every scrap of thing that they had because they were poor while I just have too many things.  So regardless of the intention, the effect manifests in similar ways.  Some people believe that by treating the cause, you will cure the problem.  But I believe that just like how you can change your mental attitude by forcing yourself to smile, in a similar way, this problem can be tackled by just removing the clutter.  As soon as I moved her stuff outside to the yard and the rooms began to look clear, my mother began to clear up other areas of the house herself.  She needed to experience the clarity of the space to get clarity of her intention.  It is said that making people clear up their clutter is impossible but I think through this experience, it can be done.  In fact, each person comes to the point when it all gets too much and they want someone to help them.  It is at this point that this kind of help can be given, not before.  My mother wasn’t ready before.  The fear of letting go of things is tied to the fear of dying, as people relate their possession of things to their lives.  Letting go is very freeing and empowering- that relates to both possessions and people!

How to deal with bullies

I am dealing with my 12 year old son’s bullies right now.  For many weeks, I have not seen him smile and he looked tired all the time.  He was being bullied with physical, racist and homophobic (yes, even that age, bullies use all sorts of excuses) abuse in school.  Initially I told him to ignore it and deal with it with humour.  After he was set upon by the gang of boys last week, I was livid and complained to the school.  I also found out that my son hadn’t told me about the attack because he was ashamed.  Here is what I have learnt in the last ten days-

  1. Bullies, like other people, change when they want to.  They won’t change because you want them to.  Don’t stay with a bully thinking that they will change.
  2. Bullies cannot be appeased by good humour and manners.  This brings out more of their ugliness. Do not associate with bullies- get away from them and leave them to deal with the emptiness of their lives.
  3. Bullies only listen to fear, so put fear into them by reporting it.  Transmit it widely because the only thing the bullies care about is their image and their power.  Bullies do not like reciprocal or equal relationships.
  4. Let children and all vulnerable people know that bullying is never okay and never to sit in silence.  Bullies love it when people take it without complaining. Never be ashamed of reporting bullying.
  5. Build up the broken self esteem of the bullied person with love and support.  Find other people who can support the bullied person. Build a fortress of love and teach that person to always respect themselves.

Critical

I was thinking about how I used to like the ‘likes’ on my social media pages.  Now, they don’t matter so much.  So I began to reflect on why that might be?  I know that since starting these pages and sharing my thoughts, I have also began to clarify my feelings and experiences. Consequently I am feeling stronger and happier than I ever was before.  Childhood experiences often shape us stealthily and it is much later when we ourselves become parents that we start thinking about these experiences.  Thinking back to my childhood, I had a very critical father.  Some of my work involves being critical- writing and to choosing employees, etc.  But was I transferring my critical habits at work to my home?

Now, being critical has its good points and bad ones.  Critical people are able to distinguish between important issues, make choices and reflect on things intelligently.  In the fields of arts and literature, being critical helps us to edit and curate our choices.  However, taken too far, being critical, can be very dangerous.  Especially where personal relations are concerned. If someone is very critical, then they are less likely to have close friends or family.  Critical people also have a need to be in control and to have a say in everything.  Criticism can become all consuming anger at every one and everything that is not going someone’s way.  Having an overtly critical parent can turn to us to wanting love and attention in other ways.  Wanting ‘likes’ might be way of saying I need love and attention because I am not getting it in other ways.

I breathed a sigh of relief when my younger son announced the other day that he was not going to go for a school prize that is given to ‘popular’ children- that is popular with teachers.  He said that he would be pleased to get it on his own terms (he is a polite and popular boy anyway).  He didn’t want to do things like writing poems or ‘thank you’ letters to teachers for no reason, staying on for extra lessons (not because they want to learn but to earn points), smiling all the time, etc.  He said he just wanted to be himself and if anyone thought he was good, then it was fine.  Here was a boy who used to be anxious to see how many ‘likes’ he was getting in the social media posts.  I realised that I had become happier, let go of the past and become less critical, so my son was a result of the change in my parenting.

Finding authenticity

I am starting this year by finding what values I respect the most and what I don’t.  I discovered that I don’t have to agree with anyone nor that they should agree with me. Instead what I love about a person is that they hide themselves by concealing something about themselves or conversely by highlighting something else.  I have been disappointed by someone who not only hid the fact that they are Jewish (why would anyone do that?!) but also that they show how perfect they are- posting photos of their first class flight tickets, giving details of their home improvements and that their daughter is doing so well at school or ballet lessons in their New Year round robin letters, etc. all the time hiding that the couple’s marriage is non existent and that their son does not like his parents.  I wouldn’t dislike this man if he told me about his problems or disrespect him.  But such is the world of today that we present our perfect selves to one and all- nothing less than perfection will do.

However, trying to be perfect is so hard.  One has to tell lies, hide facts and keep up the pretence.  It is much more simpler to be authentic- no lies, no concealing, and no stress.  Being authentic is not hard, being unauthentic is.  However, being authentic takes courage because you have to show your weakness and vulnerabilities.  But I’d rather be with a courageous person than with someone who does not trust me to appreciate their weakness and failures.  This is a complex paradox but worth thinking about- who do you want to be with and who do you want to be?

When children grow up

My younger son is now at a stage when babyish words, songs, cuddles, etc are an embarrassment.  He has his smartphone which he uses to organise get togethers with his friends and his own time.  He doesn’t need me to wake him up or remind him to do his school work. I don’t have to pick him up from school or take him there.  He was the last of my babies- who has grown up.

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Needless to say, it is sad for me.  Although there is much more time I have for myself, there were many days, when I felt unwanted and abandoned.  It took me many weeks to dissociate my feelings for myself from that of what was happening to my son.  He had to grow up, of course and I knew that.  Gradually I have learnt to be grateful for this time that has suddenly been released to me and be grateful for that independent young man he has become.  Life is a series of losses- as we age, we lose people, we lose things and ultimately face the biggest loss of all, life itself.  However, that is what life is and if we can accept that and learn to be grateful for everything, then all our love and humanity will be revealed in what we do.

think before you speak

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Yesterday I called my younger son ‘stupid’ in front of his friends.

This morning I apologised to him profusely and told him that it was not him who was stupid but I.

Yesterday I had been helping out at my son’s school annual summer fair.  I had made some organic elderflower cordial which he was selling at a stall.  I had given him some spending money for food while I was running another stall.  After he came back to ask for more money, I realised that he had used his money to buy my own elderflower cordial at his own stall.  I don’t know what kind of logic he followed because he could have had that cordial any time at home.  The cordial was supposed to be sold to visitors.  Of course, now he had run out of money to buy food.  In the heat of the moment, I called him ‘stupid’ for doing that.

This morning having had some rest, I thought about the repercussions of what I had called him. First I had insulted him in front of his friends.  Second, thought occurred that perhaps he had been generous and honest (also rather loving of his mother’s elderflower preparation), rather than been ‘stupid’. Third, I was mindful that whatever we call our children, they become that.  I remember all the phobias and fears I have inherited from my parents and it is only now, after several decades I am getting rid of them.

I thought of all the alternate ways I could have dealt with the situation. I could have taken him aside and told him that I could not understand the logic of his actions.  I could have joked and told him in a pleasant way not to spend any more money buying things that we already had at home and instead, spend his money on food.  I thought I would have never spoken to an adult like that and yet, felt free to call my own son stupid.  Surely I was also stupid. So this morning, we had a little chat about it and he said that he had been hurt by what I had said. I said I was very sorry.  I also explained why I had said what I had said, wrong as it may be.  We both laughed it off.

Children pick up on little things we say rather thoughtlessly; and what they say and do later are reflections of what we are saying and doing.  I would be mortified if he called someone else stupid.  So I have decided not to be stupid myself again and think before I speak! I also gave myself a pat on the back for apologising to my son.  Hopefully that is something he has also learnt to do now.

A beautiful mind- rediscovering my father

Now things have changed and mental health is gradually being given a recognition. Sadly for us, this is a little too late- my father is towards the end of his life. He cannot write or paint or watch the skies anymore.

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I have to confess I didn’t know my father until last month.  He was always working when my sisters and I were young and seemed very strict (he did not like noise).  I did know that he was brilliant a maths teacher and he could do huge sums faster than a calculator.  Now he is blind and disabled and unable to look after himself.  He suffers from Parkinson’s disease as well.  I went home for about a month to sort out his financial matters and get my mother’s eyes operated because she is the sole carer for my father. Working my way through my father’s papers over a few weeks, I uncovered many beautiful and terrible secrets that he had kept quiet about.

Apart from the incongruous materials in the 21 plastic bags that I sifted through (for example, two pairs of shaving sets, someone’s cheque book, x-ray sheets, medical reports and other things), my mother handed me two ‘special’ bags, which she said, he always carried with him. But in those two bags, I found many diaries ( and our school reports of which he was proud). I was trying to find out why there were 24 bank accounts but I discovered other things.  My father kept meticulous short notes in the diaries- ‘X delivered papers to me at 7-30 pm’.  But amongst those mundane observations were also one liners, ‘Watched sunset’ or ‘Looked at the stars tonight’.  I remembered how we used to discuss the clouds, stars and skies- those were lovely memories. He also liked to take photos and draw with water colours.  He had a great interest in rural technology and always helped anyone who came from the village to the city- although as a child, I resented anyone sharing our tiny one bed roomed home. I found a notebook with his lovely flowing handwriting about his teacher’s training- ‘The aim of teaching mathematics is to increase the thinking power and reasoning abilities of the student.’

But there were also letters that spelt out how he had been bullied at work, his pay withheld and once even assaulted.  As a child, I remembered these incidents but had not understood them- like my father coming back from his school in not a very good mood, not having enough money (I found the well-thumbed ‘ration card’ which listed the broken rice riddled with weavils in particular that we used to eat). I remembered one incident when someone had come to apologise for something.  All those memories suddenly made sense to me.  My father was a proud and honest man, who had worked his way into the big city from an impoverished background in the village.  But to some bullies who were already established, this good looking and clever man was a threat.  So not only did they make fun of him but also got students to do this for them.  His family also inadvertently became victims of bullying. I remember hearing about a student coming with a knife to threaten him because my father had prevented him from cheating at the exams.  I remember us walking back after an evening celebration and being followed by some students from his school and my mother saying to us, ‘Don’t look back or answer’.  I didn’t know why she was saying this and I was petrified.

Now my mother tells me that the students were making fun of my father because he had bought a big piece of cloth, enough for two shirts (to save money) and they called him a miser for having two shirts made of the same cloth. I found counterfeit bank notes folded up in his diary that had been given to him as payment. I don’t know how we must have managed without as we were already so poor.  No wonder he was working so hard.  He kept quiet about this. I found some newspaper cuttings where his plight at not being paid had been highlighted in the press.

All this followed me when I went to the University. I was happy when I saw ex-students from that school had joined the same course but they gave me strange looks when I proudly mentioned that my father was that famous maths teacher from their school.  One of them was distinctly cold to me and I often wondered what I had done (and in fact, I was shamed that he did not think I was good enough to be his friend).  I tried so hard.  Now I know that their behaviour had nothing to do with me.  I don’t know when my father’s mental health deteriorated beyond repair and therapy.  He was a very sensitive man and the many years of abuse simply overwhelmed him.  There is only so much a person can take. I feel sad that I did not understand all this was happening and that my father, protected us by simply keeping quiet and venting his feelings in his diaries.  No wonder he carried his diaries with him all the time- he was ashamed and did not want anyone to know about his humiliation.

Now things have changed and mental health is gradually being given a recognition.  Sadly for us, this is a little too late- my father is towards the end of his life.  He cannot write or paint or watch the skies anymore.  If I should meet these people again, I have the confidence and self esteem to no longer want to be friends with them.  They may not understand my father or me yet but I hope one day they will have enough compassion and wisdom to recognise the beautiful mind which taught them and gave them the means to that wealth and power. I hope they will be able to express their gratitude to their teacher someday.  For me, I feel I have paid that debt of gratitude to my father now.  As Nichiren says, “The old fox never forgets the hillock where he was born; the white turtle repaid the kindness he had received from Mao Pao. If even lowly creatures know enough to do this, then how much more should human beings! …Surely they should not forget the debts of gratitude they owe to their parents, their teachers, and their country.”