There is much we don’t know about. While we may know about our own lives and that of close family and friends, our area of work or what is happening near where we live, there is much going on that we don’t know about. It is good to be curious, good to listen to others and good to learn about new things. Recently I have become a convert to saying, ‘I don’t know’ after years of saying, ‘I know’.
The reason comes from a childhood incident when a teacher told me I was stupid because I confessed that I did not know the words to a Christmas carol by heart. I was being truthful but was upset when this woman declared that I was stupid in front of all my classmates. So I started saying ‘I know’ to everything and saying ‘Yes’ to everything. Both are stupid reactions but how is a child to know? I carried this shame and reaction in my heart for many decades although I had long left that school and teacher. It is only now that I realise that saying ‘I know’ is actually stupid. There is very little we know and most of what we know is of little importance. It is better to be humble and look at the world with new eyes of learning and gratitude. It is also such a release. When you say, ‘I know’, you are also waiting to be found out that you actually don’t know. So less stressful!
It is also so powerful to say this because you open your heart to new experiences, to be able to listen and to gain knowledge. Even if you find out later that you knew something, it still adds to your skill and knowledge to hear it from someone else. Most people are keen to talk and tell you something. So the ‘I don’t know, please tell me’ has actually increased my knowledge and I have made more friends by being able to listen. It doesn’t sound unprofessional at all- in fact it makes you look more professional by wanting to listen and understand colleagues. Social media wants you to look like an all-knowing clever (and barbed) quip-a-dozen personality. But opting out of that restriction is always an improvement to one’s life! Be simple, be ignorant- or to follow the quote beloved of Steve Jobs, ‘Stay hungry, stay foolish’.
I have a close relative who, until this week, I did not recognise as being depressed. The signs were all there- habitual untidiness, slowness, procrastination, hoarding and wearing of mismatched and old clothes (some of which were in tatters). She would refuse to visit others and refuse to let others visit her (except me).
I could see her habits were having a detrimental effect on her family and her children. The hoarding also helped to prevent others visiting her and her husband was complaining that they could not invite others. Her husband would come home from work and stand, drinking his tea because there nowhere to sit- just stuff everywhere.
I thought it was a simple case of being careless about her appearance. For many years, I sent her books and videos on decluttering, self improvement, spirituality, household management, and even fashion. She never read or saw anything I sent her, instead all this piled up on the existing clutter. I’d cajole her sometimes and sometimes plead with her. I took her to other people’s homes on other pretexts but I was secretly hoping that she might be inspired by other’s tidiness. Each time I visited, I would tidy up her place, hoping that the change would inspire her to keep it that way. She would refuse to part with anything, so I would leave these things in a bin bag and pray that after I left she would throw the rubbish away. Each time after a few days, the place would go back to how it was. She would explain that she was so busy that she had no time to tidy up but in reality she was at home, not working elsewhere. Her home was her work.
She resisted any efforts to ‘improve’ her. People would always talk about ‘poor her’ and how she could not manage- and I didn’t like hearing people talk like this about her. But I felt there was nothing I could do. Slowly I stopped visiting her, instead I would ring her from time to time.
This week has been the Mental awareness week in the UK, and I was listening to a young woman on the radio talking about her depression. One of the things she said that struck a chord with me was that she deliberately wore tattered or mismatched clothes to draw attention to her mental state, i.e. she would use her choice of clothes, instead of words, to show the world what her mind was going through. I realised that my relative was doing exactly the same. I had failed to understand that and instead in a superficial way, was trying to ‘correct’ her. I feel extremely ashamed now of what I had been trying to do. Instead of seeing her inner life state (depression), I was viewing it as a superficial problem, which could be solved through ‘logical’ and rational means such as self help videos and books. I had been extremely insensitive for decades while she had descended into chaos- she wanted help in other ways but not through books and videos. She had let me into her life perhaps hoping that I would help her but I had failed to even grasp the problem for years. I had failed, not her!
I have now reflected on my own selfishness and ignorance and am no longer going to tell her how to live her life or tidy her home. Instead, I am hoping to rekindle our friendship and love- and help her in the way she wants. People sometimes confuse grief and depression and I had done that too in this case. In some decluttering books and videos, hoarding is viewed as signs of grief and loss. People are asked to look at things and ask if they ‘spark joy’ and to let them go if they don’t. While grief is a natural response to a loss, while depression is an illness. People who are grieving find their feelings of sadness and loss come and go, but they’re still able to enjoy things and look forward to the future. In contrast, people who are depressed don’t enjoy anything and find it difficult to be positive about the future. So for depressed people, nothing sparks joy- this is a useless question to ask of hoarders who are also depressed. This is what was going on with my relative. This incident also showed me how judgmental and insensitive I was- I am grateful for my relative for helping to reveal this part of my nature to me. After all these years, I realised I needed to work on myself, not her! She was my mirror but I had not looked properly.
Have you faced a problem like this, trying to help someone close to you? How did you go about it? Let me know by commenting.
Every day I burn incense sticks while praying and have began to notice something about them. If they are together, they burn for longer while single sticks burn more quickly. As a money saver, this appealed to me and so I have always burned at least three sticks together. But there is a bigger lesson here too. This is about unity, friendships and working together. There are phrases such as ‘united we stand, divided we fall’ in different forms in different faiths. There is also the famous story attributed to Aesop, about the father, who on his deathbed, invited his sons to break a bundle of sticks which they couldn’t. When the sticks were separated, they broke easily.
With unity and a common passion to make life better for humanity, we can become stronger and last longer. People who work alone without regard for others become lonely and less creative. Business away days, brain storming, networking, collaborative working, hot-desking – working together has many names these days. But it essentially means when working for the common good, you achieve a lot more together than going for it alone. In Buddhism, this is called ‘Itai Doshin’ or many in body (which acknowledges our diversity) and one in mind (which acknowledges the singularity of our purpose). Buddhism says that our interdependence can be compared to the threads of a woven fabric- the vertical warps and the horizontal woof. If one string is pulled, all strings in the fabric will react.
In a letter written at a time when society was broken into small communities and persecuted by feudal lords, the Buddhist teacher, Nichiren wrote, ‘If the spirit of many in body but one in mind prevails among the people they will achieve all their goals, whereas if one in body but different in mind, they can achieve nothing remarkable.’ Today when society appears to be broken by wealth, religion, wars, and cultures, and we face a common catastrophic end to the planet we live on, it might be useful to remember that unity is better than disunity if we are to reach our common goals of a healthy, happy and peaceful planet.
This year we have lost many wonderful amazing human beings who made this planet a better place- my father being one of those. He was a maths teacher and lived his life the way he wanted to, despite threats and ridicule, helping the poor and disadvantaged. There are many like him, who have died unknown. Their legacy lies in themselves, while the luckier ones also achieved fame (see the quote from Stan Lee below). Regardless of whether you achieve fame or not in the end, I think the greatest achievement is to live your life in your own way, using your talents to help others.
Here I have selected some quotes from more famous people to reflect on, and to provide inspiration for the year ahead. These humans weren’t perfect because no one can be and you may not like them but what they say is an enduring testimony to the power of inspiration. Some quotes will make you even think about fame in a different way. Let me know if any of these appeal to you or if you have other inspiring quotes from people who passed away this year.
“However ordinary each of us may seem, we are all in some way special, and can do things that are extraordinary, perhaps until then… even thought impossible.”
– Sir Roger Bannister (UK athlete and neurologist, who broke the human speed record)
“Every guy in the world would love to be Mr Macho, but I am camp and you cannot lie to the public. If you’re yourself, they’ll either love you or they won’t.”
– Dale Winton (UK TV presenter)
“Because you run against each other, that doesn’t mean you’re enemies. Politics doesn’t have to be uncivil and nasty.”
– George HW Bush (past US president)
“Nothing in life is more liberating than to fight for a cause larger than yourself, something that encompasses you but is not defined by your existence alone.”
– John McCain (US senator)
“Every time I go to a comic book convention, at least one fan will ask me: ‘What is the greatest superpower of all?’ I always say that luck is the greatest superpower, because if you have good luck then everything goes your way.”
– Stan Lee (US creator of many superhero comic characters)
“Being a singer is a natural gift. It means I’m using to the highest degree possible the gift that God gave me to use. I’m happy with that.”
– Aretha Franklin (US singer)
And finally these great words-
“One, remember to look up at the stars and not down at your feet. Two, never give up work. Work gives you meaning and purpose and life is empty without it. Three, if you are lucky enough to find love, remember it is there and don’t throw it away.”
– Professor Stephen Hawking (UK scientist)
In 13th century Japan, a low caste priest, Nichiren, who was exiled to a desolate snow covered island in the deepest winter after surviving a beheading ordered by the ruler due to a fortuitous arrival of a comet, wrote to a poor fisherman, Abutsu, who brought him some gifts of food-
Now the entire body of Abutsu Shonin is composed of the five universal elements of earth, water, fire, wind and ku…Therefore, Abutsu-bo is the Treasure Tower itself, and the Treasure Tower is Abutsu-bo himself. No other knowledge is purposeful…You may think you offered gifts to the Treasure Tower of Taho Buddha, but that is not so. You offered them to yourself. You, yourself, are a true Buddha who possesses the three enlightened properties.
I have often thought of these lines, particularly during this Christmas. For many years, I have been receiving some terrible gifts or none at all. While gift giving is part of the celebration of many religions, particularly Christmas, it can also be wasteful if you have received something that is not needed. So many of these gifts ended up being regifted or sent to charity shops, which was probably not intended by the giver. Also, at the time when everyone is receiving gifts, if you don’t receive them, it can be hurtful. This year, I decided to do something I’ve never done before- give a gift to myself. I realised I had never actually thought myself worthy of receiving a useful gifts. I also thought of some unkind ways in which I had dealt with givers of ‘useless’ or terrible gifts. I also would buy lovely expensive gifts for others, and ask others not to give me anything- thereby creating a miserable and peculiar martyr syndrome which was ‘I love receiving good presents but I don’t really deserve any’. Reflecting on this past history made me see how I had made myself less likely to receive good gifts- the ones that William Morris would described as beautiful and useful.
So I selected the most opulent gift bag I had kept intending to give to someone else as usual. In it I placed my best dark chocolates which I had again bought to give to someone else. I also put in the bag, a lovely Christmas card which I had kept for someone else. You may think this is strange, but for me keeping the best things for others was perfectly normal!
Yesterday during Christmas, I had the surprise of my life when I received the most beautiful and useful gifts ever! I also received the most cards ever. Although, by now I wouldn’t have cared about the gifts, they also revealed to me that if you don’t care or nurture yourself, you will not receive that back from the environment. Truly, you don’t give gifts to others, you give to yourself. How you treat yourself is how others treat you.
My father died two months ago and I am still coming to terms with his passing. There were many personal issues for me which were separate from those of my siblings, and I realise I have to deal with these in my own way and in my own time. The pain of these thoughts and processes are present with me each moment. Although I am trying to get back to work, immersing myself in new projects and also practising mindfulness, the sad thoughts still manage to infiltrate and I am forced to acknowledge the rawness of that pain.
But what has equally been painful and saddening has been to find out how many ‘false friends’ I had on social media. Now don’t get me wrong. I have consciously had under 85 friends on Facebook, rooting out people who didn’t seem to respond to my posts, whose posts I didn’t relate to, and who knew me for less than five years. I thought I could manage to take in the stories and posts of these 85 people and posted thoughtful and relevant comments on their posts. I have friends from all over the world and it is easy to keep in touch via Facebook this way. I thought I had the perfect system not to get drawn into the dangers of Facebook with my more or less perfect set of friends. I also chose not to show my birthday, and instead people who remembered would automatically wish me. This happened and I was reassured. I was also careful not to post many photos of my father who was deteriorating in health and of other family members who might be sensitive to the exposure.
However, when my father died, for the first time I posted a photo of me and him together as a cover photo along with a very short tribute poem for him, and his birth and death dates. I didn’t want to announce, ‘My father is dead’- I felt this was a much better and personal way. That cover photo got 34 ‘responses’ with 24 ‘likes’, three ‘sad’ and 10 ‘loves’ and 18 comments. I did not post that photo to get ‘likes’ or ‘loves’- it was my way to inform my ‘friends’ some of whom who had met my father. What I wanted was some show of genuine love and support for me, even some words of condolences to acknowledge the passing of my father, who was also a very brave man who had helped many. But I realised that people had only looked at the photo, did not bother to read the poem and clicked on ‘like’ buttons- out of the 34, only 12 had read the poem and realised its significance. They wrote their condolences and I thanked them- this should have alerted the non-responsive ones but none came forth. They’d done their like and that was the end of the interaction for them. I felt sad that for someone who had helped so many, how few remembered his passing. I’m ‘friends’ with one person and her mother on Facebook. When they both wished me happy birthday last month, I wrote a private message to them to say that my father had died (giving them the benefit of doubt in case they hadn’t noticed). The mother wrote back to say how sorry she was and said that her daughter was too busy to write to me. Too busy to write eight words, “I’m sorry to hear about your father’s passing” ?! And I had thought these were my genuine friends.
In Japan and many other Buddhist countries, people do not celebrate anything for a year after the passing of a close relative. As Buddhist, I have decided to have a ‘Facebook fast’ for a year. I have deleted my twitter accounts. I have posted couple of times on Instagram, photos of the sky which my father used to love as way of remembering him. I use Linkedin as it is for work and have posted a few things only recently. Now having had the realisation about how false this sense of friendship on Facebook and social media is, I realise why I am not getting any ‘likes’ and not even my so called friends asking me why I haven’t posted for so long. So I am not just mourning the death of my father but also of friendships and kicking myself for not realising how shallow social media is, no matter how careful you try to be. I have started talking to people in a more genuine way, listening respectfully and carefully to them. Who knows I might get some genuine friends now?
Last week was half term. It was also the week that my neighbour left her flat, I think, forever. She is 41, with a loving family and two children- aged 18 months and 6 years and dying of cancer. I first came across her, bubbly bouncy and very French. I used to talk to her, waiting for the lift or seeing her somewhere in the building. I remember her being pregnant with her second child, pushing the young baby, and then being a working mother. Then she sort of disappeared. I was busy and sometimes I passed by her door, thinking perhaps she’d left but I never knocked on her door to say hello.
Then one day, a courier left a parcel for me with her. When I came back home, I knocked on her door to get the parcel. The person who opened the door was no longer the bubbly, bouncy woman I had known- a thin, tired woman appeared, barely struggling to get to the door. But again, I didn’t ask. Bizarrely I am ashamed to say, I even thought, perhaps she is on a diet or something (not that she was fat anyway). I thanked her and left with my parcel. But something didn’t feel right. So a couple of days later, I emailed her to ask her if she was okay. Then she told me that she had cancer. Then over the next two years, I began to email her, sending her little gifts or books, things for her children and asking her mother about her. I knew she had an aggressive form of cancer that was spreading fast, so I didn’t knock on her door as I didn’t want her to come to the door. Over the two years, it was like a yo-yo, sometimes she looked good and positive, sometimes thin and tired. I continued to pray for her. I wanted her to win over this terrible disease and I never doubted that she would.
Then two weeks ago, I got this email-
“I went to the oncologist last Friday with my husband and was told that they could no longer offer any treatment. My last chemo did not work and will cause more suffering at this stage to continue with the current or new treatment. I have therefore decided to spend some time in France with my family for now.”
I emailed her to say, I’d like to take a photo with her before she left but she said, “when I come back”. I realised then that she didn’t want her photo taken and also that she was saying good bye. And that all memories don’t need photos. So I emailed her a sketch I made many years ago during of my time working and living in France-
She thanked me and that was it. Last week, when I saw the furniture and removals van, I stopped to ask her husband who was at the door. He said she was resting and they were leaving soon. I wished him well and asked to be in touch. I don’t think I will see her again. But her door, soon with new occupants, will remind me, why we must knock on doors and ask how people are. Ask when things look not quite right, help and encourage people- you never know how short time you have with them.