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15 February 2010

The Fringe Benefits of Failure and the Importance of Imagination

If we were going to give our own title to this unexpected piece of knock-your-socks-off inspiration, we'd call it "You haven't really lived until you almost die". Best selling author JK Rowling will take you through a heart-warming journey down to rock bottom, where you'll find the ground is solid enough to build a firm foundation on. And if you're young and you're having a crisis, you might find that it's a pretty good sign you're on your way to live a super meaningful life...

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Or a smile from someone who’s life I touched
Added: Sunday, 1 November 2009

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The other day my little boy was busy on one of his important missions: pulling himself up on the book-shelf and meticulously throwing down all the books he could. These are his first milestones and I try to enjoy them attentively, because I know how fast he will grow up and leave the house and live his own life. And I wonder what will his life look like when he does. Will he be happy?

I was engrossed in just this thought when down came a few more books and a piece of paper landed on the floor. It fell out of the pages of a prayer book and had my husband’s handwriting on it. As I began deciphering it, I realized it was a list of goals and aspirations. Among the many ambitious career goals, one of the most memorable objectives was “to be an awesome dad and spend at least 5 hours of quality time a day with my family”. It was beautiful to read a piece of my husband’s heart. He still doesn’t know why I hugged and kissed him as he came out of the kitchen that morning. He thought it was his cologne. In our day to day life, we often don’t leave any time for a piece of our heart and we get so engrossed in fault-finding and demanding, that we forget how tender and noble the human soul is anyway. Reading my husband’s note was a reminder of the loftiness we all seek.

We set out to do grand things. None of us thinks: hey, let me life a mediocre life and be a mediocre person. Let me be a fly on the wall or let me just kind of veg out. And yet many of us seemingly end up with “mediocre” lives. Or so we think, because the standard we measure our achievements by is often unattained. But maybe the standard is our problem, and no matter whether we become the star-surgeon, the famous actress or the renowned writer or not, we can in fact be great. It is just that we measure greatness by all the wrong standards.

This week’s video on Doubletake is about a manicurist from Washington DC who’s done more with her life than I can say I have. Outwardly I have a “better” education, a sexier job title and a swimming-pool in my back yard. Outwardly she lives from pay-check to pay-check and gave up her house. Outwardly, if we made a list of worldly aspirations, I would outdo her. And yet, she puts me to shame with what she has really achieved. If we were both to die tomorrow, my guess is that she’d leave with more satisfaction that I would….watch the video!!!

My point is that we can have all sorts of goals and aspirations, and some of them we will reach and others we won’t. But at the end of the day, it’s better for us to attach our sense of achievement to “serving others” rather than titles, wealth or recognition. Because although we can try and reach those things, we just don’t know if we will and we just don’t know if the sacrifices we make for them are worth it. “Service”, on the other hand; serving others in whatever capacity and by whatever means we have available at any given moment; is something that every single individual can achieve. Right here, right now.

And then when we look back to a long life and remember the first steps we took and the life we dreamed up for ourselves, we’ll feel like “Hey! Not bad at all”…

The best and worst of human conditions
Added: Monday, 31 August 2009

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I'm sure you've sat in the sun and enjoyed its warmth, soaking in the energy and enjoying the bright colors of the world around you. You've heard the sprinklers, smelled the grass and felt so alive you could split an atom. No matter how many tests you may have in your life, how much trouble may weigh on your shoulders, when you come across a sunny day that makes the colors jump out of their skin, nothing can stop you from smiling.

And then a cloud comes along. And instantaneously the world is dull and dark and horrid. You cannot believe your eyes, but you can feel it in your heart. It's like a lever is being pulled and you're going from elated to depressed. The colors fade, a chilly shiver runs down your spine and the very scene that so inspired you now looks depleted. Even hostile.

And then the sun emerges again and the lever is pushed back and you instantly forgive the clouds, for now everything is great and beautiful and good again...Have you ever felt this way?

This week a dear soul passed on to the next realm. She was a member of our community and struggled with cancer for many, many years. You would think cancer, illness, disease, war, hunger, poverty – these are among the worst things to befall any person or family. You would think it would have clouded and shrouded her sunny disposition. But far from it – she always had and gave plenty of light to those around her. So much so, that I, in fact, was among the few not ever to notice that she was even sick!

When death, or life after death came so suddenly to her it got me thinking. How was it, that in her life and in the lives of her dear husband and children one couldn't detect those large, dark clouds? And I realized that I was wrong. Illness, disease, poverty, misfortune – these things are not the clouds in our life. The clouds are when we don't have unity in our family. When we have unity in our family, it is as though the sun were shining brightly. When the sun shines I smile even though I have problems and life isn't perfect. And when your body is ridden with cancer, you still smile, because your family is coloring the world BRIGHT and beautiful.

But not all of us have unity in our lives. I'd say most of us don't. It starts with our families, but that sunshine or lack thereof continues in the reality that is our community, our nation – and of course – our world. We live in a world that is covered with clouds. Our world is a shadow of what it could be. We're a human family that is broken, estranged and divided. Our kids are rebelliously pubescent and our marriage is breaking up.

Just imagine: what chance could war, famine and disease have if we put up a united front? What chance would all the perils of the world have on us if only we strove for unity? How could those things ever defeat us and our sunny disposition if our human family was as united as my friend's family was?

Soar in peace, dear Debbie.

Added: Sunday, 9 August 2009

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August 12 marks International Youth Day and I have a great little story to inspire us. It's the story of my friend's son. My friend and her husband were called to their son's school one day. They were both a little worried and surprised. After all, their kid is the quintessence of gentle. What kind of trouble could he possibly be in? They arrived in school and the teacher began explaining what had happened in gym.

The kids were told to line up in the yard. Each was given a ball and they were then asked to run to the other side of the yard and drop their ball on the line. Ready, steady, GO! The kids began running as fast as their little feet could carry them, but this little boy was faster than the rest.

At this point in the story my friends exchanged a confused looked and wondered where the problem was? He's gifted! God bless! But the teacher continued.

Even though this little boy was faster than the rest, he would slow down, look back and deliberately delay his arrival at the line, so that he could reach it along with everyone else. He would literally sabotage his own advantage in order to make his friends not feel so bad. The teacher then took a deep breath and begged my friends to please teach their son to harness his gift and to use it to his best ability! The others were holding him back!

And now I ask you, dear readers. Which was this youth's gift? Was it his talent for running? Or did this teacher, with all his good will, miss the boy's real gift? The gift of putting others before himself?

If humanity has both the capacity for selfishness and selflessness, if we have both natures in us – which do we nurture and develop? What aspects of our character are drawn out in our current societal institutions and is it doing us any good? Is the world becoming a better place? What could it look like if we harnessed our ability to cooperate?

If Youth Day is about drawing inspiration and vision from our youth – then please, let's draw what we can from the story of this little boy (who's name will probably not remain in history) and his awesome parents, who – thank God – know to celebrate their son's gift for cooperation.

Is what we spend most of our lives doing
Added: Wednesday, 29 July 2009

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My life encompasses 3 decades so far. I spent the first decade waiting eagerly to be a teenager and adult. I spent the second decade waiting to finish school and study. I spent my third decade trying to figure out what will be my purpose and how I'll make my mark. With the exception of the first few years of my life, however, I've spent most of it waiting for something. And it's this sense of "one day..." that keeps getting worse:

"One day I'll be happy, have kids, be successful, rich..." – you fill in the blanks. We all have some vague sense of what we want and it comes down to this idea that whatever it is, it will make us happy and fill us up – "one day!"

But waiting is always tied to an outcome. You're waiting: for someone to come home, someone to grow up, someone to change, something to change; waiting to find your purpose, your dream partner, the dream life or house. And that's where things get ugly, because outcomes can disappoint – more often than not, they do. If we spend every day of our life constantly waiting for something to happen before we're happy, we'll spend the rest of our lives waiting for something to happen. Because even when they do happen, we realize that we're not fulfilled. Beyond every achievement or goal lies another horizon. It never ends and the sense of panic grows.

How about we begin today to just 'be' the happiness, the joy, we want in our life? Because these are the days of our lives! They're not growing in number, they're shrinking! If you were to be told that nothing were ever to change in your life from this day forward (externally), what would you need to work on acquiring; what virtue or strength would you need to develop in order to achieve happiness? Whatever that is, is what you should probably be focusing on. And maybe instead of 'waiting' we need to be 'patient'. Patience is not tied to an outcome. It is detached. It means that we try and we put ourselves out there, to be the best we can be, but that we find our fulfilment, our happiness, our elation today in exactly that effort and in nothing else.

If we're happy today, if we just start living and being who we want to be - today - and we start thinking and seeing the world we want to live in - today - then we will manifest that reality and things will change; our lives will change, Iran will change, Honduras will change, the housing market will get the picture.

A fine line
Added: Tuesday, 9 December 2008

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Birth and death seem like opposites and yet are they? A new life is born and to be born, it must die to another world. A baby dies to the womb and is born to this world. And how traumatic that experience may seem.

A child suddenly finds itself being pushed, thrust, heaved and lugged around by the very muscles that cushioned him for so long. At first, the contractions appear to stop and there is hope that they may go away. But soon they become more and more intense and eventually all hope of escaping them gives way to acquiescence.

Having no way of remaining in the comfort zone he's come to know the child has to fight his way forward into a new world, full of light and sound and air. A world with new dimensions and stimuli; a world he must learn to navigate, with senses yet undiscovered.

It's a miracle really. For us, who we stand around and observe, knowing that the baby will be born into our love and safety, it is a wonderful experience. But for the baby it may be scary and unknown. He doesn't know what to expect. And who can really relieve his stress? And who would want to? They are a necessary part of his growth to ensure his arrival into this world.

But oh how different we feel when someone is old and stands at the threshold to what we call death from our perspective. We think their life is coming to an end and we don't see their struggle as labour pain. We look it as a burden or an unnecessary evil. We see it as a cruel, undignified ending to a life that was challenging enough. The Alzheimers, the Parkinsons, the dementia, or even the subtler, nameless contractions of our grannies and grandpas; their endless repetitions of stories, their attempts at transferring to us their wisdoms, their nagging and complaining, their nightmares and panic attacks – are they necessary?

Maybe they are. Maybe they're a part of letting go and moving on, because once the contractions become that violent, it gets easier to just surrender and move forward...

Do we cry for ourselves?
Added: Tuesday, 9 December 2008

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I walk home from the grocery store and find an ATM slip that someone has dropped. The balance is 4 Rand (USD 0.4).

I'm driving on the highway and pass a dog that has probably been abandoned and paces back and forth as he ponders how to cross the terrifying lanes ahead of him.

I turn on the news and see the face of a child that has been locked into a basement and hasn't seen the light of day for the last three years.

I watch a loved one struggling to get through the next day of chemo while juggling life's daunting responsibilities.

No matter what's happening to whom a part of me always stays behind on the street, on the highway, on the other side of the TV screen or telephone and absorbs the pain of the other. Some call it compassion or empathy, but there are times when I wonder if I'm not actually a little crazy for hurting so much?

So I listened intently when, the other day, a TV psychologist was analysing a similar trait in a fellow human being. The lady on the phone was crying and explaining how the smallest things make her cry and how she can't turn off what she feels is extreme compassion for other people and their suffering. I was dying to hear the response. I was hoping he would say we could take a pill.

He said people who focus so intently on the suffering of others are actually scared that those things could happen to them. That they themselves could end up bankrupt, lost, abused or sick. His underlying philosophy was that anything we do, see, dream or think comes back down to us and ourselves – our own fear of being abandoned, rejected or whatever else.

Sounded very psychologisty and plausible. But the more I thought about it, the more I began to doubt if that is necessarily true, because deep down when I feel compassion, a part of me wishes that I could take that pain away from the other person. A part of me mentally barters with God – asking him to burden me rather than the other person.

And even if that were an illusion, even if were fooling myself and just imagining that my feelings are selfless, then what about, say, mothers? Don't mothers sincerely put their children first? When their kids don't come home from school and their heart almost stops because they can't find the little hand they were holding at the mall, when they run through the streets searching for their loved one – are they doing it for selfish reasons? Because deep down they're scared that they themselves might be lost? Naw!

So then human beings are not essentially and necessarily selfish and egotistical. Not everything comes back down to them and their fears and their needs and their wants. The fact that you can put yourself in the other person's shoes and actually feel a part of their potential pain doesn't necessarily mean that you're scared it might happen to you, does it?

Now I don't really think that my personal feelings are healthy or productive. But whatever the case, I do believe that human beings have the ability to think and act selflessly and that we need to, in fact, refine those abilities in order to create more balance in the world. The key might be, of course, the extent to which we can translate our feelings into actions. Perhaps my pain comes from all the times I haven't done anything or haven't been able to do something about the stranger's bank account, or the dog on the highway or the child in the basement or the tumor in my friend's head.

But one thing is for sure. Our aim should be to refine our awareness for others and maybe, just maybe, some of us who feel sick with compassion are actually the sane ones. And those who can sleep at night while their neighbor is sighing, are actually the crazy ones.

Hot property!
Added: Wednesday, 23 April 2008

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Land is a big asset. And it's all about location, location, location. We pay large sums for it, we protect it and we accumulate it – individuals and nations alike. Here in South Africa, we build nice big walls with barbed wire or electric fences so that no one touches it. Behind those walls we create havens of comfort for ourselves. Land is precious, it's our investment, it's our future. Oh – and it sure is our future. Because all of us, no matter who we are, whether we have a 30 million dollar home or a shack we call ours, it's land we'll ultimately end up being buried in. How ironic that it's land we fight over most:

"...How is it possible for men to fight from morning until evening, killing each other, shedding the blood of their fellow-men: And for what object? To gain possession of a part of the earth! Even the animals, when they fight, have an immediate and more reasonable cause for their attacks! How terrible it is that men, who are of the higher kingdom, can descend to slaying and bringing misery to their fellow-beings, for the possession of a tract of land!

The highest of created beings fighting to obtain the lowest form of matter, earth! Land belongs not to one people, but to all people. This earth is not man's home, but his tomb. It is for their tombs these men are fighting. There is nothing so horrible in this world as the tomb, the abode of the decaying bodies of men..." - Abdu'l-Baha, Paris Talks, p.27-30

Maybe next time you drive around the neighborhood on an open-house Sunday, you'll feel a little different about the frenzy that surrounds our craze to possess. Sometimes we just need to look up from the dust that we've been chasing for so long and see what life is really about.

Happy birthday
Added: Thursday, 20 March 2008

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A few decades or so ago a little baby was born in the then booming city of Tehran, Iran. It was spring equinox, known as Naw Ruz, and my young, stylish grandma and grandpa were the lucky parents. Yes, it was my mommy who was born that night at midnight. Sure, in those days there were many challenges. Life was not perfect, as it rarely is. But little did my family know that those were to be, despite everything, the most carefree years of their life; a life that was to become increasingly harder and more traumatic.

When I look at my family's black and white and then Kodak-brown photos of Iran, I see youth, energy, beauty. In all their photos, my family seemed to look toward their future with a sparkle and yet a wisdom or slight foreboding they could not have consciously anticipated then.

Things didn't come as they had perhaps expected. When the revolution took its course, my family ended up with my great-parents, who had settled in Austria in the 1950s. Their wisdom crystallized in time, but as a result of much hardship and pain. Yet no matter what turn the rollercoaster of life has taken them, they rode along in it, as strong and dignified as they humanly could – always holding on to their Faith in God. Knowing some of the things my family has been through, and yet thinking of their strong, broad and heart-melting smiles as they defy some of life's ugliest facets infuses me with great strength.

"Were it not for the cold, how would the heat of thy words prevail?..." it says in the Fire Tablet. This sentence has accompanied me for as long as I have known this Prayer. In this cold world, my mother has been a beacon of light and warmth, a gentle, kind and above all compassionate human being. Her compassion is so great, that it has the power to lift a person's suffering as she completely absorbs it into herself. When I think of my mom I think of sunshine and flowers. And the irony is, that she thinks so little of herself.

One of her many gifts was to pass onto me the sweet and passionate Persian language and a love and 'sense' of Iran. My grandma, who was my other mother really, would often sit at night and read with me stories of rabbits and hedge-hogs, of snow-men and children, of everything that Persian children would read about in the books they had somehow salvaged. It was a tedious process for them to teach me Persian in Austria, back then, a very xenophobic country. But they did it anyway. And their stories of the Tajreesh bridge, of the fruit seller who would come around on his donkey, the stories of the various different neighborhoods, the romantic villages and villagers, the bazaars, the stories of the crazy Terooni drivers, of the mosques of Isfahan, of Chatanooga Café and the impressive Radiocity Cinema...all these things colored my childhood fantasy. I soaked it up and went there with them, to a place that they wanted to pass onto me, if only in spirit.

They've done a great job. It's my mom's birthday and I thank God for the blessing of her. It is because of her labor that I can even open my mouth and say anything coherent. Happy Naw Ruz mother – it's a new day. And as cold and dark as the world may feel, it is the light of your likes that shows us the way.

I prefer the latter!
Added: Friday, 14 March 2008

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It is perhaps a paradox to say I prefer 'discomfort', because by definition discomfort is something you don't like. The dictionary talks of unease, anxiety and pain. But the notion of doing something that might cause you those things at first, while giving you joy on a deeper level, is not new. We all know that studying real hard for something can be rewarding; or working on a business, a career, a child's education, on something that we really really want; a toned body! But there are people who champion this concept on a whole other level.

For example, there's my friend Renett, who is paraplegic. She suffers from spinal muscular atrophy and hasn't been able to get out of bed for the past 10 or more years. But she earns a living from her bed, where she is connected to the internet and the phone. And despite barely being able to move without help and great pain, her online and tele-businesses pay for 9 (!) employees.

It was her 50th birthday the other day. She's one of the oldest living people in the world with her condition. In her birthday speech, which she gave from her bed, she didn't speak about the many times she's been at death's door, or her recent breast cancer attack. She spoke about her blessings and God's grace. And the one thing she said, that hit me like dynamite after all the physical 'hell' I've seen her go through, was: "if I had a choice between the life I've had and another life, I'd chose this life again." And then, "Nothing good ever comes easy".

I've learned a little bit about leaving your comfort zone in order to grow. But this really inspired me. So the other day I invited the parents of the children who come to my children's class to a themed dinner-party. The theme was "the fast" and our group was really diverse. We had the parents of the children, who are all domestic workers and gardeners, we had a soap opera actress, a radio DJ, a PHD student, a beautician, a former Robben Island prison-inmate and two engineers. We were black, white, Christian, Moslem, Baha'i. It was nuts. I was nervous inviting this crowd. It's not "easy". It's "easier" to invite my closest friends, the ones who look and think like me. The ones who have my level of education, similar life experiences and similar bank statements. The ones I can kick back with. But it's not as "easy" to invite a crowd that's different. At first...

Baha'u'llah says that our very diversity is what makes unity so special. It's the fact that we all look and think differently, that makes us rich when we come together and share and consult. The more diverse we are, the more complete we are. And that kept guiding me as I made my food, lit the candles and played my Putamayo collection for good atmosphere. Cover image

And mind you it wasn't easy for them either. Take the domestic workers, for example. They were so flabbergasted to have me serve them food, to see Ryan, a man (!) of the house, serve them and wash dishes! To sit with a soap opera star, to eat strange food, to have no beer, to listen to crazy nut-heads like myself talking about unity and then hear people sharing their views on the significance of fasting from a Baha'i/Moslem/Christian/political perspective...And yet they came. And their initial discomfort turned into joy as did mine. Last night they came over again and we're starting a study circle together now.

Inspired by these recent happenings, I decided to pester my neighbor again, the lady who lives next door and has some reservations about the new South Africa. She's agreed to shoot for coffee on Friday. After I break the ice, I might invite her to one of my colorful parties and ask her to dance!

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