Friday, December 30, 2011

The Myth Of Respect

In Pakistan we nurse many delusions and one of them is that respect is a quality which is the hallmark of our culture. If it were true then it would be a great asset of this nation, but in fact we confuse respect with courtesy.

Respect means to honour, value and hold in esteem. I believe that respect is a mindset that we either have or don’t. If we have the ability to respect, then it is not just confined to our family but the society as well. The society is a combination of laws, heritage, culture and people. If we respected our society we would not take pride in breaking the laws and showing off that we did. I’m not talking about crime here, just look at the way we drive on our roads, we don’t care what happens to the rest of the traffic as long as we can get ahead. We break signals, we drive in the wrong lanes, we speed and before we say this is lack of education, most of the educated class driving in luxury cars is just as guilty as the bus driver. Is this respect? I don’t think so!

The way we treat some of our most precious national treasures is appalling. Go to any historical site and you will find disfigurement, trash, and no effort to preserve it for posterity. The plight of Mohenjodaro is a tragedy which we should be ashamed of. The government may not be doing anything to preserve our heritage but that doesn’t mean that we should use ancient monuments to carve out our names. We respect our heritage? I don’t think so!

The way we attack public property every time we are excited is again evidence of how we disrespect the communities we live in. Our treatment of people who have points of views contrary to ours is also a case in point. Respect for human beings means we acknowledge and honour their right to be individuals and free thinkers, but the level of intolerance in our society tells a different story.

There are people who say that when we go abroad we become model citizens and it is the lack of law enforcement which is at the root of our problems. Perhaps so, but I feel we confuse fear with respect also - to do something out of fear means it is not our natural tendency to do so and given the chance we will revert to our original behaviour.

Whether we like to hear it or not, we are a supremely selfish nation. If our politicians only think of their own wealth it should not shock us. We too only think of our selves. We need instant gratification and for that purpose it doesn’t matter who or what we destroy. We don’t like to talk about these things and we find external reasons for our behaviours. But the problem lies within and that’s what we should examine with brutal honesty.

Monday, December 19, 2011

Confessions Of Craziness

I confess that I am crazy and I’m quite happy about it. There is a difference between insanity and craziness (at least according to me). To be insane means to not have any boundaries between the real and the imagined. Insane people are unable to censor their thoughts and actions. Crazy people on the other hand do have defined boundaries however they choose to push them beyond the norms of acceptance and hence ‘normalcy’.

To be normal simply means doing what the majority does and hence accepts. The question of right or wrong does not arise because the majority finds a way of justifying their actions somehow. Take the example of the difference between East and West - living with your parents and taking care of them in their old age is normal for the East but a grown man living with his parents is definitely not normal in the West. Different cultures will have different codes of normal conduct. So when I say I am crazy, perhaps that is not entirely true, rather I should say I am crazy in reference to the culture and society I live in.

There is a myth that crazy people do things that are ‘in-your-face’, deliberately trying to provoke the society into a reaction. Some do – yes, but at times that simply stems from a desire to be noticed and heard. However there is another type, the category to which I belong. My type lives their life ruled by the heart. I think life means much more than following a pattern which takes us from the cradle to the grave. My life is not a painting which you can step back and admire, rather it’s a collage and you need to come up close to see each element in order to understand it. To some I may seem unstructured in my approach, but I believe in collecting experiences.

I’ve made many mistakes that no ‘normal’ person would, but I cherish each one because it has taught me valuable life lessons which I can proudly claim to be my own. If my life is in a mess I have created it all on my own accord and have no one to blame since I asked no one before I made my choices. My own happiness is paramount to me but that doesn’t mean I’m selfish – I simply seek to remain true to myself and therefore be honest with the people who matter most to me. I am a recluse and people think its not normal, but I find empty chatter abnormal. To each their own.

I experience every emotion to its fullest. Sometimes I get morbidly depressed and find solace in the possibility of death and at others I am so elated that its sublime. My views may not be popular, but they are mine and I don’t dilute them to conform. I spend a lot of time understanding myself and though I know all my faults, weaknesses and delusions I have yet to discover who I really am. People have an end game in mind and they have a plan for how their life will pan out, me on the other hand – I just live day-to-day. I cannot see the road ahead with the clarity that others can but my life is filled with the expectation of what’s around the next bend. Usually there is a disaster waiting for me but I have never given up hope of finding the enchanted forest. I don’t reminiscent about my childhood, I keep it alive within me. Who I am and who I see in the mirror is the same person but stuck in different ages.

Some say it takes courage to live life on your own terms, but I disagree. It is a lot more difficult to live according to the expectations of other people. Often people spend their entire life making others happy and end up being miserable themselves and then spend the rest of the time making every one else pay for their negativity. What a sad way to live! When you are joyous only then can you make others happy. There are people who don’t even know what values are important in their lives, they take on popular values because they are subscribed to by the majority. I know what I value most in my life and though it may not be noble it defines who I am – independence. Every choice in my life has been made through this filter. The outcome may not have been desired, but I have no regrets – I experienced, I learnt, I moved on. The worst thing I can think of is to be on the death bed and say “I wish…”

When I die my epitaph will not read as the chronology of my birth and death date it will simply say “She refused to exist”. If I manage that then I can pat myself on the back and say “Sualeha life well lived”.

Friday, December 16, 2011

The Evil Within Us

When we think of the word ‘evil’ it conjures images of murder, rape, blood and mayhem in short all heinous crimes. We all have an opinion about evil but few of us truly understand it. Yes the most extreme manifestation of evil is all of the above, but there is a more common ‘garden variety’ of evil of which most are oblivious to and one which to which most of us succumb – knowingly or unwittingly.

The word EVIL is LIVE spelt backwards, hence in its broadest sense evil is anti-life. The question of course then is what is life? Does it mean the involuntary actions of all our organs such as blood pressure, breathing and digestion that our brain controls? Technically they say that once the brain ceases to function the human body dies. So what about the people who are on life support systems? Even in their most vegetative state, their brain is still functioning even though it may be with diminished capacity. Hence they are technically alive. But when we pray for a long life do any of us wish such a life for ourselves and our loved ones? Definitely not! Therefore, life has to mean more than that.

Is life the soul that exists within us? But the soul is immortal, and life in this physical form comes with an expiry called death. So let’s focus on what it means to be alive in this body that we are currently inhabiting. There are people who pray for death everyday, not because of any debilitating physical illness but simply because to go on living is a dreary and painful thought. These people have lost one precious quality that defines human life – hope. Hence we can safely say that one aspect of being alive is to have hope.

When we visualize a good life for ourselves there is one element which is common to us all no matter how big or small our dreams may be – happiness. We cannot imagine life without the ability to smile and be joyful. Regardless of whether we are rich or poor, are alone or have a large family, live in cities or in the middle of a jungle, for 7 billion people the essence of being alive is to be hopeful and happy. By this argument, evil is anything which takes away these 2 essential qualities of life.

When we cause the smile to disappear from someone’s face – we are being evil. When we bring despair into someone’s life – we are evil. When someone falls and we make them believe they can never get up again – we are evil. When we spread gloom and negativity – we are evil. When we use the ‘practicality’ card and ask someone to discard their dreams – we are evil. None of us can claim that we are not evil. We cannot control or change anyone else, but we can change ourselves by becoming aware of the evil within us – and all around us will also change.

Friday, December 9, 2011

Where Democracy Is Not Desirable

Democracy is undoubtedly the most desirable form of government and there is no denying that. However the problem starts when we start using this model in all our decision making at the personal and professional level.

Basically a democracy is a vote where the majority ends up with what they want and the minority gets stuck with what they didn’t want and probably never will. In an event of a deadlock this is probably the simplest way of arriving at a decision. And therein lies the problem – it is the simplest way. We are a nation hooked on short-cuts and taking the easy way out. The better but tougher route is to arrive at a consensus, which means that we take a decision which may not be everyone’s first choice, but once taken everyone supports it and no one opposes it.

One may argue that when so many people seem to agree on a course of action then surely they can’t all be wrong? The problem is that the voice of sanity is usually the softest and the cacophony of fools drowns all sounds. In our society he who speaks loudest gets heard even though he may be wrong. Those who dominate our discussions by virtue of sheer volume intimidate those who cannot. Another reason why we don’t engage in unfiltered and open debate is because we may feel insecure and vulnerable. We have been conditioned to behave in a manner that pleases everyone, and by airing our views about a subject there is a danger that we may offend some and lose our popularity. We end up being ‘liked’ by others perhaps, but something inside us erodes each time we take the easy way out. That “something” is our self-esteem.

We lose our self-esteem every time we take illegitimate short-cuts in life. These short-cuts do not mean simply doing what is illegal, but also not doing what is right. Over a period of time our self-esteem hits such a low point that we need others to validate our existence. The usual commonly heard phrase ‘do you know who I am?’ is an indication of this phenomenon. We may think this is a result of the VIP culture in our country, but then doesn’t VIP also stand for Very Insecure Person? We only have to go out on our roads to see how it pervades our society – each one is trying to get ahead somehow to ‘prove’ they are better, even though there is no competition.

There is only one way through which consensus on any decision can be arrived at – by logical debate. If one person’s logic and reasoning is stronger then the other gives in. It requires time, patience to listen to others and the capacity to accept that we may not be always right, 3 things we seem to have a dearth of.

Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Change? What Change?

There is an anticipation of change in the air. Analysts, politicians, ordinary citizens, the old and the young are all certain that change is eminent. Expectations of a political reform are at an all time high. People have started to believe that there is a possibility of reclaiming their land from the clutches of corruption. But I wonder what will change for me and millions of women in this county? If the country was being run by people who put the country before their self-interest the result would be a stronger economy, more job opportunities, better health and education services and security for sure. But my question still remains what will change for the women?

We’ve had a woman Prime Minister twice – and nothing changed, we have women in the parliament – and nothing has changed. A bill, a legislation, a law has not helped so far and won’t in the future. We seem to be a nation in love with short-cuts and our eagerness to put a label on the cause of problem is unparalleled. Every problem this nation faces is categorized under 3 labels – corruption, poverty and lack of education. I agree that these are major contributing factors of most of our issues, but by jumping to these conclusions we close the door for further analysis. The 3 pet labels of Pakistan have become the carpet beneath which we brush all our problems.

Usually when we discuss national problems we start at the macro level and work our way down to the micro. But for a change let’s start at the micro level, let’s talk about the problem of women in the narrow band of population which I inhabit. There is no issue of a lack of education in this group of people nor do we have poverty. Yes corruption does exist here as well but for the moment let’s keep it aside for argument’s sake.

Rape, wife battering and other forms of physical violence are present but well hidden in this group but there is another issue which is quite common – the basic right of a woman to be an individual. This may seem mundane to some and you may think that this is just Feminist mumbo jumbo, but it cuts down to the heart of the matter. The overt physical abuse stems from this root problem.

If a woman decides to live her life on her own terms she is quickly labeled as a nut-job, when a man does so he is brave. When a woman in this group decides to stand by her own convictions and principles she is arrogant, when a man does the same he is confident. When a woman starts to wonder what her life is all about and what truly makes her happy she is depressed, when a man asks these questions it is maturity. When a woman passes a comment she is frivolous, when a man does so he is witty. When a woman says she doesn’t want children right now she is vain and irresponsible, when a man makes the same statement he is behaving responsibly. When a woman says she doesn’t want marriage she must be hiding a dark secret in her past, when a man states this intention he is merely eccentric. When a woman is all-of-the-above she is a great topic for discussion and ridicule, when a man is all-of-the-above he is someone to respect and learn from. The list is endless but truth is that the yardstick for men and women is different even amongst the educated and well off.

Better education and more financial security will not change this disparity and no political change will put an end to this. I agree that this is not an issue just localized to Pakistan, it is a global pandemic but its manifestations in our country have become intolerable. The rise in violence against women is an indication of how deep seated this problem has become in our country. If we are to bring a real change for women in this country then we need to get out of our comfort zones and discuss these issues in depth. We must get over our tendency to over simplify issues in order to put a neat label on them. To solve the problems of women men will have to bring a change in themselves and doing so is both painful as well as scary. It is easier to apportion blame on a faceless bogey rather than take a long hard look at ourselves. That is why although I am just excited at the prospect of change in the country I am not holding my breath for things to change for the women of Pakistan.

Saturday, November 26, 2011

For The Greater Good

Pakistan is a country which has rampant inflation, an energy crises incomprehensible in the 21st century, terrorism that looms paramount in everyone’s mind and a law and order situation which borders on anarchy. However the one thing this country is not is boring. When 2 Pakistanis meet we don’t have to look blankly at each other and make chit chat about the weather, our politicians and the establishment ensure that we have a constant supply of hot topics to discuss. We are perhaps the only country where the current affairs talk shows are considered high entertainment and the drama of the constantly breaking news puts any soap opera to shame. The challenge for journalists all over the world is to find a good story, the challenge for the Pakistani journalist is which one to pick.

Our government may not be able to govern or give its citizens the basic needs of life but it is fulfilling a much higher purpose - it is making its citizens the most resilient, the most optimistic nation on this planet. No matter what comes our way we simply shrug it off and look ahead towards an unclear future. Shame on us for complaining incessantly about their shortcomings, the truth is that their wisdom is beyond our comprehension.

The establishment rather unfairly gets blamed for all evil that befalls this nation. But actually they are misunderstood and they suffer in silence all the abuses which we hurl at them. Their convoluted policies, clandestine meetings, secret supports and U-turns keep all of us guessing which great conspiracy is being hatched, we wonder what will be the possible fallouts of a meeting, or we simply try to interpret the mixed signals coming from different quarters. All this is an exercise to sharpen our minds and develop our powers of deductive reasoning. Another noble objective.

Politicians whether in the government or the opposition play an extremely important role in our lives. A rally here, a protest there, an unbridled verbal torrent, a carefully crafted rhetorical statement, press conferences, telephonic speeches, out of control performances on talk shows, offensive statements, defensive statements – are all part of a hidden agenda. The purpose is to keep our minds occupied so that we don’t start thinking of the real problems of our lives and get depressed. It is therapy on a grand scale.

So you see our anger is misguided, our government, establishment, politicians are only thinking of our greater good. Someone once said that the only difference between a grave and a rut is it’s depth and by making sure that monotony does not come near Pakistani’s they ensure that this nation is alive – albeit kicking.

Monday, October 31, 2011

The 'Kandhar' Threat

The famous Sindhi sufi saint Watayo Fakir who lived in the 18th century wrote:

Jadein kadhein Sindhri
Tokhe Kandhar ma jokho

Roughly translated it means:

Sindh whenever you are in danger
It will emanate from Kandhar.

These words are considered one of the most commonly known sayings by Watayo Fakir and when war broke out in Afghanistan is the 70’s these lines suddenly jumped out of the dusty past and started resonating in the living rooms and ‘autaaks’ of every urban and rural Sindhi. As time progressed and Pakistan became more and more embroiled in the Afghan conflict and its fall out of refugees, Talibanization, terrorism and the US dictation on our internal and foreign affairs policies, these lines became more than a saying – they were considered to be prophetic.

But I believe this is not merely a prophecy made by a saint in a trance-like state, nor is it something which warned of a future event only – though it very well could be both. These lines are based on a historic analysis of the past leading to an informed projection of future events.

In order to analyse the historic context of this saying we have to move away from modern day geography which binds Sindh to a province in Pakistan and Kandhar in Afghanistan. In ancient times the term Sindhu originally meant “river people” and it was the term loosely given the inhabitants of people settled around the Indus and its tributaries. However in its broader sense it also encompassed people living around the banks of the now extinct Saraswati. Modern Kandhar derives its name from the ancient kingdom of Gandhar or Gandhara as its now known, of which it was a part.

Interestingly history records 2 incidences when the kingdom of Gandhar’s actions had catastrophic repercussions for everyone in the sub-continent. The epic tale of Mahabharata tells us that it was Shakuni the king of Gandhar who egged his nephews the Kauravas to entrap the Pandavas through cheating in a game of dice and it was due to his malicious council that the war of Mahabharata was finally fought at the battlefield of Kurukshetra on the East bank of the Saraswati river. Hence the king of Gandhar brought untold misery and bloodshed to the land.

As we come closer on the historic timeline, another king of Gandhar, Ambik comes to the forefront. In his greed to secure his own power, Ambik became the first known traitor of the sub-continent who gave safe passage to Alexander that Great to come into the sub-continent in return for his own sovereignty. This way ‘Sindh’ was once again placed in great danger through the actions of Gandhar.

Interestingly in present times the Gandhara region seems to be living up to its age old tradition, but this time we need to divide Gandhar into 3 distinct areas; the first being Kandhar or Afghanistan, the second is Peshawar and its surrounding areas or one can say Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, and the third being Taxilla and its nearby areas namely Islamabad.

Afghanistan seems to be the black hole which is hell bent on devouring everything that comes in its proximity. We crossed the event horizon when we jumped into the war with USSR and now it seems no matter how hard we try we can’t seem to extricate ourselves from resulting mess and most of our present day problems seem to have originated from that act. KP has become a breeding ground of militant radical thought which manifests itself as the harbinger of death and destruction whenever and wherever it strikes throughout the country.

But the most important player and the biggest culprit of this equation is what used to be the outer fringe of ancient Gandhara i.e. Islamabad. The headless chicken syndrome which seems to afflict all those who enter its corridors of power has through the years consistently put the entire nation in peril. Whether it be the age of dictatorship or the interludes of experimentation with democracy it seems that the throne of modern Gandhara demands that people be robbed of their integrity, vision, willingness to serve the nation and the spine to stand up for its protection, and only then does it give them the chance to sit on it. The legacy of Ambik lives on as the nation is sold out time and again to serve personal gains and Shakuni still seems to be whispering ill council to those who rule - I can’t say govern because we have yet to see that happening.

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Moses & Krishna – Different Religions, Different Stories, Same Elements

At first glance Moses and Krishna are names synonymous with religions at the opposite ends of the spectrum from each other. While one is at the heart of the monotheistic traditions the other is the corner stone of one of the oldest practiced polytheistic religions. One emanates from the banks of river Nile and ends in the Sinai desert while the other originates from the fertile plains around river Yamuna and finds its way to the Arabian Sea coast. Moses was a human chosen by God as his Prophet while Krishna is considered as an incarnation of God Himself. The followers of both have spent millennia trying to prove the other wrong. But go beyond the labels of the religions, and you will find startling similarities between the elements of both stories.

Moses was left adrift by his mother when he was 3 months old in a reed basket because the Pharaoh had ordered that all Hebrew male babies be killed. The uncle of Krishna, Kans too had ordered that all male babies born to his sister Devki be killed at birth and when Krishna was born his father Vasudev carried him across the Yamuna in a reed basket. Hence both babies were separated from their natural mothers due to an eminent threat on their lives and both babies undertook this journey on a river in a basket.

Moses was raised in the household of the Pharaoh (according to Islam it was the Pharaoh’s wife who adopted him while according to the Judaic version it was the Pharaoh’s daughter). Regardless of who raised him the fact remains that he was raised as the family member of the very person against whom he would eventually revolt and from whom he would later liberate his people the Israelites. Krishna too was related to the very person whom he was destined to kill i.e. Kans the King of Mathura and liberate the oppressed people of that land. Both of them ended up having 2 mothers, one who gave them birth and the other who raised them with love.

Moses and Krishna both left the land where they spent their childhood in order to rescue their people from cruelty of their rulers. Moses led his people to the Sinai from where his people crossed the River Jordan and Krishna left Gokul where he was raised to Mathura where he vanquished his uncle.

The most famous scene of the Exodus is where the waters part for Moses and his people as they are chased by the Pharaoh and his army. Interestingly there is a similar incident with Krishna as well. After Kans was killed his wife swore revenge on Krishna and her brother waged endless wars against the kingdom of Mathura. Tired of years of conflict, Krishna took all his people and came to the coast of the Arabian sea near the delta of the Godavari. Here he asked the sea to give his people shelter and tradition says that the sea receded and the land revealed is what we know today as Dwarka. Here Krishna spent his last days as the King of Dwarka.

Whether we are talking about 2 different stories or if we are actually looking at the same myth being adapted across cultures separated by thousands of miles and several millennia, we do not know, nor do I want to venture there. However there is one thing which we can be certain of and that is when people look below the surface, when we keep our sentiments on the side, when we control our knee jerk reactions to other religions and are able to study things objectively, we can find similarities even between opposites. And therein lies our hope for peace, tolerance and coexistence.

Saturday, October 8, 2011

Please Stop 'Honouring' Women

Sexual crimes are on the rise. Rape, gang rape, acid throwing and child molestation are making news each day. Punjab has a higher rate of reported sexual crimes than other provinces. I’m not sure whether it is because these cases are not being reported in other provinces or if there are actually a lesser number of these happening elsewhere, but one thing is for certain – women in Pakistan live in constant fear. It does not matter if she is a helpless poor woman in a village or if she is an educated urban woman, she is insecure. Men know that the ultimate weapon they have against her is rape. Rape scars the soul so deeply that she can never function normally again even if she has all the love and support of her family, even if the culprits are punished, she never heals.

An unfortunate trend has started over the past few years and that is the media involvement in such cases. Yes the involvement ensures that the police does its job and the culprits are caught but that also means that unless a woman is prepared to discard the few remaining shreds of her tattered dignity justice will not prevail. The news channels turn her nightmare into a circus and the politicians grab the photo opportunity. This trend also ensures that if an educated middle class woman is raped, she would not report it because she is afraid the media might get hold of her story. I have no answer as to how the media should handle such a situation, it’s a catch 22 situation – no justice without publicity but the price of justice is letting 180 million people witness her indignity.

There is a lot of debate on the Hudood Ordinance and the feebleness of the legal system, but one question we are not asking is ‘WHY?’ We start waiving the banner of Islam on the most trivial issues, we tell the world how Islam honours women and protects their rights, and yet our women are increasingly insecure. I have yet to see a religious party take out a rally or call for strike when a woman is gang raped which in itself is an indication of how thin is this veneer of ‘honouring women’.

The hypocrisy of our society is sickening. It spouts rhetoric about their mothers, daughter and sisters being their honour and then turns around and uses them as weapons to destroy the honour of their ‘enemies’. One can argue that crime is on the rise every where and hence we are seeing more rape cases, but when a village panchayat sanctions rape as a means of punishment then this is not merely criminal behaviour. It goes much deeper and is much darker than mere crime. It is an indication of how weak we are as a nation. We take the easy way out of every situation, and to rape is the easiest way to show how strong the man is.

We have an epidemic of low self-esteem and it is not limited to a certain strata of our society. Those who are in power take illegitimate short-cuts to get what they want and those whom they lead follow suit. To raise one’s self-esteem one has to take challenges head-on and not run away from life’s problems, but we turn to the nearest scapegoat to blame. It is never our fault, it is the society, the government, the US, the boss, the neighbour …. the list is endless. When we are empty on the inside we look for external markers to validate our existence, to give us a sense of power. This could be the 32 vehicle motorcade, or showing off our latest purchase, scratching the side of a brand new car or raping a woman. The root of the problem is the same, the manifestations endless.

The honour of a man in our country is linked to his possessions. His house, his land, his cars, his clothes, his cattle and of course the women in his family. Even the poorest man who has nothing else will have women. Women are mere objects in our country. They are brainwashed to think that they are the honour of their family because they are loved and respected – but the truth is that their status is no more than being one of the trappings of the man’s honour.

My earnest request is to please stop ‘honouring’ us. We are individuals, human beings with our own dreams, hopes and desires. We are not the object on which you cathect your honour. Perhaps the day men stop honouring us we will be free to live as human beings.

Friday, September 30, 2011

Teaching Children To Fly

Years ago I used to conduct a training program for children between the ages of 8 to 13. It was my dream project which gave me more satisfaction than any other training I have ever conducted. Unfortunately, like most dreams this too was shattered. Somehow parents who thought nothing of spending Rs.5000 on the latest toys and gadgets for their kids, suddenly became money conscious about investing a fraction of that amount for something which would stay with the children for the rest of their lives. The program wasn’t meant to generate profits, just break-even, but instead it broke my spirit. After hearing umpteen parents tell me that ‘it was too expensive’ (at that time is was only Rs.1600 for 2 days including meals), I lost my cool and told one father who was bargaining with me to tell his wife to shop for one dress less this season and they will have the money for their kid’s future! Needless to say the shopping spree won and I vowed never to conduct this program again.

Parents think that if their children are getting good marks at school then all is well. If teachers and neighbours are not complaining about their behaviour then the child is well adjusted and doing just fine. But the sometimes the real story is very different. In one of the sessions I conducted, a little girl whose father was the country manager for a large multinational bank, nearly broke down in tears during a desensitizing exercise in which she was asked what hurts her the most and who is responsible for this hurt? He reply was ‘my parents don’t think I’m as good as my older sister’. Upon probing further I learnt that the parents had a habit of always holding up the other sister as an example to “motivate” her to excel. But the kid was not excelling at anything, instead she was withdrawing further and further into her shell, and the parents had sent her to the program because they wanted to enhance her self-confidence. These parents were not evil, nor were they partial towards one child, they were merely following what they had learnt from their own parents.

My objective during these sessions was to create a safe, fun ‘adult free’ environment where the kids could learn to fly without being judged on the number of attempts it took. NLP techniques were used in the session to boost their self-confidence, raising their self-esteem and removing the effects of past negative conditioning and criticisms. My facilitators and I spent time with the kids individually to understand their communication strategies, we assessed which of the 7 intelligences were predominant in them. We taught them techniques of memory enhancement so that learning could become fun for them. All this information was passed on to their parents with suggestions on how to deal with them. I’m not sure how many parents actually took that advice on board, not many I’m sure, perhaps because it required too much effort to change their own behaviours.

There can be no satisfaction greater than to see the child whose mother claimed cannot be left alone because he would start crying amongst strangers, tell his parents to please leave and come back at 5 to pick him up. To see a petite 8 year old girl break a ½ inch wooden board with her fist, through sheer focus and mind power constitutes one of my personal proudest moments. When the shy introverted kid is cheered by his team to complete a task we renew our own faith in humanity. When 30 kids are told they are free to do what they like and they still behave with responsibility, then you know our future is secured.

Why did I focus so much on such small children when this program would have been easier to sell for the teens? Simply because I feel that most damage is done at this stage. If we can teach life skills early on, the chances are we will have confident, focused and strong teenagers. My disgruntlement over the parents’ attitude made me lose sight of the basic objective – the kids. Perhaps now I am ready once again to get up, shake-off the dust and make my dream a reality once again.

Friday, September 23, 2011

Required - New Candidates To Substitute Hope

According to Greek Mythology, Pandora was the first mortal woman sent down by the gods to punish Prometheus for stealing fire from them. Prometheus knowing what the gods were up to refused the gift however his brother Epimethius instantly fell in love with her and married Pandora. Pandora brought with her a box which the gods had told her never to open, but of course she did, just like Eve who ate from the Forbidden Tree (according to Islam, in Christianity she ate the Forbidden Fruit). Its funny how the beginning of all of mankind's ills and sorrows are blamed squarely on the first woman. No one seems to notice that the men weren't exactly forced to comply with the woman, why should she be blamed for their gullibility?

Coming back to Pandora and her box - the gods had put into the box all manners of ill which if released would plague mankind forever and when she opened the box out came flying little winged creatures named death, illness, pain, old age etc. Frightened she quickly shut the box but by that time these woes had already escaped. There was another creature that was also put into the box by some benevolent god which did not escape with the rest. That creature was Hope and her job was to alleviate the suffering caused by the rest of her boxed companions. When the box was opened again Hope too was released and since that time she has been providing relief to the suffering humanity.

Hence Hope is what makes the world go round, it is her presence which gives people that strength to fight the battles of life and chase their dreams. But I'm not too sure about this rosy picture we paint about her. Sometimes I think she is perhaps the most sinister of all the inhabitants of Pandora's box. People live out their entire lives in quiet desperation just hanging on to hope. They fall and hope comes and helps them stand up only so that another blow could be dealt by life and they find themselves flat on the ground again. Perhaps she is the vehicle through which destiny can release a variety of misery upon human beings? A kind of prolong mechanism for slow torture.

If you want to see Hope doing its best work then Pakistan is the place. We are a nation living in hope, we are a nature in which generations have grown up hanging on to her. Each time we face a problem we turn to Hope and she tells us "all will be well, you are strong and are being tested". We face whatever crises we are going through only to be thrown in the middle of another one. Lately I think Hope is on a retirement deadline in Pakistan. The problems are coming fast and furious and she seems to be weakening day-by-day, soon she might not be present in our midst anymore. We will have to find a substitute for Hope if we are to survive in the future.

There are some canditates which could fill this post - how about Commitment? I'm sure with him in our midst we would be able to go all out to perform our responsibilities and deliver results. What about Responsibility? she could help each of us realize that it is futile to look at others for the solution to our problems, if we need things to change we need to take action oursleves. Oh and yes there's Self-Confidence as well, now that is a good candidate! With him on this post we would not need Hope nor keep praying for miracles all the time. And then there is Integrity, but it seems that many people, mostly in powerful positions have taken immunity shots against her, so we will first need to find a way of taking care of that issue, but if she could then take over and run rampant amongst us we would be unrecognizable (for the better of course).

Which one we choose will require more careful deliberations, however one thing is for sure, Hope cannot be kept on this position for long. If, because we love her so much we don't want to retire her, perhaps we can give her an honorary lifetime position, but the task of leading us out of our present mess will have to be given to another candidate.

Thursday, September 15, 2011

The Great Flood Through The Ages

If there is one event that almost all historians and researchers of ancient myths are fascinated about it is the Great Flood. Not only are there accounts of this catastrophe in the religious texts of Judaic, Christian and Islamic traditions, we also find a similar story in the ancient Mesopotamian texts most notably in the Epic of Gilgamesh, which predates the Torah, Bible and Quran. Besides these there seems to be an account of some kind of deluge or an event involving a large body of water after which a large number of people perished and new mankind emerged in many cultures. These myths are not confined to the Middle East alone, we find such stories in some Native American tribes, Greek, Roman, Celtic, African, Indian, even Chinese mythologies.

At the advent of civilization it seems flooding played a vital role in the purification of the human race. Initially I used to think that it was perhaps a metaphor for spiritual cleansing of people – in other words the evil and the impure were washed away while the pure survived (which is really the central message of all religions). Later as more geological data became available we found that there indeed tell-tale signs of rising water levels caused due to melting ice-sheets and water erosion due to heavy rain fall. Perhaps it was these distant global events that were preserved in mythology as a way of passing historic knowledge through the ages?

The recent change in weather patterns, however leads me to believe there is a more mundane explanation for such a proliferation of the Flood Myth. In Pakistan the province of Sindh has been ravaged an unrelenting downpour for nearly a month. Like the Flood of Noah the sky is ruthless in its rage and the earth does not have the capacity to absorb its wrath, hence the water keeps rising. Whereas Noah built one huge Ark to save people and animals, the modern day victims of this disaster find any means they can to save their lives and any livestock they can manage to snatch away from the certain death which awaits them either by drowning or starvation. The population of this one area is much larger than entire ancient empires, perhaps in those times one large boat could save all of Noah’s people and animals but given the present population figures such a feat would have been impossible. Primitive means of transport restricted the distance travelled by people, indeed many generations never ventured away from their village, so it is no wonder that if there was such widespread rain and flooding it would have seemed a global event to them. Since it is completely probable that many parts of the world at some point or the other fell prey to this fury of nature, it goes without saying that various flood myths would crop up all over the world.

But the ending of the ancient floods myths and the modern flood saga are completely different from each other. Those who survived the ancient floods went on to build new civilizations, those who survive the present day Sindh floods have lost whatever little they had built over years. The ancient survivors claimed their stake on a brand new world, the present day survivors cannot even find a roof over their heads. The ancient flood ended on a glorious note of hope, the modern flood sends its victims into an abyss of hopelessness these already battered victims had not even thought possible could exist. These humble yet strong people who lent their name to an entire sub-continent now find themselves in a situation where a battle between dignity and hunger rages, and hunger wins every time.

If mankind survives another 2000 years or so, perhaps a new Flood Myth will be written, one with an ending which is more tragic than glorious. Our future generations will not be saying how the righteous are saved and the evil wiped out, rather the moral of the story may be how the righteous pay the price for the wrong doings of the corrupt and the morally bankrupt.

Thursday, August 18, 2011

Creating The Conformist

The mind of a human child is a miracle of creation. It not only absorbs everything around it like a sponge but also learns to relate with it. It masters how to use and control the body which it inhabits. It forms patterns and associations even from the most abstract stimuli and it learns a whole language by age 3 in fact in multilingual homes it learns more than 1 language. Think about it – if you and I were to learn 2 languages simultaneously how long would it take?

Children can look at the most ordinary object and create a whole new function around it – a spoon becomes a magic wand or gun, a pillow becomes a ship and a chair becomes the space shuttle. Their minds are free to associate and their thoughts uncensored. They are not worried about what anyone will think of them – they are intrepid explorers out to discover the world around them.

Armed with this zest and natural ability children go to schools. And they learn for the first time that there is such a thing as a ‘wrong answer’. Very quickly the censors are developed and they learn that the definition of ‘right’ is whatever the teacher wants to hear. Soon this miracle of creativity starts to conform. The next 15 years or so while the child goes through school and then college are spent in systematically un-learning what was natural – creativity, and acquiring that which was unnatural – a fear of making mistakes.

This now grown up person then enters the work force and their organization hires someone like me to teach them a course on ‘Creativity’. How ironic is that? The very skill which we deconstructed piece-by-piece over decades now becomes a necessity for their professional development. Think ‘out-of-the-box’ is the new mantra these bewildered young people hear constantly at work. One wonders if this was the desired outcome then why was the entire process leading up to this point going in the opposite direction?

To learn is to make mistakes and to innovate and invent requires both mistakes as well as wastage. But from early on we teach kids that both these things are wrong and intolerable. So armed with this fear of making mistakes they go to work where their boss expects strokes of brilliance from them but does not tolerate any deviations. What a hypocrisy their lives become – on one hand they are taught that “to err is human..” and on the other they are expected to work like angels who make no mistakes at all. How can we expect these people to create new solutions and be innovative? Conformists do not create new worlds - that is the domain of the mavericks who dream and have the courage to act on them. But in our society non-conformists are people who need to be 'fixed'. If they do not think like the others, if they do not behave like the others, if they do not have the same aspirations as the others then something must be wrong with them. After all the majority of the people can't be wrong so it stands to reason that the ones who are different must be in the fault. That's the concept of democracy gone mad!

There is no denying that the majority of our children have no access to schools and even being in school does not give them an access to education. But even in the small percentile where they have access to both schools and education the question remains what are we teaching them? Is literacy the be all and end all of education or are life skills just as important? We teach them that to dream is good but we also teach them that importance of ground realities. No wonder when you ask any young person their goals and ambitions they will spout lofty and noble aspirations, but study their body language and you will know that this is just lip service, they don't really believe in their ability to deliver them. Its not their fault, they didn't start this way but as a society we went all out to trim them to comply with our views. We are stuck in the Victorian age where we like gardens to be lined with topiaries, but you know what? Nothing beats the beauty of a natural forest.

Monday, August 15, 2011

The Responsibility Of Change

Our 64th Independence Day came and went. This time however, I think it brought with it a lot more reflection on our part than usual, perhaps because there was a lot more to reflect upon than the previous years.

When I was young we didn’t really have such Independence Day celebrations, perhaps because there was just PTV at that time and it too only aired during certain times each day. We didn’t have flags on each house but we did have the whole neighborhood decked with buntings and of course the lighting which still continues. The difference is at that time we didn’t resent the lights because we didn’t even know there was such a thing as ‘load shedding’. These days when we see all the government buildings lit up we usually think more consumption means more load shedding for us.

As a kid I remember my mother used to make everyone in the house stand up whenever the anthem was played on the radio or TV. It was the done thing. But then something changed, suddenly it became very ‘uncool’ to stand up for your anthem. This transition was most evident in cinema houses. In the beginning everyone used to stand up, without any hesitation, then we started seeing half the people standing up while the others kept sitting and snickered at those who did. Eventually no body would get up and I think they stopped playing the anthem in the halls after a while (I’m not sure what happens nowadays, I haven’t seen the inside of a theater in decades). How many parents are teaching their children nowadays to stand up for their anthem? There was less hullabaloo in those days but more genuine respect.

We seem to have become a society that is addicted to events – whether it is a tragedy like the floods of 2010 or a happy occasion like 14th August, we come alive and rally together only to go back to our slumber when the occasion ends or the novelty wears off. This is a nation which has a lot of excess energy and events bring us the mechanism to release it. If we could find ways of channeling this energy on a more consistent basis we could change this country. We seem to be all asking questions these days, how to focus our energies? How to bring about change? And then we ask the BIG one and draw a blank – who will bring this change???

I belong to a generation which witnessed the fall of Dhaka. I was very young at that time, but old enough to notice the pin drop silence in our entire neighborhood when the news came. The initial reaction was disbelief, then the shock of acceptance followed by brief and eventually shame. Those who didn’t live through that time can’t even imagine what it was like; it was the height of shame and our lowest point ever. But we eventually came out of it, we survived and came back on our track. If we could survive that blow to our very existence I’m sure we can survive the internal chaos and rampant corruption we are facing nowadays. When one hits rock bottom there is nowhere else to go but up. However we will need to take some responsibility for this change. I am alarmed at the discussions people have nowadays in front of their children. Negativity, pessimism, a send of hopelessness and helplessness is the gist of conversations in most homes. I am not saying that we become ostriches but at least we can ensure that these messages are not being absorbed by children. It is the job of parents to instill confidence, values and focus in their children. That’s what responsible parenting is all about.

We may not know who will save us from the present chaos but we definitely know that the future of our country is in the hands of the generation that is still in schools and they are the responsibility of our generation. So the next time you wonder who will bring change to this society look at your kids, it could be one of your sons or daughters and then ask yourself if you are being responsible as a parent of the future leader?

Monday, August 8, 2011

The Corporate Leaders' Guide To National Leadership

I have spent nearly 20 years of my life reading, observing as well as teaching leadership and teamwork. That’s all I know. Probably I paint a pretty pathetic picture in a social setting when everyone around me is discussing politics and I appear completely clueless. Give me a dysfunctional organization and I can probably give you a clear diagnostic of what’s wrong along with a blueprint of how to rectify the issues. But can the same skills be used on a macro level i.e. a dysfunctional nation?
Let’s start with the most basic of concepts in leadership – team dynamics and the responsibilities of a leader at various stages of team development.

Stage 1 – Formation or Pseudo Community

Observable Symptoms
  • Over enthusiasm on part of the team members
  • Focus on ‘niceties’ and being polite
  • No goal is too big for them – they can touch the sky
  • A picture of cooperation
 Reason – the team at this stage is high on motivation but low on competence. They really don’t know what the goal achievement will entail. They are operating with limited information.

A Leader’s Responsibility 
  • Explain the goal and objectives at length 
  • Let people know what their role will be in achieving these objectives 
  • Chalk out the strategy and let the members know of the potential challenges ahead
 Result –  members start to understand the complexity of the task at hand and what kind of effort will be required on their part. This realization sets the stage for Stage 2.

Stage 2 – Storming or Chaos

Observable Symptoms 
  • Blaming each other for lack of results 
  • Passing the buck when it comes to responsibility 
  • Forming cliques amongst the team 
  • Talking in innuendos and having veiled discussions 
  • Blaming the leader for playing favourites
 Reason – the team has come face-face with reality and are going through a phase of low motivation and low competence. On the surface it seems like a regression of the team, but this stage must come if the team has any chance of emerging as a strong cohesive unit at the other end. 

 A Leader’s Responsibility 
  • Holding the members accountable for their results – regardless of who cooperated or not the person responsible for the task is also accountable for it.
  • Keeping the lines of communication open amongst team members – if 2 members have a problem with each other the leader’s job is to get both parties together to discuss and resolve the issue. The leader can mediate but should not devote his/her time to listening to complains from members about their team.
 Result – if the leader manages to lead his/her team at this stage then the team moves forward to the next one.
Stage 3 – Norming or Resolution

Observable Symptoms
  • The team members have learnt to work with each other and come to realize that they don’t have to ‘love’ their team members, just be able to work with them
  • The team will have a tendency to draw attention of the tasks they have done well 
  • There will be an effort to draw the leader’s attention away from the areas in which they still haven’t been able to produce the desired results.
Reason – the team is currently going through a period of variable motivation and variable competence. They have started to get some success but there are still areas which are proving a challenge to them. Where they succeed their motivation goes up, where they struggle the motivation is still down.

A Leader’s Responsibility
To celebrate the team’s success but keep pushing them to take on further challenges. If the leader become complacent at this stage or lets the team rest on their laurels, the team will slip into a cycle of mediocrity. The leaders actions at this phase propel the teams into the fourth and final stage. 

 Stage 4 – Performing or Production

Observable Symptoms 
  • The leader becomes first amongst equals – a figure head who steps in only when the team goes into regression for any reason 
  • The team members are open and candid about issues 
  • Conflicts are taken as positively and resolved within the team 
  • The team has learnt to ‘think together’ i.e be able to arrive at decisions through consensus and candid debate
 Reason- the team is now at a stage of high motivation and high competence. They know what to do and are confident of the outcome. 

 It doesn’t take a keen analytical mind to come to the conclusion that as a nation we are stuck in Stage 2 – Storming or Chaos and this stage is becoming more and more pronounced each day due to the complete lack of leadership. The term ‘political leadership’ has become an oxymoron in our country. We simply have politicians – available in all sizes, small, big, large, XL and XXL. Leadership on the other hand is completely absent in this mix. 

In an organization even the worst leader is at the end of the day held accountable for his/her results. No matter how good they are at playing office politics at the end of the day it is their contribution to the organizational goals which leads to their success.  The vehicle which drives this accountability is the Performance Appraisal System. Granted in many organizations it doesn’t always perform at its optimum, personal biases, pressure of conforming to the bell curve etc all lead to many disgruntled employees. However it is a tool that by far and large does serve the organization’s purpose when people are trained to use it effectively.  

The appraisal system for the democratic government is of course the ballot. However this system seems to have one important column missing – Contribution To The National Goals. The few citizens that chose to use this system (and the numbers dwindle in each election) appraise the candidate on the basis of : a) which party do they hate the most, so its opposition gets the vote, b) which community do the candidates belong to. Most of us however stay at home in the comfort of the knowledge that our physical presence is not really needed, our vote will be cast.
It is no wonder that no political party has ever bothered to take a hard look at its leadership style and try to improve it. At the end of the day we never hold them accountable for their contribution to the nation’s goals and objectives. Perhaps because we really have no idea what our goals are? 

We spend so much time in fire-fighting that we really have lost track of where we want to be as a nation in 5 or 10 years time. Any organization which has managed to turn itself around has done so by setting a very clear Vision for itself. This vision then gets translated into Key Performance Indicators which are then further distributed down the line as departmental and individual goals and targets. But does any one of us really have an answer to where we want to see Pakistan in 10 years time? We are great at slogans and rhetoric, but that does not and has not gotten us anywhere. 

The day our government develops a vision even a myopic one, I would be happy. But right now it’s the blind leading the blind. The government has no vision, the opposition’s visions is just that – opposition. The people are too tied down with the effort of day-to-day living to be able to take a step back and assess their future.
Only a strong vision can set everything else in motion. It is the start of any good leadership initiative in the corporate sector, everything else stems from it. We as a nation need a unified and strong vision as well, because when people have something to look forward to they are willing to expend inordinate amounts of energy towards its achievement. Even the best of teams succumb to inertia and disintegrate in the absence of a goal.

Sunday, July 31, 2011

My Response To A Life Lesson

A single incidence, a solitary interaction can at times make us question our core beliefs and the very concepts which influence our thinking. They make us wonder if we are in touch with reality or have we been living in a make believe world of our own? I recently encountered such an interaction. Perhaps years ago I would have been shocked, angry or even humiliated, but at this stage of my life I only consider it as a lesson to be learnt. Life’s lesson’s are not neatly compartmentalized by subjects and chapters, they need to be reflected upon and conclusions can only be arrived at by examining multiple aspects of our lives.
We learnt from Covey years ago that between every stimulus and response is a gap. The more we exercise that gap, the more freedom we exercise. It is a concept that I hold dearly and one which I teach my participants with great zeal. In choosing to learn my lessons and coming to my own conclusion about my actions, I exercise my freedom. It is easy to form opinions about others but usually unproductive, what is more difficult and far more productive is to re-examine one’s own paradigms.

On the surface choosing our response would mean that life’s decisions should be based on logic alone. But my heart provides the main motivation of all my actions. Does that mean that I’m a na├»ve fool that runs after anything and everything I fancy? Or that there is incongruence between my preaching and my actions? Not at all. To think from the heart does not mean that one is irrational or romantic or even impulsive, it simply means that one lets their inner wisdom guide them. The sub-conscious mind is always one step ahead of the conscious mind, and if we take each new bend, each new experience as a signal for exploration, life becomes glorious and joyful. Sure we all trip and fall along the way but at least we progress on the journey of life long learning. Sad are those people who spend their life looking for an authentic map which they can rely upon – but there is no such map, one has to be willing to get lost in order to explore. And so such people become very good in knowing every marker, every bend, every inch of the road on which they choose to travel, but leave the forest around them unexplored. My advice – step away from the road, new lessons lie there.

We project on to others what we want to see. It is an innate desire in all of us to make people ‘fit’ into our world view. People are good or bad, they are decent or immoral, they are deceitful or honest etc. Every label has been created by us so that we can comfortably categorize our interactions, every label has been created by us based on our past experiences or our conditioning. The problem is that human nature does not correspond to a specific side of the spectrum – we are a composition in shades. It is this labeling on our part which causes us to limit ourselves to know only those who we file on the right side of our cabinet, the ones filed on the left-hand side are unread and unknown. Anyone who validates our paradigms is welcome, anyone who challenges it is discarded.

An important lesson I learnt from this interaction was that it is easier for people to be cynical and disbelieving rather than accept what people tell them. There is nothing wrong with that at all, only a fool or the terribly gullible believe everything. Discernment is an important aspect of a healthy human mind. The problem lies when we become adamant in refusing to accept the other person’s truth. Hence it is not a problem to not take anything on face value, the problem is not to let any information change that view.
The conclusions which I have drawn from this perhaps negative interaction are all positive and they are:
I choose to let my heart rule my life, because in the balance of things it gives me more joy than pain. And besides even pain is an indication of being alive, I refuse to merely exist.

The labels which other people may define me by are not indicative of who I am. However, I refuse to put negative labels on those people, because I know it is hard and painful for people to change their paradigms constantly.

Our truth does not change, but whether the other person accepts it or not is their choice. Their belief cannot define my reality. I am who I am, and darn happy about it!

Oh and yes one more thing exuberance is considered a sign of mental instability by the rational minded but my reply to them - “blessed are the cracks for they let in the light”.

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Surviving The Age Of Paradox

We live in an age of paradoxes. At a time where communication is the biggest industry on the planet, most people find little time to talk and listen to those around them. Where everyone is sharing their life as it happens on the web, few find people who understand them. We now have thousands of friends on social networking sites but have lost the true meaning of friendship. We crave for interaction with others over the net, but are fast losing our social skills. We insist on privacy laws and yet we have become so voyeuristic that we tweet every thought, every experience.

Through the www we have access to more knowledge that we ever thought was possible, yet all we do is regurgitate quotes and other people’s ideas. Original thinking seems to be at an all time low, especially in our country. In an age where we can explore the entire world on our computers, the spirit of exploration is taking a nose dive. When our excuse to be addicted to our computers is that it expands our knowledge, most people find little time to read a book. Our excuse for not reading is usually that there is no time, and so when time seems to be a rare commodity, we Google and satisfy ourselves with snippets of information. Too many Jacks and very few Masters.

Our children are smarter than we ever were at their age, but according to Gardner there are 7 types of intelligences – 7 types of smart. Visual/Spatial, Linguistic, Mathematical/Logical, Inter-personal, Intra-personal, Musical and Bodily/Physical are all unique intelligences. The current trend of our children to be glued to their monitors is slowly eroding their Intra-personal and Physical intelligences, both crucial to our social skills.

As a management trainer my forte is Leadership and Team Building training. Both require human beings to interact on a one-on-one level, listen, understand, share, explain, develop consensus etc. Most of my participants are of the age where their childhood was not spent in front of a screen, they used to ‘hang-out’ with their friends physically, not in cyber space. Yet teambuilding and leadership does not come naturally to most and that is why people like me are in business. But what about the future? When all the participants have spent their formative years either texting or socializing online? Some would say that would mean our business would boom, but on the other hand what a challenge it would be to make them look into each others eyes and share their feelings and ideas!

Socrates said “virtue is a median point between 2 vices”, if our civilization is to retain its basic character (remember the phrase ‘man is a social animal’?) then we will have to find some way in which we balance our mastery over technology with our fundamental need for social contact. Humans seem to be great at driving without brakes and realizing only after we crash that we should have had them checked. We did this when we drove species after species to extinction, we did this to our climate, we did this to our crops and now we are doing the same to ourselves.

Monday, July 25, 2011

Giving An "A"

Sometimes it takes a unique voice to tell us something which is so obvious and so simple that we stop paying attention to it. One such unique voice is Benjamin Zander, conductor of the Boston Philharmonic Orchestra, teacher at the New England Conservatory, author of ‘Possibility Thinking’ and a speaker who inspires corporate as well as world leaders.
At the beginning of the term of his graduate class he hands out their final grades. And everyone gets the same grade “A”. The only condition is that students need to write a letter to him at the beginning of the year dated to the end of the term describing who they have become in order to retain their “A”. To some the idea seems trivial even frivolous, but Benjamin notes that the society at large tends to treat the “A” students very differently compared to the “C minus” students. By giving an “A” to all students he levels the playing field for all, the students don’t have to do anything to earn their “A”, all their efforts now have to be made in order to retain their grade. Simple but powerful.
In the movie ‘My Fair Lady’ Eliza Doolittle is asked “ what is the difference between a flower girl and a lady?” she answers “the only difference between a flower girl and a lady is in the way people treat them”. Simple words, but which deliver one of the biggest truths of human interaction. No matter how powerful or helpless we may be, how rich or poor, how strong or weak we expect people to prove their worth in our eyes before they can be awarded our respect and admiration. In other words people have to ‘earn their A’. We tend to treat people who have proven themselves worthy of our respect and admiration very differently from those who we are evaluating. The former group is treated like stars while we are judgmental with the latter, watching with bated breath lest they slip and we can cross them out.

When students write their letters to Benjamin on who they have to become in order to retain their “A” they delve into the realm of possibilities of who they can be. They embark on a fascinating journey of self-exploration and co-creation. They are free from the pressure of evaluation and judgment.

We are perhaps one of the most judgmental societies on earth. We tend to evaluate people and hand out our verdicts based on minimal data. How a person talks, how educated (or not) they are, which ethnic community they belong to, their socio-economic class etc are all enough for us to put a label on them, without even the most superficial exploration of what the person really is. We forget that God himself has kept one final Day on which He will judge us even though He has all the data he needs on every human ever born, then who are you and I to pass judgments on a minute-by-minute basis?

Whether it is our insecurity or our conditioning, but we tend to be very miserly with our appreciation of others. We want to be appreciated, we want to be respected, we want to be acknowledged, but we do not want to reciprocate these actions. Someone once told me that in life is there is something you are not getting enough of then chances are it is the very thing you are not giving enough of – if you want respect give it, if you want love then give love first. How true. In my training sessions one of the biggest complains of people is that they are not appreciated and their boss does not acknowledge their effort. But when asked how often they appreciate their peers, or juniors or even their boss dead silence accompanied by uncomfortable expressions is usually the first response I get. This is quickly followed by a protest listing all the reasons why they “can’t” do this (not why they don’t but why they can’t). We have somehow learnt to expect only the worse from people, and since according to Zander people rise to the level of expectation we have of them – our thinking gets validated over and over again. Not because all people are bad, but because we expect all people to be so – a self-fulfilling prophecy.

What is amazing about us is that for a nation in which every second person is a self-proclaimed religious scholar out to let everyone know how their interpretation of Islamic rituals is wrong, the more fundamental concepts of our religion have been conveniently pushed to one side. We have forgotten that Allah gave us an “A” the day he created Adam and asked Satan and all angels to bow to him declaring him to be His “Supreme Creation” (Ashraf-ul-Makhluqaat). Our job as humans beings is to retain our “A” but instead all we do is find new ways of ensuring how to lose it.

In order to retain our “A” we have to live up to the expectation that God has from us of being the Supreme Creation which means we must step out of our comfort zones and step into the world of possibility thinking. We need to embark on a glorious journey of self-exploration and re-defining our limits. But this requires effort, and in a society where finding quick fixes and short cuts has become the primary motivation such a journey of growth is perhaps just a dream shared by a handful of people. Complacency is the most rampant of all our vices and blaming everyone for our problems is the other. Avoidance of responsibility has become our hallmark. Nothing we do is wrong, it is done to us!

If our society must transform, then we need to take responsibility of our own circumstances and step out of our comfort zones. We need to expect only excellence from those around us and treat them in a manner befitting stars. See the world through a filter of negative thinking and that's what you will see, change the filter and your experience will change.

Saturday, July 23, 2011

What's True About The Truth?

On a spirituality and mind power forum regularly visited by me, I recently came across a question which though simple and short, shook my basic beliefs to the core. Someone had asked “How many truths are there? 7 billion or 0?”

For once I was totally stumped for an answer. What really is ‘the truth’? Is there anything in this world that we can irrefutably claim as the absolute truth? Let’s take our most fundamental and basic belief – our belief in God. The followers of the monotheistic traditions i.e. Islam, Christianity and Judaism hold the belief in one God central to their belief system, indeed central to their lives. It is an absolute truth. But the followers of polytheistic traditions who believe in a pantheon of gods and goddesses will quickly claim that their view is the absolute truth. Then there are the atheists who subscribe to the view that there is no God at all. Each one holds on to their belief as the truth. Each one tries to reform the other, each one tries to educate the other groups on the folly of their thinking. Being a Muslim my truth is that there is one and only one God, but then that is what it is – my truth and the one subscribed to by millions who share my belief.

What about history and other factual accounts? Again it depends upon whose recounting them. At the end of the day each event, each fact is recorded from the perspective of the person observing them and no matter how hard we try to be neutral our own perceptions and paradigms do come into play. Even in a criminal trial the same event is argued from the perspective of the defendant's as well as the prosecutor. The side that wins is usually the one who shares the majority’s view of the truth. Take the example of honour killings in our country. At one point in time the majority of people shared the view that it was the right thing to do and hence it was sanctioned by society. As the society’s view shifted it became a criminal offence. Hence it seems not only are there various truths, but truth itself changes from time to time.

What about some of the most fundamental concepts of human society? For the majority of people the truth is that the parent child relationship is unconditional, pure and beautiful. Parents nurture, protect and provide us with the emotional support that no other can offer us. But ask the child who was sexually abused by a parent or whose parents sold them to human traffickers. Their truth is completely different.

Science perhaps is the closest we will ever get to absolute truth. Gravity is the truth because we have not found a single person who has held a belief contrary to it since the day it was discovered nor have we found any scientific model which can refute it. The laws of nature are all irrefutable and hence true. So in a way we can say that anything which is observed by all and denied by none is an absolute truth – until the day it can be refuted.

As a Muslim I have grown up to believe that Islam is the religion of nature (Din-e-Fitrat) so all laws governing nature in the universe are true. Since science is nothing more than the observation of natural phenomenon and laws governing them, science is an extension of religion.

Some reading this may wonder if I’m dangerously close to sacrilege in saying that our belief in God is not the truth and only science is true. No, what I am saying is that at the moment laws of nature are the only things we can all say are true whereas our belief in God is our personal truth. Till the day 7 billion people can all identify themselves with the same belief it remains our personal absolute truth.

Personal truths are pivotal to our existence however they cannot become the cause of other people’s extinction. We can hold to our version of the truth with all our fervor and zeal but that does not give us the right to say that the other person’s truth is not valid for them.

Its not just about religion, its about everything that defines us as an individual. Our experiences, our circumstances have all led us to hold as true certain ideas, beliefs, and paradigms – but they are ours and ours alone. Perhaps there are others who shares some of these truths with us and many who don’t. We may choose to interact only with those who share our truths, but that does not mean that we should start negating the existence of those who don’t or start to forcefully change them.

Monday, July 18, 2011

My Object Of Desire

I am and have been in love since the age of 3 with an object which in my view is the most beautiful thing ever created by man. When I was young it fascinated me by its power to enchant, in my growing years it had the power to lift my soul and symbolized my view on how to live my life. At some point in our adults lives when we are handed out our share of trials and tribulations we all start to wonder what it all really means? We start to shape our own unique philosophy regarding life. And here too this object became by mentor.

You must be wondering if this is some miracle object or perhaps it’s a marvel of technology or that it must be really expensive to be able to do so much. The answer is no, no and no. It’s a humble Kaleidoscope.

Whenever someone asks me what present I would like my immediate response is “a kaleidoscope”, not many have been successful so far in fulfilling this very simple wish, except one who gave me a high tech version of it, nice - but didn’t have the same magic as the old fashioned one. It’s not anybody’s fault that they couldn’t get one, sadly they are not easily available anymore.

As a child it transported me into a fairyland of possibilities and amazement. One never knows what they will see when they pick up a kaleidoscope, a change of light, a turn of the wrist and viola! Today when everything is functional, or fast or obvious, innocence and wonderment is fast disappearing from the experience of childhood, perhaps we need to reintroduce them at our toy stores.

My dream retirement project would be to make kaleidoscopes and hand them out to children for free. I would like them to learn to appreciate beauty just for beauty’s sake alone not because there is a utility attached to it. Perhaps then on my death bed I can look back and say ‘life well lived’.

The capacity of the ordinary to produce extraordinary results is perhaps central to the kaleidoscope ‘philosophy’. The bits and pieces inside the tube are unremarkable in themselves, you can throw in anything you want – broken glass bangles, some tinsel, buttons, beads etc. absolutely anything but the result is always truly magnificent. Alchemy indeed! It is an optical illusion of course, but then aren’t our points of views and paradigms just that, our own illusions? We can shake the tube and conclude that there are only some broken objects inside it or we can look through the peep-hole and witness magic. Life is what we make of it, only our point of view needs to change.

The slightest turn of the scope changes the image completely. How reassuring to know that even when life is at its lowest most depressing point, a slight turn of destiny, a single event can change the entire scene. Everything is transient and in flux. For me a kaleidoscope is hope in a tube.

Another lesson I learnt from this humble object was the importance of boundaries. It is the reflection from triangular walls of mirrors inside the kaleidoscope which creates the symmetry of patterns. Take away the boundaries and there is no reflection, no design – just bits and pieces. In the same manner we need to keep within our boundaries if we are to maintain our symmetry, our personality. These boundaries are not just those of ethics and morality but perhaps even more importantly our ego boundaries. These are the boundaries which define who we are and what we are not. They define our likes, our dislikes our emotional and psychological limits. In short our ego boundaries are really our non-physical selves. Whenever we deliberately breach our ego boundaries in order to accommodate others and make compromises in life we lose our symmetry. Hence good or bad, noble or shallow, strong or weak we need to first accept our selves as we are. We can expand our boundaries but we cannot fragment them and expect joy and beauty to be the outcome.

So you see a little cardboard cylinder contains vital life lessons, if only we take the trouble to actually look at it.

Friday, July 8, 2011

In Pursuit Of Happiness

There is a darkness that everyone must face
It wants to take what’s good and fair and lay it all to waste
And that darkness covers everything in sight
Until it meets a single point of light

These words from the song “Points of Light” by Randy Travis seem to resonate at a much deeper level today than ever before as Karachites bear witness to another episode of senseless violence. We seem to be all asking the same questions and coming up with the same answers – answers which do not contribute to solving the problem, just deepening our darkness. We are all searching for that ‘point of light’.

There is a famous Sufi story in which the Sufi comes across a man on his hands and knees feverishly searching for something on the road. The Sufi asked him “what are you searching for” the man replied “I dropped my keys”. The Sufi decided to help him and joined in the search but no matter how meticulously they looked every inch of the ground the keys were nowhere to be found. Tired the Sufi asked the man “do you remember where exactly did you drop them?” “Of course” the man replied with indignation “I dropped them in my house”. Taken aback with this reply the Sufi asked “then why on earth are we searching in the middle of the road?” The man replied “Because there is more light outside”.

Some people laugh when they hear this story as if it’s a great joke, but it is in fact a story with a very sobering morale. Like that man most of us spend our time looking for answers outside but in actuality most answers lie within us.

Evil is ‘live’ spelt backwards, hence whatever is anti-life is evil. Being anti-life does not only mean the taking away of actual lives, it also means taking away of the joy, the dreams, the spark to fight and the determination to win against all odds, because these are things which make a difference between an existence and a life. So, whenever we propagate a sense of hopelessness, whenever we succumb to the darkness of our own thoughts and even worse when we spread negativity to others we drain the life force of others as well as ourselves and we too become guilty of being ‘evil’.

There are some who would argue that only the truly callous and shallow can remain unaffected by what is happening around us so how is it possible to remain happy and positive in the midst of so much despair? But for evil to win it is enough that good people do nothing. Our politics are too convoluted for most of us to understand and we certainly have no power to change our external circumstances, however we can fight evil, simply by refusing to succumb to it. We have to look within ourselves and keep our happiness intact. I’m not saying that we lose our compassion or our humanity, far from it, but being hopeless and despairing will not change our circumstances, rather we will be perpetuating the cycle.

Matter and energy are interchangeable and all matter in the universe is constant are 2 principles we learnt in basic physics but little did we know that in these short statements lies the secret of life itself. Our brain emits electrical impulses therefore every thought we have is a particle which has its own unique frequency or vibration. Hence every thought has the capacity to convert into matter i.e. manifest itself into our tangible reality or simply put ‘thoughts become things’. This is the core philosophy of the Law of Attraction i.e. whatever we think about constantly manifests itself into our lives. But it is not just our thoughts which create our physical reality it is actually our feelings which attract circumstances in our lives. One can constantly think of that perfect house they want to buy but when they think those thoughts if their predominant feeling is that of noticing its lack or feeling hopeless that it is not in their capacity to get it, then they will just get more events which will make this dream seem impossible. So the more despairing we are guess what do we attract? Yes circumstances which bring more despair.

Being happy and positive is the best weapon we have against evil and actually changing our current circumstances. We need to stop looking outwards for our answers, let the political analysts do their job, we are neither trained to do that nor will it make a scrap of difference by sitting around the TV feeling depressed. We are not helpless, we do have the power to bring change by making our own and others’ happiness our prime goal. We will need to actively seek ways to make ourselves full of joy and hope - its not easy but its not impossible .

Ever since I was a child I have heard people say that there is no future for this country, that everything here is doomed or that we have hit rock bottom. But each day something happens which makes us reassess the depth of the abyss we seem to be in, each day we say this is the worst that can happen, and each day we change that view as well. The more we focus on how ‘bad’ everything is, the worse the situation becomes. We have tried to be miserable and unhappy for so many years and it has made no difference, so perhaps its time to change our attitude. We will have to look inside for the keys, no matter how dark it might be.

Monday, July 4, 2011

What's Love Got To Do With Performance?

Many people struggle to improve their performance but few realize that just hard work and good intentions are not enough. Performance in any area of our life is dependant upon our self-concept in that particular area. Self-concept is our image of ourselves, how we perceive our abilities in a certain area of our lives. For example you may be a very articulate person, with great communication skills on a one-on-basis and your boss insists that you should use this skill at the next conference and make a presentation in front of the management. However, if you feel that talking to people is one thing but presenting to a whole crowd is another matter altogether and you are not really up to it, no matter how much people motivate and encourage, at best you will be able to manage an average performance. You will only excel at something when your self-concept regarding your presentation skills is high.

But self-concept is not the end of the story, rather it is just the beginning because self-concept is also dependant upon something – self-esteem i.e. how much your value yourself as a person. Self-esteem is one of those words which have lately been abused to the hilt by people who have no understanding of what it really means. In Pakistan whenever you go to any public place be a restaurant or the airport I’m sure you’ve all heard someone at some point say “do you know who I am?” Next time whenever you hear those words feel sorry for them rather than getting annoyed, because this is the #1 sign of someone suffering from low self-esteem. You see in life whenever someone runs away from their problems or takes illegitimate short-cuts they erode their self-esteem, till the point when they are completely hollow inside and they need validation from the outside world.

The only way to improve self-esteem is by meeting life’s problems head-on, taking on challenges and giving them your best shot. It is an account that needs daily deposits but the compound interest is high. Years ago I was one of the organizers at a large conference in which we had called international speakers. As is the usual practice at such venues, the first row had sofas and the rest of the rows were chairs. The centre sofas were reserved for the speakers and the rest was on first-come-first seating basis. A gentleman came along with his entourage and plopped himself on the reserved sofas. One of the other organizers (who himself was the GM marketing for a very large newspaper) came to me and asked me if I could get them to move. That should have caused alarm bells to go off in my mind, but me being the thick person I am immediately jumped to action and went to this person and politely asked him to move since this place was reserved for the speakers. The gentle man looked around, then looked at me disdainfully and uttered those famous words “do you know who I am?” As usual I put my foot in my mouth and replied “sir I have no idea who you are”. Ouch that hurt! He got up and sat somewhere at the back making a big show of his ‘insult’. I later found out that he was the chairman of a very large State owned corporation. No wonder his self-esteem was so low!

In the same conference I also learnt what high-self esteem is all about. One hour into the session I saw the back door of the conference room opening and a small unassuming man came and sat on the first chair available in the last row. That man was Shaukat Mirza, chairman of Engro and at that time MD of PSO. Having consulted for his organizations on a number of occasions I knew him well so I went to him and asked him to come up to the front row as there was a seat available on the sofa. He politely declined and said it would just disturb everyone if he moved right now. Wow! I was floored by his reply because I realized I was in the presence of a person with high self-esteem. He knew that Shaukat Mirza would be Shaukat Mirza regardless of the row in which he sat.

Self-esteem itself is linked to one more thing and that is self-love. But in order to understand self love we first have to understand love itself. I’m not talking about the kind of love one falls in and out of – that’s a bio-chemical reaction. I’m talking about real love the kind we feel for our parents, our children, our friends, our country etc. I came across a great definition of love in Dr. Scott Peck’s book ‘A Road Less Travelled’, and it said:

“Love is the willingness to extend ourselves for our own or somebody else’s mental, emotional or spiritual growth”.

I think each word in this definition needs to be pondered upon. Firstly, love is the willingness, not ability because everyone has the ability but not many have the desire to put that ability into action. To extend ourselves means getting out of our comfort zone, all growth occurs when we are ‘stretched’ or are forced out of our comfort zones. If we are too comfortable in life then it is simply a sign of stagnation, and whatever is stagnant is decaying. For the sake of mental emotion or spiritual growth means that the outcome of love has to be growth, if not then its not love just manipulation.

In light of this definition we can simply say that self-love is our willingness to extend ourselves for our own growth.

Hence performance depends upon self-concept, which in turn depends upon self-esteem which is directly linked to self-love and all this boils down to the ‘D’ word we hate so much. Discipline! Discipline does not mean regimentation, it means loving yourself enough to force yourself to take the action required for your growth.

So you see love has got everything to do with performance improvement and remember if you can’t even love yourself how can you expect love from others? Don't blame others for yourself lack of success or low performance levels, instead ask yourself  "do I really love myself enough?"