Turning the golden rule around

We all know the golden rule: “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you”. It’s possibly the earliest moral lesson I was taught in my life, although I don’t specifically remember the first time I heard it. But what about turning that around? What about treating ourselves as we would treat other people?

In my life, the golden rule is a given. I don’t (at least not deliberately) treat other people in a way that I would find unacceptable if the treatment were directed at me instead. When it comes to how I treat myself, however, it’s a completely different story.

I’m my own most vocal critic. And I’m not talking about constructive criticism here. I’m talking about cruel, self-deprecating, abusive character assassination.

Any time I do something I consider “wrong”, I’m very quick to take the opportunity to remind myself how worthless I am. I’ve called myself lazy, ugly, stupid, hopeless, boring, and just about every other negative name you can imagine.

Such self-bashing cannot possibly have a positive result. And it doesn’t. I’ve finally got to the point in my life where I recognise that I’m only harming myself by gleefully enumerating (and liberally expanding on) my flaws to myself. I’m just destroying my own self-esteem.

However, when I’m faced with someone else’s shortcomings, I’m typically kind and generous. If someone hurts me in some way, my reaction is to try to understand what might have caused them to act that way. If their actions have damaged the relationship between us, I’m almost always keen to patch it up as soon as possible.

So if I’m kind to other people, why not to myself? When I’m down, why not build myself up rather than kicking myself?

In considering those questions, I’ve decided to turn the golden rule around and make a new rule for myself:

“Treat yourself at all times with the kindness you would show to others”

The value of real human stories

This morning, by chance, I came across the blog of Mara Wilson – the actress who played Natalie Hillard in Mrs Doubtfire and the title-role of Matilda in the film adaptation of Roald Dahl’s wonderful book. After not much reading (there will certainly be more), I was struck by the enormous value of real human stories.

It’s hardly the first time this has happened to me. It’s been a recurring theme of my adult life – human beings are interesting, all of them. It’s one of the greatest gifts I’ve received from my father – the idea that everyone has a story that is worth telling (fittingly, he’s a biographer and historian).

The human story that struck me today was in Mara Wilson’s blog post about Robin Williams, following his death in 2014. They worked together on Mrs Doubtfire, which was released when Mara was just 6 years old back in 1993.

Mara’s post is beautifully open and honest. She almost completely ignores the achievements and fame of Robin Williams and instead reveals the person she knew – the kind, caring, warm, nurturing man who put his energy into making people laugh. She also describes him as shy and vulnerable, which I would never have guessed just from seeing him as an actor and comedian.

She readily admits that she couldn’t face the prospect of being interviewed following Robin’s death. And doesn’t that speak volumes? She missed him, a man she hadn’t spoken to for a few years, to the extent that she couldn’t maintain her composure if she saw his face on TV.

I love stories. Reading fiction is a crucial part of my life. Writing fiction is slowly becoming part of my life too. So I appreciate the value of a well-formed fictional character.  But I’m reminded sometimes, like today, that no-one can invent a character as compelling as a real human being. No made-up joy or sorrow can even begin to approach the depths of the real joys and sorrows experienced by real people relating to each other.

If I can find other people’s real stories so compelling, then it stands to reason that my own stories – the real stories of my life – must also have value. If Mara Wilson’s blog post about her friend Robin Williams can touch me, a stranger to both of them, then perhaps my stories can have a similar effect on those who might read them.

Screw risk aversion

How many risks have you taken today? Have a look at what you’ve done since waking up this morning and see where you’ve taken risks, mostly without realising at the time. The number of risks is not important. Rather it’s the realisation that risk is entirely unavoidable in the life of a human being that matters.

I’ll use my morning as an example:

1. I drove to work. Driving is probably the most risky thing I do on a daily basis. I put myself in a metal box that then moves at speeds of up to 100 km/h on my daily commute. While I’m driving, I’m listening to music, thinking about the problems I’ll face during my day, considering what to write on my blog, noticing the attractive woman in the car next to me, etc.

I’m pretty casual about the risk of driving. It’s something I’m used to. But it’s one of the few things I do that could actually result in my accidental death.

2. I took a shower. Doesn’t seem particualrly risky. But consider that I woke up late and then rushed through my morning routine so I could get to work as quickly as possible. I neglected to put the bath-mat on the floor (it typically hangs over the side of the bath so as not to get stepped on and dirtied unnecessarily during the rest of the day).

When I got out of the shower, I put wet feet onto a tiled floor. If I’d slipped, there’s a fair probability I would have fallen quite hard and injured myself – potentially to the extent of a broken leg/arm/rib…

3. I drank coffee made by someone else. I don’t generally think of this as a risky activity. But think about it. Although I trust my colleague who makes the tea, nobody really knows what goes on in someone else’s head. If she arbitrarily decided to poison me, I’d be dead.

That may seem like I’m getting a bit paranoid, but I’m not. I’m simply pointing out that there is an actual risk involved here. It’s such a small risk that I don’t feel the need to mitigate it, but for someone who is extremely risk averse, it might seem significant.

4. I’m sitting in a big building with floors above and below me. So many risks. If the builders cut too many corners in erecting this structure, the floor above could fall on me. Or what’s below could buckle under the weight of the floors above.

I don’t know the details of the materials used in the construction of this  building. Some of them could be toxic (asbestos seems unlikely but other materials could be considered safe and yet prove not to be). The construction of my environment could kill me.

5. I’ve interacted with people, objects, liquids, gases, etc. Every single interaction I’ve had with anyone or anything today probably means I’ve encountered viruses, bacteria, fungi, etc. that are harmful to humans. I’m protected from them by my immune system. But at any point, I could encounter a harmful little organism that my body can’t deal with.

In that case, I’d become ill, possibly seriously enough to die. Think that’s far-fetched? Tell that to the people who died of Ebola recently in West Africa who had never even heard of it before it killed them.

I’ll stop there. If I felt like it, I’m sure I could find hundreds of risks I’ve taken in the few hours since I woke up. But that’s not necessary.

What’s the point of all this? I’m trying to demonstrate that risk aversion is actually just counter-productive.

If you’re considering doing something and you’re concerned that the risk of failure is too high to justify it, then go through the above exercise. See the inherent risk in everything you do. Realise that risk is not a negative thing. It’s simply there, everywhere, all the time.

Do you want to do something but you’re afraid of the risks?

  • Want to write a novel (I do) but scared it might not be good enough to publish?
  • Want to go on a crazy overland adventure through Africa (I do) but afraid you might get sick/lost/broke/etc…?
  • Want to record some music you’ve written and put it on Youtube for all the world to see (I do) but afraid the world might not like it?
  • Want to embark on a creative career that includes writing, playing music, traveling, etc. (I do) but afraid of being broke?
  • Want to help poor kids with no opportunities by providing them with books to read (I do) but afraid you might not have the knowledge/skills/contacts/time/resources to make it happen?

When I look at that list of things i want to do and the risks associated with them, the risks seem significant. They’re scary.

But then I consider that just this morning, driving to work, I took a few small gaps to save some time; I drove a bit quicker than I should have in some places; I glanced at my phone while driving with one hand. If any one of those situations had gone badly wrong, I could be writing this from a hospital bed.

So why am I afraid of my novel being rejected by publishers when I’ve barely begun to write it? Why am I afraid of having no money? Why am I afraid to fail? The risks associated with the things I’m not doing don’t seem that big compared to the risks I take as a matter of course in my daily life.

So screw risk aversion. Screw fear. Screw giving up before I’ve even started. I’d rather fail magnificently. Better to be rejected/sick/lost/broke/dead in the pursuit of something than barely alive in the pursuit of nothing.

Fear, courage and conscious choices

I am in the process of working out what it is that I want from my life. It’s a long process, and I’m right at the start, but I’ve made an observation that might be useful: I am afraid of defining and forming myself through the choices I make.

Of course, that’s an illogical fear – I am going to be defined and formed by the choices I make whether I want to or not. So I suppose what I’m really afraid of is taking responsibility for the choices I make – becoming the man I choose to be. Accepting at the outset that I might choose wrong, and choosing anyway.

There is immense risk in making conscious life choices. At least it seems so to me. I could carry on living in my own comfort zone, being dissatisfied with some areas of my life and blaming circumstance or other people – pretty much not accepting responsibility for my own life.

But if I make conscious choices about the life I live, then there’s no-one else to blame. It’s all on me. If I screw it up, it’s my fault. Equally terrifying, if I succeed, it’s down to me too.

And I realise through the writing down of all of this that failing to take responsibility for my own choices (which include choosing not to choose) is in itself a choice that defines who I am.

So I’m stuck in a bit of a corner. Either I do nothing, remain dissatisfied and accept (because I understand it now) that I chose that, or I choose to become the man I want to be, take the associated risks and accept that I might fall flat on my face.

Which will I choose? To me it seems to all come down to courage. Am I the coward who is so afraid to fail that I won’t try? Or do I have the courage to accept possible failure and thereby also embrace the possiblity of success?

I hope courage wins. I really, really do. But I am afraid.

The benefits of communication technology

Earlier today, I got a glimpse of the benefits of present-day communication technology. I’m so accustomed to being able to talk to anyone and find information about anything at just about any time that I normally don’t give it a second thought. But today I noticed.

While I was sitting at my desk in Cape Town, my cellphone rang. It was my father, calling from his car (Isn’t Bluetooth useful?) to ask for assistance in solving a car-related problem. He was driving between two quite distant towns a few hundred kilometres away from where I was.

He described his problem to me. I understood what he was talking about. He’d accidentally activated something in his car and wasn’t happy about the effects. Knowing that he’d probably pressed a button by accident, however, didn’t get me any closer to helping him solve his problem.

I needed to know the layout of his steering wheel controls (there are way too many controls in his car – whoever at Ford designed the steering wheel didn’t do it very well – and they’re not that easy to read when driving on a freeway at speed) so I could tell him what to press to deactivate this particular system.

So I googled the steering wheel of his car, looked at the first good quality image I found, and saw what needed to be done. If I hadn’t known his car relatively well, I could quite easily have found the manual too, which would have explained what was required.

I called him back and told him which buttons to press (by location on the steering wheel – yes, there are that many). His problem went away (it was an inconvenience rather than a fault) and he carried on driving happily towards his destination.

The whole process was so straightforward. A short phone call; a quick google search; and another phone call. So easy. But just a few years ago, it could not have gone so smoothly.

We both have access to mobile phones – which is a given in 2015. If not, he would have been unable to call me. I have access to the internet 24/7, which is a fairly recent development in my own life (he still doesn’t have easily accessible internet access on the go).

The information I needed could be found in a matter of seconds thanks to Google and the popularity of the internet. While the internet has existed for quite a while now, the development of search technology has made information so accessible that it’s hard to fathom how anyone managed before Google existed.

Communication technology really is making our lives easier. I experienced it first-hand today, and that was just one very simple example of the benefits of today’s technology.

Another benefit, of course, is that I can write this post and you, wherever you are in the world, can read it pretty much immediately. Long live the internet!

Zuma is not the problem

If you’ve even vaguely glanced at any media source – newspaper, website, social media, etc. – in the last while, you would have noticed a lot of anti-Zuma sentiment. A lot. Everyone has something to say about Zuma. Many extend their opinions to the ANC. And it’s all doom and gloom about how Zuma and the ANC are the biggest problem in the world ever. I disagree. I don’t think Zuma and the ANC are the problem, and here’s why.

South Africa’s political system is a constitutional democracy. What does that mean? The ruling party is chosen by a vote of the citizens of the country. If the South African public really don’t want the ANC in power, all we have to do is vote them out. It’s that simple. But it hasn’t happened.

When the government of a country abuses power at the cost of its citizens but manages to stay in power nonetheless – by falsifying election results (no evidence of this that I’m aware of), buying votes (has possibly happened in South Africa), deliberately miseducating citizens as to the purpose of elections (it seems quite likely that most South Africans think “voting” actually means “putting a cross next to the ANC logo on a piece of paper”), etc. – the citizens typically resort to other means to get rid of the rogue government.

In South Africa, under the apartheid government, the majority of the country’s citizens were ineligible to vote. So did they sit back and just accept the corrupt system that was in place? Of course not! They opposed the system with everything they had. The ANC was one of a number of organisations that spent its entire existence fighting against the government. Did they fight in terms of the laws of the country (made by a government they didn’t elect)? To a degree, at first. But when that got them nowhere, they took more drastic action.

Civil disobedience followed, in which ordinary South Africans showed their objection to the government by deliberately, publicly and collectively refusing to obey the laws of the country.

And when that didn’t sway the government from its oppressive attitude, South Africans took up arms against the government, forming, amongst other military organisations, Umkhonto we Sizwe – the military wing of the ANC.

Throughout the struggle against apartheid, South Africans of integrity appealed to the international community for support in opposing the government. And the international community responded by taking measures against South Africa, including economic and sporting sanctions.

South Africans can be duly proud of the commitment they showed in opposing the apartheid government.

What I would like to know is this: where is that opposition to corruption in South Africa today? Why do South Africans accept the ANC government as it is, with Zuma at the helm? Is the situation not comparable to that under apartheid?

Zuma and the ANC are not interested in the welfare of South Africa’s citizens. Zuma himself is after power and wealth, which he is gaining in abundance. The ANC of today is not even vaguely related to the organisation that so embodied the struggle against apartheid. The present-day ANC is an unthinking, unprincipled organisation that simply follows the whims of the biggest bully in the playground – presently Zuma.

So why are we, the citizens of South Africa, putting up with Zuma and the ANC? We don’t have to. We can vote them out. If they refuse to go, we can stand together to remove them from power, with the assistance of the international community if we simply request it. We can occupy Nkandla. We can march to Parliament every day to protest the presence of Zuma in our government. We can find a million ways to actually do something rather than just speaking about it. Remember, South Africans died in the struggle against apartheid – and a lot of them knew in advance they might die, but fought anyway. Where’s that commitment now?

Zuma and the ANC are not going to simply turn around and develop integrity. They’ve learned that they can do what they want, and the strongest opposition they will get is some angry words from the opposition parties and certain parts of the media. If criticism is the cost of power and wealth, Zuma and the ANC are more than willing to pay it.

The great political problem in South Africa is not the Zuma-led ANC government. It is the acceptance of corruption by the South African public. It is the apathy displayed by us, the citizens, every day that leads us to complain feebly but otherwise do nothing. We, the ordinary South Africans, are the problem. And if there is a solution, we must find it.