I almost gave up this week and ended this before it had even started. It’s been a week of missed deadlines, lethargy and a deep anger that the one person who promised to always be there for support has chosen not to be. I woke up a couple of days ago asking myself why am I trying so hard to share something that might – and probably will – go unnoticed and unappreciated?
And then I remembered one of the best pieces of advice ever given to me: Pro-act, don’t re-act.
My actions don’t have to be in response to yours, they need to be based only on what is true. I have the choice to live by my principles, my promises, my beliefs, because at the end of it all, I will be the one who will have to account for my thoughts and actions to God and I need to make sure I have done the best I possibly can by everyone. That includes you.
I may not know how you feel, but I do know that I care – nothing changes that status quo. I can’t use you as an excuse for my behaviour any more than I can make excuses for your behaviour (no matter how much I may want to).
Whenever you feel unmotivated, it’s a good idea to retrace your steps to the start and remember the ‘why’ of what you’re doing. So, I went back to the beginning…
…The day I first met you; the day that almost didn’t happen. It was supposed to be an ordinary meeting, a chance for us to put faces and voices to the words we had exchanged. I knew you to be a good conversationalist and wasn’t expecting more. I thought you’d be like so many others I had met till then – people for whom life is about how cool you are, how witty or funny you can be, how many friends you have, what kind of a job you hold during the week and how well you can party on the weekend.
I had never been so wrong in my life. In an era when obscenities are used in place of punctuation, you were actually careful about your language. In a time when manners are old-fashioned and etiquette is a word people don’t even know how to spell, you opened doors and offered to carry things, you gave up seats, waited with infinite patience and spoke with a gentleness that made me feel the sound of my own voice was harsh.
The little things that no one seems to remember anymore were such a natural part of you that at first, I refused to believe you existed. I waited for the illusion to disappear, for the bubble to burst, for the persona to drop. And I kept waiting. You didn’t change in all the time I knew you – which is why I find it so sad that I no longer can tell if that person is still in there somewhere or not.
When I first heard you use a foul word, I felt sick in the pit of my stomach and when I saw you speak casually – even flagrantly – about matters you would have considered indelicate to even refer to before, I began to wonder what you were doing to yourself and why. Sure, I have the option to think that this is who you have always been and what I saw was an excellently executed act. I could put everything down to bad judgement on my part, but that would be the easy way out. And to be impartial, I’d have to also stop believing in the goodness of all the people I see and meet. I’d have to suspect a hidden dark side in everyone.
Instead, I choose to believe that just like in every person in this world, you were born with the potential to be amazing. And that I saw exactly how powerful that potential is in you. I choose also to believe that, sadly, you have decided to ignore that aspect of your self and instead are content to be around those don’t consider it important or even notice it’s there. But I did notice and I think it’s hugely important, that’s why I’m doing this.
I was listening to a documentary about a new collection of Nelson Mandela’s personal writings. The compiler mentioned how the book was about the ‘real human being’ behind the iconic figure. He said that Madiba felt the burden of being a role model weighed heavily on him and sometimes wished he could just be himself, flaws and all. The book is supposed to reveal that self and thus make him a more ‘accessible’ figure to people.
I respect all that Mandela has achieved in his lifetime. but I had issues with what this compiler said. It seemed to me that he was parroting ideas we have been taught to accept – that iconic figures can be admired but not emulated, that human beings are flawed by nature and that role models are only accessible if they have negative traits. However, if a man has to pretend to be something he isn’t for his following, is that not in a sense a lie to the public? Does it not point to a subtle hypocrisy?
That is why I find the man I chose as my foundation for these writings so magnificent. He is not just some one you can look up to, but someone you can try to be like. His advice is practical in that he followed it himself and you can too – and see the difference in your life when you do. He had only one ‘face’ and it was the same in private and in public. He never pretended to be something he wasn’t and what he was is nothing short of astounding. He shouldered responsibilities, made hard choices, suffered for making them and still stuck by the Truth. He never compromised on his principles and never let anything – not even his personal needs – stand in the way of doing what was Right. He wanted neither fame nor authority; his only aim was to be the best human being possible.
I thought that was the kind of person you were capable of being, that you could be different and a cut above the rest if you chose. And maybe his writing will help you reach there.
He begins by saying that he is leaving behind advice for his “…son, who is young, who has a desire to lead the world to sober ways of thinking and better ways of life, a desire that is difficult to be achieved; a son who is mortal and bound by nature to follow the steps of all mortals…”
I think that we have lost this need to help each other and the world become better. Probably because the intention is feel-good, but the actual practice is fraught with rude responses, ridicule and rejection. We all want to leave behind a legacy, but how many are willing to actually build it first? I haven’t the ability to build a legacy, so instead I want to try to be a conduit between what I have access to and what you don’t.
There used to be something about you that made people pause and think “I’d like to be like that”, which is why amongst the billions who are sleep-walking through life, I hope you will be one of the few who choose to wake up. Perhaps, some day you may become a means for someone else to learn these lessons.
In the letter, this father says he writes from “neither selfishness nor self-esteem, nor any mental luxury of giving away pieces of advice, but instead the sincere desire to have you see the world as I found it, to look at the realities of life as I looked at them, and do the right thing at the right time and right place as it should be done…You will not find here anything but truth and realities.”
How many times have I written words because I wanted to (selfishness) or because I thought I had managed to get down the perfect phrasing (self-esteem) or simply because I enjoy putting ideas and opinions out there (mental luxury)? Too many. By using the words of another, infinitely wiser individual, I hope to give you something that has less chance of being skewed by my own bias.
We all have problems with doing what’s right. In almost every choice there is a dilemma of some degree. That is why we need principles to guide our choices. One of your principles used to be to think of the feelings of others before you acted. You were the kind of person who would politely put up with the questions of an irritating busybody because you didn’t want to hurt her. The day you told me I was your Best Friend, I felt not only honoured, but safe. I was afraid I wouldn’t be able to match up to your standard of loyalty and respect and yet secure that even if I didn’t, you’d never hold that against me.
I believe in appreciating, but not in flattery, so I will now go on and say that your greatest mistake has been in abandoning those principles in the choices that mattered most. I don’t say this for the effect those choices had on me, but for the effect they had on you. They felled all the things you said you upheld – loyalty, stability, honesty, transparency, trustworthiness, empathy, reliability, sincerity – in one swoop.
But there will always be one more choice. A choice to turn back, to go down a different path, to reclaim your destiny, to fulfill your potential. It’s hard to take a new path, even harder to retrace your steps from the one you’re on. You have to be mighty brave to do it and if it means anything, I thought I saw the potential for that courage in you as well.
I don’t claim that I never wronged you, I must have done so more times than I can remember. However, I can claim that I never consciously did wrong by you. And whenever I realised I had said or done something that may have hurt you, your complete acceptance of my flaws gave me the courage to apologize and make amends.
It was one of the greatest lessons I learnt: that mistakes are inevitable but it is possible to correct them and that if an error is irreversible, then the right thing to do is feel true remorse, apologize and change so that you don’t repeat it. A mistake doesn’t have to be the end, it can simply be a lesson on how to continue. The only condition is that you have to be true to yourself and others. That’s what we had agreed on from Day One, right? “Say what you mean and mean what you say”.
I still wonder how you managed to forget that first basic rule so completely.
I’ve had people tell me to “forget about what happened” because “that’s the way life is”. For a while I was tempted to believe that and take the easy way out. It gave me a range of ready-made excuses to pick from. I could choose to run away from the hurt and the sorrow and the feeling – just like you did, because forgetting makes everything difficult disappear – including the truth.
Then I realised that I don’t want to live my life based on carbon-copy reactions. I’m not a coward. Never have been and I don’t intend to start now. Sure, I’ve been scared – terrified even – of making decisions and venturing down new paths. But once I know I’m doing what’s right and have taken the first steps, I don’t back away from walking the rest of the way. Every time I’m tempted to chicken out, I remind myself why I took that first step.
I made the choice to be your friend and to trust you. This next passage made me realise exactly how much I invested in that friendship. It’s made me understand that any kind of true relationship needs a blurring of lines between ‘you’ and ‘me’ otherwise you only have a superficial connection.
“My dear son! You are part of my body and soul and whenever I look at you I feel as if I am looking at myself. If any calamities befalls you, I feel as if it has befallen me. Your death will make me feel as if it was my own death. Your affairs are to me like my own affairs. Therefore, I committed these pieces of advice to paper. I want you to take care of them, to pay attention to them and to guard them well. I may remain longer in your life or I may not, but I want these pieces of advice to remain with you always.”
I always considered you an extension of myself, the flip side to my coin. When you smiled, I was happy and when you were sad, I felt pain. When you were hungry, I couldn’t find it in myself to eat and when I watched you eat, it was my belly that felt full. When others hurt you, I felt betrayed. When you succeeded in something, I felt a sense of achievement and when you didn’t, I tried to be the strength with which you could pick yourself up and move on.
I could empathise with how you felt not because of some magical connection, but because despite all our differences, there was something essential that was the same in us. It allowed us to understand each other. Isn’t that what the world needs more of? Understanding, because it leads to empathy, dialogue, acceptance and ultimately, to the willingness on individual parts to sacrifice and change for the betterment of the whole.
Once, when we had disagreed on something and parted on uncomfortable terms, I remember asking why you were still concerned about what was happening to me and you said: “Because you can’t switch off caring”. I took that as my litmus test for all relationships. If you truly care, you have to totally immerse yourself so that you can’t simply flip a switch inside and stop feeling. If you can, there’s obviously a problem somewhere.
Yet, after establishing the above you did switch off, and so completely that I was wary about sending these letters to you personally because they may have been deleted unread and lost forever. That is why I am putting them up here, so that they will be always be accessible to you, whenever you do decide to read them. In doing so, I may sometimes alienate the other you’s reading this (I’m sorry), but if you can look past the specifics, I hope the general message is something anyone can take away.
In the past few days, as I turned this issue inside-out in my head, trying to look at it from different angles – emotional, rational, intellectual, spiritual – one of the conclusions I came to was that giving up is never an option. I have made many, many mistakes and every time I find myself coming back to God feeling lost and ashamed for messing things up yet again, I find the same consistent message: Don’t despair of My Love or My Forgiveness, because it is Infinite.
God doesn’t give up on me, this is my security. The path leading back Home is never barricaded, the door never locked. There is always one more chance. In order to deserve it, I feel I must in turn show the same generosity to others. Because my God is your God too. If He doesn’t give up on you, who am I to do otherwise? Doesn’t a true servant actively promote the policy of his or her Master? If people can be confident of His acceptance and forgiveness, then I must inspire the same confidence too. That is why I won’t give up.
You gave up and knowing how it feels to be at the receiving end, I would never wish it on another person – least of all you. Because I’ve discovered – with relief – that I don’t have the ability to switch off caring.