A Crying Shame

Rainbow LighteningOn our first day at grammar school, each of us had to state out loud our name and address while the teacher wrote down our individual details. Around the class the roll-call went until it came to me. When I said my address, the teacher looked up from her register.

“Oh! I didn’t know we allowed anyone from that place to come to this school,” she said.

My cheeks blushed and I cast my eyes down at the desk while the whole class looked down on me and sniggered. The emotion I felt, most powerfully, was that of shame. I was ashamed that I had been allowed to attend grammar school when it was clearly against the rules of their society. The teacher had given her humiliating judgment and the class agreed.

It was clear that the emotions those class members felt were a mixture of judgment and pleasure. The pleasure of shaming a poor boy from state housing coming to a wealthy grammar school.

There is a huge difference between embarrassment and shame. Embarrassment is a sense of being exposed without having violated some personal or social norm. On the other hand, shame is a painful feeling about oneself, often as a result of being judged in a social context for being sinful.

It’s ironic that society mostly looks down on people who have very little and looks up to people who have everything. Should judgment really be so shallow that I should look with disdain at a hungry child but look with admiration at someone who has a sprawling estate and a personal cinema room?

Frank McCourt, the sadly deceased author of Angela’s Ashes, said he could not watch an appeal for hungry children on TV without weeping. He wept because he knew the gnawing pain of hunger. He also knew the absurd sense of shame that society can make you feel for being impoverished. The same feelings I had in that grammar school classroom.

If we look at the other end of society’s measure of wealth, we see that the richest 85 people in the world have more wealth than the poorest 3.5 billion. Yes, billion. Is that a shame? It depends what they do with their wealth and whether the contest to see who has the biggest super-yacht is more fulfilling than giving a destitute child a glass of milk each day. It’s not for me to judge.

Regardless of wealth, we can all live in a state of constant poverty. A poverty of compassion, a poverty of humanity, a poverty of true happiness.

But I do want to thank my teacher for something. She taught me that it’s a crying shame to judge people by their possessions or by where they live.

Remembering Fathers

Love DadI don’t have many memories of my father, but I remember like it was yesterday how he said he was going out to see a man about a dog and never came back. I was six years old. The only time I heard from him again was when he sent me a postcard to say I was now the man of the house and should take care of my mum, the way he knew I would.

For the rest of my childhood, I held onto that tiny postcard and slept with it under my pillow. I played a movie inside my head in which my dad had taken passage on a boat from England to America where he was making his fortune. Soon, he would return and we would eat chicken everyday and drink lemonade, even if we were not thirsty. He would hug me and give the greatest gift of all – his smile and praise for being his boy.

But I would not see my father again until I was a young man. He cried when we met and I wondered about all the adventures he had had without me. We were strangers with no shared memories beyond him joking that he wanted some of my hair because all of his had fallen out.

And then, by some hideous twist of fate, he died on my birthday. It seemed like a tortured final gift from someone who had never sent gifts for any birthday before. He died alone and in poverty. There was no adventure in America, no fortune, no lemonade. Any chance for us to know each other as men was gone forever.

But I have no time for pity parties. I found ambition from my father’s absence. The same movie that he should have starred in became my movie and I came to America to find my fortune. The memories that I should have had as a boy became the memories I made as a father to my own children.

Now, my youngest daughter is six years old and I cannot imagine abandoning the memories of her upbringing to a stranger. I cannot imagine the emptiness of losing a thousand moments of joy that are made just by coming home and having her leap into my arms. And I cannot imagine the loss that a man must feel when he realizes it is all too late because the child he could have known is grown and the beautiful age of innocence is lost forever.

Fatherhood lives in shared memories. It is the movie that is the life of our families. It is our authentic, unique existence.

Around the world, we are celebrating our fathers and being a father. We celebrate fatherhood because it is the greatest gift a man will ever know. And as we stare into the loving eyes of our children, we have our own precious sense of immortality.

And no one can take that away.

Final Words

Haunted HouseI signed my will at the weekend. They still call it a Last Will and Testament, conjuring up images of grieving relatives weeping at your bedside as you sigh your final breath and let go of this mortal coil to meet your maker.

But as I signed the document, my first thought was not of my grieving family but of a movie called the Cat and the Canary, starring Bob Hope and Paulette Goddard. I saw that movie on TV when I was a small boy and, although it is a comedy, it scared the living daylights out of me.

In the movie, the will is read at midnight and the entire estate goes to the beautiful, young Paulette Goddard. But there’s a catch for the heiress: because of a concern about a streak of insanity in the family’s blood, she must stay sane for thirty days or lose the fortune to another family member.

Everyone has to stay the night in the spooky mansion, haunted by many spirits. It’s an open invitation for greedy relatives to drive her, overnight, into a state of total insanity.

I doubt there will be such drama when my will is read, even if there is a streak of insanity in my family’s blood. But signing your will does make you think about death. We’re all going to die, but thankfully, most of us don’t know when the end will be. So maybe we should start living as if this is our last day.

Well, if I was living each day as if it were my last, I can tell you that it would be one heck of a lot different from what it is. For a start, I would be eating a bacon, egg and cheese roll for breakfast. With a beer. And not organic muesli with skimmed milk.

And another thing, I would be spending all my money on a beach holiday with my friends and loved ones, partying till I drop. And not getting on the New York subway at 7 am to spend twelve hours in the grasping clutches of corporate America.

What’s more, I would get a sleeve tattoo and always speak my mind, whether people liked what I said or not. So no. Living each day like it is your last does not work at all. Unless you’ve inherited someone’s fortune.

Maybe living like we know that life won’t last forever is a better way to think about it. Just stop worrying about all the meaningless trivia and enjoy it while we still can. Before we’re all declared insane for eating organic muesli and getting on the subway at 7 am.

But I do like the thought of my will being read at midnight in a haunted mansion.

Yes You Can

Sleeping MonkeyI’m realizing now, after all these years, that almost all self-discovery is worthless. Don’t get me wrong: I think it is incredibly important to know yourself, perhaps the most important thing that you will ever do. But the process of knowing yourself through self-discovery – or “introspection” – is completely flawed.

We need to see ourselves from the outside-in.

Left entirely to our own analysis and self-discovery, it is impossible to see ourselves as we truly are. It is through the “Introspection Illusion” that we believe we are all better car drivers than the average (statistically impossible) but more ominously, that we are incapable of achieving our greatest dreams because of our lack of talent, our flaws, our weaknesses.

The single greatest obstacle to achieving our goals and dreams is embodied in the sincere belief that we will fail. And we all do it – fail before we even begin.

You see, when we look inside ourselves, we find fear and doubt more often than we may find courage and belief. And such is the power of fear and doubt that it crushes our ambitions. The dreamer that you were when you were seventeen becomes the disillusioned, boxed-in adult, fearful of failure

But success finds itself through a determined belief that you can achieve something.

So, rather than believing that you are an above average driver but could never play the piano, start talking to those who are closest to you, those you trust, those whose opinions you value. Ask them what strengths – and only strengths – they see in you. You may be amazed. And list the things you have done that you never thought you could, however small. Keep the list going and add to it every day. Then take just one thing you never thought you could do and start the journey towards achieving it.

Stop looking inside yourself and finding failure – an excuse to never start. Don’t fall for the Introspection Illusion.

Build a view of your amazing self from the outside-in. You are so much more than you know.

Please Dance with Me

PoorI asked a girl to dance and she said that she would only dance with me in the extremely unlikely event that “Us and Them” by Pink Floyd should be played. It was simple for me to ask the DJ for a favor so that an infatuated kid could dance with the girl of his dreams.

And so we danced.

I held her as close as I dared and as we danced she told me that this was it and there would be no more dances or dates after the final notes of the song. She did not have any interest in a boy who came from the wrong side of town, not now, not ever. And all I wanted in that desperate moment was to kiss her and to know her for all eternity.

I told her of my ambition. I told her of the poetry that was streaming inside my head. I told her of a future where every dance would be like the first and every kiss would make her float high above the ground. I told her that if lovers from a simple smile were made, I would smile at her forever.

And still she said no. I did not belong in her world.

I sat in my room, alone, for days after that dance. I could not eat and I could not think of a single positive thing about the future. You might say it was an adolescent crush and I might agree. But it was a moment in understanding that I was worthless. And it took a lifetime to find that I was wrong.

I don’t remember her name but I wish that I knew her today. Not out of some motive for revenge but just to sit down with her and to talk. Because I want her to know that being from the wrong side of town can be a very good thing indeed.

Being cold and hungry makes you want to be warm and fed. Being the underdog makes you want to succeed and have recognition. Being poor makes you want to know wealth. Being from the wrong side of town can give you a burning ambition to escape.

I wonder if she found love. I wonder if, in all the chance meetings that life creates, she was able to find a boy who was loyal and smart and crazy and had poetry in his head. I wonder if she remembers that dance.

I’m not from the wrong side of town any longer. But that does not matter because I don’t judge people by the place they live, the accent they have or by their possessions.

I still like that Pink Floyd song. But it will always tell me that there is nothing after the final notes, even though life and the music play on and now I am in a place where I belong.

I belong in a place where poetry streams through my mind from the joy of living and finds its way into the lives of others who love me for who I am.

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