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.

Happiness is in the Detail

Water DropletFor most of my life, people have been telling me that it’s all about the big picture. It was only very recently that I realized that they were all wrong. You see, big pictures are made up of a thousand details and if you ignore them, you ignore life.

Often, we focus on the destination or the outcome and fail to take care of the detail. It’s like spending your time dreaming of that lifetime vacation without ever having a plan of how you are going to get there.

But it’s more profound than that.

It was the other day that I realized I leave our apartment in the morning much happier if I have seen the bright, crazy and beautiful smile of my darling six-year-old girl. But the profound realization was not that sometimes I left too early and missed her smile. No, it was the realization that the space that would have been filled with happiness and joy was now filled with sadness.

This started me on a simple task: to make a list of the things that make me happy and the things that make me sad or anxious. It was on this list that I found my daughter’s smile­—but also bacon sandwiches!

And saying, “I love you forever,” on the phone to my old mum and hear her choke up a little because time is not on her side. Hearing her say back to me that I will always be her little boy and how she remembers putting little toy farm animals in my Christmas stocking when I was four years old.

What else did I find on that list? Recognition, feeling worthy, making progress, loving and being loved. Never having to say sorry. Those are more complex details but nonetheless, they are details in the big picture of happiness.

So far, my list has over thirty things on it that make me happy but the list is still growing. The list of things that make me sad or anxious is shorter because most of them would be the absence of what makes me happy so there’s no point in listing them out.

And my list took me to the next place: to ensure that every single day, I was focused on the detail of happiness, adding those moments in increasing quantity to my life. Then, subtracting the details that make me sad or anxious. And that means never missing the infectious smile on my little girl’s face in the morning­­­­­­—even if I am late for that meeting!

This doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t step back once in a while to survey the horizon. But when we think about all the things we should be thankful for, we cannot miss the reality that they are all details.

Just as the devil is in the detail, so too is joy and happiness. If you take care of the details, the big picture will take care of itself.

Me, I’m getting on the phone to my old mum to tell her I love her and let her hear the giggling voice of her youngest granddaughter. And I’m eating a bacon sandwich.

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