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Sunday, June 23, 2013

Is Virtue Its Own Reward? Reflections on the Real Price and Value of Kindness...


Another school prize day… Again second in my class… Ironic perhaps?

L)) In My Own Words: Listen to Part 1 and Part 2 of a podcast episode I recorded where I talk about my experiences and how it changed the way I viewed society and the world around me for the rest of my life. 

"I want to be part of society. However, society must recognise my difference. Unfortunately, in spite of any rhetoric promoting inclusion, those who hold themselves to be the ‘norm’ persist in creating barriers that prevent us from being truly included. Our society , still silently, believes that the non-disabled, Maltese, Caucasian and straight man is the ideal […] this prize has reminded me that I am, and it seems, I will remain the ‘other’. For, even now, what I write may be interpreted to be the angry voice of that young boy who thought he was just like any other boy to discover that he must remain always an outsider."  


This week I have been doing some soul searching. I didn’t expect that I would react to this news as I did this time. Perhaps it’s because I’m more in touch with my thoughts and feelings. Indeed, the painful memories of a past long forgotten seemed to have come to haunt me again. I am sorry for being unclear but my thoughts and emotions are unsettled.

Let me take you back to a time when I was a boy of around 10. I was watching the local news in the evening when I heard the name of one of my best friends being mentioned. I admit that I was jealous at first. I was curious to know what had happened. I listen attentively… He was being awarded a prize for kindness… I listened more attentively now. A prize, for what? 

And then , I understand he was being rewarded for ‘helping’ his ‘poor handicapped friend’. Who? Then, it dawned on me as if I was struck by lightning. I was that boy he was ‘helping’. I was the boy described in terms of a ‘needy’ and even ‘helpless’. I felt that it seemed they were talking about another ‘crippled’ boy - not me! I felt betrayed.

At first, I was angry at my supposed ‘friend’. I was angry because I started to suspect that our friendship had been a charade. A ploy to be awarded such a prize or to look nice and popular with others. But, if I think about it, as a child himself, he really had no say in the matter. Undeniably, I did feel betrayed by my friend and while we sort of patched things up, from then on our friendship was never the same.

Why am I telling you this? The truth that this prize for kindness - also known in Maltese as “Premju tat-Tjubija” or “Premju Qalb tad-Deheb)”“ (Golden Heart Award) or “Premju Gwanni XXIII” (Pope John 23rd Award) is an initiative started off by a local NGO called the "Peace Lab”. Don’t get me wrong, I believe in the values expressed by this organisation, including the promotion of peace and dialogue between people. However, I believe that the ones who cane up with the idea of awarding a so-called “Prize for Kindness” may not be aware of what impact could have on the children who are being awarded this prize and the child who is ‘being helped’.

I don’t know what my best friend went through then and what he thinks of this experience today. What I can say that it left me with a sense of betrayal and forced me to mistrust others who sought my friendship for a long time. You know it is said that “the road to hell is paved with good intentions’. And I’m sure that my teachers and school had all the good intentions by nominating my friend. But while my friend achieved a certain prestige and recognition, I felt suddenly I was invalidated as a person. And the way the media portrayed me, again, was less than flattering. I was the taker and a burden. I knew that my friend didn’t see our friendship as a one-way thing. Yet, I was forced to question everything. Was I a ‘sacrifice’? 

Yes, it took years before I can say that I regained some trust. However, in spite of the terrible things they said about me. Defining me only in terms of my physical impairment. As if that was my problem. My curse. I have adapted to it didn’t I? Why do you need to deny that my body is part of who I am? Instead, you rob me of any claims to my individual identity. And so, deny my humanity. I know that these are hard words to write. But I can’t shout them out loud because I would gain nothing. For, even if we hate to admit it, such prizes only reinforce our social inequalities not just as disabled people but as human beings. We have to reward a friendship because we still perceive a disabled child to be always ‘less fortunate’. He or she is always taking. As if our friendship wasn’t based on mutual respect and understanding. As if we didn’t share our childhood together.

I want to be part of society. However, society must recognise my difference. Unfortunately, in spite of any rhetoric promoting inclusion, those who hold themselves to be the ‘norm’ persist in creating barriers that prevent us from being included. Our society , still silently, believes that the non-disabled, Maltese, Caucasian and straight man is the ideal. I am sorry to have to say all this but I can’t help feeling that this prize has reminded me that I am, and it seems, I will remain the ‘other’. For, even now, what I write may be interpreted to be the angry voice of that young boy who thought he was just like any other boy to discover that he must remain always an outsider. 

Today, I understand that we are all co-dependent. We all need each other in today’s world. By pretending to be doing charity by simply sending money where, granted, it is needed will not solve the problems of poverty, lack of access, food shortage and the many problems that we all must share responsibility for. Awarding a prize for kindness will always mean that one is, in some way, inferior to another. And, worse, the fact that you’re telling children that a friendship between a disabled and a non-disabled friend is an act of kindness is telling them that such a friendship is a sacrifice where one party is always the less important - the less of value. Have we become so desperate for kindness that we need to reward even ordinary friendships by painting them using our own narratives of heroes and courage? 

Now, my last thoughts. I know that I have used strong language here. But, honestly, I don’t want other children to go through my experience. Yes, I have learned from it as well. Yet, I believe it is diametrically opposed to the principles of inclusion I believe in. A prize for ‘kindness’ is also a misunderstanding of charity. Charity requires us to practice compassion where we help others not out of pity and because we think we are better than them. Compassion and charity are about being with another human being and looking at him or her as your equal. It’s not and should never be a power relationship.

 And what about the idea of rewarding kindness?

“Virtue is its own reward”!

At least, it should be!


Related Entries:

Painful Memories of a Prize for Kindness 

> from: Gordon's D-Zone

The True Meaning of Charity

> from: ZoneMind 


Sunday, June 16, 2013

On Father...

Today, in this part of the world, we celebrate Father’s Day. I wanted to share some reflections on this day. I admit that I believe it’s rather artificial to pretend that this particular day is set apart for fathers. The same can be said of other days similar to this, such as mother’s day or children’s day. The fact that while this day offers me an opportunity to think about how my father has supported me during my life, the fact is that my father was always there. And, thankfully, in spite of being in his early 80s, he is healthier than I am and far stronger than I can ever be.

I can say that my father remains an important person in my life. I have fond memories when I was younger and used to take walks out with my father and discussed a wide range of subjects, my hopes and fears and so on. He also encouraged me to think for myself and not to let others decide on my behalf. He also encouraged me to pursue my constant and, yes, tiring questioning… Why? How? When? Etc. Now, that I think of it, he was a great influence in my life and, most importantly, he gave me the freedom to ask question and think on my own.

Of course, there were many occasions when I rebelled and felt I ‘hated him’ for denying me what I wanted. I really don’t know what came on me when I hit puberty. But, today, I am happy that my dad is still alive and part of my life. We don’t always share the same opinions on certain topics but we share a lot, I believe, in our value system. I cannot speak of experiences where fathers have been absent or, worse, violent towards their partners and children - I can only speak of my own experience. And, yet, I have had other father figures in my life who have helped me in developing my thoughts and identity. To all those who have been a surrogate father, for lack of a better word - I thank you too.

I hope that my father will remain with me in this life for some more years to come. I will surely miss him if he is gone. Yet, I hope to remember him in my heart and in the memories I have of the time we have and are spending together.

You helped make me the man I am today!

Sunday, June 9, 2013

Burying the Self

I am.

Can I proceed and add more to that sentence without risking becoming someone that is really not who I am. Apart from that, aren’t the words “I am” already presenting a lot as these two words attempt to capture an idea that can only be poorly represented using language.

I have been engaging in deep meditation for some time. However, I have realised that, even when we think we can better relate to the world, the truth is that we must come to a point when we become aware of the empty nature of things. The statement “I am” attempts to describe what cannot adequately expressed using the conventional means of communication. There’s no single aspect of who we are that can define who we are.

While the person we call ‘self’ is real in a sense, in many ways this ‘self’ is just a product of the interactions that are happening in our minds and bodies.
Sadly, we are often too attached to the way we have come to see our selves than to reflect on who we actually are. We are separate and unique selves but, at the same time, who we are is intrinsically linked to the world around us. We are part of nature but we remain distinct, in some way, from nature. We can be with others as one but still retain our own identities.

Naturally, we tend to associate ourselves with a group of friends, be part of a community where we can share our beliefs. Find that we like a particular form of music or read books that seem to talk to us. Inasmuch as all this and more can help us in getting to know the world and who we are, they can never define who we are. Not even religion or science or even art can define who we are. It may define our ‘self’ in the world but they don’t tell us anything about who we are.

The unfortunate thing is that we tend to define who we are in these terms. We talk about who we are referring to our work, our religion, our position in the family and so on. But, if everything else was taken away from us. Or, else, we come to the point when we have to face our own death, how would we define who we are then? If we think of the story we built to define who we are, would we have a rope to keep us from drowning into desperation?

Of course, the self remains an important aspect of who we are as it helps us function in the world. Yet, there is more to us than this self. For, positive as it might be, this self is constantly changing. It is changing right now as I type this entry. Your self is changing as you read this entry. It is in this space where we pause from the writing of our life story that we can find who we are. In it’s in that split second when we have to decide what to do and what to think that we may hope to find ourselves.

It is difficult in today’s world to retreat to a place where we can be really silent and aware of what we are thinking. As I grow in my practice of meditation, I realise just how much ‘noise’ is going on in my mind during the day. But, now, I have come to realise that who I am goes beyond what I thought I was.

However, it remains hard to completely detach myself from the story I Have constructed to define who I am. Yet, while that doesn’t mean I want to annihilate the self that helps me function in society, it does mean that I am more aware of the fact that my life will change and my life will end. I cannot hope that someday I will be happy or, worse still, seek to bring back an ideal past.

Here, I must be ready to bury my old self and live again.