Monthly Archives: August 2013

What I learned about forgiveness from the school clerk who stopped the Georgia school shooting

Antoinette-TuffThis week school clerk Antoinette Tuff was hailed a hero for having prevented a tragic mass shooting massacre at a Georgia elementary school, by calmly talking the gunman out of it all.

The recording of her phone conversation with the emergency services, as she liaised between the young man and the police, is a lesson in humanity and compassion the world will never forget. For a full hour, Antoinette reasons with the 20-year-old mentally unstable would-be gunman, sharing her own life struggles with him and reassuring him. When he finally lays his weapons down, she tells him she loves him and is proud of him.

The art of forgiveness
Forgiveness and compassion go hand in hand, of course, and have always been big topics for me. Although I strive to become a compassionate, non-judgemental person, I must admit there are people whom, to this day, I struggle to forgive because they did hurtful things to me, which I feel were unjustified or betrayed my trust in them.

Let’s leave the topic of forgiveness for victims of crime and war to another day. In this blog, I am referring to resentment caused by day-to-day break-ups, disagreements, abandonment, deceit, misunderstandings, unmet expectations… I am sure everyone has their own secret “hate list”: former lovers, would-be lovers, parents, bosses, teachers, colleagues, friends.

I obviously do not like what was done to me, but what I hate the most is the bitterness I end up holding on to, every time, as a result. Because it keeps on hurting me long after the perpetrator has exited the scene.

On the same day the Georgia school events were rolling out, I was lying on my sofa at home, reading the last few chapters of Brené Brown‘s Daring Greatly on the power of vulnerability, when I came across a quote on compassion that struck me like a bolt of lightening.

The quote was by Pema Chödrön, a Buddhist nun:

“Compassion is not a relationship between the healer and the wounded. It’s a relationship between equals. Only when we know our own darkness well can we be present with the darkness of others. Compassion becomes real when we recognise our shared humanity.”

I read and re-read this a dozen times. There was an a-ha moment, as my consciousness suddenly realised what the problem was with my approach to forgiving, and why it did not work.

The shift
I had not been able to fully forgive and let go because I was trying to practise forgiveness from a higher moral ground. In other words, I was (mentally) telling the people who had caused me pain that I forgave them despite them being wrong and me being right. It was a top-down approach. It was coming from a defensive, passive-aggressive position, where I was basically asserting I was so blameless and morally superior I would never have been capable of such heinous, evil act as theirs. Which, of course, is a blimming lie.

Whatever efforts I had made to forgive and mend fences had only been creating further separation because deep inside I was still simmering, feeling I had been wronged, infusing words and behaviour with vibes charged primarily with anger and negativity.

Bad energy repels.

Antoinette’s words had an effect on the armed young man who had come with the intention of killing innocent schoolchildren, because she basically told him, “I am the same as you. Life is tough, I understand you wanting to do something crazy like this but, look, I’ve gone through shit myself and I’m still here. You can do it too; you can overcome, you don’t need to do this to yourself.”

She disarmed him with the power of her compassion, as an absolute equal; she did not patronise, and she did not fight gun with gun.

As I quietly meditated on Chödrön’s words, an enormous wave of love and compassion came flooding into me. On a gut level, I finally understood what I had been doing wrong all along.

I understood that genuine compassion has the power to move mountains, but it only works if it comes from a place of love and complete non-anger. Compassion is not about feeling sorry for another person; it is about ‘knowing’ there is no separation between them and you, it is recognising their pain in your pain, and realising there is actually nothing to forgive…

Since then, little wonders have started happening on a daily basis, such as people spontaneously showing empathy and kindness towards me, volunteering to help when I hadn’t even asked. This may sound corny, but it is all true. Some doors that were previously shut, unexpectedly opened up again. Walls shifted inside me and inside others.

Hang on. I haven’t suddenly become a saint; far from it. I still get angry, I still rant and swear, and have unkind thoughts when people have annoyed me. But I have been gratefully liberated from the weight of years of accumulated anger and hurt; I even like myself a little more for it.

I feel I am now ready for the gunman challenge. I shall disarm you, gunman; I will make you surrender, but surrender you will with a smile… for my love and compassion are greater, far greater than your puny weapons of fear.

It’s official: women are (as) horny and slutty (as men)

What Women Want 2During a conversation about books with a male friend, the subject turned to the erotic novel Fifty Shades of Grey, which propelled its author to the top of the Forbes Magazine’s highest-earning authors’ list, grossing in US$95 million only in the past year.

He was protesting against the number of women he used to witness every morning, on his commuter train, reading a copy of Fifty Shades. The idea of women reading a sex book on their way to work was, in his opinion, distasteful. This made me laugh out loud. Did he never think about sex on his way to work? Aren’t men supposed to think about sex every seven seconds? What was wrong with women getting lost in sexual reveries any time of the day?

In fact, journalist Daniel Bergner’s new book, What Do Women Want?, says that women actually desire sex as much as men, that “female sexuality is as raw and bestial as male sexuality”; only their urges are less known because they are stigmatised by society.

In one experiment, women reportedly experienced arousal even while made to watch two monkeys copulating, while men did not. Their arousal levels were measured through contraptions placed inside the women’s vaginas. The studies conclude that females are “naturally more promiscuous, voracious and predatory” than men, breaking the long-held myth that women are staunch defenders of serial monogamy and chastity.

Bergner’s book has been widely reviewed and talked about in the press and in the blogosphere, but the most balanced commentary I’ve come across was in the New York Times’ review:

Why is female lust getting such a big dose of scientific legitimacy at this moment? Are these theories influenced by women’s and men’s evolving social roles? By women’s increasing economic and political power? By feminism itself? Many of the scientists are, after all, women, a novel situation. The history of the study of women’s sexuality tells us that when many scientists are finding the same sorts of things at the same time, it is because they have gone looking for them; a cultural shift has already taken place. For some reason — maybe for many reasons — the story of the libidinous male and sexually indifferent female doesn’t make sense to us anymore.

We shouldn’t mourn its passing. As long as we continue to think (in the back of our minds, to some degree) that men are hard-wired for sex and women for intimacy and babies, then we are stuck with the logic that only men really want to have sex; women want to trade it for something else. This makes straight couples into hagglers: self-interested, ungenerous, wary of being played. Better for men and women to approach each other as more or less equal partners in lust, and work out the rest in the morning.

Any sweeping generalisations that men or women are randier than each other should, I think, be taken with a large pinch of salt, but that men and women are finally finding equality in the lust department, I find liberating and refreshing.

Truth be told, I think about sex a lot these days.

On the one hand, my “thinking” is pure fantasy. Women like to fantasise about fictitious situations they would never encounter in real life, and that is probably why Fifty Shades of Grey was so successful. That is also why every summer I daydream about me and the ‘goh-juss’ Roger Federer having a shower together at Wimbledon…

On the other hand, the “thinking” is about an increased awareness of my sexual needs. Whereas I have always been conscious of my need to eat and sleep, I had never been quite attuned to my body’s sexual desires.

Such thoughts had never crossed my mind when I was married. Come to think of it, already in the years preceding my marriage, I had become detached from sexual feelings within myself.

Several factors contributed towards it: the trauma of going through a couple of serious health scares, dysfunctional relationships with men with whom I was ill-matched, which also meant sex was lacklustre, a long period of unemployment, which shattered my self-esteem, and led me to depression and loss of libido.

For a long time I simply didn’t find sex appealing – to do nor to think about.

Of course being trapped within an unhappy marriage with a man who was prone to episodes of extreme aggression did not help. I now know that in order to be able to enjoy intimacy I need to first and foremost feel ‘safe’ with the person I am with. If I harbour any suspicions they may hurt me, physically or emotionally, I shut down, detaching myself from my body; I can fake, but I don’t feel a thing.  I might as well be a prostitute having sex with a client.

Since I walked out of my marriage, I have evolved from a state of ‘being able to tolerate sex’ to actually ‘desiring sex’. That is as revolutionary as an anorexic discovering hunger and the pleasure of eating for the first time. I feel like I have turned a gigantic leaf in the history of my sexual awakening, and I love the new sensual me that has been born as a result.

Let me make it clear: I have not become a sex-starved hussie, ready to leap on the first male that shows a flicker of interest in me. Nor does the sight of humping apes excite me. All I’m saying is I am now deeply in touch with my sexual self and am able to recognise when my body longs for intimacy, the things that turn me on, the things that turn me off.

I welcome the points made in Bergner’s book in that it make us women exercise our right to think about or want sex as much as men, without the fear of being labelled ‘sluts’. But the true nature of female sexuality and desire is far more complex than any lab gizmos shoved up women’s private parts could ever gauge.

Sex in the brain
The research questions the belief that women always need an emotional connection in order to want to have sex. I call this ‘male researchers’ wishful-thinking bullshit’. C’mon; excepting cases of women with actual sex addiction, who may want to sleep indiscriminately with multiple partners, sex for a woman always happens in the brain. Even if she is not looking for a deep, meaningful relationship, in order for a woman to enjoy sex, she needs to be mentally turned on, that is a fact.

I have asked girlfriends and female colleagues in their 20s, 30s, 40s, 50s and 60s what they found most appealing in men, and got a wide variety of answers. Some women (usually younger) do mention six-packs and gym-toned bodies as a first point of attraction, and those will usually be ladies who also spend a lot of time and money on their own appearance. In other words, likes attract likes. The intellectual women always say “the brain” is the most attractive part of a man’s body. One, who’s married to a professor, even said “the mention of PhD and thesis papers” was an instant trigger for her to fall in love. A woman in her 60s said “kindness” was what she was mostly looking for in a man, and she did not care what he looked like. Others rated financial stability highly so what the man did for a living and the size of his paycheques could increase or decrease their interest. Needless to say these women were also proud of properties they owned and tended to buy designer dresses for their wardrobe.

But all of these answers still make it seem like women use sex as a trading tool for something else, not that they want sex for the sake of sexual enjoyment. We are probably biologically programmed to select men who can provide us with physical protection, economic stability and good genes to be passed on to our progeny. But I was surprised that none responded they wanted a man who satisfied them in bed.

I am sure it is something all women secretly hope for, but perhaps, when they are looking for a long-term life partner, it gets pushed down the priority scale because survival of the species is paramount. What a shame…

For me, going through a kind of late-life journey of sexual self-discovery, sexual fulfilment is high on my priority list. Not that I intend to become promiscuous, but I feel entitled to a fantastic sex life, with a considerate lover for whom giving is as important as taking.

I once joked to a friend that in future relationships I wanted sex to be so steamy and wild that the bed wouldn’t last a month. Her response amused me: “Well, you’d better find a rich man then, who can buy you a new bed every month.” Money again! Too much realism for my fantasy-loving mind.

Even with so much scientific evidence now available that women are as lustful as men, women are still shy of exploring their sexuality and eroticism with brutal honesty. Centuries of social conditioning are not easy to shed. But those hundreds and thousands of women taking to openly reading erotica in public transport for a flight of fantasy make me think women are screaming to come out of their shells and reclaim their right to truly ecstatic sex, not the mechanical mating routine they may be having at home with their husbands/boyfriends.

How much can we really achieve in reality? Apart from our social programming, we have our own personal fears and insecurities to grapple with. We also have to deal with an entire male population out there, who may not be able to appreciate the fine balance between respect and daring we want in bed. Not to mention that communication between men and women tends to be ambiguous and turbid at the best of times.

Forget the women. What do men really want? – is what women would like to know.

There is one immediate and simple solution for men and women to achieve sexual truce and enjoyment without the need to hurt each other, and that is for them to be able to answer these two questions with total honesty: What do you want? Do you want what I want?

Nothing else, in the end, matters.

“Honesty is such a lonely word.
Everyone is so untrue.
Honesty is hardly ever heard.
And mostly what I need from you.”

(from Honesty, Billy Joel)

Mr Right and the elusive escalator of life

I love this song – James Blunt’s You’re Beautiful. I heard it on the radio this morning as I was getting dressed, and it has haunted me all day long. I can’t stop listening to it.

The “story” in the song is that the man sees a beautiful woman in the crowd, she smiles, they make an instant connection, but she is with another man and he accepts that he will never see her again. Yet, he says, “we shared a moment that will last till the end”.

Sometimes, as I am going down an escalator at an underground station, on my way to work, I like to observe the upward flow of people on the other escalator. I look at each face coming up, man, woman, child, old people, young people, and I like to imagine what they are thinking, what must be going on in their lives, what preoccupations may be on their minds.

I wonder if there are any lucky people who actually meet beautiful strangers in such crowds and end up falling in love?

I have seen dating website adverts at London underground stations using this escalator imagery, presumably because it is a very good example of strangers passing by other strangers day by day, without realising their right match might have just walked past.

They say every Jack has his Jill but is there really such a thing as a predestined Mr. or Miss Right, or are matches time-specific, and certain people happen to be right for us only at a specific point in life?

Right person, wrong time
One of my favourite love stories of all times is that of my friend and former colleague Silvia*, who, eight years ago re-met an ex-boyfriend, whom she had not seen or heard from for more than 20 years. They had been a couple in their youth but ended up going their separate ways, as they could not agree on what they wanted out of the relationship. They each went on to marry someone else and, unbeknownst to each other, later divorced their respective spouses roughly around the same time.

Now in their 60s, they are together again, in love and happy, changed by their life experiences into a better man and a better woman.

So…they were always right for each other, but not at the time their paths first crossed.

Like a child with its favourite bed-time story, I love to hear Silvia* tell me her tale again and again. It comforts me no end to know that, should I have already met my Mr. Right, he may re-appear again, later in life, when we are both finally ready for it.

On other days I ask myself what if there is someone special out there, in the crowd, who really cares, and I am missing the moment and the opportunity to connect with them because I am too lost in my own thoughts, too busy lamenting over past broken dreams that cannot be put together again.

Li/oving in the now
“How wonderful and awkward it is to be single again”, is what I said to Silvia* the other day. Wonderful because there are so many unopened doors yet to be revealed, many escalator journeys to be taken, up and down; awkward because there is no other way of truly connecting nor re-connecting with another human being without coming to terms with your insecurities and innermost fears, in other words, wearing your vulnerability on your sleeve.

I have noticed with gratitude that, since I launched this blog, something has shifted inside me. I have been living less in the past and more and more in the now. I still spend a lot of time thinking about the past; there are people and places from happier times I miss so much it hurts to remember. But, somewhere in my consciousness, there is a growing awareness that recognises I am actually choosing to suffer by holding on to past stories because I am reluctant to let go of the feelings of love and security associated with them.

I have previously blogged about grief. When a loved one dies, physically or metaphorically, isn’t the real reason you grieve for so long because you are afraid of losing the connection with that person by letting go of the pain?

If a shared moment can last forever, as James Blunt sings in You’re Beautiful, should that not suffice? It must be possible to go on loving without the suffering.

I am no Buddha. This I have yet to achieve.

Would it be the same
If I saw you in heaven?
I must be strong and carry on
‘Cause I know I don’t belong here in heaven

(from Tears in Heaven, Eric Clapton)

[*Silvia is not her real name]

Mum on marriage versus my 10 golden rules

Photo credit: Ron Chapple Stock

Photo credit: Ron Chapple Stock

Whenever mother phones, she asks if I don’t feel lonely and sounds surprised when I say no. She asks me if I have been in touch with my husband. I haven’t, and it irritates the hell out of me that she should even assume I may have. Perhaps she is hoping we will get back together again.

Mothers are funny. They would rather see their daughters married unhappily than not married at all. Marriage for women of her generation implies financial security and someone who will look after their offspring when they are no longer here. If she lived in the UK and had seen us more often while we were married, she would have seen for herself there was no chance of either.

My mother was betrothed to my father for an arranged marriage. The last of five girls to leave the family home, a family with much prestige, as my grandfather was a high-ranking Navy officer who died a hero during the Second World War, but my father’s family used to have the kind of money they could only dream of and wanted a “girl from a good family”. The families obviously thought it would be a perfect union.

Mum, who is Japanese, always told me marriage is not just about love, that sometimes a feeling of ‘jo’ (情) follows even if you weren’t deeply in love at the time. “It translates roughly as “Marry first, love will follow”. I find it significant that jo’ also means compassion/mercy and the proper word for love, ‘ai’ (愛) is not used in this context. I interpreted it as meaning that if you marry a man, you will eventually feel compassionate for his need for love, and that itself will feel like love.

Well, it doesn’t. It didn’t.

I have read stories of couples in arranged marriages in other Asian cultures saying they eventually fell in love and lived happily  ever after, but I must lack the Asian gene for patience and “compassion” (?) in marriage.

Marriage is hard work, ask any married couple. But it does not always have to be an uphill battle if certain basic points are cleared before you get to the alter, or the registry office.

Seven golden lessons I learned from my failed marriage:

      1. If your gut instinct says there is something not quite right with the guy, believe it. Your gut always knows best.
      2. Sometimes your friends can see things more clearly than you, when you are blinded by the excitement of getting married (despite problems). Introduce him to your closest friends well before marriage (I didn’t). If they say, “are you sure?” it will be their polite way of telling you “we don’t think he is right for you.”
      3. If you have been intimate with him, and the sex doesn’t feel right, it will not get any better just because you are living together or you have a ring on your finger. If anything, it will get worse. Unless lie back and think of England works, and sex isn’t that important for you. I used to think it wasn’t. I was wrong: sexual compatibility is crucial.
      4. Ask yourself: do I actually fancy him rather than just finding him “a nice guy”? Do you look forward to touching him, kissing him, undressing him, doing naughty things to/with him? I would never marry again unless I fancied the pants off the guy.
      5. If he comes from a dysfunctional family setting, if his parents split up early in his life, or if there was an alcoholic in the family, if either his mum or his dad abandoned the family when he was a child, look for signs of deep-set psychological scars, which may manifest itself in the form of anger, aggression or violence within a relationship.
      6. Watch out for signs of a love-hate relationship with his mother. Boys’ relationships with mothers usually end up shaping the way they will relate to women as grown-ups. Watch out for casual misogynistic comments or jokes he may have made.  You may have brushed them aside at the time, but once you are married, you will see he is not able to trust women and expects every woman in the world to let him down sooner or later. And he will make sure they do.
      7. Do you have shared interests? One of the things that most bothered me about my ex is that I struggled to find any interest in common. In music, he liked heavy metal or country/folk, I like classical, jazz and blues, which he couldn’t stand. I love theatre, he couldn’t care less. I am rubbish at sport but try to keep healthy by swimming and doing taichi; he did zilch exercise and loved fatty food.
      8. Is he interested in your personal interests? I am passionate about writing, and he had always known that, but he never once took an interest in reading any of my blogs, even when I excitedly told him a post I’d written had “gone viral” on Twitter, or that it had been mentioned in a newspaper. I had to specifically email him a link and ‘force’ him to read it. When you love a person, you have respect for what they love. Don’t you? I could not even reciprocate: he had no interests or hobbies whatsoever; none. Zero.
      9. Is he a telly addict? I do not have anything against people who like to watch TV, and I will myself watch an occasional thriller or documentary but, as a rule, I dislike TV (I do not even own a set now) and find TV addiction disturbing. Every single meal I had with my husband at home was in front of the telly, with the remote control by his cutlery and his eyes glued to the screen. He would comment on the programme or laugh out loud at it, but when I complained there was no communication between us, he said talking about the TV show was communication. TVs can break marriages, be ware.
      10. Do you feel comfortable being yourself when you are with him, without the fear of judgement? One predominant sentiment ruled my entire married life: fear. Fear of disappointing him, fear of being told I was just like all his despicable other exes, fear of being labelled a bad wife, fear of being shouted at in private and public, when I did not behave as he wanted me to do. I never again want to live in fear.

Is that fair? What are your rules for a healthy relationship? Feel free to share in Comments.