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KNOWING vs. BELIEVING

A conversation is recounted in the book # Shantaram  in which the character, Khaderbhai, says: “There is no such thing as believing in #G...

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Saturday, 27 August 2016

THE (UN)FAIRNESS OF LIFE

You can believe that #Life is unfair, or you can think that it's fair, just as it is. Guess which choice is going to di(stress) you most?

The fairness debate reared its head in the context of #CasterSemenya's emphatic performance in the recent #RioOlympics. It's not a debate confined to the likes of Caster, but actually to every aspect of our lives.

As far as Caster is concerned, the debate is whether it is fair for her to compete as a woman given that she has natural testosterone levels reportedly three times higher than most women. Her competitors and detractors say that this isn't fair because women just shouldn't have that much testosterone and speculate (unproven) that that's what gives her super-powers over other women. Well, yes, but does that entitle Justin Gatlin and every other competitor ever beaten by Usain Bolt to complain that his superior size, leg length and quick twitch muscles are unfair and therefore he should not be allowed to race? And has anyone ever bothered to measure Bolt's natural testosterone levels? Or should swimmers be heard to complain that Michael Phelps has freakishly long arms which should be trimmed? Or would it become fair if Caster Semenya were to compete in the men's events despite the fact that she is a woman? I don't recall her complaining that she came from a poor background, or that many of her First World competitors have had access to massive government funding, advanced training programmes and facilities and first rate nutrition all their lives. Is that fair given that many African athletes simply have to make do with what is available to them and rise above their circumstances? Does more natural testosterone outweigh the advantages of sustained funding, proper training facilities and nutrition? The trouble is, you can't make Life fair.

Certainly, you can make sure that your kids get equal sized portions of food at dinner-time, or that they get the same education, or that sports teams each get a relatively equal chance to play with or against the wind, but that fairness only occurs when someone has some control over the situation. For the most part, we have no control over what Life delivers of its own accord, so if Life chooses to gift (or curse) one person with different physical or intellectual attributes than the next, or more money and privilege, we can either bitch and moan that it's unfair, or we can accept that Life is perfectly fair just as it is.

How often do we hear about people born into poor, abusive or dysfunctional families rising above their circumstance, not by chance but because of the very circumstances in which they found themselves? It is easy enough to blame your circumstances on what Life delivered you in the first place - your inability to run fast, your family's poorness, your parents' alcoholism or your unfortunate looks - but whilst those circumstances may seem unfair relative to Mo Farah, Bill Gates or Brad Pitt, sometimes those circumstances can also be the very catalyst which motivates you to take a stand for yourself, learn from what Life has to offer and excel in something.

The moment you compare your life to those of others, it is easy to conclude that Life is fundamentally unfair and then you invite into your life stress, dissatisfaction, resentment or whatever else follows the meaning which you put on unfairness. When you stop comparing and simply get that Life is exactly as it is, the limiting thought processes that go with the 'unfair' judgement dry up and all sorts of creative possibilities manifest themselves. It is the difference between feeling sorry for what Life did to you and feeling grateful for what Life delivered to you. Your athletic gifts may not be the same as those of Olympic athletes, but your intellectual gifts may far exceed them. You may not have as much money as Donald Trump, but then again you might  feel very blessed not to be Donald Trump. You might not look like Angelina Jolie, but you might have your health intact.

Life can never be fair, if fairness means equality with your neighbour in every single sphere, but Life is inherently fair if we just accept that it delivers as it sees fit, whether we asked for what it delivered or not, and its invitation is to see what you can do with what you got.

Our mind-set when we demand that everything should be fair is wide-open to discord and broad dissatisfaction. Our mind-space when we accept that Life is fair as it is opens up to peace and all sorts of creative possibilities. 

Where would you rather be?

Sunday, 21 August 2016

WHEN #EXCELLENCE ACTUALLY SUCKS

As the two week human excellence carnival in #Rio parades to its conclusion today, I find myself asking what the sportsmen in the various disciplines themselves got out of the #2016Olympics.

We've had #UsainBolt proclaiming himself the best ever, a proclamation with which it would be difficult to argue, certainly on the athletics track. We've had #MichaelPhelps bowing out with more Olympic gold and other medals than any other sportsman in history (and more gold medals than two thirds of the countries in the world), which makes him the greatest Olympian ever if medals are the benchmark. We've had Wayde van Niekerk break the 400m track Olympic and World records by such a margin that even the legendary Michael Johnson was awe-struck, although my impression was that Wayde himself couldn't quite understand what all the fuss was about. We also had Luvo Manyonga ending his journey on the streets by escaping a serious drug habit and cracking a silver in the long jump, and we had Lawrence Brittain (with his team mate Shaun Keeling) winning silver in the rowing, 18 months after being diagnosed with Hodgkins Lymphoma. Unbelievable triumphs.

But then again, we had Chad Le Clos bitching about what a poor race he had in the 200m butterfly to come fourth and his boring silver medal in the 100m butterfly? And how many other athletes did we hear saying: "Gutted to have only got silver / missed out on a medal and only come fourth", rather than saying: "I'm blown away and grateful to have made it into a final and been the second, third or fourth best in the world!"? Granted there were many who were glad to have got a medal of any colour, but not too many who patted themselves on the back for a fourth or fifth place or simply for being there to help make up the numbers

I accept that the perspective is usually different when you are a spectator rather than a participant, but I personally celebrated Akani Simbine's fifth place in the men's 100m track race. What an astonishing achievement, to be the fifth fastest human being on the planet! I suspect he was pretty pleased with that performance as well.

The truth is that a minuscule number of people in the world become Olympians - perhaps 0.001%. Even fewer make the finals of their events and only three of those medal, with one being gold. We (and the athletes) tend to forget that the odds of medalling at the end of the day are so miniscule as to be close to impossible for all but a tiny handful of people - rather like the odds of winning a lottery. 

So when you get into an Olympic event, you are already extra-ordinary i.e. way beyond ordinary in terms of physical prowess and ability.  Most people would give their proverbial eye teeth for that prowess, so ungracious losers just get up my nose. I am more inspired by people who are unconditionally grateful for their gifts and opportunities, no matter how ordinary or extraordinary those gifts might be.

For someone to come fourth in an event is flipping exceptional! To think that it sucks is missing a huge piece about which to be grateful. The disappointment in not medalling is partly an ego thing - somehow athletes come home thinking they haven't quite cut the bacon by only being in the minor placings. This is partly because of the weight of expectation which society at large puts on them, but I would suggest that it is more about the demand they put on themselves to be the very best. The one thing we know, however, is that they greater the demand or expectation that we (or something) should be or end up a certain way, the greater the level of disappointment and suffering when it ends up some other how. 

A great irony is that Caster Semeya's excellence sucks in a completely different way. Gifted with physical attributes that make her the fastest woman over 800m also give her the freedom she derives from her running, but there must also be times when she regards her physcial attributes as an absolute curse rather than a gift.

The invitation, therefore, is to do or be the very best we can, but without placing a demand on the outcome or how we should be in order to achieve it. Is it not enough to celebrate our greatness, or uniqueness for what it is, rather than insist that we compare ourselves with every other Tom, Dick and Harry to prove that we are better than them? So what if we're better? How does it make us feel better about ourselves when we 're better than the next guy?

If that's the way we want to play the game, prepare to be disappointed, because the truth is there's only one Usain Bolt and one Michael Phelps, and the chances of any of us being one of them are 1 in 7 billion, so be happy with what you have and what you know to be true about yourself. You'll be so glad you did.

Friday, 12 August 2016

GOING FOR GOLD (part 2): THE FINAL PUSH

I previously wrote about a young #Olympic rower named Jonty Smith (@jonty11smith). Today at 16h27 South African time he and his crew race in the final of the Mens Heavyweight Coxless Fours. Here is my message to them:


Dear Jonty, David, Vince and Jake, (and, indeed, all of Rowing Team SA),

I couldn’t be more excited for you or proud of what you have managed up until this point. Today is your day of reckoning. The heats are over, the repecharge is won and you only get one shot – ever – at winning a medal in THIS race.

Rugby players are fond of saying that nothing that has gone before a knock-out match matters any longer. Whilst I doubt that that is so for rugby players, I want to suggest that everything that has gone before matters. Every race you have won or lost, every session on the ergo, every stroke you have ever pulled is your experience matrix. It is a complicated database on which you will draw for every stroke of today’s final. You will know exactly what has worked before, and what has not worked. You will know exactly how it feels when your timing is out, or when your timing is impeccable and the boat is running. You will know how to react when someone hits a wave. Importantly, you will know what you have done, how your performance curve has climbed and climbed since Henley last year and what you are capable of achieving. You might also know the depths of your own reserves that you can plumb, but then again you might still need to find out what else is in reserve.

It will take you 230 odd strokes to cover the course today. That is 230 opportunities for greatness. They also represent 230 choices you can make about how you perform and what you want for yourselves. No race is about the last 50 strokes. Every race is about every stroke, but I daresay one or more moments will come in the race when you will need to make a huge choice about whether to dig deeper, go harder or back off. That choice will define you and all you stand for forever. 

You will draw your inspiration from yesterday’s unbelievable row by Lawrence and Shaun to take Silver in the Mens Pairs, and from the thousands of friends, family and fans you know about, but also from the millions of South Africans who sit glued to the Olympics channels in hope and awe, watching other South Africans being the best they can be. Most importantly, you will draw your inspiration from your hearts, from all that you know yourselves to be and from any higher power on whom you have drawn in the past – Life, God, the Universe – whatever has meaning for you. This is you opportunity to discover who you are at your very core.

There are very few people who become Olympians in any given year – perhaps 0.0001% of the world’s population and perhaps a quarter of those become finalists. The achievement you have already made is enormous, but the possibility you have created of becoming a medallist is one on which only you can act.

Although no one wanted a repecharge and an extra race, I have a sense that that is exactly what you needed. One extra race to bring you to your peak. 

Finally, remember that fear is simply excitement without breath. You will need lots of breath, so be excited from the outset.

I and millions of others will be watching and shouting for you and the rest of Rowing Team SA later today. Go for it.

YOLO