Monthly Archives: February 2011

The need to feel in control


Let me share two contrasting stories.
My Dad and I in Lima Peru
                      My Papa and I in Lima Peru; Feb 2010

I went to Peru in 2010, and met up with my father and his wife.  One day, my father took me to the neighborhood where he grew up. As a child he had dashed through these streets with his friends; unafraid, full of imagination, energy and joy.  I stood in awe and imagined such a boy, as I held the hand of the man now in his late 70’s.  What beauty I witnessed in the neatly manicured park; the flowers bursting with color and vitality and the artists and musicians filling the air with music, laughter and bounty.  The snapshot holds clear in my mind; such love, connection and serenity of that moment abides with me always.

And yet another moment within the same week brought to me the painful reality of the contrast that also exists.  Not everyone in Peru has the luxury of growing up in the place that my father did.  Walking with him down the busy, less affluent areas brought the scrutiny of poverty close within my sight.  Everywhere around me there were small thin bodies with piercing hungry eyes.  Little children were holding their hands out to encourage those who “had” to share in some manner – any manner with those who “had little”.  I became overwhelmed not only to see such poverty, but also to feel the suffocating energy.  It was not the energy of Abundance; it was Lack… lack of substance and lack of hope.  And as I let my eyes rest upon such a scene, I felt like I was being swallowed up because I could DO nothing about it.  I had no control over the barren reality before me. And during this overwhelming realization, I was at the same moment, being bustled and jostled amongst many who passed us as we slowly moved through the crowd.  I tried not to be affected, tried not to make eye-contact or feel the energy of those who surrounded me. I looked downward, and hung onto my father’s arm… until someone laid a hand upon my shoulder.

When I looked, there stood close to me a young woman.  She appeared about 16. She was very small in stature; childlike, delicate and carrying a child of about 2 upon her hip.  The child had the largest, darkest eyes, reminding me of my own babies at that age.  Neither of them smiled; they only gazed at me, and my life stood still. The mother said something to me that I was not able to fully understand, but no doubt she wanted to feed her child. My eyes welled with tears and instant anger, and I recoiled from the small hand that still rested on my shoulder.  It was the little hand of the child, and it felt like a burning touch.  On reflection, I know I recoiled because I felt powerless and couldn’t solve this retched large-scale problem.  I felt like I had NO control over my environment.  My gift to others has often been the wisdom within the words that I am able to speak to another; words that comfort, teach or perhaps reframe a situation.  Without knowing Spanish fluently, I felt impotent and out of my personal control.

My father spoke quietly to the young woman, reached into his pocket and gave her some coins.  The baby then smiled widely, and they were on their way.  That night within my lovely bedroom that overlooked a country-club golf course, (the room that my Aunt had given me as I shared her residence), I cried in shame at my own surprising response to the young mother and her child.  I questioned myself as to my own compassion and kindness, and for me, the night was long and lonely. I learned the hard way that – one can close their eyes to the things they do not want to see, but one cannot close their hearts to the things they do not want to feel. I thought of how many other ways I could have responded and felt like a failure.

Recently my eldest daughter Lindie recently gifted me with her traveling memoirs across Asia.  One of her entries caught my attention, which was somewhat parallel to what I have shared above.  Her story is as follows:

WorldVisionWe finally stopped at a small town for lunch that boasted World Vision sponsorship.  I would never have known it; maybe it was just the town they used in their commercials.  It was the most 3rd world town I have ever seen with my own eyes; and I couldn’t even change the channel.  Children played naked and barefoot on the roads, the one-room houses had leaky thatched roofs and usually only 3 walls, and yet not one person begged me for money, and smiled at me even. I wondered what exactly the World Vision did for them; but they seemed happy.

I stopped at a shop to get some noodle soup… As I fumbled for some small change, I felt a tug on the bottom of my Red Cross T-shirt.  I looked down and there was a little girl wearing only a worn pink ruffled skirt with a picture of Minnie Mouse that was so small on her that it was obvious she wasn’t wearing underwear.  She was holding a 20,000 kip note that I had dropped on the ground without noticing (20,000 kip is a little over 2 dollars). I waved it away and told her to keep it, and she grinned, ordered the same soup that I got, went outside to scoop her naked little brother that was playing in the mud under a water pipe outside, and pulled up another small plastic stool next to me.  She got some sticky rice for him and tried with all her might to make him eat it, all the while shoving her ramen noodles into her mouth with her hands.  His belly was protruding with so much malnourishment and his eyes had a desolate and hopeless look in them.  I realized right away that this baby was not long for this earth.  I practiced a bit of my Laotian language and learned that the girl’s name was Namsuk, and she was 7 years old (I had guessed 5) and her brother was 2. In the end she managed to get him to drink the soup broth, and ate the sticky rice herself, laughing and patting his swollen belly as if she was saying he was full.  I knew better, but smiled at her through oncoming tears.  I got up and quietly paid for her meal and gave her a box of digestive cookies before climbing back unto the bus.  I moved to the rear, sat down and cried.

I was very affected by Lindie’s depiction for several reasons.  First, her account of the poverty was acutely tangible; something that I could clearly relate to.  Second, similar to my experience, she was approached by a young girl who lived within the community, and who was caring for another who was younger and more vulnerable then her.  Lindie was neither fluent with the language nor comfortable with the intensity of what had transpired yet she was able to avoid dismissing the situation or attempting to look away.  She instead surrendered to what emerged before her and relaxed into a moment of fully engaging in her experience.   This action allowed a valuable, intimate and connective opportunity to arise.  Did she feel overwhelmed and angry?  I would assume so. Did she recoil out of frustration?  Not-at-all!  Lindie remained present, in that moment and responded lovingly.

In addition, Lindie naturally recognized “where her control and power ended”.  She understood that we can only control what is inside of us, and that we have a choice of how we will interact with the elements that surround us.  Lindie and I both felt sadness at the proportion of lack, yet Lindie was able to smile through caring glistening eyes. What elegance she exhibited amidst such pain and suffering.

Mastering our internal state during times when we have no detectable control is both challenging and possible.  Out-of-control situations have a habit of sneaking up and startling us.  I could never have predicted what my response would be or why I would respond in such an aloof manner.  After some time and reflection, I gained insight and could adjust my response and internal self-talk.  I learned more about myself as a result of disappointing myself.  A large part of my lesson was to forgive myself, and become more conscious of my longing to escape the view of those who are suffering.  I now know that this will be a life-long challenge.  Even so, I am up to such a challenge.  Lindie clearly has already learned this lesson and so has exhibited her mastery beautifully in several of her traveling-memoir entries.

Victor E Frankl, psychologist and author of the well known book, Man’s search for meaning  shares with the world his imprisonment experience in Auschwitz and other concentration camps over 5 years during the Second World War.   Although I read Frankl’s book several years ago his key message stays clear and strong within me.

“Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom”.

For the duration of his life Dr. Frankl continued to explore and share with the world the power that we have as individuals to reframe our response and our thoughts about any situation that happens within our existence, no matter how traumatic, painful or full of despair. Another way of saying it is, “Change the way you think about things, and eventually –  the things you think about will also change”.  I heard the above quote shared in a recent yoga class, and it seems to sum up my thoughts perfectly.