That Half Full Glass

Do relationships end because people change, or because they finally realise who they’re with? Or is it closer to going in with a belief that growth is possible, only to discover that their partner was uninterested in growth? Or maybe the possibility of growth spawned an immature competition between the two, and they grew apart instead of growing together?

I’ve seen and lived through my fair share (and then some) of bad relationships. The haunting reality of every single one of them was the amount of self-denial if not self-destruction that was insisted upon by one or both parties. In my mind, I visualise relationships as a glass half full. No, not that glass, another glass. We’re all semi-filled glasses of water in a way. Any person that claims to be entirely fulfilled by their own endeavours and independent of the contribution of others to feel completely whole is a liar.

Back to that glass. We hold on to many glasses in our lifetimes with each glass representing a major area of interest, or passion in our lives. When it comes to relationships, our relationship glass is half full as we invite others into that space. We only invite those that hold the promise of adding to that half full glass so that we can top it up, realistically only trying to approach the brim while knowing that getting it to overflow is rarely, if ever possible in this lifetime. This world was simply not created for such perfect fulfilment.

Nonetheless, when we invite others in, we hold an innate expectation that they will contribute towards that glass which will serve as inspiration for us to contribute to theirs. Sometimes, we’re not aware of how full or how empty the glass of the other is. We assume, based on our own perceptions and life stage, that those that appear similarly inclined have glasses filled similar to our own. This assumption, based on superficial interactions, inform our decisions to invite them in or pull them closer, all the while looking to draw on those expectations we never realised we had. It all seems natural until it’s put to the test.

The gaps that exist in the souls of others only become evident when they’re exposed to the prying eyes of one who appears less vapid. Often, this awareness is news to them as well because in our efforts to protect our vulnerabilities from the world, we’re easily convinced of our completeness in the face of adversity. Believing that we’re victorious over our adversities steels us against the harsh reality of our weakness or neediness. No one wants to appear weak, except where such appearances promise to solicit the affection of those we seek.

It’s quite the charade. When we desire the embrace of another, we’ll easily allow our weakness to show if there is reason to believe that such weakness will be perceived as tenderness, rather than impotence. Similarly, we go out seeking such weakness if we wish to be perceived as strong and dependable. But almost always, unless we’re self-destructive by inclination, we look for one that counter balances who we are. Our strengths must complement their weaknesses, and their strengths our weaknesses. Otherwise we encourage competition in a space where we seek harmony, and so the cycle plays out in varying permutations, all the while reflecting nothing more than the glass that needs to be filled, just in different ways.

When our expectations are failed, we respond in one of three ways. We cut our losses and focus on our investment in our own glass, protecting what little we’ve accumulated over time by extricating the drain on that precious life source that gives us reason to pursue a new day leaving the empty glass to find another source of affirmation from which to fill its voids.

At other times we compensate for what is lacking by complementing our lives with the contributions from others that are not fully invested in our intimate relationships, but fill the gaps of the plutonic needs that remain unfulfilled by the ones closest to us. Some see this as infidelity, depending entirely on your cultural or religious subscriptions, while others see this as a balanced reality that can’t be avoided. Again, entirely dependent on how you view the innocence or deviousness of such an effort. What it does do for the ones closer to us is it eases the burden of expectation that we place on them because we effectively buy ourselves time while waiting for them to catch up. We see their weakness and trust their sincerity to improve their state, so we offer them support while we nurture ourselves through other means in the hope that such alternate nurturing will be temporary only. Sometimes it works out, and sometimes it taints us to the point of needing such variety of nurturing as a permanent feature in our lives.

The third response is the most destructive of them all. Pride, ego, commitment, or simply a rigidity informed by all of the above drives us to allow that drain to suck the life out of us as we wait patiently for the other to catch up. Their glass slowly filling up while ours drains, eventually resulting in them feeling emboldened in the face of our growing weakness. Their newfound confidence leading them to believe that they’re worth more than the spent soul they see before them, convinced that they were not the problem to begin with. In allowing ourselves to be exhausted in so many ways by contributing to a vacuum, we become the masters of our own demise. This is only ever possible if we feel responsible for the poor choices of others.

As I mentioned in my thoughts about unconditional love, sacrificing yourself for the benefit of others in fact denies those that are worthy of your full contribution to begin with. Allowing your glass to empty because of some irrational commitment to an outcome that causes more destruction than it contributes towards a wholesome life is not martyrdom, it’s foolishness. Worse than this, it is reckless and selfish, because that moment of self-indulgence, when we reduce the purpose of our lives to propping up those around us at the expense of our own well being is nothing more than a statement of ingratitude for all that we are, and all that we’re capable of being.

My glass will never be full, but I will never willingly allow it to be exhausted by others either. It’s the least I owe to myself, and to those that have a legitimate reliance on me to contribute towards their glasses as well. Anything less is unacceptable.

Firefighter Syndrome

I’ve heard this term firefighter syndrome used loosely over the years, most often referring to people that have a tendency to want to rush in and fix things without thinking it through. Not suggesting that firefighters don’t think things through, but I’m sure you get the picture. You know, like the saying that if all you have is a hammer, then every problem looks like a nail? Similarly if everything you see looks like a fire then rushing in to put it out seems like the sensible thing to do. In fact, it almost seems like an inspired calling in life. 

My experience with this mentality has been somewhat different though. For me, the fire represents an opportunity to be significant and the firefighter represents the one that seeks significance in a crisis situation. It reminds me of an incident a good few years ago in Cape Town. The famed fynbos on Table Mountain and surrounding areas had caught alight due to the recklessness of a smoker (no pun, just the truth) during the dry season.  Their carelessly discarded stompie (a.k.a. cigarette butt) caused the fire to burn out of control for weeks, killing off acres and acres of fynbos and forests. A subsequent investigation revealed that the government agency responsible for managing forest fires in that area had routinely dowsed the flames from fires that started up over the years. Those smaller fires would have resulted in a natural culling of the density of growth,  but by preventing it from self regulating, they created a perfect setting for a perfect brush fire. As a result, when the mother of all fires started, the rate with which it spread was beyond any expectations, and it burned out of control without anyone being able to contain it.

Too often we convince ourselves that it’s a selfless act to sacrifice our own comforts and well being to alleviate the discomfort or struggles of another. Sometimes that may be true, but most often, it’s not. Most often it is simply a form of escapism from our own lives. It’s easier to feel significant and celebrated when we contribute towards the upliftment of others, than it is to resolve some of the challenges that we are faced with. By focusing on the fires of others we achieve two key objectives. Firstly, we have a seemingly legitimate reason not to reflect on our own problems because of the constant busyness associated with being there for everyone else, and secondly, we provide a very meaningful distraction for them to avoid any opportunity to focus on us. Or more importantly, allowing them to see the mess of gaping holes in our lives. 

Yes, there is merit in indulging in the upliftment of others, provided such indulgence is not an escape or deprivation of what we need for ourselves to be whole. Also, its merit only remains credible as long as we are convinced that the whole of us is not of more value to the world than the assistance that we offer others. This is especially true when we find that their cries for help are usually not much more than a variation of our own self defeating behaviours. While busying ourselves with helping others provides us with the distraction needed as described earlier, for some, reaching out for help to lift themselves out of their challenged state is their way of getting the affirmation needed to justify their weakness. 

Consider it from this perspective. The one that is knocked over and finds that their dignity has taken an equal beating as their ego, will find that the shortest path back to a dignified state is found in obtaining the recognition from others that being overwhelmed under such circumstances is entirely understandable. It’s a vicious cycle of sympathy. The one recognises and relates to the weakness of the other because they would desire such sympathy and understanding if they were in a similar position, and the weakened one saves face by appearing downtrodden and therefore oppressed by the circumstances they find themselves in which appeals to our compassion for long enough to distract us from questioning the choices made by the victim that landed them in that state to begin with.  

How does this relate to the firemen syndrome? I think it encourages a shared weakness in society that supports the abdication of responsibility for our contribution to the straitened circumstances we may find ourselves in. It also encourages the mentality of victimhood. That belief that we’re only strong if we have someone from whom to draw strength when we lack purpose or meaning in our lives. I think that is exactly what it all boils down to. When we lose sight of the value we wish to contribute to this world, or worse, when we lack such convictions to begin with, we look for opportunity to draw on the energies of others in ways to sustain our fragile ego without admitting such fragility. 

Like the self regulating brush fire, if we constantly protect others from themselves by helping them up when they are entirely capable of standing up by themselves, eventually they will find no use for their own legs or their backbone, and we’ll find ourselves overwhelmed with the burden of having to maintain their fragility because of the unwavering support we provided that protected them from having to grow up. 

Sometimes the greatest help we can offer is a clear view of reality, not a shelter from it. The more we invest in protecting others from reality, the more we limit our capacity to improve our own. Before you think this is a selfish way to live, consider who is more dependable in times of genuine need. The one who was protected from becoming a fully formed adult, or the one that has grown stronger and independent from the knocks that life has dealt? 

Taking Care of Me 

In a self indulgent world, distortions of reality threaten to taint the essentials that hold our sanity together. The essentials are so much more difficult to recognise these days. This binary lifestyle that we’ve perpetuated for so long now insists that if we take care of ourselves, it must be to the exclusion of taking care of others. Even though I believe there to be truth in that, making such a statement seems like an unfair projection of my gripes on the world.

Setting out on some open road therapy this week, hints of guilt trailed closely behind me. My focus having increasingly shifted to servitude over the years, self indulgence suddenly felt wrong, or blameworthy. Taking time to collect my thoughts, clear the fuzz, and regain my sense of purpose offered the only hope of holding on to what defines my unique contribution to this world.

Self-censure has been rife in recent times. Sometimes because of the futility of expression to an oblivious crowd, but more often because of the taunting accuracy of predictable outcomes. Hope flirts on the edges of such trends and promises a break in the cycle, but that break is never self-realising. It takes an active contribution or effort to break a cycle.

It’s like the waves that I see breaking over each other. Those washing up against the shore full of energy and motivation to reach the land as they crash and subdue the residual of the ones that went before. The ones that went before spread out lazily on the beach, aerated and foaming with delight at their achievements, then losing momentum from the complacency of their arrival only to recede in order to make way for the next wave of enthusiasm. And each time I saw this cycle repeat itself I was reminded of the lapping ripples of the Mediterranean off the island of Kerkennah. Peaceful and uninspiring, but so easily disrupted. A thrashing run through the waves I saw before me now would leave no trace even before my feet would reach the sand beneath it, while a casual stomp through the ripples on that island would see my footprints left in the sand beneath the water. Even if only for a while before the complacent lapping erased its presence while restoring the order of the ages.

Life plays out in the cycles we disrupt every day. Without a critical mass of support, we’re no more than a bad wind drifting out to sea. Sometimes we impose ourselves as rocks of confidence and guidance as we watch the waves shape around us. But there are too few rocks and too many waves. Being such a lighthouse of fortitude can be taxing, but only as long as we expect the waves to stop pounding and instead to become ripples that caress our foothold.

Abstracts aside, taking care of me threatens to become a central theme in my life if I lose focus as to why being me is important. It’s not important because of a need to prevail. It’s important because I provide, or at least seek to provide a counter balance to the insanity I see crashing down around me. The moment I stop serving a purpose larger than me, and I start serving me only, I add to that stench that I so revile.

Taking care of me becomes more difficult as my awareness grows of what plays out around me. It’s easy to dismiss my contribution towards those that are obstinate in their distraction or defeatism, because I can easily justify it by focusing on the quick-wins instead. The ones that are hungry for change, for advice, for support, and so much more. But I’m always faced with the blunt truth when I shy away from the tough ones. Am I turning away to preserve my ego, or am I turning away because my time would really be better invested in one that will embrace my contribution? In fact, isn’t there a threat of ego-preservation in that as well?

Egos, expectations, trust, and betrayal. It’s all part of how we express our happiness or dismay at the world. None of us are immune to its ill effects so be sure never to trust one that claims to have risen above it. The challenge is in being able to reflect and recognise the influences that each have on our choices. If we do, we stand a chance of living purposefully, rather than defensively. Without an ego, a leader will not step up to lead the masses out of a sorry state, and without expectations, followers will not look to leaders for guidance. Everything has its place. It’s when we allow it out of its place and let it prevail where it shouldn’t, that is when we lose sight of ourselves, and taking care of me suddenly becomes denying the rights of others in favour of me.

We all need some self-indulgence sometime. Even for the one that has it all. When you find yourself awkward in your own company without any distractions or company to keep you occupied, when your thoughts scratch the insides of your skull or gnaw at your rib cage, and your instinctive response is to get busy with something, anything…when that is the state you find yourself in, know with certainty that you have not taken care of yourself. You have only distracted yourself from the reality you wish to avoid.

[Another incomplete thought process to add to the collection.]

cropped-cropped-cropped-cropped-tumblr_mu79gcdgio1qeoyseo4_128013.jpgI’ve always believed that if we were to live a long and painful life, and in the end, in our last few moments, we experienced the absolute serenity and completeness of everything we sought to experience or achieve in our lifetime, the entirety of the pain and struggles of our lives would be easily forgotten. It would still feel like a complete and beautiful life, because the intensity of the struggles before that point would directly inform the intensity of gratitude and peace we would feel when experiencing it. But only if we live in the present moment. Otherwise we’ll lose that beautiful moment cursing at its late arrival while still yearning for the past to have been different.

Zaid Ismail

Perfectly Distracted 

There was a time when I judged the character of others by the number of times they would use terms like existential, nihilism, fatalism, and the like often with the words of Einstein echoing in my head regularly reminding me that if I can’t explain it simply enough, it’s because I don’t understand it well enough. And that’s how I viewed those pretentious ones that used large words to explain simple concepts of hope, struggle, or despair.

One of my challenges in life has been my inability to articulate my thoughts in ways that made it relatable to others. From a young age I was recognised as the kid on a different wavelength. I was the one the bullies generally ignored because my response was unpredictable, while they picked on the ones that were somewhat ordinary, because ordinary, for all its merits, is predictable.

Without any fanfare or deliberate effort, I found myself trying to polish my grasp of the English language so that my thoughts would tumble out of my mouth or keyboard with at least a vague similarity to what was going on in my head. The more coherent I sounded, the more confident I grew, and seemingly, the more people I found were willing to interact with me. I guess people generally do avoid the unpredictable or misunderstood.

The buoyancy I felt from these simple little milestones of inclusion pushed me to hone my skills further. My innate need to simplify a complicated life contributed to this by driving me towards reducing the effort needed to achieve simple outcomes. After all, why do in ten steps what can be done in two? It would be such a waste of energy to continue the ten step way.

Equally so, I found myself growing more succinct, or as some would assume, short in the way in which I expressed myself. To me, I was improving my skill for clear communication without being flowery or longwinded about it, but for everyone else, I was cocky and presumptuous because I apparently didn’t have the patience to work through things with them or explain myself properly. What I saw as saving them the monotony of a longwinded explanation, they saw as an arrogance on my part for assuming that they’re not worthy of such an explanation. Or worse, they assumed that I took found joy in making them look stupid.

And that’s how I’ve found efforts at effective communication can become defective communication. An innocent assumption on my part that suggested that others had a similar level of understanding or appreciation of the topic at hand, meaning that I didn’t see my knowledge as superior, was automatically misconstrued by others as me being arrogant and aloof. Of course, every assumption we make, correct or incorrect, is a reflection of how we view ourselves relative to what is going on around us, but that was hardly an effective point to make in such a situation. Although I did make it from time to time, depending on how keen I was to annoy the audience I was with.

The point is, it’s easy to be distracted by our pursuit of perfection in any field that we’re passionate about, to the point where the purpose of the pursuit is forgotten, and all that remains is our sights on perfection. Most often, we seek to perfect in order to be more effective at achieving something, but along the way we become distracted by how our perfection is perceived and lose sight of what we set out to achieve in the first place.

When that happens, perfectionism takes centre stage and purpose or meaning becomes a secondary consideration. I think it’s possible to achieve perfection relative to purpose, although true perfection is unattainable. There is merit and virtue in pursuing perfection, but both are undermined when the purpose or value of such efforts are discarded in favour of being perceived as perfect in that regard. Our efforts, if left unchecked, will result in us allowing our proficiency of practice at what we’re pursuing to define us, rather than remembering that our proficiency was intended to enable us to define something else in a more valuable way.

Life is lost in moments of distraction, but we grow distracted in moments of pursuing a better life. Being surrounded by a social standard grounded in escapism doesn’t help either. And labeling people that use big words without appreciating why they choose to communicate the way they do reflects a superficiality and insecurity on our part, more than it does on theirs.

Contaminated (Part II)

We live in times where the inclination to remedy a fall far outweighs any rationale to prevent the fall from happening. We’ll willingly encourage others towards intoxicants or unhealthy distractions, and then form support groups to help them out of that addictive state, while refusing to condemn the bad advice we gave in the first place. Accountability is only celebrated if it doesn’t disrupt the oblivion of the masses. Those that threaten such disruption are spurned for being callous, cruel, or arrogant, often accused of thinking that they’re better than everyone else. In short, we condone that which reflects our own weaknesses not because we believe in its wholesomeness, but because we feel more human in recognising the shared weakness in others. More than this, it makes us feel less inferior when we believe that we share shortcomings with others, rather than falling short of expectation by our solitary selves alone.

It’s not about being better than everyone else any more. These days, it’s simply about not being worse. There was a time in human history that I imagine the focus to have been on competing to excel in human endeavours. People would have exerted themselves to achieve noble goals that served as inspiration to others to want to rise up and pursue even greater heights. It’s quite different today. Today, it seems as if we compete to see who is able to dominate through any means possible, where the level of domination is celebrated, without any concern for the means or methods that achieved such domination, except where those means and methods threaten our ability to actively compete.

I’ve been fascinated by the term ‘fully formed adults’ ever since I first read it a few years ago, but my fascination quickly turns to disgust as I look around and struggle to find specimens that exhibit such qualities. Semi formed adults raise calloused and contaminated children. Children that grow up under semi formed adults face trials and hardships that are entirely avoidable, and fully surmountable, but they often shy away from the challenge of rising above because when they raise their gaze looking for a role model to guide them, they see nothing but more contamination of a society that is full of semi formed adults. It’s therefore little wonder why they themselves succumb to the same cycle.

Regardless of how harsh our childhood may have been, we all reach a point of independence in life where we are able to feed or break the cycles that raised us. Critical thought is spurned as rebellion and disrespect because semi formed adults lack the skills and self-worth to effectively navigate their way through critical thought processes. The stigma associated with failure is so harsh that even in the face of absolute failure we’ll find a euphemism to describe our sorry state. Anything is better than admitting failure. It’s this same insincere and tainted social setting that continues to lay down a path of strife and distraction for children looking for meaning and purpose in life.

In the absence of a critical mass of fully formed adults, those that try to break the cycles are placed with a burden that is tenfold relative to the effort that would be needed to raise a balanced and confident child. It’s a constant struggle of trying to convince or influence the child towards a wholesome standard while they are bombarded with the unhealthy standard of the semi formed adults that they’re surrounded with. Isolation from such a malformed society is not an option. When we disengage, we lose the right to judge, criticise, or cry foul.

We need to stop raising children. We need to start raising adults. This mindset that has contaminated the world in recent centuries that childhood must be enjoyed with abandon so that we can start being adults when we reach a certain age needs to be abandoned. This distinction between childhood and adult life is misguided. It’s not about age, it’s about awareness and accountability. We should expect greater accountability as we progress through the stages of self-awareness and awareness of our surroundings. The same way we expect a child to stop wetting the bed once they have been taught the value of hygiene and the skill of using the toilet, we should continue to hold them to such levels of accountability in action and behaviour as they continue to acquire new skills.

But adults that had a contaminated childhood often project those regrets on the children under their care. Instead of raising the standard against which they raise their children, they embellish the esteem of the child with gestures that convince them, the adults, that they’re doing a better job than the raising that created the flaws that they despise about themselves.

The common undertone and theme in society these days is one of demand, but little supply. We’re all demanding to be recognised for the struggles of our lives, and to be judged based on the gravity of those struggles, while remaining entirely oblivious to the fact that we are merely spawning another generation of victims that will take our efforts and raise it further. Their demands will be ever more destructive and selfish, and the erosion of society that we universally lament will continue on its downward spiral until a group of inspired young souls will look upon the generations that came before them with a sense of contempt and disbelief. The inheritance of wholesomeness that should have been passed down will be absent, and in such total absence they may finally resolve to correct the path that they’re on, rather than continuing the toxic cycle in search of affirmations and validations for experiences that hold no sway over the next generation.

Adults that still place their insecurities and weaknesses before the well being of those that look up to them deserve a special kind of scorn. We all have the ability and the capacity to actively reflect on how we are perceived by others so that we can take steps to embellish our images in ways that would earn us praise. This is regardless of upbringing or value system. It is entirely based on who we wish to view us admiringly, and how we wish to feel about their gaze on us. We therefore cannot argue that such reflection in the betterment of our characters and moral assets is impossible simply because we were raised by a calloused or contaminated society. The resolve and courage exists for us to change the way we live our lives. The motivation however, is lacking, because it is significantly easier to fulfil an expectation of a consumerist society than it is to raise the expectations of the next generation.

[end rant]


A blistery childhood or a beautiful one. Both leave lasting impressions on us but not always in ways that we realise. A blistering childhood has been the cause of many to grow into beautiful people because they chose to create a world for themselves that did not echo the sadness from which they emerged. Equally so, a beautiful childhood has prompted many to assume a level of entitlement and aloofness that soured their souls and sent people gasping for air when exposed to the stench of their arrogance.

The circumstances of our childhood was probably never a matter of our choosing. Sometimes we may have even made choices that defined it when we were allowed such definition as children in the presence of barely formed adults, but there is a justifiable absolution for children that make such bad decisions in the presence of adults who should have known better. Such kindness is not so easy to dish out for adults who continue to choose badly due to a contaminated childhood.

The motivation behind the actions of parents are rarely known even by the parents themselves. This makes it that much more difficult for the child, the real child, to find a path out of that cycle as they try to understand why they hold such a deep sense of self-loathing, or a vacant stare of expectation, or worse, a longing for completeness.

The pain that sometimes shapes our lives in our early years often end up leaving us ambivalent in our later years. At times it feeds the resilience of our souls in our struggle against a cruel world, while at other times it hampers our expression in ways that make us contribute towards the cruelty we wish to escape. Recognising those traits that detract from our wholesomeness is only half the battle. The rest of that battle is fought for the rest of our lives as we consistently try to unlearn a form of unhealthy expression that we were raised to believe is entirely normal.

I see children that were raised in homes where explicit adult behaviour was flaunted as fashionable, personal hygiene as optional, and vulgarity of expression as humorous; and they struggle to operate in a setting where such behaviour is not tolerated. They struggle to rectify their ways, or reconcile their upbringing with what is demanded of them by society. The harshness of the demand undermines the burden of reality that they carry with them. But even that is a burden that they only reasonably comprehend much later in life.

Until they reach that stage of relative awareness, relative because it’s near impossible to be fully aware of the difference between your normal and society’s normal, they will struggle in relationships that often define them as uncooperative, unwilling, or simply unacceptable relative to what would otherwise be a normal expectation from a normal adult. But such a demand from them is not entirely unreasonable.

Tough love has never been so tough to implement. Parents that find themselves raising children from contaminated environments will likely spend a lifetime accepting that they are perceived to be disciplinarian monsters, while the fruits of their labour will be enjoyed by the normality experienced by their charges later in life. The point that needs to be made is a difficult one to articulate, partly because it holds such prominence for me, and partly because its definition escapes me.

The balance that is needed between discipline and compassion is that much more difficult to strike when the one who is charged with raising the contaminated child is themselves contaminated. Their effort becomes that much more valiant and admirable, but their state, if observed casually by the normal of society, leaves much to be desired.

[The point was barely reached, let alone sufficiently articulated in this post. Much reflection is still needed on this issue.]