Category Archives: Personal Development

Eliminating Extreme Poverty: Possible Personal Contributions

I’ve been going through my older posts systematically in the last couple of weeks and taking the time to write an updated post on the many topics I touched upon since launching this blog in 2008.  It’s interesting to see how some things have really not changed in the last nine years, how some have completely changed, and how others still have morphed into something that straddles the line between the 2008 me and the 2017 me–like some thoughts on extreme poverty.

I had for one completely forgotten about Blog Action Day, something I was super enthusiastic about when I first started blogging but have, since then, stopped participating in.  It took me a little while to remember that it was a decision I took in order to blog more organically; in other words, rather than forcing out a post on a chosen topic, I preferred blogging about things that happened to me or around me, as an extension of the conversations I was having “in real life”.

I did, however, write one post as part of October 2008’s Blog Action Day about poverty that made me pause and think.  I could feel how, on the one hand, I had forced the post out of me, and on the other, how true it remains to what I still believe today: that eliminating poverty needs the full participation of every single person, and that addressing poverty’s root causes will help solve other issues as well.

In short, I had written that, while giving people money and food and donating to various organizations as Sun YouthRenaissance and The Old Brewery Mission does help, it doesn’t solve the causes of poverty, be it at the level of the structures of society or at the level of each person, both poor and not poor.

What about now?

These days, though, I am much more interested in what we can do at the grassroots to help alleviate poverty.  The first is an attitude change.  For example, a person living in poverty is still worthwhile, is still a dignified human being, and still has amazing capacities.  They don’t need us to “save” them, but they do need to be given the opportunity to lift themselves out of poverty.

I would like to give almost the same three suggestions that I gave nine years ago in this regard.  The first is to sponsor a child so that he or she can get an education. You can go through an organisation or find a school that accepts direct donations, such as Zambia’s Banani International Secondary School.  The second was to go for a period of service, however short it may be, to assist efforts at the grassroots to provide children with a solid education.  I would suggest, in 2017, that those who cannot offer such a period of service consider mentoring young ones right here at home.  The third suggestion was to contribute to microcredit schemes (more on the topic here and here).  The updated version of that advice would also include to buy, as much as possible, local.

Final thoughts

But ultimately, I think that the real, sustainable answer to poverty on a global scale is figuring out how to redistribute wealth in such a way that no one person is ever again to be found in abject poverty, no any one person is able to have so much money that they just don’t know what to do with it.  And while it might seem like a huge challenge that you and I, mere inhabitants with no international influence, cannot possibly address, our day-to-day choices will contribute to changing the patters in our society that contribute to the current massively unequal distribution of wealth.  It’s only a matter of taking our rightful place as protagonists of change.

{ Sahar’s Blog is all about being in a constant state of learning.  So it only made sense for me to go back to all my previous posts and see how my thoughts on certain topics have changed over the last nine years.  In this new, ongoing series of posts, I’ll be rereading some of my older posts and reflecting on the same topic in light of what I’ve learned since then.  It’s going to be very interesting to see how things have changed! }

When Your Voice Isn’t Deemed Good Enough

I run into a very interesting dilemma every couple of months or so.  It goes a little something like this.

I regularly update my media kit so that I have something at the ready for the various inquiries that come my way.  I have an Excel sheet in which every couple of months I chart my blog’s numbers.  And while the numbers are steadily increasing, they are by no means increasing in direct proportion to the amount of effort I put into my blog.

I hired someone to do an assessment of my blog; based on this person’s feedback, I would be able to take a step back and fix whatever it is that was holding my blog back.  This person is an amazing professional who was wonderfully candid with me.  The conclusion: my blog’s voice isn’t what people were looking for.  So either I would have to change my voice, or I would have to content myself with the numbers that I had.

It’s something that I had considered in the past.  I want to share thoughts and reflections on personal development and community building with others because I know there are many, many around the world who ask themselves the same questions.  Similarly, I want them to start sharing and exchanging their thoughts both in the comments section and by email (with me or with each other) to further these important conversations.  So maybe I should consider writing in a way that would trigger more interest in the masses.

Long time readers of Sahar’s Blog can probably pinpoint when I did these experiments—and how massively they failed.  Because ultimately, I spent so much time trying to speak with a certain voice I thought was appealing that I lost perspective on why I was blogging in the first place.

This isn’t a lesson that is only important for bloggers to learn.  Authenticity is something that we are early on encouraged to abandon as we pursue various unattainable goals or try to fit in.  But the more we pursue these objectives, the less we have time to nurture our true selves.  The biggest challenge, of course, is that in the heated, one-minded pursuit of material wealth, we forget about our spiritual well-being.

There is thankfully a way to achieve balance.  I haven’t quite figured it out, but I do now that I am more balanced today than I was a year ago, and I intend to continue trying to become increasingly balanced.  When it comes to blogging, I know that things have changed on my blog and will continue to change as I take the lessons from popular blogs and apply them to my own as long as they correspond to what I believe in.  So for example the idea of consistency in look and style (which translated in my case with simple headers styled in a specific way) and regularity (which translated into a clear editorial calendar) have helped me focus on the ultimate goal of my blog: to begin an online conversation on how we can improve our communities.  It also makes me quite excited to see where this blog will eventually go—and hope that I will not again be distracted by statistics.

Choosing to Turn Towards the Good: A Powerful, Empowering Choice

When I twisted my ankle back in 2008, I remember how a whole new world opened up to me right where I had been living for a number of years.  On the one hand, I saw just how selfish, self-centered, and unaware people were, as they would rush by me and ignore the fact that I couldn’t get through doors, or wouldn’t get up to let me sit in the bus or the train.  On the other hand, I also saw amazing and inspiring displays of good cheer and selflessness—free rides, letting me pass in front of a long line, and rearranging the seating in a food court so that I could take the table on the side where I could stretch my leg out comfortably.

One of the things that I have always struggled with, that I struggled with during that time dealing with life with a twisted ankle, and that I continue to deal with is the choice to see the world either as half full, or half empty, of goodness.  Let’s be honest: there is a lot that is going wrong in the world, and a lot that needs some serious fixing, if not outright replacement.  But on the other hand, there is so much that is going right in the world, so much goodness that we can build on and create a better world.

It’s all the more important today, with some of the things that have happened since I first posted these Chronicles of a Twisted Ankle, to remain optimistic.  It doesn’t mean burying one’s head in the sand.  Rather, it means looking at the reality that surrounds us, but never forgetting that there are more than enough good things happening in the world that we can build on.

{ Sahar’s Blog is all about being in a constant state of learning.  So it only made sense for me to go back to all my previous posts and see how my thoughts on certain topics have changed over the last nine years.  In this new, ongoing series of posts, I’ll be rereading some of my older posts and reflecting on the same topic in light of what I’ve learned since then.  It’s going to be very interesting to see how things have changed! }

An Artist’s Life And An Artist’s Art: How Coherent Should They Be?

I wasn’t very good with titles back in 2008, and this post is solid proof of the lack of title-writing skills.  The reflection though is still something that I constantly think about: the ever-present dichotomy the work of some artists and their personal lives.  And in this case, think of “artist” in the broad sense of the word.

This reflection is especially weighing on my mind these days as I work my way through a detailed outline for the third volume of Spirit Within Club.  Is the message I am trying to convey in this series undermined by the choices that I am making in my own life?  Thankfully, I don’t seem to have obvious dichotomies, such as an artist portraying women as sex objects who back up organisations working to, say, empower young women.  But of course, there are less obvious dichotomies that litter my life.  Sometimes I ask myself: how, then, do I dare write a book for impressionable young children on a topic as important as leading a life of service?

This was one of the major questions that delayed the writing of the second volume of the series—that is, until I had a conversation with a very wise individual who pointed out that approaching the plotline itself as a learning process and not proposing formulaic solutions, but rather, focusing on the process of consulting about an issue, studying various documents on the matter, acting on any decision that is taken, and then reflecting on how well this action effected a change on the issue.

Because, in a way, if we expect the arts to be perfect, then their creator should be perfect as well—and that is an impossibility.  Yet again, it implies that our consumption of media needs to be an open yet aware one, in which we question things that are presented to us.

In light of that, I will definitely be revising the wording used in the series to ensure that I am not presenting anything as THE solution to a problem, but rather to emphasize the process that the characters are going through.  I’m sure that, in the future, I will learn more about writing fiction in a way that triggers reflections rather than imposes formulas.  Until then, I take solace in the fact that parents will hopefully reading right along with their children, and will point out to them (and maybe even email me?  Please?) the dichotomies and contradictions I have unwillingly introduced between my life and my art.

{ Sahar’s Blog is all about being in a constant state of learning.  So it only made sense for me to go back to all my previous posts and see how my thoughts on certain topics have changed over the last nine years.  In this new, ongoing series of posts, I’ll be rereading some of my older posts and reflecting on the same topic in light of what I’ve learned since then.  It’s going to be very interesting to see how things have changed! }

No More Headaches: Overcoming Dichotomies to Create Coherence

I often feel like I am only a step away from being caught up in a life defined by more money, more shopping, more outings, more, more, and more.  Why?  Because that’s the message that I feel I am being bombarded with.  When I go out, I see billboards and signs inviting me to do more and buy more; when I pick up a magazine, I see ads and articles about buying more and doing more; when I talk to people, I hear mentions about how I should be experiencing more, achieving more.

Although I strive to live a simple life, when surrounded by all this push towards “more”, I feel it’s important to ask myself: Am I fooling myself?  What if I am living the exact kind of life I don’t want to live?  Because fact is that the life we are told to live is itself ruled by contradictions.  Just think about the importance a wedding and a marriage are given—the former should be such a small, relatively unimportant part but gets so much more attention that the latter.

Why is it so Important to Deal with Contradictions in One’s Life?

Such contradictions can cause a lot of anguish, which I understand is labelled cognitive dissonance in psychology.  It seems that, on top of the “regular” cognitive dissonance is the tension that people like myself feel when they choose to lead lives governed by rules that are very different from the rules that the structures of society support.

One thing that has helped me is to identify real dichotomies that exist in my life.  This helped me eliminate false dichotomies from my mind, clearing it to deal with the real dichotomies that create a state of cognitive dissonance.  I’m hoping that by sharing my personal experience, two things will happen.  The first, that others will feel encouraged to go through this same process.  The second, that those of you who choose to go through this process will reach out to me and share your experiences, so that we can, together, share our learnings in future posts so help one another as well as inspire more to embark on a similar journey.

Dissonance-Inducing Dichotomies

One definition of coherence that I particularly like—which can be found in books such as “Concise Introduction to Logic”, Stan Baronett’s “Logic”, Roger Freedman’s “Universe: Stars and Galaxies”, and Roger Cooke’s “The History of Mathematics”—states that a dichotomy is “any splitting of a whole into exactly two non-overlapping parts, meaning it is a procedure in which a whole is divided into two parts. It is a partition of a whole (or a set) into two parts (subsets) that are jointly exhaustive (everything must belong to one part or the other) and mutually exclusive (nothing can belong simultaneously to both parts.)”

As a Bahá’í, I choose to strive to achieve a certain level of excellence.  However, this excellent comes in sharp contrast with what the discourse currently is around me about what excellence should mean.  I struggled for example between my understanding of a Bahá’í-inspired excellence at work versus excellence at work as was expected from me by my office.  My understanding of the latter is that I work to serve, which means that I work in order not just to make a living, but to contribute to the betterment of society.  So my focus was on doing the work with excellence, contributing to making my work environment a joyful and united one, and taking as good care of my patients as I could (I work in health).  But I was soon labelled as lacking ambition because I didn’t pursue better opportunities in administration; I wanted to solidify my experience working directly with patients before heading up that path, so that if/when I chose to do so, I would be able to continue serving my patients and not just create policies and procedures that looked good on paper.

When the Light Shone and I Finally Clicked

I am now at peace with the feedback I still get from my work environment and the choices that I make.  But for the longest time, I felt like I had to choose between the two: either “suffer” the consequences of trying to apply Bahá’í principles the way I understood them and never be appreciated, or engage fully in the discourse of being promoted as the highest form of appreciation.  I understand now that the two come hand-in-hand, albeit in a different and slower way.  I can continue striving for excellence in serving my patients while at the same time, consulting with those making promotion offers on how and when to take these offers in a way that is coherent with my personal objectives and with the needs of the company.  It’s a tougher path to walk in some ways, requiring a lot of courage in sharing sometimes very personal things, but one well-worth treading.

The Broader Perspective

“A false dichotomy is an informal fallacy consisting of a supposed dichotomy which fails one or both of the conditions: it is not jointly exhaustive and/or not mutually exclusive.  In its most common form, two entities are presented as if they are exhaustive, when in fact other alternatives are possible. In some cases, they may be presented as if they are mutually exclusive although there is a broad middle ground (see also undistributed middle).”  Thank you, Wikipedia!

What does this imply?  My experience is that it makes us see things as being mutually exclusive and that this view of the world creates impossible-to-resolve scenarios.  However, because these dichotomies are false, they are well-worth pouring energy into figuring them out.  Because when we talk about work, school, and service, they are not mutually exclusive. Rather they live together. They can belong simultaneously to both parts.  Actually, even more: they feed one into the other, making each one better an better.

Comfort Generating Coherence

But as another friend said, coherence is not balance; dividing up your hours in a certain way is not coherence; learning to make them feed off each other is. So figuring out how your work can feed into your service which has been reinforced by your studies is coherence. Doing school work for a certain number of hours, service for another couple of hours, and work for another couple of hours, is balance.  Choosing school work that will inform your service, applying the spiritual insights gleaned during service to your studies and work, serving at school or at work (or both!)—that’s coherence.

An Often Confusing Learning Process

I have to admit that all of this is very difficult still for me to figure out, although I have been trying to do so for years.  I have been trying to write this post for a couple of months now, and as you can tell, there are still a lot of gaps in my understanding.  But I decided to upload it anyhow, rambling, confusing, and all, because it’s important to share not just the fruits of one’s reflections, but also the process of reflection itself.

And this in itself is quite exciting: that something is starting to emerge, however indistinct, and that little by little, coherence is built.  I personally find that, even if I have a very long way to go in creating a coherence life, the little bubbles of coherence that I manage to create are so comforting and encouraging that it makes the completely incoherent parts of my life easier to live through—because I know it’s only a matter of time before coherence starts bubbling there, too.

When Lady Luck Takes Centre Stage: The Importance Of Celebrating Hard Work

We tend to view the world in a fragmented way, so much so that our minds create dichotomies where there are none.  Back in September 2008, I shared my frustration at how Olympians’ achievements were oftentimes chalked up to luck; Usain Bolt’s success, for example, was apparently downplayed because of the genetics that gave him a body designed for running.

I can’t help but wonder how this attitude affects our children.  If my child has a knack for playing the piano, I wouldn’t downplay the hours of practice that make her an advanced, skillful piano player, would I?  Quite the contrary, we are often encouraged to praise the effort that our children put into learning, and not focus on the result itself.

Similarly, Usain Bolt’s success might have begun with a genetic predisposition to running well.  But to downplay the hours that he put not just into training, but also into developing the discipline required in all related areas of his life, just might stain more than just his success.

{ Sahar’s Blog is all about being in a constant state of learning.  So it only made sense for me to go back to all my previous posts and see how my thoughts on certain topics have changed over the last nine years.  In this new, ongoing series of posts, I’ll be rereading some of my older posts and reflecting on the same topic in light of what I’ve learned since then.  It’s going to be very interesting to see how things have changed! }

Learning From The Little Ones: Daily Lessons In Perseverance

Just like so many others around me, I have been struggling with my relationship with mistakes (as reflected in this, this, and this post).  The beacons lighting the way to a better me become major obstacles to my development when they are seen as negative feedback.

Taking the time to observe a baby at play is quite a revelation.  Have you ever taken the time to watch quietly while a baby played?  I mean, really watched, like, for hours on end.  I have been doing that lately and it has hit me time and again: we are all born with a healthy relationship with mistakes.  They are a constant source of feedback that helps us achieve what we want to achieve.  A baby trying to reach for a toy doesn’t give up; he might make sounds of frustration, but again and again, he tries, taking the time between each try to consider what has happened that he didn’t get the toy, and adjusting his approach.

Sometimes he makes it, sometimes he doesn’t; as one obstacle is surmounted, another appears.  And yet the baby, despite being sometimes quite vocal about the frustration that can be felt in the face of not achieving one’s goal, keeps trying and ultimately, achieved joyous victory.

The Take Away

This is what I want my relationship to be with the process of working towards a goal.  I want to never even consider giving up; I want to vent my frustration and then go at it again, informed from my previous unsuccessful attempts.

Another important thing that I have learned from watching babies at play is this: that if you are constantly distracted from achieving your goal, you are not going to be able to put in the time and effort necessary.  When I brought this back to my own life, I realised that behind every unmet goal was a distraction.

It makes the pursuit of a voluntarily simple life all the more important.  I was talking to a very wise friend of mine who told me she had questioned everything she did in the pursuit of a simple life focused on achieving three goals: having a strong marriage, raising three healthy children, and serving the community.  She told me that by time-tracking everything she did for a few years, she came to realise that she wasted on average three hours a day on things that ultimately served no purpose within the framework of the life she wanted to lead.

So let’s learn from the babies around us; let’s simplify our lives as much as we can, stay focused on our goals, and take the feedback from all our attempts and channel them into refining our approach until we make it.

What’s Love Got To Do With It? The Importance Love In Community-Building

Learning is essential for both personal development and the building of a community.  But it’s easier said than done.  When, for example, one has spent a lot of time and poured a lot of energy into one’s education, it can be quite a blow to hear that one might be wrong.  Similarly, when one identifies oneself with a certain knowledge base, it can be quite difficult when it becomes clear that this knowledge base might be, even just in part, false.

It seems that this difficulty is in large part related to our ego, which can create a formidable barrier between us and something new, even if this something new is clearly better.  The ego is what makes us defensive in the face of something new.  The ego is what can make us lash out in anger at something new.  The ego is what can aggravate us when our ideas, previously avant-garde, now seem obsolete.

Love is one of the best lubricants to facilitate learning despite the ego.  There is the love that others have for us, making of our mistakes nothing more than a passing event that does not define our inner worth.  This same love makes others never feel superior to us because they know more than we do.  This same love makes other happy when we succeed, and proud of us when we surpass them.  There is the love that we have for others, which makes us react to them in a similar fashion.

Then there is the love we should all have for learning.  When we love learning, our identity is not wrapped anymore in what we know; it becomes wrapped in learning.  Someone presenting a new and better idea to us becomes a source of joy as we are able to adjust our knowledge for the better.  Interestingly enough, this love for learning makes us love those that are learning with us, and those that contribute to our learning.

This is why an environment imbued with love is so important to learning, and therefore, to both our personal development and to the building of our communities.

Dwelling: Reflecting Without Movement

Breaking news: everyone makes mistakes.  What a great thing, since mistakes are a great way to learn and to advance at all levels of our lives, be it materially, mentally, emotionally, or spiritually.  The tools we need to make the most of our mistakes include the art of reflection, i.e. to analyse deeply what we did, what happened, and what we can do differently when faced with a similar situation again.  Mistakes, then, as way to inspire change in our behaviour, can become a powerful contributor to the process of individual transformation.

But what if we get caught in the reflection phase?

I think that’s what dwelling is: reflection without the subsequent, essential movement of acting on what we have learned.  The challenge is that when we dwell, the reflection becomes dark, dreary, and depressing.  We focus too much on the actual mistake and we forget about its positive aspects.  And it’s something that a lot of people around me do.

How can we not get caught dwelling and instead reflect?

Regarding Goals

One big stumbling block we ourselves place on our road to change is to make massive, sweeping goals that are impossible to achieve.  For example, we shouldn’t decide to “become patient.”  After all, there is no such thing as someone who is perfectly, 100% patient—everyone has a breaking point.  So the goal to become patient is inherently impossible.

However, breaking down that goal into smaller, achievable ones makes them achievable.  In this case, one trick seems to be to train yourself to reach your breaking point later and later.  So the reachable equivalent goal becomes “I lost my patience after ten minutes.  Next time, I will try to last fifteen minutes at least before snapping.”

Now that you have a measurable goal, you can actually achieve it.  And because it’s just tough enough to make you uncomfortable but not that difficult, soon you will find that remaining patient for 15 minutes is as easy as it was to stay patient for 10 minutes, so you can then see the progress you made and set a new goal of 20 minutes.

Letting Go Of Guilt

Guilt seems to be the coffee of this generation’s emotions.  We seem to love wallowing in it, despite the fact that it makes us suffer so much.  But see, it’s vital to let go of it.  Once you have made a mistake, reflected on it, and set a goal, the guilt needs to go.  I mean come on—the mistake has been made.  What’s done is done.

One way of letting go of guilt is to find something else to think about when the guilt moves in.  One of my friends thinks about the latest piano piece he is learning to play; another thinks about recipes and dinner parties, which he loves to throws.  I think about the next blog post I am going to write.

Mantras are an easier, pre-established way of distracting one’s thoughts of guilt.  Purchasing a print copy of one’s mantra can also serve as a powerful and beautiful remind of what we are trying to achieve.

Tracking Progress

The abovementioned quantitative progress should be tracked, as the numbers can serve as a healthy reminder, on our darker days, that there is hope for us in the future if we keep trying.  But the numbers are a reflection of much deeper work that we are doing in our minds and hearts.  To keep track of those changes, journaling remains the best tool available to us.  Going back and reading my old journals has made me realise how much I have changed over the course of a handful of years, and helps strengthen my determination, even on the toughest of days, to continue forward rather than giving up.

Coffee: From Crutch to Companion

As my Instagram feed can testify, I love me a good cup of coffee.  I think that there is a great culture around coffee, such as the Swedish fika or the tendency for college students to get together in coffee shops.  I have made friends with not just the staff at Ste-Anne-de-Bellevue’s TWIGS café, but also with its other regular patrons, making living in the area a lot more fun when I cross paths with them on a day-to-day basis.

But there is a dark side to coffee—and not just for those who drink their coffee black.  It often feels like the dependence of so many on coffee is the unfortunate necessity of a society focused on productivity in terms of money-making and impressing others by having a certain personal look and certain material possessions.

In other words, there is no way we can do everything we are pressured to do in order to be considered “productive” or “successful” while getting enough rest.

I mention “rest” and not “sleep” because I don’t think the solution is to make sure to sleep eight or nine hours a night.  To feel rested implies so much more than that.  Of everything that it entails, I feel like there are two things that are routinely not taken care of.

The first is what goes on in our heads.  Think about the number of thoughts that roll around in your mind all day.  If you are like most people that I have questioned, in my usual non-scientific scientific poll, you always have a bunch of thoughts moving around, colliding, making you alternatively nervous, distracted, or even sick.  How can anyone feel rested when their mind is so, well, restless?

The second is the care we put into the health of our souls.  It takes time and effort to nurture one’s soul, time and effort that our restless minds and pressures selves often feel could be put to better use in the short-term so that in the long-term, we can take care of our souls.  In other words, we think that if we put off praying, meditating, journaling, fasting, reading Sacred Writings, so that we can take care of other things, we will have a mind that is more rested and thus be able to take care of our souls better.

I don’t know about you, dear reader, but for me, that time never comes.  If I don’t take care of my spiritual health today on account of trying to free up the time to do it later, I never take care of it.

And so, we drink coffee.  The International Coffee Organization estimates that 152.2 million bags of coffee were consumed in the 2015 calendar year.  That’s a mind-boggling 9.132 billion kilograms of the stuff.  And that’s not counting tea, chocolate, sugar, and energy drinks—all the other stimulants that we use to keep going.

I can’t help but wonder what would happen to the global consumption of coffee if it were instead part of an overall healthy lifestyle rather than one of the fuels we use to keep going.  What if we instead turned to a healthier fuel, something that filled our souls, hearts, and minds with an endless supply of “clean” energy?