Tag Archives: Personal Development

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.

Leggo’ Of Your Ego: The Difference between Perfectionism and Excellence

Throughout most of my life (or at least, as far as I can remember), I have been surrounded by people who are never content with what they have achieved; they always want to do a little more, and do it a little better.

I have noticed two broad sub-categories amongst such people: those who take this opportunity to become better as a joyful path they embark on with much gusto, and those who are so hard on themselves that they become bitter, angry, or try to achieve their goals at any cost.

It seems like these two broad sub-categories mark the two ends of a continuum of behaviour in individuals who try to be the best they can: those who make it about themselves, and those who make it about the journey.

In other words, those who do it to satisfy their ego, and those who do it for the sake of becoming a better person.

Those who work on becoming better for the sake of their ego seem to be perfectionists.  They can accept nothing but perfection.  And because perfection is unachievable, they are never happy, and seem to be at increased risk of negative mental, emotional, spiritual, and physical health outcomes.

Those who work on becoming better for the sake of becoming a better person seem to be lovers of excellence.  They accept nothing but a whole-hearted effort.  And because it is possible to give oneself 100%, they are deeply happy despite a state of constant effort.  And although they are extremely busy and always in touch with what their approach is lacking, they seem to be at increased rick of positive mental, emotional, spiritual, and physical health outcomes.

When one desires excellence for its own sake, one is inspired to try and try again.  When one desires perfection as a way to prove oneself, the path becomes a burden.

Being a perfectionist is having both high standards and an ego, which leads to a lot of frustration. But being excellent means having high standards and being humble, which leads to you constantly trying without guilt tripping.

It might seem like I am belaboring the point, but I feel it is crucial to know which of these two types of individuals we are, and to seek advice and guidance from those whose approach is similar to ours, as each approach begets a specific set of advice.  I have a friend who draws much joy from the process of becoming a better person.  She doesn’t mind “falling” because of a big mistake; rather, she feels grateful for the opportunity to get up, dust herself off, and try again.  She is friends with someone who advises her constantly to “take it easy,” a piece of advice she has told me really irritates her and causes as lot of tension in their relationship.  But once we thought about the reasons why her friend gives her this advice and the reasons why it isn’t compatible with her view of life, she was able to focus on the love with which the advice is given.  Needless to say, the friendship is doing a lot better.

On a larger scale, the concept of being happy with a constant state of striving for excellence has major implications with the way we learn, be it in formal or informal settings.  While excellence implies striving to become constantly better at something, perfectionism implies constantly trying to be beyond reproach.  It’s easy to see, then, how the latter can cause distressing environments of learning.  When it comes to personal development and community building, then, striving for excellence is, to me, the obvious path that must be taken in order to advance in harmony.

Parenting and Marital Happiness: Not Mutually Exclusive

I am a bit of a nerd, just in case you haven’t noticed yet.  I love reading studies and reflecting on the implications of the results found.  However, I also can be quite harsh when it comes to studies that demonstrate a combination of laxity in their data analysis and over-confidence in their interpretation.

I recently got very annoyed (to put it mildly) at the author of an article I came across on the effects of parenting on marriage.  Just writing about this article is making my blood boil!  Posted on the Fortune website, it shares the result of research into marriage satisfaction when a couple has children, and other related data.

It’s not the results that bother me—well, they do, but only in that it is something that needs to be addressed.  What bothers me is that articles like this one use data collected on a limited sample population to perform an analysis that ignores so much of the context within which the data was gathered that the conclusions can only be disheartening and disempowering.  So the results are being presented not as a hypothesis’ applicable for a certain population, but rather as a universal truth.  Similarly, the results are presented as the only outcome possible rather than one of many possible outcomes.

Of course this is wrong on many levels.

The Reality of Becoming Parents

Having children brings about, of course, a huge change in a couple’s life, but rather than analysing why it is so, the overall conversation around this topic—and the conclusion this article ends with—draws a line of causality between having children and unhappy marriages.  What we are failing to do is to look at the context within which having children brings about unhappy marriages.  When we place this relationship within a vacuum, we ignore a wealth of other causes and, therefore, a significant number of solutions that are within our reach to make sure that the decision of having children strengthens our marriages.

Failing to do so limits our view of reality and, most importantly, robs us of the ability to figure out how to achieve a different outcome.

Some of the Things That Are Being Ignored: Marital Strength Pre-Parenting

First off, it would be interesting to analyse how strong the marriage of “miserable” parents was in the first place—there is, after all, a known, steady breakdown of the sacredness and importance of marriage.  The number of couples getting married with the thought that, should things become tough, there is a way out (a.k.a. divorce) is increasing.

The influences of society that encourage a self-centered, ego-driven view of the world also sap marriages of the selflessness both parties need to evince to make a marriage strong and happy.  Furthermore, the drive for material wealth saps the couples of energy to focus on more important things; instead of having dinner together as a family, for example, parents will be doing overtime or answering work emails at the dinner table.

What would happen to the data if we were to focus only on couples who act on a belief that marriage is sacred, on couples that do not believe in divorce as an option, who strive to be selfless, and who are not focused on the increase of material wealth?

Some of the Things That Are Being Ignored: The Breakdown of the Extended Family Unit and of Community Life

Second, it would be interesting to study the relationship between how “miserable” parents have become over the years and the breakdown of the extended family unit, as well as the breakdown of community life in general.  Both of these traditional forms of support are known to provide the best protection against many negative life events and experiences, including an unhealthy marriage and weak parenting.  Are parents who have a strong and positive relationship with their extended family as unhappy in their marriage as those who do not have such a relationship?  What of parents who are members of a vibrant community versus those who do not have strong connections within theirs?

Some of the Things That Are Being Ignored: The Decline of Our Spiritual Health

Third, it would be interesting to correlate the steady decline in a strong spiritual life with the increase in how “miserable” parents have become.  Many studies have shown that an individual’s overall happiness is intimately tied with his or her level of spiritual dedication and discipline.  It isn’t too far of a stretch to wonder if “miserable” parents are less engaged in their spiritual lives than those who are happy.

Parenting and Marital Happiness: How This Article Should Have Read

The saddest thing about this article is that it provides a wealth of information on how parents can have a happy marriage—if only the data was analysed through a more optimistic lens.  It also would be so much more of an empowering read if the article focused on how the data it presents can be used to change the fact that so many couples state being less happily married after having children.  Because fact remains that there are many parents out there who do become happier once they have children.  Why not focus on helping all parents get to that point, rather than making the miserable parents the norm?

Why I Decided To Take Precious Time Away From My Baby To Start Blogging Again

My blogging journey—an incredible, fulfilling one that has given me so much—started almost nine and a half years ago right here in Sahar’s Blog.  I never intended to stop blogging—that is, until I had a baby.

I had always intended to take a short hiatus when each of my children was born.  When my first one was born last year, I took what I thought would be a short hiatus.  But I love the life with my little one so much that I pushed it back once, then twice, and then again for a third time.  I was seriously considering pushing my return to blogging for another couple of months as my beautiful baby went from adorable newborn to hilarious and charming infant.

Perhaps then it will not come as a surprise that it is for her that I am returning to blogging.  Sahar’s Blog has already wanted to be an attempt to contribute to positive online conversations, the ones that translate into action dedicated to the mental, emotional, and spiritual improvement of each reader as well as to the betterment of their communities.  In light of the recent sharp and significant increase in hateful conversations, both online and in real life, I couldn’t abandon the platform that took me so long to build up.  It seems much more important, both for my little one and all the others of her generation, that I start blogging again, to contribute to the positive conversations that are happening on community building, personal development, sexism, racism, and spirituality.

And so, as we ring in a new year, I’m happy to be returning to a wonderful world where, alongside assiduous readers who send me so many emails (and who hopefully will start sharing at least some of their thoughts in the comments section—you know who you are!), I will be attempting to have uplifting conversations that will inspire thoughtful and consistent action.

To my little girl, who might one day read this: I am going to have a little less time with you from now on, but I am spending it paving the way for a world I hope will be much healthier for you and your friends to grow in.