New Year reflections

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This year feels a bit different. I am more reluctant to make New Year resolutions and I don’t care to spend time spent wishing and liking Facebook posts. I have eaten a shameful amount of cakes and sweets and strangely that does not bother me either.

The only thing that have started getting a bit on my nerves is the amount of times I have been told that I should have a second baby or asked when I am planning to have a second child (because apparently  now is the time),  or had people compare my weight to last year (especially to tell me that I look “healthier” now). I  reached the unheard of point of stop smiling and nodding politely  when someone is annoying. I experimented a couple of times by trying to be less social at family get-togethers just to see how the others manage without my oh so appropriate comments. Even uncomfortable silences bother me less now.

So yes, this year I do feel that i am getting older. And naturally my criticisms and observations extend to my own faults and the negatives of my character which i try to acknowledge fairly.

But I guess this is just part of the annual Greek family gatherings,for which i am thankful. All the great home made food and wine, loud comments, gestures and grimaces make a great evening if you manage to navigate the conversation away from politics, the financial crisis, people’s children and unnecessary gossip, and instead dig out some interesting story from the past or a family anecdote of beloved family members that are no longer here.

And laugh off the Christmas family dinner tension with a glass of wine and another piece of baklava. One should be grateful to have a family that annoys and embarrasses them. (Provided that you fight back firmly, stoically and with a slight touch of passive aggressiveness).

Happy New Year everyone!

“Conquer your Fear and you will conquer Death” Escaping Reality or Challenging our Belief System?

Lately I have been thinking of all the people I know back home that deliberately escape reality. By reality I mean all the practicalities of life-nowadays mostly related to the loss of money, acquisitions or social status-that went wrong and now appear to have dire consequences on our lives. Of course Life is not about money and our reality should not be about taxes and debts.

In debt ridden Greece a growing number of people, unable to control how things will turn out in their lives, appear to choose to sweep problems under the carpet. After all maybe what the Science guys say about perception based reality might be true and perhaps the problem will just disappear once you turn your attention away from it?? Or something like that. (Higgs boson bottom line interpretation by those of us who never had any idea of what particle physics is saying).

Truth is we all have different ways to cope with things. Our minds process information in different ways and we subconsciously or consciously choose our defense mechanisms. In this sense every single piece of information out there is perceived by each and every one of us in a different way. We could never go into another person’s mind and experience their perception. We can never know what they truly fear or feel in its totality even if we spend hours and hours psychoanalyzing them by listening them trying to explain. In this sense what we call our gut instinct about people can often give us information that we cannot logically justify.

The devastating financial crisis has brought radical changes as to how we see our closest family members, friends, colleagues, or our selves. It has changed the way we see society and life. It has changed the way we visualize the future, and it has altered our value and belief system. People cannot easily adapt to radical lifestyle changes. There are those who often prefer to shut down and dwell in the past or in a better place on their minds and hearts. A growing number of people around me, at the expense of others as society rushes in to remind us, would rather hold on to these illusions for a bit longer. Maybe if they let go they feel they have nowhere else to go.

There might be a feeling of sadness when you observe, but in the mind of the object/person there is probably peace. Peace after all, like fear, exists primarily in the mind. Is it real peace?? Society critically attacks. Will it be real peace when the bank comes knocking on your door and claim your house? Or when you realize that despite waking up every day at 7 and go to what you once called work you have neither income nor real work to do. Probably there is no way to escape what is happening in the country right now. And you will wake up one day feeling it. They want you to feel it after all.

No matter what happens, the bottom line will remain the same: it will never really be about the bank balance, the house or the car. What will matter most will be the family, the companionship, the love, the laugh you shared that night. It will be about the good time you had and about how good you felt. It will always be about those nice experiences that the chemicals in your brain or the energy of the place or the people created for you that moment in time. You will never be sure what it was exactly, but you will hold on dearly to it.

My conscience says deal with it with Dignity and that is how lots of people do it right now. But when it gets too upsetting, too much, too devastating, too ugly, sweep it under the carpet and refuse to be sad. Refuse to be overwhelmed by fear and defeat. Like everything else in life, these too, are part of the same illusion.

My experience with NGOs and “institutionalized” Help

In the past I have spoken a bit harshly about Ngos. I intend to keep it that way. I suspect that the last thing the human species needs right now is somebody to pick up the pieces. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t support turning a blind eye to pain, loss, or grief. Quite the opposite. I just think that the whole concept of humanity and humanitarian action can no longer be isolated in strict institutional frameworks, manipulated as a political instrument to keep things on an even keel.

Personal virtue, morals, kindness and integrity. These are principles that do not interest anyone anymore in politics or in most professions as a matter of fact. Somehow they are seen as dated principles, linked to dying religious beliefs and truth is they carry an innuendo of embarrassment as well. Yes, embarrassment, because kindness is seen as a form of weakness. Try writing in a job application Cover Letter something like “I am an honest or just person” instead of the equivalent of “I am a corporate slave”. You don’t like where this is going? Ok, let’s move on.

My experience working for a prominent Greek NGO which in this blog I call The Public Sector for obvious reasons has been an interesting one. Its rampant bureaucracy and shocking deliberate isolation had created a surreal Orwellian landscape where extremes of Kindness and Evil existed side by side, making no pretenses. At the same time there was a total absence of grey zones in which a somehow healthy, productive, professional environment can contain the beast inside of us. In there you were likely to meet the most benevolent souls, often ordered around by the ones whose personal demons had found the most fertile ground to run wild.

The good people you met in there were almost definitely good by nature, and their goodness in this restrained and isolated environment was maximized perhaps analogically to the levels of the inhumanity of others. These kind people were kind in all aspects of their lives and obviously treated their friends, spouses and colleagues with respect. Their work helping people in this sense never ended. It was not a mission, a project or a plan but essentially a way of life.

I am thinking that, in fact, this is the only way to go ahead. You simply cannot “help” people 9-5. You can certainly try, but in the long run will not get very far. And once you try to institutionalize kindness, compassion and humanity then you are more likely part of a society that has devalued humanitarian principles.

Another simple example can be drawn from my experience in first world Sweden. A few months living there and I took up a Language Volunteer role for an Ngo helping Immigrants coming from EU countries.(not necessarily EU citizens). At that time, despite my legal rights as the wife of someone who worked full time in Sweden, the bureaucracy was preventing me for months from getting a Personal Number. (The Holy Grail of Survival in Sweden).The majority of Language Volunteers had similar profiles and stories to share: they were mostly well educated multilingual South European (and not only) women who had moved in Sweden to be with someone, either that someone was a husband, a boyfriend or family in general.

They all had more or less the same legal issues that caused great frustration and strain in their lives and relationships. In fact, many of them were not much better off from the immigrants visiting the Center to get food, shelter, clothing, Internet, Communication and legal advice. However what they needed most was a piece of solid legal advice about their pending cases and the shady laws that supposedly covered their rights as EU citizens. I for example turned to the Human Rights lawyer in the Center to ask a simple routine question about how I can deal with my inexplicably pending case. Instead I received no reply. The irony was that, as volunteers, we were asked to perform a number of such phone calls to help visitors to the Center. But we could not get further support for our own cases if we did not give up our status as volunteers and instead ask support as immigrants. Instead we were strongly encouraged every week to attend Free Counseling that was offered to all volunteers. Ironically, venting about our problems for an hour every Tuesday was fully funded and guideline approved, while getting a 5 minute practical advice about how to solve them was not.

Which leads me again to where I started. Personal virtue, morals, kindness and integrity. Can you really be humanitarian by the book? Or does the sole act of helping others conflict with the way our whole system works? Education, experience, planning, funding are always very important. But they are useless when people-leaders especially- lack charisma and integrity.

I don’t object to systematic efforts. But please bring Goodness back in the field and people who genuinely want to help others.

The Things a Pregnant Woman does not want to hear

The things that people say to pregnant women are almost impossible. Pregnancy, a once normal condition that rarely invited comments, has now become this huge deal that everyone in the outside feels they have to relate somehow and express some kind of opinion, comment or life view.

Googling the most common things that bother pregnant women I did not really find among the most popular reasons anything that offensive or shocking. As a pregnant woman today you should not really take offence easily but rather kindly try to see where every person is coming from. There is such an abundance of judgment around pregnancy out there that If you pay attention to every little thing you will drive yourself crazy or completely neurotic.

Weight gain remarks, unsolicited medical advice or assumptions about your postpartum life challenges (all often joined by uninvited belly touching), are things you should generally learn to shake off easily. We unfortunately live in times where pregnancy is seen as a lifestyle choice, as the Daily Mail “sidebar of shame” would agree. We see a pregnant woman in a voyeuristic gaze and instead of wishing her all the best and going on with our lives we try to spot that hard toll pregnancy has taken on her life, body and mindset.

I personally learnt not to mind weight gain remarks. When I first heard “Now that you grew fat you look like your mother” (Double compliment for me and my mother) by an old relative I did mind for a while, but then I put things in perspective. If it matters to him, it does not matter to me.

 I still have to admit there seems to be some secret guilty pleasure some people feel in seeing a person who walked all their lives in skinny jeans now waddling down the street. It is the same guilty pleasure that the Daily Mail sidebar brings to people’s lives.

So is your weight gain just baby or body fat as well?” Another old relative asked in deep concern.

Funnily enough, I do not care about that either. For one thing, there is people out there who genuinely and in all seriousness have these concerns. Give them a break.

What I do mind is horror stories. Anecdotal stories about miscarriages, birth defects and the like are things that pregnant women do NOT want to hear. You might have a sudden itch to share a horror story with your pregnant friend. Don’t do it. Keep your horror stories to yourself. Don’t even say that horrible word to her, in any sentence or context. It is possible that it might haunt her.

If you have to say something, you don’t even have to pay her a compliment about how good she still looks if you do not feel that is true. (Even though that would give her a secret joy that would make her day).

Just look at her and tell her with certainty: I am sure that everything is going to be just fine”