Saturday, 31 May 2008

"He who controls others may be powerful, but he who has mastered himself is mightier still"

They say that travel increases your self confidence. I assumed that was because you spend a lot of time travelling on your own in foreign lands with the accompanying language barriers and being able to do that makes you feel more capable etc etc. And it does of course but I think it’s more than that.

When you’re living away from home, thousands of miles from your normal support networks, you have no choice but to develop a relationship with yourself. You may have other people around and I certainly made some very good friends out there, but no matter how wonderful they might be, they’re new friends and at the end of the day, you have no-one from your past, no-one who knows you, who can predict and pre-empt how you’re feeling and you are very much on your own. That’s different to feeling lonely but you are effectively alone and that’s when you start to develop a relationship with yourself that most people go through life neglecting.

In developing that relationship, you think more about who you are, who you want to be, who you DON’T want to be - and hopefully you make changes that are right for you. Being in command of who you are is, I believe, what increases self confidence more than anything.

I suppose one of the big changes for me is that I AM now much more in command of myself and, as a result, a good bit more confident. I don’t feel the need to be like other people in order to gain their approval, I’m happy to say ‘vive la difference’ and I expect them to do likewise.

I’ll give you an example. I am often told I’m “too soft” and I need to “toughen up” and whilst I agree in some respects AND those of you who say it will be pleased to hear that in many ways I HAVE toughened up, I have come to the conclusion (here’s the profound bit) that if I want to be soft, I’ll be soft, okay?

You see, to my mind, for “soft” you can read respectful, or nice, or courteous or sometimes, the word “soft” can even be used to describe someone who goes as far as being friendly!

Putting the record straight about tuk tuk drivers

I left Scotland having read all about how you had to be careful of hawkers and traders and tuk tuk drivers in Sri Lanka. And I thought this would be my greatest challenge – to learn to say no without feeling guilty. It was tough at times I admit because occasionally someone DID try to con me. The advice someone gave me at that time was to assume everyone was ‘on the make’. If I had taken that advice it would have soured my whole experience. You can’t go through life not trusting people. Besides, I can honestly say that the majority of the aforementioned treated me with nothing but kindness and respect.

The tuk tuk drivers are often accused of trying to rip people off because they’re white. It’s not quite like that. The truth is that they usually try to charge more if you’re white because they assume you’re a tourist and can afford to pay more than the average Sri Lankan and guess what – it’s true. If I were a tourist on a two week trip to Sri Lanka and I was charged the equivalent of £3 for a ride that would have cost me £10 at home but subsequently discovered that a local resident might only pay £1 for it, would I feel ripped off? Of course I wouldn’t, I’d feel that I’d got a bargain and I’d reckon the driver must be struggling to survive if he normally only charges £1. Obviously I wasn’t a tourist, I was living there for 3 months and had very little money so I expected local prices and in the main, that’s what I got. Maybe one time in ten, I’d have to haggle for it but you can’t blame them for trying can you?

Beach traders

The others who get a bad name and who I was often advised to ignore (“don’t even look in their direction” someone advised me as he dismissed one with a flick of his hand) were the beach traders. “They’ll only try to sell you something.” Well of course they want to sell you something, that’s their livelihood – a livelihood that for most of them was wiped away (for many, along with their families) in the Boxing Day tsunami of 2004. I wonder how my friend (we’ll call him “the flicker”) would have picked himself up from that one.

I never really could understand this attitude. After all, the reason we were out there was to work on livelihood development for, amongst others, people who had lost theirs in the tsunami. So you’d expect a certain amount of empathy to exist wouldn’t you? Of course it didn’t mean I had to buy something from every one of them but I can’t apologise for being courteous about it. Why should I? And the advantage to me was that I actually struck up some nice friendships with some very interesting and lovely people I’d been advised to ignore. The guy who's pictured here sells "medicine man" who is hand made and apparently, does away with the need for a doctor!

At times before I was “fully in command” of me, I felt almost apologetic for being “soft” and I even heard myself promising on one occasion to “ignore” them in future. But as I watched “the flicker” guy flick his hand dismissively at a very friendly, dignified beach trader who was, after all, only offering to sell postcards at VERY good prices, I realised that I had nothing to apologise for. Except, perhaps, for allowing someone I barely knew to influence my behaviour – and someone whose behaviour I had no time for at that!

Cool to be kind

Of course I can't always live up to it but I want to share with you a quote I have always liked. It's from the Lebanese born American poet Kahlil Gibran:

“Tenderness and kindness are not signs of weakness and despair but manifestations of strength and resolution."

Getting there in the end!

So, I realise 42 years to learn that it’s actually okay to be yourself makes me a slow starter but hey, I got there in the end. I think as I said at the start, being away from my normal life and my friends and family gave me the distance and the time to stop and think about all of this and to develop a relationship with myself. And despite not being a fan of navel gazing, it doesn’t do you any harm from time to time. I don’t imagine I’ll always do the right thing in future and I’m not claiming to be perfect but I think I have finally got the confidence to trust my own judgement and be in full command of being me!

The quote in the post title is from the Chinese taoist philosopher Lao Tzu