Tuesday, 26 June 2012

Reflections on a Week Off

Here's a retrospective post from last week. Be warned! No politics and a bit of Islamic spirituality, so if this isn't your kinda thing, look away:

I blog reluctantly today. I look out the window and see a calm blue ocean, above which the sun slowly rouses from its night time respite. I inspire that crisp salty air, and I try to imbibe that spirit of inspiration that will carry me through a regrettably unenthusiastic post.

It truly is a beautiful day today. What makes it even more beautiful is that there are no distractions to prevent me from reflecting on it. To look at the morning sky in all its contrasting hues and feel the innate wonder of its simple perfection is awe-inspiring. I honestly cannot help but feel intimidated by the majesty of the nature out here. It’s like Nature softly whispering in my ear: you may sometimes feel big, but you are nothing more than a cog in the magnificent clock of life.  I think these instances of unpretentious humility are of the many that drive me to be a committed theist. To feel that the most raw of emotions are attached to vulnerability and not to self-glorification reminds me of the nature the Creator has instilled in me. It is one of the truest, most natural of His paths to see that we are in fact meek beings very much dependent on the environment that we live in.

I am no religious scholar, nor am I a preacher or theological authority. In fact, I view my faith as a deeply personal issue that I keep in treasured confidence with Him. After all, who can ever know the contents of another’s heart? I do not presume to impose my beliefs on other people. I do, however, believe that wisdom is a universal thing; thus when it is felt, it is prudent to share it. Therefore, in the spirit of the reflective nature of my week off work, I thought I would share with you some thoughts that were expressed on a holy night at a religious institution recently. They relate to two instances within Prophetic tradition that have to do with one’s self and one’s relationship with the outside. Whether you believe in the authenticity of religion or not, one cannot deny that it comprises perhaps the most comprehensive compendia of ancient wisdom currently available today. It thus makes sense to extract what we can from it, with the purpose of understanding ourselves better.

The first relation describes the Prophet (s) sitting on his own under a tree after an unsuccessful mission of delivering the Message of God to the people of a certain city. I may be a bit hazy on details, forgive me if I paraphrase a bit. The Prophet (s) had been mocked and abused out of the city, and now sat before God in the aftermath of his failure. He expressed his uncertainty that he was the right person to deliver the Message, that he felt so small in the face of this huge task. He begged for forgiveness for his own weakness in failing to achieve the end for which he was sent. Two of many important lessons should be highlighted from this audible expression of the Prophet’s (s) apprehension (that was overheard by an approaching man). Firstly, he doubted his own worthiness and ability to carry the Message. This reveals the level of humility and humanity that he personified: he was a man, and he knew it. He needed reassurance and reinforcement, like all people do, and he sought it from God. His humility belied the veneration and extreme esteem in which his followers held him; they loved him so much they were happy to lay down everything they had for him. The second lesson of this story, and perhaps the more pertinent, was that he looked to himself first as the source of inadequacy. How easy it is to place blame on circumstance or other people. How difficult it is to accept that we are too often the source of our own misgivings. Of course I am guilty of this myself, and vanity and ego are the root causes of refusing to accept guilt, incompetence or fault. Ironic then that this ego and this vanity becomes the root cause of my unhappiness, since true happiness is based on progression through acceptance.

The second relation describes the manner in which the Prophet (s) handled the power that was granted to him according to Islamic tradition. After the incident at Taif, in which its residents rejected and ridiculed him, the angels asked him if he wished to have city buried under a crumbling mountain. His response was, quite simply, magnanimous. He refused to allow a catastrophe to be cast upon the population of Taif, citing that they were ignorant of his position and his Message, and then he expressed hope that from that city fair-minded wisdom would eventually arise. He forgave, made excuses for and then prayed for the people that physically and ruthlessly hurt him, humiliated him and expelled him.  What is particularly astounding to me in this relation is the unbridled optimism and faith displayed in the goodness of humanity. People can do the worst of things, and those things may have a direct effect on me, but this does not make them horrible people. Sometimes, the only thing that is required to dig through all the negativity is time and knowledge. To make excuses for people is to “walk a mile in their shoes”, and we all know that this is something that all major systems of both belief and disbelief urge us to do. Condemnation is the antithesis of understanding and tolerance, and it is obvious which the correct attitude to adopt is.

So yes, my blog post this week was unusually spiritual and reflective, but it was my week off. Next post is back to politics. Egypt just had their election, and the Muslim Brotherhood’s Muhammad Mursi is the new president. Does that mean the Coptic Christian minority is under threat? Also, the ANC policy conference is currently being held at Gallagher Estate in Midrand. I’ll share some highlights and how some of the decisions may affect you.

Till next time then.

Tuesday, 12 June 2012

Job Market Perspective: Personal Experience of a Young(ish) Employee

The hallowed halls of academia always inspire a deep sense of reverence and respect for those who appreciate the value of knowledge. Institutions of learning are so much more than training grounds for monetary accumulation, or a gateway to stability and security in society. It is the place where knowledge is born, where scholarly discourse rears critical thought, where the very intellectual fabric of society is threaded. If only I had realised this during my tenure as a full-time student, I would never have left. Unfortunately, I thought a qualification in tertiary education was enough as a means to get by. Who wants anything more out of life anyway, right?
So now I am part of the world of the employed, and I know many people are getting their running shoes ready to join this world of chasing the cheese. Instead of discouraging them, I’ve decided to help out instead. Provide a bit of perspective on how to view your newly acquired degree or diploma in the context of the job market. You see, I keep my ear close to the door of the boss, so I have a fair idea of what is desired. So if you are completing your studies and looking to get into the job market, here’s some advice. Not so much of practical value, but more philosophical perspective.
When I first received my degree certificate, I saw a ticket into the exclusive world of employment. All that was required of me was to redeem my prize at any jobs outlet, and I would have a nice cushy start to my career in no time. This fantastical image pulled me through the melancholic soul-destroying funk of working at an outbound call-center, so when I received that certificate, it was like an emancipation from slavery, a hearty slap on the back from the hand of opportunity. Yes, I was excited and ready to face the working world, bright-eyed and naïve, energetic and enthusiastic. A year later, all I had found was a minimum wage substitute teachers post. Not at all what I had studied, but good enough to stop me twiddling my thumbs and dying of hunger. That year had taken the gleam off the working world entirely. The frustration of looking for a job had taken its toll on my naturally energetic and positive attitude. Teaching made me anxious and self-conscious, so my enthusiasm had waned. This is the period in which I learned the most about how really difficult it is for a young person to find employment. So I revamped my CV, changed my perspective and decided that this is where I start over.
The first thing to go was my reliance on my degree. I became a marketer of myself. After all, employers look for people, not a list of qualifications and competencies. So I focussed on my personal strengths, my own ambitions and my passions. Then I substantiated them with instances and examples from my own life. For example, “I am approachable and I communicate well” is substantiated by feedback I got from my time as a call-center agent. My perspective on a degree changed from being a ticket into the world of employment, to just a ticket to see someone that could possibly help me become employed. Nothing more than fulfilling a prerequisite, like getting a 50% class mark. All it does is get you into the exam, it doesn’t mean you have passed the subject.
Second to go was my arrogance and my stubbornness to find work in the field I studied. I asked myself some serious questions. If the boss made me do filing or cleaning or making coffee for a year, would I be dejected, insulted and angry? Or would I view it as an opportunity to gain a reputation for myself as being reliable and trustworthy? I adopted the latter attitude; I would be willing to do what it takes to grow my reputation from the very bottom. Money is a product of value, and growing my own value became my priority. Working in jobs that I may not have studied for also became useful, I made it one of those instances in my CV that showed I was willing to learn new things and I was able to gain competency in a short period.
Thirdly, I threw away the notion I had carried that companies should take me as I am. That mantra is for relationships, not for the people that could possibly provide you with a livelihood. I decided that I would let it be known that I had ambitions to continuously progress. Learning new competencies, taking up courses part time: whatever made me more versatile and able without interfering with my primary work. I decided on progression as a mantra for my life, which happened to spill into my profession. After all, it is highly unlikely that anyone would want to stay in a single entry-level job for the rest of their professional life. Take initiative to speed up this process.
Finally, I applied passion. This was the hardest thing to do, because I am in all honesty not passionate about my job. I realised that my passion actually lies elsewhere. So I had to be creative. To me, fields of knowledge are all interlinked; and the higher up the chain you go, the more blurry the lines between disciplines become. For example, if you are an engineer, you may decide to work on water-systems for the rest of your career. But if you have ambition, you will need some managerial capabilities as well. Then if you get to the top, or have your own business, you have to become competent at the laws and legislation regulating the business you are in. Truly successful people are able to remove the segmentation of fields of knowledge, and view knowledge as an interlinked whole. So I have managed to connect and justify my passion within the scope of what I am doing by viewing my job as fulfilling one necessary aspect to fulfilling my passion, the aspect of technical ability.
I sincerely hope my musings on the value of perspective in the job market finds some resonance. The searches for employment and the progression within employment are huge mental barriers that cause apprehension and unhappiness in many people. My experiences are by no means comprehensive or authoritative, but they have helped me. If your experiences taught you anything, share it here, so we can all benefit. Otherwise, have an awesome weekJ.

Monday, 4 June 2012

Racist Supremacism ALIVE: The Spear and the Sudanese

I have to admit, I am pretty sick of hearing about The Spear. It’s an old story now. I devoted a small passage to my perspective on it two weeks ago in this blog, expressing that it was in bad taste, much like Madonna raising a machine gun at a concert in Israel and calling for peace. It isn’t illegal and the right to freedom of expression is being exercised, but it is distasteful and insensitive in the context of occupation and settler violence that has plagued the region. My complaint, however, had nothing explicitly to do with racism. So when Gwede Mantashe spat out the race card at the protest rally, I was disturbed. Racism in South Africa is a complex issue with a helluva lot of baggage, and the word should never be thrown around too loosely. Is The Spear racist? Or was the ANC just bitter over hurt egos?

According to the Ferris State University’s Jim Crow Museum of Racist Memorabilia, “black men have been portrayed negatively through images in the media and have since struggled to define themselves contrary to images” such as the brute, uncivilised tribesman, and intellectually inferior. “These racist images are meant to demean the Black man’s image. Take the Brute for example: innately savage, destructive, physically strong, hyper-sexual, and criminal”. These were the pretexts under which black men and women have been kept in slavery and bondage in places like the Caribbean, the US and South Africa. I highlight the hyper-sexual part for the reason that it was probably this element of racist caricature that is most easily identified in The Spear.
Simple equation on why The Spear is racist.
The second element of The Spear is the contemporary, iconic manner in which Jacob Zuma is portrayed. Similar to recent portraits of revolutionaries like Che Guevara, dramatic contrasts and bold colours paint an almost heroic picture of the subject. In the case of The Spear, however, this is “visual sarcasm”, satire. The painting basically says: The ANC sees Zuma as an iconic revolutionary, but Zuma must be exposed for what he truly is, a brute in a suit. This is all good and well, but the problem with exposing his phallus for this purpose is that it feeds into an ancient, colonialist stereotype that black men have suffered through internationally for centuries. That black men are amoral brutes that are sexually hyper-active and have no self-control. The artist may not have intended for the painting to be racist (they say you should never judge the painter, only the painting); in fact, some even argue that JZ actually coincidentally fits that stereotype. But considering our own painful past, the fact that the painter is white, and the Goodman Gallery is owned by white people; good judgment should have won out. Surely they should have known that the pain caused to millions of black people due to their racial stereotyping and discrimination would cause them to become justifiably angry? I think it lacked a bit of cultural sensitivity.

Keeping to this blog’s “racism” theme, black Sudanese immigrants in Israel are being socially persecuted because they are “stealing jobs, increasing the crime rate and threatening Zionist nationalism” (the crime rate within the refugee community is actually lower than that in the general population). I hope with all my heart you are as disgusted with this as I am. The Knesset, or Israeli parliament, is considering methods of extraction of these refugees (sounds like ethnic cleansing to me) by different methods, including deporting them back to their war-torn country. The refugees themselves call this trip back home “the trip of death” because the chances of survival through it are slim. Israelis have taken to the streets, torching apartments (attempted lynching?), beating up refugees and sacking their shops. And all this in Tel Aviv, supposedly the most tolerant democratic city in all of the Middle East. Yeah. Sure.

I don’t think it’s an inherently evil thing to categorise people into races. Our minds are naturally conditioned to categorise. In fact, we even do it to ourselves, whether culturally, religiously, or socially. The problem comes in when we bring in a supremacist element to our categories. Once we start thinking “I am better than you because I am..”, we automatically switch on that narcissist that stems from our own insecurities. Race categorisation only becomes racism when there is supremacism involved, and if this influences the way we treat people, then we are part of the problem. Supremacism is an ancient evil that we will never completely defeat, but if we can base our treatment of people as a function of their individuality and not of their race, we can push it to the fringes of our society, where it belongs.