Thursday, May 28, 2015

Break Through With Gratitude

My childhood was not exactly typical. As a result, the circumstances of my formative years instilled in me the practice of never taking anything for granted and of trying to appreciate everything in life—no matter how small. 

I was born and raised in the eastern suburbs of Beirut with a majority-Christian population, where right-wing political parties and militias dominated on the ground. My mother originates from Zahle, a large Christian town in the middle of the Bekaa Valley where a majority of Muslim and left-wing militias dominated during the war. Zahle was put under siege several times and paid an enormous price in term of casualties and destruction over the war period, roughly 1975 to 1990.

When my uncle (Mum’s brother) passed away in the 1980s, the situation in the Bekaa was relatively calm, so my parents decided that we would all go to my uncle’s funeral. All seven of us—Mum, Dad, my two sisters and brothers and I—rented two taxis to go to Zahle and give final respects to my dead uncle. On our way back from the funeral, however, a military road-block was suddenly put on the highway from Zahle to Beirut. Cars were checked and some people, mostly young men, were pulled out and were told to stand aside. We got worried sick! My two brothers were in their early 20s. Although they were never involved in any type of political activity, it was difficult to predict at that time what these militias wanted. They held lists of names for people they were looking for. “Maalouf” is a very big clan in Lebanon, and thousands carry this surname so obviously some of “us” were active during the war. Luckily, my two brothers’ names were not common names and were not included on that black list.  

That evening, we were all quiet at dinner and grateful to our parents for having given us some uncommon names! Seeing all of us at the table that evening was a real blessing and filled my heart with gratitude.

Looking back on those 15 long years living in a war zone, I see that growing up in such circumstances deeply affected me, shaped my very personality, and taught me how to break through difficulties by appreciating life’s most basic gifts: being alive, being in good health and being surrounded by family and friends.

Mercifully, we don’t all live in a country torn by civil war, but we all have other kinds of war to deal with. Keeping a grateful attitude makes us see the positive in every situation—even those that are ugly and violent. 

"Gratitude gives us the drive and energy to get up, shake off the dust, rebuild what was broken and move on with our lives."

To read similar stories, please check my co-authored book Energize Your Leadership: Discover, Ignite, Break Through. It was written by 16 authors with one common goal—to inspire people to rethink their personal and professional attitudes. Sixteen real-life stories were composed for readers who want to excel and make a difference in the lives of their students, colleagues and so on. The book is divided into four parts: “Energize Yourself,” “Energize Others,” “Energize Your Workplace” and “Energize Your Future.” Each chapter’s content stands on its own, so the book can be read in any order. Furthermore, all chapters follow the same framework: the author’s personal narrative, the lesson learned from the story, a few key questions for the reader to ponder, and finally some action steps based on the theme of each chapter. 

Get your copy by clicking here.

* Artwork by Maria Matta

Tuesday, December 2, 2014

How Well Do We Know our Youth?

A famous computer graphic artist, Hiroyuki Hayashida, recently visited our university. Mr. Hayashida is renowned for his numerous animations such as Final Fantasy 12 and 13. His visit to our university involved a two-hour workshop which was dedicated to students majoring in Computer Graphics and Animation. A lecture given during the lunch break was open for anyone to attend.

As I was very busy with my department’s activities, I did not have the time to sufficiently advertise the lecture. I just sent broadcast e-mails about it. When the hour of the lecture approached, I became very tense; I was worried that the turnout would be disappointing. From previous experiences, I know that students are generally reluctant to skip their lunch break just to attend a lecture.

A couple of minutes before the lecture, the hall started to fill in, row after row. Very quickly, all 150 seats were occupied. The hall was so full that some students sat on the stairways and others stood on the doorways, blocking newcomers from getting in.

What happened? I had totally underestimated the passion of our students for Japanese culture. I grew up in the ‘60s and was a big fan of Western cartoons such as “Tom and Jerry.” But for many Lebanese children growing up in the ‘70s and ’80s, the ultimate heroic figure was “Grendizer,” a giant robot in an animated Japanese series—or anime. “Grendizer” and other Japanese series dubbed into Arabic transformed a generation of our youth into anime fans.

Manga and anime have distinctive styles, featuring characters with enormous eyes and spiky hair. What differentiates anime from Western cartoons is the drama. Although anime is no longer dubbed into Arabic and screened locally, Lebanese fans can access it on satellite TV and online. The devoted fans of manga and anime, known as “otaku people,” are so addicted to these Japanese series they have started to enroll in Japanese classes.

When Mr. Hayashida’s open lecture ended, a large part of the audience queued to take pictures with our invitee and to get his signature. These are the Lebanese otaku people.

We normally complain about not being able to attract our students to attend general lectures. It seems that the problem stems from the fact that we have a poor understanding of what attracts our youth. This lecture was a mind-opener to me and taught me three good lessons:
  • Our youth have powerful potentials; we must be courageous enough to change our old ideas and practices so that we may direct these potentials toward good and useful purposes.
  • We must allow today’s youth to be themselves and have their own attitudes and choices, not those of their predecessors—otherwise our communication with them is blocked.
  • Learning about our youth comes as a result of listening. To listen well, we must have empathy, and our empathy will grow as we learn more about the youth.

“The most basic of all human needs is the need to understand and be understood. The best way to understand people is to listen to them.” ― Ralph G. Nichols
 * I would like to thank my friend Richard Pennington for his most valuable comments!
* Enclosed photo of Square Enix can be found here

Tuesday, October 7, 2014

Knowing and Doing What Matters

I was recently involved in a Twitter chat relating to bullying at school. While this problem could have a devastating effect on children, people of any age can be affected by it. Bullying, intimidation and being picked on come in many different forms.

I can recall a story that happened to me while living in the UK in the 1990s. After completing my master’s degree, my thesis advisor offered me a job as a research assistant under his supervision. I was the main bread winner in our household since my husband had already started his Ph.D. and had limited financial support for his research. I accepted this job offer without thinking twice about its conditions. Covering our expenses was foremost on my mind.

So instead of giving me a proper contract that lasted a year, my advisor (I will call him Dr. D. hereafter) offered shorter contracts ranging from 3 months to 6 months with the same excuse: “If you work well and deliver the goods, you will be given another contract.” The situation remained like that for a period of 3 years until one day I received a call from Dr. C., the graduate students’ supervisor. Dr C. wanted to know why I was not registered for a Ph.D. although I had been working as a researcher for 3 consecutive years in the same department. I replied frankly that I couldn’t afford to pay for my Ph.D. fees while supporting my husband. He then replied, “But you don’t have to pay for your fees if you are a research assistant. Didn’t your advisor tell you that?” I was embarrassed to tell him the truth about my short contracts. He then replied, “Go back to your advisor and tell him to register you now in the Ph.D. program. That’s your right.” I did what Dr. C. asked me to do and my advisor accepted my request at once. He could not refuse because he knew that he had been abusing his power and that if it became known that he had perpetrated such an incident, his career at the university could be ruined.

So why did Dr. D. behave like that, and why was I silent about it?

  • I was a foreigner and didn't know what my rights were as a graduate assistant and student.
  • It had nothing to do with me. Dr. D. was very insecure and had difficulties trusting people
  • As I was in a powerless position, I could not officially complain about my abusive supervisor. I needed this work, and there was no safe way to complain and no implemented process by which to fix problems between students and advisors.
  • Never in my mind did I intend to take revenge on my advisor. After I registered for my Ph.D., Dr. D. learned a lesson from his mistake and did not repeat it with another student.
“I would rather be a little nobody, than to be an evil somebody.” ― Abraham Lincoln
Not everyone has been the victim of bullies, but everyone has seen bullying and abusive bosses, advisors and personnel. Seeing it and keeping silent and not objecting, could have a damaging effect that lingers for years if not decades. Not only knowing, but doing what is right, is what really matters.
“If you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor. If an elephant has its foot on the tail of a mouse, and you say that you are neutral, the mouse will not appreciate your neutrality.” ― Desmond Tutu
We focus in this world so much on our differences. This has helped lead to negativity and bullying. If, on the contrary, everybody focused on what we have in common, our humanity, we would be able to live in harmony. And instead of fighting about our diversity we would be celebrating it!

* I would like to thank my friend Richard Pennington for his most valuable comments!
*Enclosed photo can be found here

Sunday, August 31, 2014

Friendship: The Best Thing that Comes to Life

It seems that life in my region goes through a closed circle. When you feel that you have reached a degree of peaceful living and you start to make tentative plans for your life, violence erupts again and brings you back to square one, as uncertainty and stress dominate.

In the past, I have managed to overcome my stress through different activities such as drawing, reading, watching movies and listening to music. In the last couple of years, however, social media has been my stress-relief tool. I started actively using the Internet around the year 2008, connecting with my old friends scattered around the world and making new friends. 

Friends through social media come and go just like in real life. Nevertheless, they can truly affect our lives during the span of our connection and sometimes well beyond.

I recall when Dad was on his death bed, he kept asking Mum about his old friends and neighbors. Mum first thought that he was delusional and said, “Why don’t you ask about your brothers and sisters?” His answer rather striking: “My brothers and sisters know that I am about to die and have not shown up for a visit. I want to know if my old friends know how I am doing and if anyone inquired about me.” Dad’s statement was clear and came straight from the heart. 

Dad had an outgoing and remarkable personality that made him very lovable and enjoyable to be with. When he died at the age of 94, a large number of his long-lost friends attended his funeral service. 
“If you live to be a hundred, I want to live to be a hundred minus one day so I never have to live without you.” ― A.A. Milne, author of Winnie-the-Pooh
Coming back to me, over the years and especially during our times of crisis, many of my current and long lost friends contacted me to offer help and support. Do I expect everyone to call? Of course not. Some could be overwhelmed dealing with their own personal problems. It seems that others wish to join me only during times of happiness or peace, or connect with me because they simply need me and do not want to give anything in return.

What I have learned from the many different friendships I have made over the years in real life and on social media is the following:

  • Being afraid to connect with new people because they might not become genuine friends could endanger the possibility of making any valuable connection. 
  • Getting obsessed with the idea that social media friends are not real and can’t do any good for us is an absurd thought since over the years some of my social media friends showed me far more empathy and compassion than the “real-life” ones.
  • Showing people that you care does not mean that you want to possess them. It only means that they are special; they can count on you at any time and trust you with their friendship. 
  • Trying to contact someone after a long period of disconnection does not mean that you are out of touch with reality. People we once loved and cared about are always in the back of our mind and they can pop up unexpectedly in our thoughts and in our lives. 
  • Don't be too busy for your friends, and don't take them for granted. When I ask myself which person in my life means the most to me, I often think of those who have equally shared my joy and pain, talked to me in an hour of confusion and listened to me relentlessly.
“Don't walk behind me; I may not lead. Don't walk in front of me; I may not follow. Just walk beside me and be my friend.” ― Albert Camus 

* I would like to thank my friend Richard Pennington for his most valuable comments!

Tuesday, April 1, 2014

Serving With Heart

“There is no need for temples, no need for complicated philosophies. My brain and my heart are my temples; my philosophy is kindness.” ― Dalai Lama
My love for people seems to have started at a very early age. Being brought up in a busy neighborhood in Beirut shaped my love for service and leadership. The other kids flocked after me to play and to join any activity I started. While some of them enjoyed kindling quarrels, I was the one who solved the problems and found a peaceful solution among my polarized friends.

My life was going perfectly well, I had lots of friends, was highly active and an extrovert until the age of 11 when the civil war started in my country. Partly for reasons of personal safety, I suddenly turned inward, left my neighborhood friends and their stories, and sat down alone, listening to music and reading countless books. At first, my books were about romance and fiction, and then I shifted to more serious materials—like history books, memoirs and literature. Reading was my escape, my mind developer and my future shaper.

At the age of 16, I thought I knew what I would do with my life. I wanted to rise above my ugly, brutal reality and change things, creating something new. I had big dreams, and I wanted to achieve them. Nothing would stop me from pursuing them, not even the war. I knew the only way to achieve that was to focus on my studies and work hard.

In spite of the dreadful situation in my country, I managed to excel at school and university. This enabled me to seize a very rare scholarship to pursue higher education at one of the most prestigious universities in the United Kingdom.

My love for people and my social skills resurfaced when I moved there. It was because I could relax and enjoy a normal life, and was no longer living in fear. I met lots of people who quickly became my friends. I hosted parties and was the glue among my diverse friends who came from different backgrounds and countries.

After completing my Ph.D. studies, I came back home and joined the faculty at Notre Dame University. In addition to teaching, I was the academic advisor of a large number of students. Working in academia was a blessing for me as it allowed me to be in contact with and serve many students on a daily basis.

At the end of my second year at NDU, I was asked to chair my department. I accepted the offer without any reservation because I knew deep down that with this new position I could do what I love best: connect, listen and serve.

There are endless stories I could share about my work here, but I am particularly fond of the following one:

In one of my classes, I had a timid student who sported a punkish hair style. In the middle of the semester, he disappeared and I knew nothing about him until his older brother came to fill in a withdrawal form for all of his courses. I enquired about his reason for having dropped the semester but the brother refused to talk about it. Two years later, I had a call from the student affairs officer who had an unusual request.

He said, “I would understand if you refuse to help because the other chairpersons have refused, but I just want to try with you.” He then added,There was a student who took a course with you two years ago who dropped the course. His name was X.” I said,Yes, I remember him very well.” He replied, “Well, he disappeared from your class because he was arrested for possession of drugs and then he was put in jail as the quantity he had was slightly larger than that of personal usage.” Then he added, “Now, he is totally clean from drugs and is feeling really wasted and just needs another chance to resume his courses.” My immediate reaction was to ask how I could help the young man.

Then we agreed that I would send him all the course materials and the student affairs officer would pay a visit to see whether he was facing problems and report back to me. The student sat for an exam in the presence of the SAO officer and passed the course. The following semester, he passed two courses that I arranged with other instructors from my department. The next academic year, I got a surprise visit from my formerly estranged student. He looked older and wiser. He gave me a good hug and thanked me for what I had done. Then we sat together and discussed how he could proceed to finish his degree. He did just that and started a new life, sober and clean.  

Finally, let me share with you the basic lessons I have picked up from my modest experience in serving others:
  • If you connect, listen and help with all your heart, your actions will be echoed all around you and for many years to come.
  • You need to support and aid others before starting to lead them.
  • Embrace diversity, accept people for who they are and acknowledge that we are all different in the way we perceive the world, in what we like or dislike.
  • Empathize, let your people feel that you care for them and that you share mutual trust. They will open up to you, and their problems will become less overwhelming and manageable.

 “Choose a job you love, and you will never have to work a day in your life.” ― Confucius

* I would like to thank my friend Richard Pennington for his most valuable comments!

Friday, February 7, 2014

You Can’t Hurry Love—No, You’ll Just Have to Wait

I was two years old in 1966 when the Supremes came out with that big hit song on Motown Records. Written from the perspective of a mother to her impatient daughter, it contains a lot of wisdom.

Along the same line, these days just about the only thing we receive by post is junk mail, bills and business letters! We rarely get something we really cherish unless it’s a gift sent to us or a book we have ordered. I don’t even know the postman who delivers my mail these days. If you know yours, you are fortunate. 

I recall when I was younger and madly in love with my boyfriend (who is now my husband). He had gone to the US to pursue his graduate studies. At that time, there was no Internet and the landline telephone system scarcely worked as we were in the midst of the civil war in Lebanon. I used to write a diary every single evening and then after two weeks I sealed it in an envelope and sent it to him by post. I did that religiously, and he did the same. Our letters took two or three weeks to cross the Atlantic Ocean and the Mediterranean Sea, and I waited for them patiently and with anguish. 
“The frankest and freest and privatest product of the human mind and heart is a love letter.” ― Mark Twain
The postman who brought these love letters was a very nice man in his fifties. He quickly realized how much they meant to me, so every time he had something for me, he rushed to our house with a big smile on his face to hand me the letter. I can still remember him coming from down the street to our house in such a kindly manner. And when he crossed the street with no letter for me, he would make a “sorry” sign on his face, letting me know that I had to wait a bit longer for the next letter from the States. I dreaded Sundays and holidays because I knew the postman would not be knocking on the door.
 “More than kisses, letters mingle souls.” ― John Donne
The arrival rate of these back-and-forth love letters could not keep pace with our elevated heart rates, so my boyfriend cut short his stay in the US and came back home to finish his master’s degree at a local university. As a result, the letters stopped coming. The kind postman worried that my boyfriend had left me, so he asked Dad about me to make sure that I was doing fine. 
“Patience is bitter, but its fruit is sweet.” ― Jean-Jacques Rousseau
Nowadays, we are far removed from the ’80s, when there was no Internet, instant messaging or Skype phone calls. This is affecting all of us and in particular the younger generation which has grown accustomed to being bombarded with fast-turnover information; they filter it instantly without paying much attention to its meaning. Our whole society is becoming instantaneous, just like instant messaging, instant photography, instant news, instant coffee and so forth. We are unwilling to decipher any complicated messages, wanting things simple and fast. Depth and nuance are out the window.

The biggest weakness of today’s generation is impatience. If I may generalize, it seems that young people want to see things happen immediately or get changes in place right away. They have no patience to let things develop and watch as situations ripen. Real dreams take work and time—and yes, patience. That tends to win out in the end.
“Traveler, there is no path; the path is made by walking…Beat by beat, verse by verse.” ―Antonio Machado

* I would like to thank my friend Richard Pennington for his most valuable comments!

Sunday, December 15, 2013

Gifts That Really Matter

As the holiday season approaches, we see more quotes and posts about gifts, Santa Claus and Christmas lists. One that caught my attention lately says, “I think as you grow older, your Christmas list gets smaller and the things you really want for the holidays can’t be bought.” Reading this quote made me think how my Christmas lists have changed over the years.

Like any child, I loved dolls and soft toys but I had only a few as my parents could not afford to indulge me with presents. We were five kids and my dad’s job was not going well at the time. What mattered most to my parents was for us to be well educated and well fed. Dolls and toys were never a priority for them, even for Christmas. During my impressionable childhood, this was somehow upsetting to me. But now I have the perspective of a few years, and when I reconsider the situation, how much did I miss? Not much at all. On the contrary, having only what was strictly necessary made me appreciate more what was really important in life and motivated me to work harder and improve my status.
“The greatest gifts you can give your children are the roots of responsibility and the wings of independence.” ―Denis Waitley
I was 11 when the civil war started in my country. The surrounded violence turned me from a joyful extroverted child to an introverted teenager. I loved reading, drawing, listening to music and watching movies. The gifts that I enjoyed most were music tapes and CDs. I never had any interest in fancy gifts, and that never changed in me. In fact, I recall an incident in one of my wedding anniversaries; my husband surprised me with an expensive piece of jewelry. But he was disappointed upon seeing my facial reaction when I opened the gift. At that time, I wished that he had bought me Time Traveler, a set of five CDs by the Moody Blues that I had seen earlier with him. He knew how much I loved this band and how much I cherish such gifts. 

The years went by, and the thing I wanted most was to have a child. But this was not an easy task for me. Ironically, the only tests I ever failed in my life were pregnancy tests. But I never gave up. Deep down inside, I knew I would have my own kids. Finally, after 20 years of childless marriage, seven IVF trials, loads of medicines and injections, and three miscarriages I had beautiful twins, one of each gender.
“Everything you need will come to you at the perfect time.” ―Unknown
Since the day they were born, my twins were pampered with expensive presents by family members and friends. But what amazes me most is that my four-year-old kids are more interested in some unusual gifts that they can buy from a vending machine in a local store, made of very small plastic boxes that cost almost nothing, each of which contains each a small toy. My daughter and son are always fascinated by these tiny gifts, which may contain fake jewelry, colorful bouncing balls, tiny cars or some build-it-yourself toys. This reminds me that the joy brought by any gift has nothing to do with its size or material value; it’s only the pleasure of unfolding it and discovering what is inside that matters most.
“Surprise is the greatest gift which life can grant us.” ― Boris Pasternak
Almost two years ago, my father died at the age of 94. He left behind some great stories and memories. When I visit my parents’ house, I always expect him to appear from behind, but he doesn't. There is nothing that can replace the absence of someone we love, and why even make the attempt? Our memories and gratitude are our precious gifts that can fill the emptiness created by the loss of our loved ones and transform the pain of their loss into acceptance. 

Thus, the gifts that I appreciate most are the ones that are useful in my life—that is:
  • Love, to give and receive abundantly.
  • Peace, to be able to live freely and with dignity.
  • Time, to live and love the way it matters to me. 
“Everything I know, I know because of love.” ― Leo Tolstoy, War and Peace

* I would like to thank my friend Richard Pennington for his most valuable comments!
* Corel Drawing by Hoda Maalouf