Tuesday, January 05, 2016

the no plan, plan

It’s the simple truths that you want to watch out for.

They are the ones that can ambush you, unsettle patterns and leave you reeling. I stumbled upon one of these truths. Or rather it found me.

Admittedly, I had put myself in harm’s way by going on a retreat with the Sisters of St Andrew community. I go there every few months for a bit of silence and solitude. I was after calm though, not disruption.

But I spent the first day prowling around this single uneasy question; ‘why do I feel like my life has not gone according to plan, like I have missed my calling?’ As I went to see ‘my nun’, Sr Marie Christine, I had a sense of reticence. I had no achievements or milestones to boast of. No major crisis to deflect attention from why I felt stuck. I didn’t want to be exposed as the servant in the ancient parable of the talents; the one who had not taken any risks with his master’s treasure but simply returned that which he’d been given. Disappointing.

The feeling wasn’t new. This had been a familiar theme, since I was 14. I remember being mesmerised by debonair, humorous, insightful preachers whose ability to galvanise the attention of their adoring audience was total. It was then when I decided my destiny. It was going to be big, global and deeply important. A cross between Billy Graham and the Secretary General of the UN would do the trick.

I explained all this to Sr Marie-Christine. I think she could tell from the absence of my own TV channel that things were not going according to plan. She looked at me fondly and asked, ‘Don’t you think it’s time to let go of what that 14 year old believed was right for your life?’ And there it was. The simple truth.

 I had exchanged allowing life to unfold with trust, intuition, and playfulness for a blueprint that a 14 year old boy thought was important. Part of me rushed to embrace the freedom of letting go. Part of me still held to the dream I cherished for so long. The questions that followed were equally penetrative; what else do I really want to do? How do I let go of old goals and find new ones? What if I end up a nobody? What other beliefs have limited my horizons?

The process of letting go of outdated beliefs and accepting who you are seems to me at the core of spiritual growth. I don’t think you can flourish as a person without it. Refusing this path is what Wayne Muller describes as ‘living out the curse of a decided life’.

 And to me, it was deeply personal.

 I had seen my own brother struggle for years with depression. A significant trigger for his depression (though not the only one) was a sense of failure; that he hadn’t achieved whatever his younger self defined as a worthwhile life. That sense of inadequacy gripped him more powerfully than I had imagined. Daniel never managed to reset his boyhood narrative. It owned him and slowly, it suffocated the life from him. 2 years ago, I got a call to say Daniel had committed suicide. The most devastating and irrevocable news I have ever received.

But I wager, it’s not just Daniel and I who face this challenge. I think it’s a universal journey. We all develop a way of seeing the world that serves a purpose to protect us or define us at an early stage in life. Every single one of us faces the same choice of whether to lift up the bonnet of our souls, identify beliefs that no longer bring life and be open to a new way of seeing ourselves. It comes down to a willingness to let our authentic selves emerge from the labels and expectations laid on us through life.

Will we show up in our own lives?

The truth is that I was never cut out to be a Ban Ki Moon or Billy Graham *who? I hear you ask*. One of my friends reminded me that really, I am a closet contemplative; someone who enjoys taking time to reflect on life and slowly understand God, myself and the world. This is not about accepting a diminished zest for life. It’s about walking into all that you were created to be.

This week, I took the first tentative steps toward embracing a new vision for my future; the no plan, plan. I have started a new job with the Mental Health Foundation . It’s a completely different sector. I have no idea where it will take me but am up for a voyage of discovery.

Mark Rowland is a Director for the Mental health Foundation. He was raised in Rwanda and has worked in a range of international organisations in London and on the Thai Burma border. He has a son and fiancĂ© and loves running. 

Wednesday, January 21, 2015

Myanmar's long walk to freedom

The last time I travelled to Myanmar was in June 2006. I was travelling in Shan State at a time when the ruling military government was presiding over a plummeting economy, had silenced iconic democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi, and was engaged in a devastating conflict against many of Myanmar’s ethnic groups. Access to the country for foreigners was very difficult, much less the presence of foreign iNGOs. The refusal to allow foreign aid agencies to assist the survivors of the deadly Cyclone Nargis – which killed 130,000 mostly farmers in the Irrawaddy Delta in 2008 – was just one example. The prospect of a transition from military rule where the people could take control of their own development seemed a distant hope. Many of the challenges faced by Myanmar still persist today but I would not have predicted the degree of change since my last visit. General Than Shwe’s rule has given way to a new leader, President Thein Sein, who has ushered in a period of reform since 2011. Control of the press has been relaxed. I was able to discuss politics in Yangon’s street food restaurants in a way which would have been impossible a few year before. Aung San Suu Kyi has not only been released from over a decade of house arrest but the party she founded, the National League for Democracy, has been officially registered and its party leaders released from prison. Suu Kyi herself is now a serving MP in the transitional parliament – something that seemed inconceivable back in 2006. Fragile ceasefires have also been signed with some of the ethnic armies, including with the Karen, which has seen a general reduction in fighting. A greater number of NGOs have been allowed to open offices and start to run programmes for the first time since the military took power in 1962. Economically, Yangon is opening up like a tulip in the spring sunlight. The modest market liberalisation is starting to take effect with new hotels, apartments and offices being constructed on Yangon’s ancient streets. The price of consumer goods like mobile phones has fallen sharply. Two years ago, it cost $1500 to purchase a SIM card. Today, it costs $1.50, opening up communications technology to ordinary people for the first time. Optimism should be tempered by the reality that the military is still in control in Myanmar with a minimum of 25% of the seats in the parliament. The health and education indicators are still the lowest in Asia, especially in the ethnic areas. According to Transparency International, Myanmar ranks 157th least transparent out of 177 countries. Aung San Suu Kyi has been effectively barred from standing for President in the 2015 elections on account of the Anglo identity of her two children and there continues to be significant oppression against ethnic minorities and in particular, the Muslim Rohingya people. However, VSO have grasped the opportunity to make a positive contribution to Myanmar’s development. Over the last 18months, VSO has established an office, recruited a talented and committed staff team and have currently got 30 volunteers placed across the country – mostly focused in building the capacity of English language teachers in 21 of Myanmar’s teacher training colleges. Having already established a program in education, the team in Yangon have set a three pronged strategy to make an impact in the sectors of health, education and strengthening civil society. While the civil society strategy is still emerging, the focus of the health and education teams will be on equipping Myanmar’s teachers and health professionals to increase the quality and access for children receiving an education and to increase neo-natal survival rates and maternal mortality rates. For a country that has experienced isolation for so long, VSO’s model of sharing expertise and knowledge, could scarcely be more important. Furthermore, because of the context of the country, working with national volunteers is not yet feasible, meaning that international volunteers are the critical intervention with which the team intends to deliver impact in Myanmar. The team’s aspiration is to grow its impact and influence rapidly and to have a strong presence of volunteers across the country by April 2016. Funds and volunteers will be needed to ensure VSO’s newest country program can help continue the pace of change in this remarkable country.

Sunday, October 27, 2013

Memories of my brother

My memories of Dan - who died aged 38 on 6th Oct 2013

'Don't be so ridiculous, Mark' were some of the words I would most commonly hear being nearly spat from Dan's mouth. It was usually in response to a preposterous idea or an all too obvious ruse.  Dan could be endearingly credulous.  You could spin him a yarn and he would nod along until he would come to his senses and shake off his natural preference to accept people and ideas at face value. 

I had a recurring joke with dan that despite his fulsome facial hair and my hair free baby face, that I in fact had more stubble than him when he was my age.  This line was stretching it when he was 18 but was clearly ludicrous when he was 38! Instead of casually dismissing me, he would launch into a thoroughly unnecessary defence that he was the Esau of the family and i was patently the Jacob. It always ended in him telling me how ridiculous I was.... I will really miss that flailing fist in my direction.  

Dan didn't feel the need to observe social conventions.  He was liberal and spontaneous with his use of affection. I would often find his nose nuzzling in my neck in a completely outrageous invasion of my personal space (which is saying something coming from me!).  When he was feeling in need of physical attention, he would sometimes cling to me in a sort of homo-erotic, full body hug. Only a brotherly battering would be able to prize him off me. 

He was also quite casual with Cohens physical well-being too. I remember Cohen agreeing to a pillow fight with his uncle, aged around 4. Dan took no time in leathering a pillow around Cohen's head and sending him sprawling. Dan was unusually confident that Cohen would rise again,smiling - which he (almost) always did.. But, it was Cohen's uncle Dan who amazingly caught Cohen when he fell from a tree on the same holiday after stepping on a rotten branch from a height I shouldn't have allowed him to reach. 

Dan would not ask permission to be him; I recall introducing my then wife to be to the family -  all was going well when Dan decided to lay in the middle of the floor with a pile of books underneath his head to get into the Alexander position - seemingly oblivious of those who were trying to work out if this was some weird Rowland rite of passage and if they had to follow suit....

It was his zany energy and creativity was what made Dan hilarious fun as a father and uncle. He was at his best when he was gallivanting into a wood, trousers tucked unedifyingly into his walking socks, setting clues for a treasure hunt or starting a camp fire. Adventure and fun were the themes of what seemed like dozens of holidays that Dan would organise for us and our boys. 

Of course Dan had a complicated relationship with clumsiness. We all knew he wasn't clumsy but it was also true that glasses did smash and plates did drop in and around Dans orbit. Dan would repeat the mantra that he wasn't clumsy and I didn't dare dispute that. In the end you had only to conclude that these inanimate objects were to blame for getting in Dan's way....

Dan had great intellectual curiosity. A  cursory glance at Dan's unopened mail since he died  revealed copies of the new internationalist, new statesman and third way - testament to his interest in international affairs, theology and social justice. He was a spiritual man with a reflective faith I admired. I loved sparring with him - secretly using debates with him to educate myself on everything from the 2008 credit crunch (i learnt what credit default swap was from Dan) to the role of the Mau Mau in colonial Kenya.  Post university, we even completed a huge chart of western philosophers with a summary of each thinkers key contribution since the renaissance. It was a wonderful product of Dans thirst for understanding.  Dan didn't see it but I was hanging onto his intellectual coat tails and am so grateful that he let me hang there....

It is embarrassing how wide Dans interests and skills lay. Accomplished sailor, tennis player and cyclist. A-grade student, amateur dramatist, photographer, drummer and guitar player. Fantastic chef and skilful artist. Resourceful Builder, carpenter and fantastic scout.  Devoted father and husband. What a panoply of gifts. 

Dan was also vulnerable. His vulnerability was to find in others reasons to doubt and undermine his self worth. Perhaps because of this, more than anyone I have known, Dan didn't put up a pretence or hide behind image. Instead Dan had depth of thought and true integrity. Dan never saw how precious his gift was to people; radically giving others permission to be who they really were and to let go of the image. And yet he couldn't extend to himself the acceptance he offered so freely to others. 

I will always remember being loved by Dan and how much I love and treasure him. Nothing ridiculous about that.