In praise of coming last

In true European fashion, Living room philosophy will be taking a break in August and will be back in September. As a fitting tribute to the last post, on the last day of July, I thought I would write about the joys of coming last.

Coming last has never really had a good reputation. If someone comes last in a competition or is ranked bottom of a league table, it usually means that they are not very good at what they came last in. If someone comes last to a party or an event, it tends to signify that this person is inept at time-keeping or not very considerate of the host’s feelings.  Thus, criticism usually follows coming last. One recent example is the publication of how much coming last had cost Ireland at this year’s Eurovision Song Contest. Would cost have been such an issue had Ireland won?

Coming last is not always all bad though. A couple of years ago, my fellow interns and I competed in the intern five-aside football tournament. We were a predominantly female team in a predominantly male tournament. Most of us had never really played much football before (or any at all) and we had no clue about training. We decided to enter however, to have fun as well as it being a good occasion to bond.

Our first match was a disaster: we lost by a colossal amount (without scoring a goal) and we were considered a bit of a laughing stock. Not only were some boys laughing at us because we were generally rubbish; they were also laughing at us because we were (mostly) women playing football: proving gender stereotypes.

The humiliation of our first match was a turning point for us: we could either quit or continue humiliating ourselves. The team was close to splitting into warring factions but after a heated team-talk, we chose the latter, and we decided to at least try to train. From then on, we trained twice weekly and we got better.

Alas, we finished last place by a very long shot. Regardless of how badly we were beaten, or what names we were called, we always showed up to our matches and played with professionalism. Our effort and commitment were honoured as the recipients of the “Fair Play” award, and we became minor celebrities. We didn’t win games but we won hearts.

In the 2000 summer Olympics, Eric “the Eel” Moussambani enraptured 17,000 supporters and the world by coming last: he won his 100m freestyle swim-heat but his time of 1 minute 52.72 seconds is the slowest time ever recorded in Olympic history. He defied criticism and taunts to embody the spirit of the Games. On coming last, he said, “Many people thought that I would not be able to finish the race. I would have been ashamed had I not been able to finish the race. I would not have been able to live with myself.”

Coming last can mean many things: heroic failure; personal and financial cost; or simply that our talents lie elsewhere. But on the bright side, by coming last, we can at least say that we did our best, and we contributed to the betterment of the human race. To me, coming last means one more thing: that today we’ve reached the end, and tomorrow we start again.

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Little victories

I had a little victory this week: I created Living room philosophy’s new website (with a little help from WordPress)! I call it a little victory because I guess it is a relatively small achievement. But, as I will explain, a little victory still counts.

In his article Small victories, Oliver Burkeman writes about how small victories can yield better results of well-being than big ones: they are easier to achieve, and they can also break down the big ones into manageable pieces. One poignant illustration is his reference to the organisational theorist Karl Weick, who claimed that some of the big shifts in society came about through small victories. That in fact, having big goals can be so daunting that they tend to put people right off having them, let alone doing anything about them. He sums up Weick’s advice like this: “Want to change the world? First stop trying to change the world.” Advice, which no doubt chimes with me.

I had a day of little victories last October. My friends and I participated in a relay marathon, with each of us running a part of it. When it was my turn, the heavens opened up and showered me in all their glory, lasting the full length of my run. Not only was I getting soaked to the bone; I was trailing miles behind extremely seriously-minded and fast runners; and I had a big hill waiting for me at the end of my route. Naturally, there were moments when I was close to hyperventilating with panic, but I knew that the only way I was going to get through it was to focus on my breathing, try to enjoy the green scenery and possibly the rain. I completed my run: little victory no. 1.

I had not brought a change of clothes. My team-mates were all stationed outside in the stadium warming up, warming down or cheering on others. Being drenched and beginning to feel the chill, I headed to the changing room to seek warmth. It was fairly small and cramped with people desperate to get dry. There were two big, bare radiators beside the showers. I wondered why they hadn’t been snapped up by bodies or wet clothes. Like a shot, I flew over to them. They were stone cold. Assuming at first that they were broken, I was about to walk away, crestfallen. I then noticed that the dials were on zero. I twisted them: the heat began to warm me up and dry me out. Little victory no. 2.

Once I was dry, my team-mate suggested getting a complimentary massage. In the queue, we started talking about relationships when she asked me what I look for in a man:

“Well, er, someone, ” I hesitated, “nice?” I replied meekily.

“What do you mean by nice?” She retorted, “like, nice – as in – nice and boring?!”

“No!” I exclaimed and then I began to fumble my words, coming up with a vague description of my ideal man.

“You need to be specific,” she advised, “it’s all about visualising what you want and sending it out there, because that’s how you’ll get it.”

She then pointed to the three male masseurs and asked me which one I liked. There was one guy who stood out, he was about 5ft 11, with a pale complexion, tightly cut auburn hair and slightly scruffy stubble. He looked French. I pointed to him. She then did some clever manoeuvring in the line in the hope he would massage me.

As if the Universe was proving her theory, the cute masseur did end up giving me a massage. His name was Olivier, he was from Brittany and had recently moved over to Brussels. We had a nice chat. When my massage was over, my team-mate remarked how Olivier had spent longer with me than her masseur had done with her. She patted me on the back and called it a little victory.

At the time, I thought that my encounter with Olivier was my first little victory of the day, but actually it was just one of several. It is important to recognise and remember the little victories – no matter how trivial they appear – since they are victories nonetheless.

Being Eva Peron

When I was about four years old, I was cast as Snow White in my kindergarten’s summer concert. I had to wonder around on stage for a bit and then have a bite of a cheese sandwich. When the big moment came to take that bite, I declined. I was too shy. Under any other circumstances, I would have had no problem eating it, but not at that moment, in front of the crowd of proud parents. I was so off piste that my teacher had to come up on stage and coax me to the plate. I recall the “awwws” and the laughter from the audience. I still declined.

My shyness ruined my stage debut then and it has pervaded my life in one form or another ever since. I remember auditioning for the school musical and being too shy to dance my socks off because the boys were watching me. At University, I did not have the courage to join the drama society or the debating societies. Even in my first jobs, I was too scared to ask questions at the beginning because I was too intimidated by my superiors. Shyness, fear, intimidation: same feeling, different packaging. Sometimes I overcame it, other times it held me back.

One of my childhood dreams was to star in a musical. So when the amateur musical theatre company here in Brussels recently held auditions for Evita, I set myself the goal of auditioning for the main part: Eva Peron. This time, I was determined not to let my shyness get in the way.

I am part of a small choir at work. A couple of days before the audition, my choir teacher rehearsed the audition pieces with me. As I performed them, I began to feel out of my depth. I kept apologising for my voice, my lack of expression, my awkward rhythm. There were moments when I felt like quitting. He calmly said, “Gemma, leave your fear at the door. You go in there and be Eva Peron. You are not Gemma; you are Eva.”

Before my audition, I watched this brilliant Ted Talk by Amy Cuddy, a professor at Harvard Business School. Her message is mind-blowing: that changing your body language can have a powerful effect on your behaviour, and consequently on your outcomes. She recommends that doing just two minutes of power posing (ladies, think “Wonder Woman”; gentlemen, think “Wall Street”) can immediately change your behaviour because your stress levels go down whilst your testosterone levels go up. In other words, the real you can come out and shine.

With her and my choir teacher’s advice in my head, I knew that my chance of getting the part of Eva Peron lay in actually being Eva Peron, irrespective of whether I believed it or not. On the day of the audition, I dressed, accessorised and made myself-up like her. Before being called up, I went to a quiet spot and stood there in a power pose for two minutes, breathing deeply.

As I began my audition, Eva’s hunger for Buenos Aires and her desperation to escape poverty became mine. I danced, I shimmied, I swaggered; I belted, I pleaded, I mourned. With each song, I was a different Eva: arrogant; naive; redeeming; helpless. What I lacked in vocal range, I made up for in body language. When I finished the audition, I looked at the judges. They looked a bit shell-shocked. Whether it was out of amazement or horror, I couldn’t say.

Looking back, I think the reason why I was so shy being Snow White was because I didn’t believe I was her. In contrast, for one afternoon twenty-six years later, I was Eva Peron. I just wasn’t the Eva they were looking for.

Generous Ramadan

One of my favourite articles about Ramadan first appeared in The Jerusalem Post back in July 2011 and later in his blog, the Chronikler. It is written by a Belgian-Egyptian journalist named Khaled Diab. I love this article because he writes about the wonderful events that happen during Ramadan: the feasting; the celebrating; the entertainment. He also writes about the similarities of fasting in the Abrahamic faiths and accounts a story of the Jewish man that does Ramadan. What I love most about this article is that it makes me think about what Ramadan means to me.

I began fasting in my early teens. I am pretty good at observing the fast but to this day I am yet to fast the full month. I found some years easier than others, and usually this was when Ramadan fell in the winter months! Now Ramadan falls during the long, lazy days of summer, to my dismay. When I was younger, Ramadan was more was about the excitement of eating delicious food before sunrise (suhoor) and during break-fast at sun-down (iftar).

Each morning, my Dad would get my brother and I up. We would come down bleary-eyed and lethargic. But as soon as I saw the food on the table: the cakes, the rice and curry, I instantly became alert with excitement at the thought of devouring everything. I often left the table with a rotund belly, feeling like lead. Iftar was pretty much the same. No wonder I didn’t lose any weight!

In more recent years, I have used the abundance of free time (it is amazing how much time we spend eating or dreaming about what we are going to eat) reflecting on the significance of Ramadan. It is a time for giving up: not just the food, but the ill-thoughts; the material things; the small things. It is a time for thinking about those less fortunate than us, and a time for taking action: serving others; treating people well; spending time with one-another.

When it came to eating at suhoor and breaking fast, the food had lost some of its charm. I discovered that I could live very well on much less, and I don’t just mean food-wise, but materially too. I seemed to have more energy and I had this very strong feeling of well-being. It is a strange feeling: like a warm glow engulfs your body from the inside. I felt pure.

I find doing Ramadan hard on my own. One of the reasons why I enjoyed it with my brother and my Dad was that we were doing it together. At suhoor, we would talk about different things, and Dad would usually teach us something new about the Qur’an or the teachings of Prophet Muhammed. During the day, we would encourage one another to keep going. Iftar was always really special because Dad would have the dates out on the table, Mum the cups of tea, whilst I would be counting down the time. Taking the first sip of tea or the first bite of a date was absolutely glorious.

When Ramadan was over, I tried my best to maintain the good examples that had been set during it. Unfortunately, I could never sustain them to the same degree. Fortunately, doing Ramadan has taught me one last lesson: that these wonderful actions and moments of sharing and giving should not just be confined to one month, and not just confined to one faith; but to all, and every day.

I wish you all a “Ramadan kareem”.

July 2012: My "F**k It" month

“I once asked a Jesuit priest what was the best short prayer he knew. He said, “F**k it,” as in, “F**k it; it’s in God’s hands.”

– Anthony Hopkins

When I came back from London after my interview (that I mentioned in my post 29), I decided that July 2012 was going to be my “F**k It” month. I would literally apply this glorious phrase to every decision I made. Every day, I noted down what I said this magical obscenity to and would just see what happened in the process. To celebrate the first anniversary of my new attitude, I would like to share with you some of the things I said “f**k it” to this time last year and how it began to change the course of my life.

The F**k It Life was created by John C Parkin and his wife Gaia. They worked in advertising in London and had spent many years studying Eastern philosophy and meditation. Even though they liked their jobs, they had enough of their life in London and decided to leave it all behind them and move to Italy to start retreats. They claim that saying this phrase can be just as powerful as practising Buddhism and meditation, because when you say it, you immediately become detached and non-judgmental, which are some of the central tenets of Eastern philosophy.

I became instantly hooked when I read that little picture book last year. Since then I’ve devoured more of their books and passed them on to others (they are an excellent gift!).  I found these two simple words so liberating because essentially the philosophy is based around the idea (or the truth) that things really don’t matter so much. So when I started realising that things really don’t matter so much, I became less attached to lost dreams or what people thought of me. I became more forgiving of trespasses against me and those of my own doing. I worried less about what I should be doing and focussed more on what I was actually doing. And the great thing about all of this? I was actually having fun! I said yes more, I tried out new things, I stopped doing the things I disliked and I swore a lot!

So here are some of the things that were getting me down that I decided to let go:

1. Not having a life plan.
2. Not having any savings.
3. Failing to become a practising lawyer before I even started.
4. Seeking approval from others.
5. Caring about people who were just not that into me.

And on the flip side, I:

1. Ate more chocolate.
2. Wore pink jeans.
3. Did an Art Nouveau cycling tour.
4. Wrote articles about my life in Brussels and my failed legal career.
5. Revelled in the boring bits of my job.
6. Joined a musical theatre company.
7. Tried different dishes and new restaurants.
8. Let people go who were hurting me.
9. Enjoyed the rain (it rained a lot last July).

By just even saying it, I immediately relaxed: the tension lifted; my breath deepened; my pulse steadied. There is something really magical about it because as soon as you say it, the worry does disappear; it may be temporary at first, but just remember that feeling of relief and keep going.

I did not do any wild stuff during this month but I noticed the changes. I became more accepting of my lot, and yet at the same time more willing to expand my comfort zone and re-configure my lot. I became more trusting of my ability and consequently I felt like I used less brain power but achieved better results. I also realised that I didn’t need to be anyone or do anything to be ok. Perhaps that is what freedom is.

So, why don’t you take up the challenge? Let July 2013 be your “F**k It” month and see what changes it brings about? As one caption in the picture book says, “Be open to something spectacular happening today.”  But please keep it lawful; I take no responsibility for any f**k ups.