Monday, June 22, 2015

On Being A Father

Yesterday was Father’s Day. Many of us, no doubt, seize the occasion to reflect on the challenges and joy of fatherhood. I posted on my Facebook that I am a proud and happy father and I thank God for all my three children. On my Instagram I posted a picture with my three children, Li-Ann (42), Li-Lynn (39) and my son (35) with these words, “Only yesterday, we were huddled on one couch…”


Li-Ann posted on her Facebook a set of my pictures with the following remarks, “Happy Father’s Day to a real Renaissance man, though you will always be “Dad” to me. xoxo”.


Li-Lynn posted on hers:


My son and I talked on our facetime.

42 years have passed since I became a dad for the first time. How did I manage as a father? I guess, their messages answered my questions in part. Strange that none of us went to school to learn how to be a father, but somehow we managed.

I grew up with an absentee father for the most part. He was, from my recollection, a friendly sort of chap, but I cannot recall being hugged or embraced by him growing up as his son. I do not recall having any meaningful conversation or seeing much of him. He left parenting to my mother.

When I decided to have children, I was determined to be what my father was not. Hugging and cuddling our children when they were young became a ritual. It was my fatherly duty to put them to bed and to read and pray with them in the evenings, unless I was not in town or had late night meetings. I believe that in their formative years, these “presence” time with them would lay the foundation for stronger bonding between us.

I became aware that all of them are alike and yet different because I was able to spend time with them individually and collectively. It was tempting to treat them as if they were identical because they are siblings, but I resisted that convenient approach. Each has a different temperament and personality and I learned to respect them for who they are and not for what I wish they were.

Li-Ann, the eldest is more like her mother. Li-Lynn is more like me and my son is a hybrid of both his parents.

In being a father, I grew in my understanding of fatherhood and its onerous responsibilities. There were counselling moments when Li-Ann wanted to quit university more than once. I happened to be a visiting professor at her university and was able to spend time affirming her. She completed her school with an excellent result in her final year, and went on to graduate school at Hahnemann Medical School in Philadelphia.

There were anxious moments when Li-Lynn rebelled and dropped out of school at 16. Her mom and I were so helpless we could only pray and love her unconditionally. She went on to earn her PhD from Dalhousie University in Halifax (read her story here).

And we left my son, who was only 14, in a boarding school because of my work. In retrospect, it was not the wisest thing to do in the circumstances. We were uncertain how he was going to fare in a school where he was only one of two Asians. Thankfully, he more than survived it, became a valedictorian and eventually earned both his PhD and MD at the University of Pennsylvania.

Looking back, I am grateful for the way all the kids turned out. I am no tiger-father and their mom was no tiger-mother. As a dad, I did what I thought was best for them. I made my share of mistakes, and what they are today is truly by the grace of God.

Being a father is not at all easy as this unknown author seeks to express in What Makes a DAD”:


Today as a father, I enjoy our adult children in a relationship much akin to being good friends. I am, of course, their father, and nothing will ever change that. But we communicate things of mutual interest – from books to movies, from philosophy to faith and from careers to major decisions. And we do not always agree with each other. This is also the joy of fatherhood at a different level.

If you asked me what I expect or hope to hear from my children, it will simply be an affirmation that I have not failed in doing my best to be a responsible and kind dad, and that I am loved for just doing that. And I believe they have done that in so many ways over the years – not in the exact words expressed in this letter from an adult son, but in spirit and substance very much like them:

A Letter of Thanks from a Son. 

There are so many things I’d like
To tell you face to face;
I either lack the words or fail
To find the time and place.

But in this special letter, Dad,
You’ll find, at least in part,
The feelings that the passing years
Have left within my heart.

The memories of childhood days
And all that you have done,
To make our home a happy place
And growing up such fun!

I still recall the walks we took,
The games we often played;
Those confidential chats we had
While resting in the shade.

This letter comes to thank you, and,
For needed words of praise;
The counsel and the guidance, too,
That shaped my grown-up days.

No words of mine can tell you, Dad,
The things I really feel;
But you must know my love for you
Is lasting, warm and real.

You made my world a better place,
And through the coming years;
I’ll keep these memories of you
As cherished souvenirs.”

Friday, June 5, 2015

Kindness on the Roads


There is no doubt that our roads and highways are getting more congested even though ERP gantries are more ubiquitous than ever before. There appears to be more vehicles sharing limited space which makes kindness on the roads even more relevant.

By kindness on the roads I am thinking about being careful not to inconvenience or harm fellow road­users. Being considerate is an important value of kindness, and very often being kind and considerate is often spoken in the same breath as in “She is unfailingly kind and considerate.” Not to inconvenience or harm others is to be unfailingly kind and considerate. Applying this attitude to driving, it implies attentiveness and thoughtfulness, co­operation and patience. In sum, it implies a degree of civility in our relationship to others.

Abdulla M. Abdulhalim, a PhD candidate and a President’s Fellow at the University of Maryland told the Huffington Post, "We like simple definitions. Civility really is a more broad term compared to being considerate. Civility is simply just being nice, and it’s not only an attitude of benevolence, thoughtfulness and relating to other individuals. It also entails a real, active interest in the well­being of communities... You have to really do an effort in order to be civil. And being considerate is a part of being civil."

Allow me to unpack the ABCs of kindness on the roads.

Attentiveness

I have always said that we are innately kind but we do not often show it because we are too absorbed in our own thoughts. If you are like me, you will sometimes find yourself day­dreaming while driving, which is a very dangerous thing to do! Have you ever been jolted with a sense that you are lost because even as you drive, the surrounding seems alien to you? I have, and that is because I was awakened from being self­-absorbed in my own world while driving that I momentarily lost my sense of direction as I was being brought back to the present reality.

Many times, we do not pay full attention to our surrounding as we drive. We are not aware that others are trying to enter the main stream from the feeder road, and we thoughtlessly fill the gap before us. If we are attentive, the correct way is to let the person enter in front of us, and we then follow behind her. The one behind us should then slow down and let the next on the side road enter in front of him, and he then, like us, should follow and so on. In other words, the best system of ensuring a smooth flow of traffic is not to close all the gaps and jam up everyone in a solid immovable mass, but to allow each other the right of way in an alternative pattern.

A good practical example of this overseas is how each gives way to the other in a four-way crossroad. There are no lights to control traffic, only STOP signs at each junction. Everyone who arrives at the junction must stop and whoever gets there first gets to go first. It works because drivers are attentive and aware of who gets there first and act accordingly. If nobody gives way and everybody is trying to go first, the net result will be an immovable mess of cars stuck in the middle of the four-­way junction. Attentiveness is the key to the success of this system. It is the attentiveness that implies consideration in that one gives way to the first to arrive at the junction and take one’s turn accordingly.

We are often told that in Singapore the best way to move from a side road to the main road is not to signal because when you signal, the car on the main road will rev up and fill the gap. That is a most unfortunate negative example of attentiveness without consideration! Trying to get into the mainstream surreptitiously without signalling is a recipe for an accident in the making.

Benevolence

Benevolence is a disposition to do the good, an act of kindness. Everywhere we go there is an opportunity to do the good­ and to do an act of random kindness. I know of people who would do that as a matter of course. The other day, I passed a traditional cobbler and a locksmith who pry their respective trades on the pavement across from the Treasury Building, shaded by their own large beach umbrellas. One of my colleagues was paying for her shoes repaired by the cobbler. She told me that it was a hot day and she just bought a drink for each of the “uncles”. That is benevolence – a random act of kindness.

Our highways and byways offer many opportunities to do the good. One of the good we can do is to give way to emergency vehicles. In many countries, it is a norm for drivers to pull to the side of the road or shoulders for emergency vehicles to pass. Drivers often stop at traffic junction even when the lights are in their favour to let these vehicles pass.

Why do we need to do this? The way I look at it is very simple. These vehicles, especially ambulances, are conveying people who need to get to the hospital or to fetch needy people in time to give them the medical assistance they need. Time is of essence to them. It can mean the difference between life and death. I cannot help but ponder, “Could that person be someone I know? Perhaps even a relative? Perhaps, she is my wife or child?” In any case, if I had known that it is someone I know and love, would I not make way for the vehicle to get to the destination quickly? What if I were in that vehicle struggling for my life, or with someone I love struggling for her life, what would I want other drivers to do in the circumstance?

The Golden Rule, “Do to others as you want others to do to you” is most applicable here. Translated, it means that whatever good we expect others to do to us in the circumstances; we should do the same to others. If we put this into practice, we will be multiplying benevolence on the road.

We can do a great deal of good to ensure the safety of other road-users by doing small acts of kindness like
  • not speeding, 
  • being patient enough to let pedestrian completely and safely cross over even when the lights changed in our favour, before moving our vehicle forward, 
  • not using the extreme right lane of the highways unless overtaking, 
  • not hogging the extreme right lane on highways, 
  • allowing other vehicles to enter our lanes when they signal their intention to do so, 
  • not tailgating, 
  • not beating traffic lights and 
  • many more acts of thoughtfulness. 
Civility

Civility is the habit of the heart. It is defined as well­-mannered behaviour toward others. It is about putting a little effort toward being more considerate to our fellow road-users. Recently, TODAY published a piece by me on online civility. You can access it at kindness.sg. Even though I was talking about civility in the context of online conversation, the point about restraining our anger is relevant here.

Road rage is a function of getting angry when overtaken, or when rudeness is directed at the driver who feels that he has not done anything to deserve it. It is very tempting to throw civility out the window and respond in kind when we feel we are right, or when we feel unjustly treated. We feel angry and justly so. And that is the crux of the problem precisely because anger only breeds anger and it spirals downwards into extreme incivility of revenge and retaliation. I am reminded of a saying attributed to Mahatma Gandhi that an eye for an eye only ends up making the whole world blind.

Gandhi has also made famous the powerful idea that “you must be the change you want to see in the world.” To be the change we want to see in the world, we have to master our thoughts and control our actions. The spirit of retaliation is a negative spirit which abdicates the mastery of our own thoughts and actions.

We can begin to spur that change by recognizing that as fellow road-users, our actions have a great impact on other drivers. Bad and angry driving can cause injury and death. This is why we need to be slow to anger and avoid knee­jerk reactions, and be more reflective and conscious about our actions. I believe we can drive change just by extending civility, kindness, graciousness and constructiveness to the common driving space.

A biker and a driver stopped their vehicles to help an elderly man cross the street at a traffic junction in Singapore.

The best way to become civil in our conduct is to put others before ourselves. Kindness is indeed other-­centredness. By prioritizing the needs of others over our own it not only makes others happy, it creates a sense of well-­being in us too. And most important of all, it makes for a greater road safety for all.

When I passed my driving license in the late 60s, there were fewer vehicles on the road. I remember too that the well­-groomed white-­shirted traffic police officers were a lot more visible. Their presence was a deterrent to dangerous driving.

Today, we do not see them around as much. Instead, speed cameras are everywhere and hopefully we are deterred from speeding or dangerous driving. But why not practise some kindness on the roads? Why pay a fine when we can exercise attentiveness, benevolence and civility to fellow road-users and save ourselves money and time? The benefits of kindness are manifold. To be sure, kindness on the roads will make for a much more pleasant and safe driving experience for all.