A Portrait of Success

 

abstract thought

Open, by Andre Agassi, has been lying on my makeshift mantelpiece bookshelf for over three years. Although I’d monitored the brouhaha that followed its release, the “convenient openness” of Agassi revealing that he’d lied to the Association of Tennis Professionals, ATP, about a failed drug test in which he tested positive for crystal meth, I bought the book because of the good reviews. Thereafter, life happened to me and it ended up in my to-be-read-one-day-I-hope pile.

After I stopped jogging because of a foot injury, I did not think that resuming and gaining momentum would test my resolve. Every day, my body lies to me, but experience tells me the truth—you’ve done this before, and you can do it again. Maybe that’s why the autobiography of a retired star tennis player calls my name.

I start reading in the evening and slip in my bookmark at midnight because my alarm is set for five. Later, I eat lunch with a fork in one hand and the book in the other. Someone asks what it’s about. “Passion, failure, triumph, love, identity,” and as an afterthought I add, “it’s about a former tennis player.” I find, as the New York Post’s praise for Open states, it is, “Much more than a drug confession—Agassi weaves a fascinating tale of professional tennis and personal adversity. . . . His tale shows that success is measured both on and off court.”

The book alerts me to the problems of young success and for one moment, I am wary of success, (the endless practice, to what end?), although I have been chasing it all my life. Neil Gaiman said, “The problems of failure are hard. The problems of success can be harder, because nobody warns you about them.1” Perhaps this is how Agassi felt after winning Wimbledon. He writes, “I feel, in fact, as if I’ve been let in on a dirty little secret: winning changes nothing.2

I could roll my eyes at Agassi and say, “Oh yeah? Hand over all your Grand Slam cheques please!” However, I think about everything I’ve ever wanted, worked hard for, and received or everything I’ve ever wanted that came easy for that matter. How long did the euphoria last? Some say success, is not a destination, but a moving target.

And so, I keep turning pages. I am an umpire in Agassi’s undulating journey, urging him to find his way, as if to reassure me that I too can find my way. Some stories are not ours alone. It is the reason we should not stop telling.

Agassi meets a restaurant manager, Frankie, who makes an impression on him. He arranges a nest egg to help Frankie lighten the burden of educating his kids. Agassi writes, “Helping Frankie provides more satisfaction and makes me feel more connected and alive and myself than anything that happens in 1996. I tell myself: Remember this. Hold on to this. This is the only perfection there is, the perfection of helping others. This is the only thing we can do that has any lasting value or meaning. This is why we’re here. To make each other feel safe.”

Oprah Winfrey, Bill and Melinda Gates, and many others, have committed huge sums to their private foundations and other charities. Why? Tax planning benefits and positive branding? Maybe. Maybe not. But, Tutankhamun and other Pharaohs may have reached the afterlife, and looked around in surprise because their treasures still lay in the pyramids of ancient Egypt, waiting for thieves to loot. The moral of the story? Spend your money on earth!

A common thread weaves through the interviews I’ve read of successful people in their twilight years. While success has conferred many advantages and brought satisfaction, greater fulfilment has come from investing in others.

As I return Open to the bookshelf, I am convinced of what I already instinctively know—this kind of success is not to be feared, it is to be understood.

 

©Timi Yeseibo 2014

  1. Neil Gaiman: Keynote Address 2012, The University of the Arts in Philadelphia. http://www.uarts.edu/neil-gaiman-keynote-address-2012
  2. Agassi, Andre, Open, An Autobiography (New York: Vintage Books, 2009), 167.
  3. Ibid., 230.

Image Credit: Ty Carlson @CreationSwap: http://www.creationswap.com/media/1553

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Interpreting Silence, Mine and Maybe Yours

Malala

. . . and I began to see that the pen and the words that come from it can be much more powerful than machine guns, tanks or helicopters. We were learning how to struggle. And we were learning how powerful we are when we speak.1

I was at a meeting. The preacher declared, “If you haven’t found what is worth dying for, then you haven’t started living!” In my mind, I said, “But I am living and I enjoy my life although, I don’t know what I would die for.” The preacher reeled off convictions on which he would stake his life. I thought, that’s good for you, my children are still small, my marriage too young.

In my university, when students would gather to protest against government policies, I always left the campus and went to stay at my aunt’s, as I did not fancy being tear-gassed, arrested, or beaten or raped if the protest degenerated to a free-for-all.

Their protests annoyed my middle-class sensibilities. Shielded by my parents, I had never felt the sting of socio-economic or political policies. The more daring the protest, the more likely, that my university would be shut down, so that, instead of graduating at twenty, I would graduate at twenty plus x, x being anything from one to five years. This concerned me because I had mapped my life’s trajectory without the possibility of detours.

And so, Malala Yousafzai’s autobiography interested me, as all biographical material does, but more so because she is a teenager. She’s described as the educational campaigner from Swat Valley, Pakistan, who came to public attention by writing for BBC Urdu about life under the Taliban. News about her work had floated in and out of my attention in years past, but as I settled to read her book, I shook my head, what was she thinking?

The man was wearing a peaked cap and looked like a college student. He swung himself onto the tailboard at the back and leaned in right over us.

Who is Malala? He demanded?”

No one said anything, but several of the girls looked at me. I was the only girl with my face not covered.

That’s when he lifted up a black pistol. I later learned it was a Colt 45. Some of the girls screamed.2

Malala’s story, in my view, traces the journey of her convictions, how they were shaped, how they crystallized, and how she learnt to live and expect to die for them. Her father is central to her story. She interprets her world through his eyes. But I get the sense as I read that even if Malala were translated into another set of circumstances, mine as a youngster, for example, she would still shake the world. Named after the Pashtun heroine, Malalai of Maiwand, when she was born, she popped out kicking and screaming.

Malala gives us a history lesson on her beloved Pakistan and Talibanization. It is a story I recognize: Nigeria before and after British colonization; Nigeria in the age of Boko Haram. Politics never sleeps. Poverty and illiteracy make indoctrination and intimidation potent. But Kalashnikovs and RPGs make the rich and educated flee too.

Her photo on the book cover hides fear and courage, a tension that she draws her readers to share with her family in Taliban-controlled Swat Valley and beyond.

Are you scared now?” I asked my father.

At night our fear is strong, Jani,” he told me, “but in the morning, in the light, we find our courage again.”3

She writes that her father hated the fact that most people would not speak up. She knew he was right. He kept a poem by Martin Niemoller in his pocket.

First they came for the communists,                                                                              

and I did not speak out because I was not a communist.                                           

Then they came for the socialists,                                                                                    

and I did not speak out because I wasn’t a socialist.                                                 

Then they came for the trade unionists,                                                                        

and I did not speak out because I wasn’t a trade unionist.                                        

Then they came for the Jews,                                                                                               

and I did not speak out because I wasn’t a Jew.                                                        

Then they came for the Catholics,                                                                                    

and I did not speak out because I wasn’t a Catholic.                                                 

Then they came for me,                                                                                                     

and there was no one left to speak for me.

I live in a land where my concerns range from 30% income tax deductions to choosing between Gouda and Maasdammer cheese. Comfort is a familiar place and I do not apologize for it. Privilege comes with responsibility and many are not silent. But I must break my silence and scream with more than sympathy, with my words, my money, my time, and my votes, because Malala proves that one voice can be heard. At a cost, at a cost . . .

 

©Timi Yeseibo 2014

 

1. Yousafzai, Malala with Lamb, Christina, I Am Malala (London: Orion Books, 2014), 131.

2. Ibid., 6.

3. Ibid., 115.

 

Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Timi Yeseibo and livelytwist.wordpress.com with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

 

A Long Way Gone: Introspection and Tears

a long way gone

The photo on the cover—a boy on a dirt trail, hair uncombed, mortar cartridge behind his neck, and a gun with a bayonet hanging from his shoulders drew me to Ishmael Beah’s book. The green flip-flop on his right foot, useless and slanting in the wrong direction, a testament of happier times, sealed my fate. Reading the blurb was a formality as was thumbing Steve Job’s biography, which I had intended to buy in the first place.

I paid for the book and went home.

I read the book through one heart-wrenching weekend, stopping occasionally for the weight of sorrow to lift. It did not.

Beah tells his story, in my view, without an agenda or an axe to grind. It is as though he says, “This is my story. Jump to conclusions if you want. Ask questions if you care.” He narrates about his experience as a boy soldier in Sierra Leone, a boy flung into the throes of a war that consumes his family.

His memory is photographic, capturing detail in a way that helps you journey with him. The picture of him wandering in the forest haunts me still.

I walked for two days straight without sleeping. I stopped only at streams to drink water. I felt as if somebody was after me. Often, my shadow would scare me and cause me to run for miles. Everything felt awkwardly brutal. Even the air seemed to want to attack me and break my neck. I knew I was hungry, but I didn’t have the appetite to eat or the strength to find food. I had passed through burnt villages where dead bodies of men, women, and children of all ages were scattered like leaves on the ground after a storm. Their eyes still showed fear, as if death hadn’t freed them from the madness that continued to unfold. I had seen heads cut off by machetes, smashed by cement bricks, and rivers filled with so much blood that the water had ceased flowing. Each time my mind replayed these scenes, I increased my pace. Sometimes I closed my eyes hard to avoid thinking, but the eye of my mind refused to be closed and continued to plague me with images. My body twitched with fear, and I became dizzy. I could see the leaves on the trees swaying, but I couldn’t feel the wind.1

Reading this book almost upended my theology. Why do bad things happen to innocent people? If God is real and good, why doesn’t he stop it? What about ethnic cleansing and genocide in the Bible?

I have not found intellectually satisfying answers. I do not need them to believe, I only need them for debate.

After I closed the book, it took many days for sadness to leave me.

Is war like the Terminator movie? Does the good guy leave the epic fighting scene—usually a dark warehouse with chainsaws, spikes, naked wires, and bottles—limping into the light with the beautiful woman he rescued clinging to his arm, while we cheer and wait for them to kiss?

No.

I recall a scene from Machine Gun Preacher, where an orphan boy tells his story to Sam Childers, which unlocks my tears afresh.

I remember my parents in my sleep. My father was big like you. They shot him. The rebels told me, “If I do not kill my mother, they would shoot my brother and me.” And so, I killed my mother. If we allow ourselves to be full of hate, then they’ve won. We must not let them take our hearts2.

War leaves casualties as J.P. Clark describes in his poem, The Casualties3 (selected lines below).

The casualties are not only those who are dead;
They are well out of it.
The casualties are not only those who are wounded,
Though they await burial by instalment.

The casualties are not only those who started
A fire and now cannot put it out. Thousands
Are burning that had no say in the matter.

The casualties are many, and a good number well
Outside the scenes of ravage and wreck;
They are the wandering minstrels who, beating on
The drums of the human heart, draw the world
Into a dance with rites it does not know

We fall,
All casualties of the war
Because we cannot hear each other speak,
Because eyes have ceased to see the face from the crowd,
Because whether we know or
Do not know the extent of wrong on all sides
We are characters now other than before
The war began,

I have many questions, fewer answers, but I am at peace in the world as long as I do not let them take my heart.

 

©Timi Yeseibo 2014

 

1. Ishmael Beah, A Long way Gone, Memoirs of a Boy Soldier (New York: Sarah Crichton Books/Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2007), 49.
http://www.alongwaygone.com

2. Machine Gun Preacher Movie.
http://www.machinegunpreacher.org/

3. J.P. Clark, The Casualties, Poems of Black Africa, ed. Soyinka Wole (London: Heinemann/AWS, 1975), 112.

 

Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Timi Yeseibo and livelytwist.wordpress.com with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.