Tuesday, December 14, 2004

Rejection Redefined

“I’m not interested”. “Leave me alone”. “Stop bothering me”. These are among the rejections I’ve received in the last few weeks. I have been canvassing on behalf of the Montreal Federation/CJA, and with canvassing comes rejection. Yes, most people have been polite, some even quite generous, but there were a few people who treated me with contempt. And I must say, those rejections really hurt.

In fact, it is human nature to avoid rejection. Instinctually, we avoid being left out of the group; we try our hardest to fit in. We quickly learn that any behaviour that courts disapproval from others can make us unpopular in general. As a consequence, we train ourselves to avoid anything that invites rejection. This is the basis of the fear of rejection.

This fear of rejection prevents us from doing some things we truly desire. We avoid asking for raises, asking people out on dates, even asking for directions, because we don’t want to be rejected. Indeed, most salesman have to be trained to turn off this deeply rooted instinct so they can do their jobs. It is often important for us to forget our fear of rejection.

But it is not only our fear of rejection that matters. Our understanding of rejection can determine the course of our lives. Rejection is often viewed as the end of a narrative, as in “I applied to Oxford, I was rejected, and therefore I was doomed to a second tier school”. I tried, I was rejected, end of story. Rejection can mean only one thing: the end of our hopes and dreams.

This need not be the way rejection is viewed. One can see failures as temporary setbacks, or even valuable lessons. As Winston Churchill put it “success is the ability to go from one failure to another with no loss of enthusiasm”.

No question, it is difficult to recover from the great rejections in life. A firing, divorce, or bankruptcy are crushing rejections. It is hard to pick yourself up and start again from the bottom, particularly if you have already tasted success. However, the only way to prevent rejection from being the final chapter is if we are willing to write a new one.

Indeed, the most inspiring success stories are the ones in which the protagonist carries on after enduring a crushing defeat, and succeeds. Like the inventor who tries thousands of experiments before realizing a major breakthrough. Or the best selling author who was single mother on welfare. Or the previously failed politician who rallies his country to victory in a world war. Or the lonely, penniless holocaust survivor who, years later, leaves behind a legacy of philanthropy and a loving family. Or for that matter, the nation that was exiled for nearly 2,000 years until it finally returned home. These are all examples of people who saw rejection as a mere obstacle on the road to success.

Rejections are crushing. However, their impact depends a great deal on our perspective. It is up to us to redefine rejection, and struggle to start again. Because a failure is only final when we give up hope.

Thursday, December 09, 2004

Thanksgiving Eyes

I rarely feel like a foreigner. As an American, I don’t feel out of place in Canada (meme Montreal!). But on Thanksgiving, I get homesick. Yes, Canada has a Thanksgiving too, but it’s a pretty tepid affair, basically an October rerun of Labour Day.

To Americans, Thanksgiving is serious business. Yes, the rituals are pretty banal: turkey, cranberry sauce and football. But it feels like a national holiday. It may sound corny, but most Americans appreciate their country as a divine gift, and that’s what we celebrate on Thanksgiving.

But you don’t have to be an American to understand thanksgiving. Gratitude is a moral imperative. Reciprocity is one of the foundations of decency: if you receive something, you are obliged to show appreciation. Gratitude is also an important character trait.

But gratitude is not only an ethical obligation; it is also a perspective on life. When we take life for granted, many things upset us. How often do we start the day, annoyed by the fact that the kids/the dog/the neighbour woke us up early? And then we search for that one missing thing: the important file, the homework, the car keys. By the time we leave the house, our blood is at a full boil, and then we remember that stressful meeting at 10:00 o’clock. And it’s only 7:30 A.M.!

When you see the world with thanksgiving eyes, none of these problems matter. Thanksgiving eyes see the world from the perspective of gratitude. They notice all the things we take for granted, like eating and friendship, and see them for what they truly are, divine blessings.

For this reason, in the morning prayers, we thank God individually for all the little blessings. For opening our eyes. For clothes. For the strength to sit up. For the strength to stand up. For the ability to walk. Actually, these are not little blessings; they are overlooked blessings. That’s why you need thanksgiving eyes, to remember how large these “little” blessings really are. And when you can truly count your blessings, the “stressful” things in our agenda melt into insignificance.

A woman I knew kept a diary while battling cancer. In each entry she made sure to count her blessings, despite her difficulties. She would take note of the “little” things, like family members, fine food, and a few moments of laughter. She did this until the end, remembering the blessings that she still had in her grasp even as her life was slipping away. She saw life from the perspective of gratitude. In doing so, she made the end of her life count by focussing on the things in life that count the most.

Thanksgiving eyes are there to remind us that the ordinary is actually extraordinary, and the mundane is actually miraculous. With this outlook, every day is Thanksgiving day, no matter where you might live.