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Sunny Side Up: Try treating yourself a little more kindly

Sunny Side Up: Try treating yourself a little more kindly

This week, I received a message from a reader who shared that he’d been struggling with various self-doubts and uncertainties and that he was frustrated with well-meaning advice.

One interesting point was that he felt it “wasn’t OK to not be OK”, and that he wasn’t sure he needed to improve and “be better than I am at present”.

The reader also included a gentle scolding of a previous column I wrote on the importance of self-acceptance. As I read the message, it occurred to me that we sometimes over-simplify ideas that are designed to stop us from fighting against ourselves and create space for growth.

I’m sure many of you have heard the phrase, “It’s OK to not be OK”. Like many pithy sayings, its job is to be memorable rather than explain any nuance.

In this case, someone has taken the saying literally. Of course it’s not OK to suffer, to have self-doubt, to be depressed, anxious, or otherwise affected. We know it’s not OK because, were any of these conditions a choice, none of us would freely choose them.

When we say that it’s OK to not be OK, it’s a message that comes in two parts. Firstly, it’s a recognition that no-one’s at fault when they suffer from ill-health, self-doubt, or feelings of uncertainty or inadequacy.

Secondly, it’s a call to treat ourselves with kindness and to know that there’s nothing wrong with any kind of ill-health; whether it be mental or physical, it doesn’t in any way diminish our worth as a person.

What the saying doesn’t mean is that suffering in any form is OK in itself or that we should accept our lot. Where change can be made, and where we can – and want – to improve ourselves, then that’s a choice open to us.

All too often, we can feel enslaved by our circumstances, by our past, and by unfortunate events we encounter. Feeling shackled, we might lack the motivation to better ourselves, to climb out of our self-doubt and move beyond uncertainty.

In this situation, we might find well-intended friends telling us that “It’s OK to not be OK”. While we should give ourselves some space to feel difficult emotions, and although the initial step towards change is to accept – for the moment – how and where we are, we needn’t stay there.

As the renowned psychotherapist Irvin Yalom once wrote, it’s important not to let your life live you. He adds, “Otherwise, you end up at 40 feeling you haven’t really lived. What have I learned? Perhaps to live now, so that at fifty I won’t look back upon my forties with regret.”

We all have a hardwired need to aim for something. It’s why advertising has been so successful, because its fundamental premise is that, if you buy this product or service, it will improve you and make you feel complete. Of course, that’s never the case, and we continue to struggle to learn the lesson. As a result, we keep on buying our way towards an ideal that’s forever just out of reach.

Research into what makes video games so addictive shines a perfect light on this aspect of our nature. As it turns out, the best games that keep people playing are the ones that hit the sweet spot of being doable, but continually challenging at the same time. Too easy, or too difficult, and we lose interest.

Rather than spending money to feel satisfied, one of the best ways to overcome self-doubt and uncertainty is to set ourselves a goal (something to aim for) that’s a little beyond our capability (the challenge), but is something that we can reach if we persevere.

Contrast that with an attitude that simply gives up if something’s even remotely challenging, and there you will find fertile ground for self-doubt and uncertainty to fester. From there, we might start to wonder what our purpose is, or whether we’re good enough to even have one.

Of course, if we feel so overwhelmed to the point where we don’t even know where to begin, then that’s OK – it’s a normal part of our human condition. If we need help, guidance and support, that’s OK too. This is when we should be especially careful to treat ourselves, and others, with understanding and kindness in accepting that, for the moment, we’re not at our best or where we’d like to be.

If we fall, we accept that we’ve fallen – but of course we don’t stay down. We take action and get back up.

Similarly, when we feel unsure of ourselves, uncertain or lost, we should start from a place of accepting our situation.

But, just as we would support a friend in need, it’s helpful to remind ourselves of the strength and potential we have to shape ourselves however we choose, should we make that commitment. It’s not that life becomes easier or more certain, but that we become stronger and able to bear any challenges we face.

As the noted Hindu monk Swami Vivekananda put it, “Things do not grow better; they remain as they are. It is we who grow better, by the changes we make in ourselves.”

Sunny Side Up columnist Sandy Clarke has long held an interest in emotions, mental health, mindfulness and meditation. He believes the more we understand ourselves and each other, the better societies we can create. If you have any questions or comments, e-mail star2@thestar.com.my. The views expressed here are entirely the writer’s own.
Cooking The Books: A little bit of everything, from food trucks to haute French cuisine

Cooking The Books: A little bit of everything, from food trucks to haute French cuisine

Get the Sunday Star paper tomorrow, May 12, for your 25% discount coupon on three of these cookbooks. Look for it in StarLifestyle.

Around The World In 80 Food Trucks

Publisher: Lonely Planet Global Ltd
Price: RM99.90

It’s probably a little misleading to include the word “world” in this book, seeing as Asia is very poorly represented here. There are no food trucks from South-East Asia at all and just a smattering from other Asian countries (only one from India, a prolific street food hub).

However, if you are interested in testing out food trucks primarily in Europe, South America and North America, you’ll find all sorts of interesting food from vegan offerings at Bristol’s The Spotless Leopard in Britain to seabass ceviche from Lacayejera in Seville, Spain.

Curiously, Asia is represented in other countries, and you’ll find meals like Indian-style poutine from Chai Wallahs in Berlin and chicken, chilli and miso gyoza from Rainbo in London.

Recipes for everything from street food to French haute cuisine in this month's Cooking The Books columnThe American food trucks are probably the most diverse ones in the book, with innovative offerings like the kimchi quesadillas peddled by Kogi in Los Angeles, and the freshly-baked red velvet cookies made by Captain Cookie And The Milk Man in Washington DC.

The best part about the book is the recipes that accompany each food truck entry – here’s where you could learn how to make everything from tuna tacos to Uruguyuan flan and buttermilk fried chicken biscuit sandwiches exactly like the food truck pros who make it every day.

Edible Satire: French Cuisine With A Twist

Author: Isadora Chai
Publisher: Images Publishing
Price: RM206.21

One thing that immediately stands out about local culinary icon Isadora Chai is how intrepid she is. This boldness and ability to speak her mind isn’t just limited to her personality – it’s reflected in her food too.

Recipes for everything from street food to French haute cuisine in this month's Cooking The Books columnIn her cookbook, which is essentially a compilation of the many monthly degustation dinners she has curated at her fine dining haunt, Bistro á Table in Petaling Jaya, Chai’s creative spark is in evidence everywhere. So you’ll find dinners that run the gamut from a manga-inspired one to a riff on Charlie & The Chocolate Factory.

And then there are the images presented in this book, which are probably some of the most gorgeous food pictures you will ever find – each image capably showcasing every breathtaking fibre and molecule of every single perfectly-plated dish.

Having said all that, the recipes in the book – as Chai attests – aren’t for the faint-hearted. Some of the ingredients are downright premium (read: unattainable) fare like fresh duck foie gras, Kobe tendon and Hokkaido scallops. And the sheer effort required to assemble each meal? Well, let’s just say you’d have to have the willpower of an Olympian to pull off some of these dishes.

Alternatively, you could just follow Chai’s advice and make some of the yummy individual components instead, like pea mash or parsnip soup.

Overall, though, you’ll find that despite the practical obstacles littering your path, you’ll still want this cookbook lining your bookshelves because, if nothing else, it reminds you that all food has the potential to be sculpted into the sort of intrinsically complex, unfailingly beautiful meals that Chai’s fertile mind regularly produces.

Recipes for everything from street food to French haute cuisine in this month's Cooking The Books columnKorean BBQ & Japanese Grills

Author: Jonas Cramby
Publisher: Pavilion
Price: RM137 (pre-order only)

Written by journalist and restaurant critic Jonas Cramby, Korean BBQ & Japanese Grills is an incredibly well-researched book on the myriad hows and whys behind this popular East Asian method of cooking. The book is backed up by an incredible amount of documentation and cataloguing, so you’ll discover how meat was banned in Japan until 1872 and how kimchi is so popular in South Korea, that the government spent millions trying to develop a space-proof version!

These interesting nuggets of information are interspersed with plenty of recipes, ranging from grilled beef to ginger pork, bulgogi and all the side dishes that typically accompany these meals – from cabbage salad to kimchi.

Cramby has also put a lot of thought into execution, so many of the recipes include useful tips as well as pictorial guides on things like butchering chicken and insightful information on grills, knives and other tools.

If you’re a fan of Asian barbecue, rest assured this handy little book will make for both an interesting read as well as a practical beginner’s guide to doing it yourself.

Recipes for everything from street food to French haute cuisine in this month's Cooking The Books columnThe Curry Guy Veggie

Author: Dan Toombs
Publisher: Hardie Grant
Price: RM89.90

It is admittedly a little strange to find a Caucasian man with no discernible Asian roots or culinary pedigree writing a book on Indian cuisine, but Dan Toombs is proof that with globalisation, anyone can cook anything. Toombs has made a modest success of his Curry Guy blog, where he cooks all manner of curries, an effort that has in turn spurred the birth of multiple cookbooks.

At the outset, it is important to note that Toombs’ Indian food isn’t really the sort of authentic fare you’re likely to find in India. Instead, you’ll find recipes gleaned from “British curry houses” as he puts it, which essentially means the recipes are adapted based on local predilections and palates.

This is his third cookbook and it is dedicated to Indian vegetarian offerings, like vada pav (deep-fried potato burger), spicy masala popcorn, vegetable korma, chickpea curry and rava dosas. While some recipes are redolent of more home-cooked fare – think rice and lentil curry and butter paneer – others like the paneer, onion, chilli and garlic naan pizza, obviously allude to Toombs’ keenness for experimenting.

Ultimately, the book is clearly designed for people looking for a fuss-free introduction to Indian vegetarian food, so if you’re looking for really home-spun Indian food gleaned from someone born and brought up on the subcontinent, this book is likely to rub you the wrong way. On the other hand, if you’re after modified Indian fare or food with a hint of Indian flavours, this will do nicely.

Human Writes: We have lost the war on drugs

Human Writes: We have lost the war on drugs

Imagine a disease that causes almost half a million deaths a year, that has children losing parents, that triggers boundless crime and violence. Surely we’d scramble for solutions. Surely global bodies would not trot out the same useless strategies for years. Surely no leader would call to kill those affected. That, though, is the reality of the global drug epidemic.

In Manila, blood-stained bodies of alleged suspects are found daily on the streets, the result of extrajudicial killings by vigilantes or the police. Often, the faces of the murdered are wrapped in plastic tape, their hands tied, with a note – or sick meme. In one case, a grinning mouth and eyes were drawn over the wrapped face of a dead man.

The careless disregard for life, and the disrespect for the dead, are the toll of the “war on drugs”. The bloody trail left by this war questions our very humanity.

Across the Pacific, it’s also grim: 2017 was the worst year ever for American drug overdoses, with 200 deaths a day, report US health authorities. That’s more deaths than from car crashes, the Vietnam War or guns. Grandparents have had to step in to care for orphaned children. This crisis, which began with a rise in legal prescription painkillers, has been fuelled by fentanyl, a synthetic drug 50 times stronger than heroin.

human writes war on drugs has failed

Protesters holding a banner that says “fight the dictator” during a rally to call for an end to the killings in the so-called war on drugs of Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte. Photo: AP

Modern drugs are more dangerous than ever before. And far more available.

Yet we still hear leaders – including our own – blathering on about becoming drug-free. A “Drug-Free Asean” was a goal set by Asean in 1998 and then again in 2000, with a target year of 2015. No matter that they missed that; the goal was reaffirmed just last week.

The United Nations called for a “drug-free world” in 1998, and then 2008 again, with the slogan “We can do it”. Um, really? A push for policy reform failed in 2016, the fantastical rhetoric remains. Who are they trying to kid?

In fact, we have not even “remotely reduced” the global supply of drugs, says a report that came out earlier this week.

The UN drug strategy of the last 10 years has been a “spectacular failure”, says the report from a network of 174 non-governmental organisations under the International Drug Policy Consortium (IDPC).

The report catalogues the carnage of the last decade:

> A 145% rise in drug-related deaths in the decade, with 450,000 deaths in 2015 alone;

> Almost 4,000 executions for drug offences;

> Around 27,000 extrajudicial killings in drug crackdowns in the Philippines since June 2016;

> More than 71,000 overdose deaths in the United States in 2017 alone;

> And a global pain epidemic, with 75% of people lacking access to pain treatment such as morphine.

There is also a huge prison population related to drug use. Globally, one in five prisoners are behind bars for drug offences, mostly possession for personal use; in Malaysia, this figure is more than 50%.

Meanwhile, cultivation, consumption and illegal trafficking are now at record levels, with a 130% rise in opium poppy cultivation since 2009.

The report comes ahead of a key UN meeting next March where there is a chance to set a new roadmap for drugs. The IDPC has called for an end to punitive policies and “unrealistic” objectives and for more “meaningful goals” that improve health.

Globally, there is a shift towards decriminalisation, whereby drugs remain illegal but people caught with small amounts of drugs do not go to prison.

Portugal successfully decriminalised drugs in 2001; it has saved money and improved public health with no rise in drug use. Canada and Uruguay have gone further and legalised cannabis, which will be regulated like alcohol.

Malaysia has been shifting towards a public health approach. Back in the 1990s, bodies of drug users could be found on the streets of Chow Kit in Kuala Lumpur. Palani Narayanan, then an outreach worker and co-founder for Ikhlas, a drop-in centre in Chow Kit supporting drug users, remembers finding bodies in abandoned buildings.

The introduction of voluntary clinics offering methadone treatment and needle and syringe exchange services led to a drop in deaths and a massive decline in HIV infections.

Now a senior adviser for the Global Fund for AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria, he still thinks about those lives lost in Chow Kit.

“We could have saved so many if we had decriminalised drugs and got people to come forward and get treatment.”

Criminalising drugs pushes users towards criminal organisations. It makes drugs more dangerous, even deadly.

We’ve lost the war on drugs. The only winners have been the drug lords. We need to view drug addiction not as a crime, but for what it really is – a health issue.

Human Writes columnist Mangai Balasegaram writes mostly on health but also delves into anything on being human. She has worked with international public health bodies and has a Masters in public health. Write to her at star2@thestar.com.my.
Sunny Side Up: ‘We make a living by what we get. We make a life by what we give.’

Sunny Side Up: ‘We make a living by what we get. We make a life by what we give.’

What does it mean to be generous? It’s a question I’ve mulled over for as long as I can remember. It didn’t help that I grew up at a time when people started to love things and use people more. Surely it should be the other way around?

When I was growing up, I believed that those who gave more were the ones who gave the most. The uncle who gave 10 dollars was, to my mind, more generous than the one who shared his stories.

As I grew older, I started to value the people around me much more than the things I received. The most valuable possession anyone has to give is their time, and I’ve come to appreciate this more as the years go by. The aunt who shares her stories today is more precious than any amount of money.

But as a child, being generous seemed like a burden: Why would you want to give anything away that you value? Share some things, sure – but keep the good stuff to yourself.

When we’re young, the rewards of giving aren’t as apparent as the supposed rewards of receiving. Over time, I came to realise that being generous wasn’t about making grand gestures and that giving feels better than getting.

I remember one story about the Tibet’s Dalai Lama who was receiving well-wishers following a talk he delivered to a large audience. Most of the attendees presented him with gifts, which he happily received. At one point, an old woman came to him and offered the only possession of value she had.

Upon seeing this, someone asked, “How can you take this poor old lady’s best possession? You have enough gifts already.” The Dalai Lama replied, “It’s not that I need to receive the gift, it’s the lady who needs to give.”

Across the major spiritual traditions, we’re told variations of the advice that “it’s better to give than to receive”. Giving to others, whatever we might give, means we are contributing to the happiness of others, that we’re helping people to flourish, that we’re offering our help and support when it’s needed.

It’s an important part of being human; indeed, it could be argued that generosity is the main reason humankind has come this far.

In Buddhist teachings, it’s made clear that generosity is a virtue in itself, regardless of the amount of what’s given. As the Buddha advised, “Even if a person throws the rinsings of a bowl or a cup into a village pool or pond, thinking, ‘May whatever animals live here feed on this,’ that would be a source of merit, to say nothing of what is given to human beings.”

Modern science backs up what traditional teachings have espoused for centuries: In 2017, researchers at the University of Zurich found that generous people live happier lives, while those who act out of self-interest tend to be less happy. They also suggested that even making the commitment to being more generous triggers changes in our brains that make us happier.

The best part about being generous is that we needn’t “give big” for our generosity to make a big impact on people’s lives. In fact, it’s usually the little gestures that make the biggest difference. Whether it’s our boss telling us they really appreciate our efforts, or someone taking the time to share a cup of coffee and some stories with us, the vital ingredient behind anything we give is the intention to give without condition.

In Buddhism, generosity is the foundational virtue upon which everything else is built. When we give, other positive qualities grow within our hearts as we spend less time looking inward and more time helping others to alleviate their burdens.

As the Buddhist monk Ajahn Brahmali advised me, being mindful leads us to be more kind … but being kinder also leads us to be more mindful. In my own experience throughout the years, this has sometimes been a case of “easier said than done”. It can be difficult to override our self-interest; it’s such a powerful and potent drive, but there’s great wisdom in the spiritual teachings that we find in our respective scriptures.

Sunny Side Up says being generous makes you happy and live longerThe paradox of giving is that, the more we give to others, the more we receive. Generosity is the social glue that binds us all together and, as a result of giving to others, we become happier and more content as we focus more on people and less on things. After all, it’s the people around us who bring the greatest joys in life, while the novelty of things quickly wears off.

The possessions we have provide us with convenience and fleeting pleasure, but we live for the people in our lives, and hopefully we are able to give to them as much as we receive in turn. As Winston Churchill so brilliantly put it, “We make a living by what we get. We make a life by what we give.”

Sunny Side Up columnist Sandy Clarke has long held an interest in emotions, mental health, mindfulness and meditation. He believes the more we understand ourselves and each other, the better societies we can create. If you have any questions or comments, e-mail star2@thestar.com.my.

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