‘The Gifts in our Stocking’

Being the time of the year that it is, it seems appropriate to think a little bit about gifts. I’m thinking not so much about the giving of gifts to others but rather the gifts we are given and how we deal with them. Do we always see them as gifts or do we easily see them as burdens?

There are a couple of thoughts I want to weave together as part of reflecting on how we engage with what’s in our own stockings….

A while ago while trying to distract myself on the treadmill, I watched an interview on Sky News with a Spanish racing driver called Maria De Villota. Maria was a Formula 1 (F1) test driver and in July 2012, she was testing a F1 vehicle at a race track in England ahead of the British Grand Prix. After completing one run, she was returning to the mechanics when her car suddenly accelerated into the back of the team truck. She was taken to hospital in a critical condition with severe head injuries.

In the Sky interview, Maria appeared striking in a blue velvet jacket and a matching blue eye patch, covering the eye she had lost as a result of the accident. What was more striking, however, was what she shared about herself and her experience. She started by explaining that when she was in the hospital, she asked the doctor treating her, the following question: “Do you need your hands for your profession?” and he said, “Yes, as a surgeon, I certainly do.” Her response to him was: “And I need my eyes for my profession.”

But this was not to be, the doctor could not save one of her eyes which had taken the brunt of the impact in the crash. This was absolutely devastating for the 32 year old Maria because her entire life up until that point had been about motor racing. Her father, Emilio, had been one of Spain’s first F1 drivers and her brothers were both involved in motor racing. She was the first woman ever to be appointed as a F1 test driver and she was a role model for women who wanted to get into F1. Her entire identity was based on motor racing – it was all she could see in her life and she could simply not imagine a life without it.

However, over the course of her recovery (about 5 months), she came to realise how little she had actually seen in her life. It was only in the process of losing an eye, that she began to see and value things beyond the race track – family, friends, connections, love. The revelation for Maria was both surprising and profound…. In her words: “how much more she saw with less”.

This made me wonder how often is it that we see only certain things because we see them through a particular lens – the lens of our understanding, interpretation and identity. We attach a value and a language to what we see, which in turn dictates how we engage with what we are seeing – as a gift to challenge and enrich us or as a burden to be shouldered.

The latter being the case, how do we begin to shift this, as Maria De Villota did? Not to naively think that it’s about flicking a switch in our head and heart which changes the glass from ‘half empty’ to ‘half full’ or to simply tell ourselves that all that is required is to see the ‘problem’ as an ‘opportunity’. That would be both simplistic and unappreciative of the courage and tenacity needed to confront and engage with the very real hardships that life presents us with. Rather, what if we were to see these struggles, internal and external, as ‘gifts’ that have the potential to contribute to our growth and development, and to our acceptance of our authentic selves?

Two activities I was involved in recently provide further pause for thought about this. Last week I was in Armenia conducting training on behalf of a UN agency. One of the most impressive people I met there was a course participant who holds a senior position in the trade union confederation. She is a very tall woman, probably at least 6 feet tall and what I noticed was that whenever she stood near other people, she tried to make herself smaller. This was particularly obvious when we took a photo of the group and she literally crouched down so that she would be the same height as the others. It appeared that her need not to ‘stand out’ physically, extended to a need not to ‘stand out’ intellectually. The fact is, however, that she has a significant presence, and it seemed to me that she was rejecting the ‘gift’ she had been given.

I shared with her at the end of the course, my observation of how she tried to minimise her presence, literally and figuratively and I asked her how it might be for her to stand tall and be the self she naturally was, rather than constantly ‘apologising’ for who and how she saw herself. She was surprised by my observation, not because she disagreed with it, but rather because how true she knew it to be about her way of interacting with her world.

Along with her recognition of what she does and how it works against her, during this conversation, she also exuded a sense of excitement and inspiration at the prospect of being able to embrace her stature as a ‘gift’ and not a burden.

Some other thoughts related to this acceptance or rejection of ‘gifts’ were triggered while I was watching the deeply thought-provoking movie, “Searching for Sugarman”, the true story of the 1970s singer-songwriter, Rodriguez. One of the lines that resonated strongly with me was about “obstacles being the trigger for inspiration” – that it is those things that we struggle with or that we believe to block our progress that may in fact be the ‘gifts’ that provide opportunities for new insights, understanding and possibilities for different action.

So how can we see the ‘gifts’ that we have been given, whatever shape or form they may take, as offering up to us the possibilities for our growth and development as human beings? What do we need to do in order to recognise the ‘gifts’ in our stockings? So that when we are confronted with a strangely shaped item sticking out rather awkwardly, do we put our hand into the stocking and bring it out and say: “this is something for me, how do I make the most of it?” Or do we try to push it deeper into the stocking and not take it out for fear that it is not the ‘gift’ we hoped for? Instead of leaving it in the stocking or casting it aside because of the obstacle we perceive it to be, what if we were to hold it gently and open ourselves to what possibilities this ‘gift’ might present for us to see more, and to be a little differently in the world.

So as the year draws to a close, is it worth taking some time to reflect on the following: 

  • What were the ‘gifts’ that I was given in 2012?
  • What helped me to appreciate these ‘gifts’?
  • What ‘gifts’ did I not value or appreciate?
  • What stood in the way of this?

 

And looking towards 2013, to reflect on this question:  

  • How can I be more open, like Maria De Villota became, to the ‘gifts’ as they may be given to me in 2013, and what they might hold for my onward journey.
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