Saturday, May 23, 2015

How being a Victim of the Tall Poppy Syndrome made me a Better Person

DISCLAIMER: This is NOT a sob story. If anything, the only person who should be sobbing in shame is anyone who was, or still is, bitter at the genuine accomplishments of others in the stead of celebrating and encouraging them. It sucks!

The Walkabout has always been about insight, inspiration and self discovery.
Today, let us candidly say some not-too-pleasant-to-hear things about ourselves.

First off, we all love to think that we are perfect. We post photos and status updates on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram whose primacy is to show just how much of a good time we are having compared with others, how awesome our lives are and how infallible our thinking and "considered"  opinions are. Truth be told, social networks are a big, albeit virtual pissing contest where we scamper for attention to show off just how hung we are in a vanity inspired dick-measuring contest.

So, how about we stop brown-nosing for a while, and get to hear some deeply seated concerns that have stayed hidden and largely ignored.. about how society, much as I believe it can change, can almost break someone?
This especially goes out to everyone who knew me in my childhood. It's finally time to shine the spotlight on you and reveal what most of you really were, and some still are.

I've always said that I had a difficult childhood. Growing up, I was a victim of the Tall Poppy Syndrome.
You see, I was born and raised in what I now realize was a dystopic and crapsack neighborhood in Nderu village in Ndeiya Location, Limuru Division. Until very recently, this is a place that was considered backward and underdeveloped. Thanks to the absence of development-inducing infrastructure such as mains electricity, piped water, all weather roads and telecommunications, the inhabitants had become complacent and gotten used to things as they were. Only a few strove for better, which was achieved by either going abroad or moving away to Nairobi.

That said, a key characteristic of any crapsack society is the corruption of inhabitants into perpetuating nastiness against one another. Such a place is not at all kind to idealists, and anyone who acts differently, rises to greatness or escapes the 'social ghetto" is pulled down.

The Tall Poppy Syndrome

This is defined as

a social phenomenon in which people of genuine merit are resented, attacked, cut down, or criticised because their talents or achievements elevate them above or distinguish them from their peers. This is similar to begrudgery, the resentment or envy of the success of a peer.

In other words,

the Tall Poppy Syndrome is in play when a character or characters act to achieve parity with another character who is presented or perceived as somehow "better" not by improving themselves, but by bringing the other guy down to their level. 

Better than them

Right from the time I joined nursery school in 1986, I was the top student. This went on in Class 1 a year later until 1994 when I sat KCPE. What kept surprising me is that I seldom had to read all that hard to pass examinations. My siblings too, were also top in their respective classes.

You'd be forgiven to think this would result in endless joy every time results were announced and all the top positions were occupied by Mr Njenga's children. Far from it. Fellow classmates, neighbors whose children we invariably defeated in academics and most of our teachers did resent us. At times, quite openly.

I can point out several of the most vexing incidents:

1989, when my class teacher simply refused to give me a Swahili textbook but still expected me to have done her holiday assignment when school reopened. It took the intervention of the Headteacher for her to change her mind.

1996, when another teacher openly told me that I'll not take the University Degree I'd one day get to her house, but would deliver it "kwa Njenga". All because I'd been involved in an altercation with her son. This infuriated the Deputy Headteacher, and a fortnight later, she was compelled to come over to apologize both to me and my father in our house.

1993, the headteacher telling my father she had heard some parents saying how they could slaughter a goat and throw a huge bash were his sons and daughters to fail exams. Thankfully, this never happened.

And I could go on and on, for every year I was in Primary School.

Every time I saw Caruso bully Chris in Everybody Hates Chris, or listen to Eric Cartman endlessly call Kyle names and even sing disparaging songs about his family in South Park, I identified with the pain. We often laugh and joke about it, but it is a serious matter to the victims.
I too, was bullied. Never beaten up, but called names, ridiculed and embarrassed by my peers for being different and better. I must say I wasn't always in the right, but there was no justifiable reason to warrant such meanness.

I therefore found solace only at home. Only in the company of my siblings and parents did I feel at peace. I got to dislike people. And got lost in the wonderful world of books where I could be physically present but mentally away in far off places. Looking back, I would have slipped into depression, even lost my mind had I not had the amazing support that I always found at home. And shame on you if you think I was too serious to take a joke from my peers. You simply do not understand.

The result was a socially awkward person who like Finch in American Pie, had to take a dump only at home. Going to school was a necessary evil, and to this day, I remain in favor of home-schooling for kids of a certain age. I still live alone in a place where I seldom encourage visits. And neither do I hang around my neighbors' homes unless it is absolutely necessary that I visit. But not to worry, I am NOT a psychopath.

To this day, I abhor crowds and go to great lengths to avoid public gatherings. School assembly throughout Primary and High School were a great deal of patience, unease and tolerance. Adjournment was always a huge sigh of relief.
I have so far only attended two weddings. One, my mother's in 2000 and the other, my sister's in 2013.

And to a great extent, this is why I spend most of the time alone in my den, reading. I am reserved and only encourage one-on-one interactions. No group excursions, and certainly no group dates. Team sports remain something I cannot stand, both watching and participating. Thankfully, there is Sudoku and Chess...

Care should be taken not to mistake this with having a low self esteem. Far from it. Those who have encountered me soon realize that the opposite in in fact true. For a long time, I always believed I was mostly right. I still tend to think of myself all too highly, bordering on harmful narcissism. At times, my words and mannerisms present me as a person who is full of himself.

I'm yet to realize why some people think looking down on others, despising them and cutting them down to size is of any gain. Despite being enormously wealthy, I am not rich. But never once have I felt bad about someone coming into great fortune. When others exceed me in certain ways (which happens all the time), I never hesitate to be genuinely happy for them, congratulate with a pat on the back as I cheer them on to greater achievement.
I do realize that it is the presence of short people that makes some people tall, that we all need one another. Every single person has a reason to be and a place in this world, just as every species of flora and fauna is necessary for a healthy ecosystem.

Why then, do people find it necessary to cut others down simply because they are different? Because they are better? Is it too hard to realize that we are united in our diversity?

As I grow wiser and get to meet some of the most amazing people in recent times, I am alive to the fact that it is no longer about me. I've had to stop focusing so much on my awesome self, and realize that it is in giving that we receive, that altruism and genuine concern for others can be most rewarding. That it always works for the greater good.

I have not only grown intellectually with time, but emotionally as well. Now willing to listen and take suggestions, I have found that the process of discovering who I really am begins with knowing who I really don't want to be. For this reason, I have learnt to forgive those who were mean to me and let go of a most imperfect past.

But all is not lost. It never is. And I did come to find most, if not all that I all along sought, only when I stopped looking. I have gradually started making appearances in public places, such as burials in the neighborhood.

In Sum

Social interactions, especially those hinged on an unpleasant past, cannot become perfect. But they can be perfected.

It may not be enough to look back at a difficult past that's inundated with painful memories and unpleasant experiences. It is not enough to wish that things turned out differently. It is definitely not enough to live with regret. Even accepting the sad realities of this life is not enough in itself. It is true that I cannot go back and make a brand-new start. But I can, and already have started, making a brand-new end.
And that is where the perfection starts.

* * *

I've never ended a single post with two YouTube tracks. Today, I get to do that.

The first one illustrates why I've largely retreated to books, inspired by the hypocrisy so well hidden in some societal expectations and its attendant conventional thinking.

The second one simply underscores the realization that all the bad is now gone, that I have forgiven, learnt, let go and moved on. I am no longer defined by my shadow days. If anything, hard times have only made me realize that I am a good man with a good heart...


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