Sunday, April 20, 2008

A Definition of Freedom

According to Merriam-Webster dictionary freedom means “The absence of necessity, coercion, or constraint in choice of action”. However, regardless what the dictionary says, the arguments of freedom are quite diverse and opinions differ according to a wide variety of factors such as: race, age, gender, social status and the environment. At first glance the word freedom sounds positive, powerful. It is so powerful that often it is used by politicians to deceive and mold public opinion in support of their actions and to benefit themselves. The Iraq war is a classical example of that. Freedom may be the right I have to exercise the power of choice. The question is how much power I actually have when for every decision made there are consequences. The constant thought of possible implications is a factor that impacts my ability to make choices. That makes me feel as free as a bird inside a cage. In short, freedom is not really free.

The first idea that comes to mind when I think of the word free is to be of constraint of something. I recognize that I am always free to shape up my thoughts and develop myself seeking knowledge and understanding the nature of the environment around me. I am in control over my actions. I can change my attitude, my religious beliefs and my physical appearance. I can carry myself however I please and it is nobody’s business if all of a sudden I decide to grow a beard or long hair. I am free to change my job, buy a new car or take a vacation in the Bahamas or in Hawaii. Even though I may perceive the possibility of doing these things as freedom, deep inside I know that accomplishing these and many other things is just an illusion or wishful thinking because in reality I am locked in a complex set of rules. I have responsibilities with my marriage, my job, the mortgage, and many other obligations. I cannot really do any of these things without consequence. Is this really freedom? The controversial thing is that no one put a gun to my head and forced me into signing a contract holding me to these rules. I simply elected to engage myself in them, perhaps willingly driven by the thought that these commitments were necessary and beneficial to me.

I am free in the sense that I have self determination and the ability to make a sound judgment of what is achievable and what is not. I can only go on vacation if I plan ahead of time and allocate sufficient funds to cover out of ordinary expenses. In order for me to go on vacation my employer would have to release me for a period of time that would be convenient not only for me but also for the company. I wish I could buy a new car but I am aware that that is not the wisest thing to do at this moment. The extra car payments would put a burden on my already tight budget. I have to be very careful and consider all the possibilities which will result from my actions. In choosing an alternative I should consider the benefits and inconveniences such choice would bring upon me. It was my choice to come to the “land of the free” and live the American dream. I recognize that the advantages of being here today are enormous. But I pay a high price for that. The years I spent away from my family created a big void between us. Among the things I miss the most is gathering around the dinner table on Sundays with my mother, siblings and nephews and engaging in conversations with them. Over time a natural sense of disconnect has developed resulting from my absence.

In trying to gather different meanings of the word freedom I read some articles I found on the internet about the Brazilian slavery which happened from the sixteenth to the nineteenth centuries. Brazil had the record of being the last Western nation to retain slavery when it was finally emancipated in 1888 by Princess Isabel. Slavery only ended after mounting pressure from the British government and intense abolitionist movements within the country forcing Brazil to end the cycle of slavery trade that last for three centuries. I can comprehend that for a person who lived through slavery, the word freedom had a very special and powerful meaning. Abolishing slavery was a necessary and wise thing to do mainly because it became less profitable and riskier for traders to transport their “product” across the Atlantic as the British vowed to intercept and confiscate any transporting vessel with African slave headed for Brazil. The country was forced to open the doors for immigrants who came mainly from Europe. That was a signal that human trade was coming to an end and freedom was on its way for those who were physically exploited and psychologically diminished for so long.

Emancipation from slavery brought serious consequences for the former enslaved population who had to be acclimated to the condition of common citizens. They had difficulty getting used to the new set of rules and obligations that “free” people had to live by. They had problems finding jobs and making a living on their own because the land owners were not willing to pay a salary to them. Suddenly there were thousands of people roaming around the cities with nothing to do. Some of these individuals chose to go back to the rural areas where they came from and keep on living as “slaves” in exchange for food and a place to sleep as they could not find work opportunities in other areas. Even though freedom from slavery would prove to be positive thing to happen to the Brazilian society in the long run, for the first few years it brought serious consequences to the government, society and the former slaves themselves who had to adjust to their new reality as free individuals.

Freedom is not really a license to do whatever I want to do. I am free as long as I abide to certain rules and responsibilities. It is hard to find an absolute and precise definition of freedom. I may be free, but that freedom is set by a number of limitations. In the democratic societies where people are said to be free and are protected by laws, there are inequalities. People may not have the same experiences of freedom. Do the poor enjoy the same freedom as the rich when they lack resources and opportunities? How much freedom do the wealthy really have when they live with the fear of losing their status or with the expectation of becoming richer? Are the uneducated or illiterate people free when the number of choices they can make is very limited? Are people who are afraid to take on responsibility free? None of the mentioned above is free and this shows that freedom has many faces. Political freedom usually comes to mind when I use the word, but that is only one aspect of it. We may be politically free but, psychologically, we can be slaves. I really believe that what is important is to lead a free life is to be free in spirit so that none of the restrictions I have to undergo in life will be able to make me feel dependent. Whenever possible I will fight for freedom in that light.

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Saturday, April 19, 2008

Believe It or Not

The scene took place in Itororo, a town of approximately ten thousand people located in the northeastern state of Bahia, Brazil. The year was 1967 and I was eight years old. The house was probably built by slaves at a time when region was mostly farmland some two hundred years back. It was bought by my daddy’s father, for a bargain at least twenty years before I was born. He lived there for awhile but spent most of his time on the farm. Periodically, it was used by some family members as a resting place as some of my uncles would ride long distances on horse back to go to town in order to take care of personal or family business. It was a common scene to see a jeep parked alongside one or two horses in the back yard. Some people stayed overnight while others spent the weekend whenever they needed to do any shopping or other errands in the city. The memories I have of the house are still crystal clear and they do not seem to go away so easily, despite the distance in time. Even though I enjoyed going to town to see new things and people, I was never particularly excited about the prospect of spending the night at the house. It always gave me the creeps because of the association I made with ghosts or phenomenon I was never able to explain. I hated that house and found, it particularly difficult staying alone or sleeping alone in there.

The house was located on the dead end of a parallelepiped stone paved street where we could barely hear the distant noise of cars passing by on the main road. The approaching sound of a trotting horse passing by would break the silence periodically. The steps were continuous and cadenced and it sounded like music to my ears, despite having just one note. Whoever was riding it was in no hurry to get anywhere. That rhythmical sound of horseshoes hitting the stone pavement was quite loud as it passed by the house but soon decreased in intensity and finally disappeared leaving behind only silence. The house was built with considerably largebricks covered with stucco which would periodically come loose. Eventually the stucco would fall off, leaving patches of horizontally aligned bricks exposed. Despite the appearance, those walls were as strong and thick as that of a fortress. All the windows were painted white with marine blue shutters. They were huge
and appeared to be extremely heavy. They needed to be opened often to let the sun and fresh air to prevent bad smell from humidity and mold growing. There were a total of ten windows around the house. They were all the same size and had the same characteristics.

The uniqueness of architectural design reveled it to have been built by some influential figure in the region during the slavery time, probably some wealthy land owner. Looking at the house from across the street I could see the six cement stairs which led to the front door through the porch on the right side. On the sides of the stairs, two nicely crafted metal handrails painted black ended right before the two lion sculptures. They looked intimidating and caught the attention of those who were not familiar with the neighborhood. The outside walls, once painted in yellow, faded away and became discolored. The severely peeled marine blue finish on the eaves intensified the need for maintenance. In the front and back yards a few patches of grass struggled to survive among a variety of wild weed species. Castor bean, with its large palmately-lobed leaves, dominated the scene. In general the exterior and surroundings of the house looked abandoned.

In contrast with the outside, interior of the house was quite modest but pleasingly up kept and clean. Just inside the front door was the living room, a quite spacious area. The first image that always kept my attention was a faded black and white weeding picture of my grandparents hanging on the wall in which they looked young and exceedingly joyful. An old brown couch was placed on the right side against the front wall and a few chairs were facing it separated by a dark stained wood coffee table sitting in the center of the room. There was another table in the corner with some artificial white lilies and a few framed pictures of relatives and some of my grandfather long time friends. The scenario did not change much in the sense that everything looked simple but harmoniously arranged throughout the whole house. Looking up from any of the rooms we could see laths of wood running down from the roof top to the gutters making the base for rows of colonial tiles. The tiles were arranged nicely and formed a beautiful mosaic on the roof. I could see some old stains on it probably caused by water leaks. Due to the roof being made of ceramic and because the house had no ceiling, the sound produced by thunderstorms was amplified enormously creating a continuous rumbling noise from the raindrops that made it sound as if we were inside a giant percussion instrument. That draws a picture of how intense storms are in the region. I was really scared every time it rained but not nearly as scared the prospect of living there. Each time we went to town with my parents I would count the minutes to leave. However, at some point the same year of 1967, my grandfather requested that my father take care of the property for awhile because he already had his hands full with his farming business. He had cocoa bean plantations in the region at a time the business was really promising. Because of that he went to Itororo very rarely. I did not find the news of moving to the house very encouraging but at my age I did not have a say in the matter and had to go wherever my family went. The house was very unique and mysterious like no other in town.

Despite being a child of such a young age at that time, I was able to recollect in detail all of my experiences while living in that place. I remember an instance in which my father was not home and we were just about to have dinner. We were all sitting around the rectangular, dark finish wooden table in the dining room at around seven pm. The food was on the table and we were ready to eat. Suddenly we heard a continuous knock on the front door. Initially we did not know what to make of it. My mother gave it a shot and tried to guess who might have been calling at that time. “Could it be your daddy? He told me he would not be able to return until Friday” she asked. Then she stood up and went to answer the door. She looked a little frightened when she came back. “Who is it mom?” asked my younger brother, Val. She was quiet and just tried to put on her best face so as not to show she was worried. She just shook her head sideways and pressed her lips together giving an indication that no one was there. A few minutes later there were more knocks. This time a little louder. I followed my mom towards the front door. We looked through the curtain. Not a single person was on the porch either. That was very intriguing because for a person to knock on the door and manage to get away without being seeing was nearly impossible. The heavily fortified brick fence walls were at least ten or twelve feet high all the way around the house and it would take a man of extreme physical abilities to be able to knock on the door and then jump the fence before anyone could see him. We were not surprised. That was not the first time this type of thing happened. During the first few experiences we strongly believed that someone was playing a trick on us. “Who would do such a thing in their perfect mind? Who would try to scare us and for what purpose”, asked my mother. A number of other people who had stayed in that house reported having the same experience. This scene repeated every other night at dinner time. Even though my mom tried to be in control of the situation I could tell she was scared.

It was also quite common to hear the sound of somebody knocking on the front door at the time we were in bed and nearly falling asleep. The knocking would not stop and increased in intensity at times as if somebody was trying desperately to enter the house. My mom would check on us. “Mintas are you OK?” she asked. “No, I am not mom, I am very scared.” , I said. “It’s nothing, do not worry, nobody is going to hurt us”, she said it in such a way that her words would no be consistent with the expression on her face. She looked visibly disturbed. Those were troubling moments for me as for my siblings, Val, Duda and Celi and my mother as we all witnessed the same experience. The knocking went on for quite sometime, maybe for ten minutes or even longer. They were scattered but very distinctive. We could hear it clearly as we were into deep silence. By now we were well familiar with that routine. My mom did not make any effort to get up and go check on the door and at some point just decided to ignore it. Then, unexpectedly we heard the squeaking sound of grinding metal as if a key was turning in the door lock. The door sounded to be swinging inward as if somebody was applying a slight force to it. I could hear the short high-pitched sound that, like a musical instrument, changed its tone as the door moved inward and back. That sound was normally produced by the increased tension on the hinges because they were so old and dry. During the daytime it was shadowed by other noises in the environment but at night it became more audible. Then some approaching foot steps of boots with heel spurs walking towards the dining area. At that point I was scared to death. I could clearly hear the clicking sound of heel spurs as the footsteps progressed towards us. I covered my face with blankets even in the 38C heat of the summer. We then heard the sound of a chair being dragged as if somebody was going to sit on itat the dinner table. It made a squeak sound of wood being scratched on the cement floor. It was then that we could hear the sound of paper rustling . It seemed like somebody was handling paper documents. At that point, I was speechless and sweating profusely from the heat inside the blakets. The noises went on all night long and sometimes it was impossible to get to sleep.

On another occasion we heard some thump followed by an outcry in the kitchen. This time I was totally alert. The noises started to become more disturbing than before. Even though it sounded a little indistinct, I could tell somebody was sobbing. Then I heard a bunch of dishes being thrown on the floor with a lot of force. I could hear the bits of shattered porcelain flying all over cement floor. I sensed this appeared to be the works of some mad person. I was so scared that night that I started feeling a tingling sensation all over my body. The next morning we went to check and just like in the previous occasions things were in perfect order and nothing was touched. Not a single dish of broken plate was found on the floor and the door was found locked as we left it the night before. The most bizarre thing is that whoever was inside the house would witness the exact same events. In the morning we would check with one another to find out if it was the imagination of one person. But it was always confirmed that everybody witnessed exactly the same event.

One of the most dazzling events happened one day when I woke up in the middle of the night and saw some lights moving slowly on the roof top above my head. There were three of them initially. They kept moving from one side to another continuously. It did not quite look like the effect of a flashlight because it did not have a rim on the outside. The focus was intense with perfectly defined circles about five inches in diameter. Those strange lights kept switching to all spectrums of different colors. They were so beautiful and I was very attracted to them. I just could not take my eyes off of them no matter how hard I tried until I finally fell asleep.

One of the happiest days of my life was the day my father came to the conclusion that we could no longer live in that house and we had to move on. I finally woke up from the nightmare of discomfort and fear that I had experienced for one year three months and seven days. It did not seem like that energy, or god knows what that used to visit us, was doing it with the sole purpose of disturbing us in any way. At times it sounded like a human going about his everyday customary life. One might say that somehow we crossed paths involuntarily and we invaded each other’s privacy...or not. Well, let me stop right there as I have neither the authority nor the competency to analyze these incomprehensible phenomenon. As incredible as it might sound, that experience affected me enormously. It took me years to overcome some of the psychological burden that it caused me. Sharing this ghostly encounter is certainly not the most comfortable thing for me to do and regardless of the judgment one may have, this is a true story about real people who survived the adversity of a real place.

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Friday, April 18, 2008

A Matter of Distraction

Throughout the years I have learned that if I do not have clear objectives in mind I would certainly be susceptible to involvement in someone else’s plans as opposed to my own. On a few occasions in the past I really felt I was part of someone else’s dreams and that was not the greatest feeling I ever had. By living life without a clear purpose I was exposed to all sorts of distractions. At some point I realized I had to drop everything and start over to give my life a new direction. That was particularly true at a time when I was much younger and facing many adverse circumstances in my life. Today I have a different view for what was once considered important. Maybe this comes with age. As I grow older I tend to be more selective and make decisions based on mistakes of the past.

I arrived in this country in August of Nineteen Eighty Four with one thing in mind: I would take any opportunity possible to make a better life for myself and to help my family if I could. I did not really have a defined plan on how I was going to do that. I did not have a recipe to achieve success. I just had a gut feeling that being a person of good character and morals would eventually lead me to become successful if I had the right attitude and worked hard enough. I was not exactly sure what I was going to do to support myself during that time. I had a very difficult task ahead of me. I needed to get used to the new land’s language, customs, and rules. I also needed to acquire different skills to make a living. I had to reinvent myself literally. I did not know what the future would hold for me but I trusted my instinct. I would accomplish something better than the opportunities I had before. Shortly after I arrived I went to Winston Salem, North Carolina where I spent one year then I moved to the town of Amherst, Massachusetts. After that, I moved to Boston where I have lived for the past twenty years. The last eight years I spent with my brother Ad and another friend of ours Mike. I shared with a three bedroom apartment in the East Cambridge area with them. Life was good in Boston, but far from great. I was not particularly happy with what I was doing for a living and wanted to do something else. Ever since I landed in this country I made a living doing the kind of work that I was not really proud of. I was a shuttle driver for a while. Extremely boring! I also did construction work for sometime. The money was good but unpredictable and intellectually degrading. Then I had an opportunity to work for a small publication firm selling advertising space for business targeted at the Brazilian communities. Eventually, I landed in the Biopharmaceutical Industry where I have worked for the past fourteen years. Today I live a decent life and really enjoy what I do. In that regard, I consider myself successful. But I had to face many challenges along the way. I have had up and downs in the course of my personal and professional life. But I tend to look at the bright side of things. There is always a lesson to be learned from every single experience I have had.

Throughout the years I have had a collection of stories. I have been through all kinds of different situations. Some were good and some were regrettable. I wish they never happened. The event that follows is something I did because I was distracted .enough not to see that a dear friend would expose me to a disturbing situation. The event happened in the summer of 1992 while I was living in Cambridge. It highlights how it is possible to get into danger even when in the comfort of my own apartment. By saying yes to a friend, I put myself in a very odd and regrettable situation. I just wish I had never been there. I would have been spared of all the trouble if I had simply said no to an invitation. The event started when I got back from work. It was almost six o’clock. My brother Ad was already home with our roommate, Mike. They were sitting in the living room drinking beer and chatting. The TV was on but no one was really watching anything at that time. I greeted them, dropped my stuff in my bedroom and walked straight to the kitchen. I opened the fridge, grabbed a beer and went to the other room to join them in the conversation. We joked and laughed and talked about different things for a while. We seldom sat down together and talked due to always being on the run taking care of personal things. Something about that night was different. We were all relaxed, laughing and really enjoying ourselves. I was drinking my beer slowly and a momentary silence fell over us as we did not have much more to talk about.

Ad was staring at the TV screen as something caught his attention. Mike broke the silence by talking about a workshop he and his girlfriend Justine had taken recently at a hotel in Danvers. He described it as a very exciting experience. It offered key elements for him to become a better citizen and enhanced his interpersonal relations. It also helped him to become more organized with his personal life and increased his performance at work. In general his life had improved dramatically, by his accounts. He kept on and on and on with that conversation. This guy was really changed. I had never seen him so motivated and excited. Now I was listening to his experience with interest. This training must have been something really significant to transform him that much, I thought to myself. I was very receptive to his talk and decided to pay close attention to it. Who knows this might also be a good opportunity for me. Often I would interrupt and ask questions as I wanted to learn more about it. He patiently clarified all the doubts I had. It took me a while to realize that he was pushing for me to go to that seminar. He invited me to go see a presentation. It sounded something very positive so I accepted the offer. He said there was a group of people joining them for the next session. The fact is that Mike used all the words that I was dying to hear to persuade me to be part of that thing. He knew exactly where and when to push the buttons. He knew exactly how to conduct the conversation to make me interested. The fact is he was trained and prepared to convince people to show up for that workshop. Naturally, if I was told the plain truth I would change my mind very quickly and would have declined going there. I agreed to go to the seminar with him. But then, there was a little problem. Up to that moment I had not heard anything about cost. Suddenly I became hesitant and told him I would make a decision in a couple of days and would get back to him with a definitive answer. I went to bed that night kind of intrigued as I could not stop thinking about the conversation we had that night.


The seminar was going to happen in two weeks. I had to pay five hundred dollar for it, half of that amount up front and the other half on the day of the seminar. I was a little turned down as I did not have that kind of money to spare. I felt like not joining specially because of the cost. He then used all the tools he had available to prevent me from giving up. He showed up with his girlfriend the next day and she used her charm to ensure I did not back off. They used all kinds of arguments to prevent me from changing my mind. I agreed to pay half of the money upfront and then pay the remaining balance at the office the day I was going to take the seminar. With that, I was locked in and had no way to back out. Mike agreed to give me a ride to Danvers the first day to make things easy for me. Once I learned the way to get there I would drive my car.

I was a little nervous as I did not know what to expect at that first training. I also had no clue what Lifespring really was, except for what I was told by both Mike and his partner. I later learned that Lifespring was a large group awareness training program. Still, that did no help me much. I was also told that the workshop was going to be presented in the form of lectures, discussions and a whole lot of group exercises. In short, I was not really sure what I was paying for but I had already decided to take the risk. I trusted Mike very much and we had been friends for a number of years. In fact he was one of the very few friends that I really trusted. I just bought the plan that the seminar was going to be a very educational experience in my life. I had no doubts it was going to be beneficial in many ways.

I showed up at about 8:30 am on the day of the training in the company of Mike and Justine. The seminar was going to start at 9:00 am. I was introduced to one of the staff members at the reception. She was very friendly to me and put on her best face to make me feel welcome. “You are going to have one of the best experiences of your life”, she said. I hope so, I replied to her as she was preparing a name tag for me. She also asked me to sign an agreement waving any action for damages in result of that training. That was just a standard procedure according to her. I thought about what she said before. What does she mean by “the best experience of my life”? I just had to wait and find out for myself. This is very powerful stuff. Just be patient, and have your mind open for the ride. Soon all my questions were going to be answered, I was told. All of a sudden my stomach started to get a little upset. I was getting a little scared actually. Despite people pretending to act as normal human beings, something was a little odd about that place. It was not just the way they talked, it was the whole scenario. There was an effort on part of people to show that this was a very exciting place to be. I saw a group of men nicely dressed in black suits and ties. They looked serious and polite but were not engaged in conversations. They seemed cold as statues. They acted like security guards or maybe they were something of higher order, who knows. Some people were hugging and kissing and whispering in each others ears, but not like lovers do. It was more like friends who love each other dearly. The trouble was I was not used to seeing this kind of behavior everyday. There is nothing wrong with people hugging and kissing. Whatever was happening there was a little beyond the limit of what I would usually see on a regular basis. Maybe it was just me. I was probably over reacting, I thought. “C’mon, just relax”, I thought to myself.

Mike seemed to know everybody. He talked to a whole lot of people. He seemed very comfortable in the environment. I was holding back from him and everyone else because of what was going through my mind. I had already paid the remaining balance right after they checked me in. After a few minutes I was escorted to join a group of people who were already waiting by the door on the furthest side of the room. They all were going to take the workshop. My friend and his partner had no access to that area at all so they left right after I passed through the reception area. We were all standing in that room. The time was 8:50 am. I noticed a group of people talking as if they were very intimate. I was not sure if they were staff members or if they were former participants in the program. They were talking very enthusiastically. The room got filled very quickly as all the registered participants were instructed to approach the area. I could tell there were fifty people or more. One of the staff members walked to the front of the room and started a brief introduction by thanking everyone for taking the courageous decision to be there for what she described as one of the most important resolutions of our lives. At that time we were introduced to all the ground rules. Among a few things that were considered not acceptable was arriving late for each training session. Under no circumstance a participant was to walk in that room late. Unless he or she had a very justifiable and convincing reason for doing so. Every day of the training we were supposed to enter the room in a very methodic way. We would form a single line outside first and then after an alarm sounded, we would be escorted in by staff members. We were told to fill all the seat rows starting from the first one by the stage. This was supposed to be the routine every day of the training. No empty spaces between one participants and the next was allowed. This also meant that none was supposed to save space for another person. No cell phone, chatting, smoking or chewing gums during the hours of the training were allowed. She asked that if anyone would like to go to the restroom at any given time, one would have to lift his hand and wait to be escorted out by one of her assistants. No one was allowed to be wondering around during the whole training. These were all part of the ground rules and everyone agreed to follow them unconditionally. Once we “willingly” agreed to them, they became official and were referred to as “our rules”. We were then escorted to the main training area. We did it as orderly and respectfully as we were told. We quickly filled all the rows of seats. That reminded me of a group of jurors entering a court room before the session starts.

It was a spacious and nicely arranged conference room. Chairs were placed in semi-circle formation facing the stage. The room was a complete silence. Some of us made some funny looks but no one dared to chat. I man frowned his face. I though he meant to say, now what? I looked at the stage area and then all around the room looking for the presence of the trainers. No one was there except for us and those people nicely dressed in suits. They were all aligned along the wall by the main entrance behind us. These were the same cold looking people I saw outside. There were five men and three women. Their expression did not change a bit. It was clear now that they were there to assist on the training. But why are there so many of them, and why they seem to be so indifferent. These were some of the questions were going through my mind at that moment. All the suspense started to give me the creeps. Beautiful chandeliers hanging from the ceiling called my attention. As I was looking up I almost did not notice someone walking to the stage from a side door. I looked at my watch. It was five past nine.

A nicely dressed woman approached the stage and introduced herself as Nancy O’Connell. She was the person who was going to guide us throughout the three day workshop. She was probably in her late forties. She talked about her education background and all the experience she had acquired throughout the years. She held a PhD in psychology and had very extensive experience in giving seminars to groups of people all over the country, before she joined the Lifespring organization. She had a pleasant character and was highly articulate. She also presented the group of people in the back as the “guardians”. She told us they were there to help us keep our ground rules and also to ensure we were all comfortable. She told us funny stories and some of us laughed hysterically. Gosh! This lady is in the wrong business. She would have made a great comedian. She really had the ability to entertain people, I thought. That was an ice breaker for me. I was really feeling kind of intimidated in the beginning and not knowing what to expect. By irradiating the audience with such positive energy, she really made me feel more relaxed. By the end of the first day some of us already showed signs of tiredness even though the activities were highly interactive. I would imagine that one of the objectives of the first day was to make us identify with one another and feel comfortable. That would set the ground for the things to come in the next couple of days. I learned from Nancy that we were a group of seventy five people from different walks of life. There were lawyers, teachers, construction workers and college students among us. While she hoped that all the participants would make it to “graduation day”, she guaranteed that not all of us would succeed because the training was very demanding. That had very little to do with academic background. The success of it depended highly on each person’s ability to concentrate and absorb the material being presented, according to her. We were encouraged to cooperate to the fullest extent to take advantage of the program. She briefly touched again on the ground rules subject and reminded us that it was extremely important that we followed those rules.

The workshop started out with a lecture on human behavior and then it was followed by a game that always led to the next lecture. All the activities touched on the psychological aspect of human behavior and people were systematically challenged to participate in the discussions. Initially the focus was on failures and disappointment but later in the training it turned into self glorification. Some of us were very confrontational and uncooperative to the process. I saw some people being escorted out of the training floor for behaving “inappropriately”. Some people started to crack down psychologically. There was an instance in which a couple of people arrived a few minutes late after the break. They were humiliated in front of everybody. A lady broke down in tears. Each one of them had to speak into the microphone and explain why they were late and answer other embarrassing questions. Somebody else in the audience did not contain himself and laughed. I do not know why someone would laugh in such circumstance. I believe he did not mean to make fun of anyone. It was more like a manifestation of anxiety. “Why are you laughing about?”, “Do you think this is funny?” In the end that person was also embarrassed. “I am not just talking to him. A lot of you have the same habit”. Do you realize how not being on time can affect your life negatively? She would turn to everyone else as if there was no difference between the late comers and the any person sitting in the audience. The point was we all had failures no matter who we were. This kind of scene was a common setting throughout most of first and second day. Nancy sounded very mean at times. I was sure that was a purpose for her to treat people in such a harsh manner. I was momentarily uncomfortable and tired and felt like dismissing myself from the training. But leaving the floor was not that simple. I would probably be asked to go to the stage and explain in front of everybody the reasons why I was leaving. I did not want to go through that discomfort either. The best bet was just to go through that thing all the way to the end. There were good and bad things about it. I can not deny that some of the messages from the lectures were highly motivational and helpful. But I was intrigued on how our emotions were manipulated so easily. It was clear that in order for the workshop to be successful the trainer needed to fully capture the attention and imagination of the participants. During those sessions there was an atmosphere of law and order. Time was critical for anything we did I realized the training was a highly controlled exercise.

As the workshop progressed into the third day the sessions became more intense. It was almost impossible to sit there just like an ordinary observer and not being affected by what was going on. It felt as if we were being hypnotized and people were acting a little odd. Most of us became extremely vulnerable as people would share their most intimate secrets. Experiences shared by other members would shake everyone down. Some people would hug intensely to demonstrate support. This was a moment where we were walking on a psychological thin ice. One of the participants jumped on the stage and confessed in front of everyone that he was gay and he wanted us to be the first to know. He suffered enormously by being in the closet all his life. All of a sudden he had a sense of relief. Then the racial issue came up when another person shared that a number of occasions he was mistreated because of the color of his skin. He shared that he once reacted violently when someone called him “niger” at a club. A bad fight was started and just ended when the police arrived. That brought him some trouble. I could tell he was still resentful over that. “You know what, said the trainer, you are a nigger”. “You were born and will die a niger!”. “You niger”, Said the trainer very loudly. The black guy just froze and had no immediate reaction to that. Suddenly he put his hands on his face and sobbed like a baby. My god, this is crazy, I am out of here, I thought to myself. But despite of what my mind wished my body would not cooperate. The trainer went on with her lecture. “It does not matter what other people call you John. “Do not allow other people to dictate how you should live your life”. “Keep on walking on that path you always going to feel miserable and small”. Stop that thinking right now”, she demanded. “Do not let the color of your skin to prevent you from achieving greatness”. Many people would go and hug him while he was still drying his tears. It was obvious that all the exercises were designed to expose people’s grudges, break them psychologically and then reward them with nice words of encouragement, hugs and kisses.

There were two incidents that affected me the most during that training. While doing one of the exercises, I fell and hit my face violently on a chair. I lost consciousness momentarily. I was taken outside by an assistant to wash my face and have some fresh air as I felt a little disoriented. I looked my face on the mirror. I had a bad bruise on my left eye. I was offered to go to the hospital to be checked on but I did not feel it was necessary and declined the offer. I was escorted back to the training floor holding an ice pack half an hour later. Half way through the third day something clicked on my head and I began to observe that the whole program was a parallel of the Christian Gospel. I had a Christian education in my early years and that realization shocked me. I looked back to the previous exercises and I could see it clearly now. They all mimicked some important biblical events. The only aspect that differed from the bible was the fact that while it preaches eternal life and glorification to Christ and God, the Lifespring program gave emphasis to glorification to life and self. At that point I realized that this thing had to be a cult. If I was a little defensive all along the training that realization made me totally shut down. After that moment I basically dragged myself to stand there until the end. I became disturbed with those findings but I never disclosed to anyone what I saw and how I felt from that experience until now.

Soon after I took the basic course I was contacted several times by the Lifespring people to sign up for the level II workshop. I declined immediately and gave no explanation why I would not join. The truth is even though I played along with the training, in my heart I never accepted those teachings as a role model for my life. I was not able to see how I was going to be able to apply any of that in real life. I learned later that during the Level II, I would have to make stronger commitments to the organization and bringing new participants to the circle was a must. Someone insisted I went back. “Man, what a waste of talent”. “You could have made a great leader here, but if you insist in living inside your old box no one is going to force you out”, he told me. The conversation was left there. I never heard from them again. Recently I was browsing the net and found this statement from a writer who had taken a seminar very similar to Lifespring;

“…Most people assume they would know if they were being brainwashed. They think it involves great force, or some obvious, epic struggle in which the mind slowly and grudgingly succumbs. But mind control only works when the subject cooperates. And cooperation requires that a reasonable person not know what's happening. You have to lead her where you want, but she needs to think she's going someplace else”

While some of the Lifespring teachings contained positive messages, the approach was wrong and misleading. By signing up to the program I put myself in a situation of danger and discomfort. It took me quite a few weeks to recover from some of the psychological burden of the training. Overtime, it became obvious that once people were committed to the Lifespring way, they would be instrumental in bringing revenues for the organization. As they became psychologically locked in the system, they were forced to enroll as many people as possible to the program. After that experience I became very suspicious of any invitation to go see any kind of presentation especially from people that I consider friends. If it is something I am not looking for, it is probably something I can live without. Whether there is a product or good idea behind the concepts someone is trying to impose on me, it is certainly a distraction that I can prevent from becoming a very disturbing experience.

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A Great Pastime

I like most sports but I am really passionate about soccer. I really enjoy watching live matches on TV on weekends. But the experience of being actively playing is what I find mostly beneficial. One reason that makes me so fond of soccer is the fact that it helps me to stay in shape besides giving me the opportunity to interact with other people. I usually play soccer with a group of enthusiasts every Sunday morning at a nearby field during the spring and summer. In the fall and winter I play inside. Although, we are all from Brazil, soccer is mainly the factor that brings us all together. The habit of playing the sport continuously over the years, has kept me highly motivated. It feels very odd when for any reason I have to skip my practice. It does affect my mood. I realize the sport plays an import part in my life.

How this passion for soccer started and what did drive me to be so motivated is not so hard to comprehend. I basically grew up in an environment where soccer was the favorite pastime of a large portion of the male population. It was almost impossible not to be influenced by it. I watched it on TV, played at school and with other kids in my neighborhood. The truth is; the majority of us Brazilians do embrace the sport with enthusiasm. To highlight such passion I recollect an unforgettable experience I had while visiting Brazil during the 1994 World Cup tournament which ironically took place in the USA. At the time, I saw the Brazilian national team end up making it to the finals and become the champions playing against Italy. How sweet! I was watching that match on a large screen at a bar in the outskirts of Sao Paulo city with my cousin Jo, his wife Paula and a few friends. The place was crowded. Some were customers but the majority of us were there mainly to watch the game. I was thrilled just like anyone else. The adrenaline level was very high as the game approached the end of second half. The match ended up tied and Brazil won during the penalty kicks. Victory came at last. Once the game was over we went insane. We rushed out and hopped into my cousin’s car. Then, we headed downtown with the sole purpose of joining other people to celebrate the event. There was a wave of cars coming from all directions. All of a sudden there were hundreds, perhaps thousands of people. All were sharing the same sentiment. Some were waving our national flags, singing, laughing and screaming in a manifestation of pure happiness. The streets quickly got clogged with cars and pedestrians and despite the fact that it was a friendly demonstration; it was quite hard a task for the police force to be in control of the situation. I was amazed with the whole thing as if I had not seen it before.

A few days later I returned to the USA but could not help thinking about all the excitement I had during the previous weeks. I almost forgot what it was like in Brazil during the World Cup tournament. On my flight back home I started browsing one of those courtesy magazines it is offered in the plane. Almost by chance I saw an article on soccer history and started to read out of curiosity. I was intrigued to find out that in ancient times a close version of soccer was played by the Egyptians and it also attracted masses of enthusiast people to the stadiums. It made me think that this passion for sports goes back a long way. It is probably as old as mankind itself. I learned also that it was not until the early nineteenth century that a game played with feet and hands started becoming popular in England. Eventually, it branched out into two different sports: soccer and rugby. Rules were then introduced and both became regulated sports as we know today. Soccer is regulated by an organization called International Federation of Association Football, most commonly known as FIFA, and it is widely played by people all over the world. Every four year, I have opportunity to watch a live broadcast of the World Cup tournament and so does millions of soccer fans around the world.

Ever since I moved to the USA, I have always had the opportunity to play the sport with other soccer fans. Most of them are either from Boston or Worcester area. Lately I have been practicing at a place called Friendly House every Sunday morning from 8:00am to 12:00pm. The indoor style I play is called “futsal” which means “hall football in Portuguese. The ball we use is smaller and it does not bounce as much as the one it is used in the field. What I particularly like about the indoor soccer is that it is usually challenging. I play in a relatively small space compared to a field. Because of the reduced space, I need to use quick and more precise movements in order to receive and pass the ball more efficiently. Such quick movements make me work out more intensely. I find it essential to control my breathing in order to reduce the stress and gain better control of myself. The more control I have higher the odds of helping my team to win the game.

Victory does give me a level of satisfaction. But I have learned to appreciate the sport so much that, it just transcends the winning and losing perception. When I am watching a professional match, I like to observe closely: individual talent, creativity and the strategy used by each team. It is fun to see how it all comes together when every player is tuned in the game. When I am out there playing I put my heart into it. All my worries are put aside and I concentrate only on that activity. I feel strong; my self-esteem is high and I am very stimulated. Soccer is also a great way for me to socialize. It helps me stay in shape as I push myself to the limit continuously. Adding it all up this is just something I recognize as a rewarding experience.

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Thursday, April 17, 2008

The Blog

In exploring a theme behind the title’s name, I looked at how the idea of the pursuit of the American Dream could be construed as a shady and highly misinterpreted concept. The wellness and economical mobility is not suitable for all simply because each individual is made differently. Some have the drive and use creativity in search of opportunities while others have no talent and lack the motivation to be engaged in the process. The dream is symbolic in that regard and not a privilege to all.

Another way to look at it is that we all have dreams regardless of who we are and where we come from. They are the powerhouse of our lives as they give us motivation and a sense of purpose. As human beings, we all strive to make the best of ourselves but in the process we have to abide to a complex set of rules in a highly competitive environment. We may lose the sense of humanity as we strive in a mad race to reach success. I find that the more sophisticated we become, the more limited we all are. That is just the nature of things and I have to keep on playing the game according to the rules. Despite the seeming endless stream of empty dreams, I recognize that life is really worth living and I shall embrace those dreams as the fuel of my own existence as I realize they set the stage for me to reach higher ground.

Images

All the images used to illustrate my texts were downloaded from the web. If you claim to be the owner of any of them and believe it is inappropriately used, please send an email to acouto58@hotmail.com, and I will promptly remove it.

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The Author


Aramintas Couto lives in the metropolitan area of Boston, Massachusetts and has been working in Biotech for the past sixteen years. At the moment he holds a position with the Research and Development Department of a Swiss based company located in Hopkinton, Mass. He is passionate about sports and enjoys reading. Blogging has become one of his latest pastime.

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