Tuesday, 25 December 2012

Jimmy Stynes – keeps on giving

My Journey, Jimmy Stynes’ autobiography is, as you would expect, an extraordinary read.

A few years ago, it was a privilege to watch Jim Stynes work with groups of kids in two of the schools where I used to teach. His charisma was something to behold. He was gifted. He could establish trust with a group of students so quickly. One time at an all boys’ school, I saw him set the mood in the college theatre... he got the lighting right... fired up some loud music and the students created their own mosh pit for a few minutes. They bashed and crashed into each other with testosterone fuelled abandon. This was chaotic ‘boy’ energy, given permission to be released.

In the ‘calming down’ that followed, Jim shifted the focus to the issues in the group. What was not being said. With a kind of magic, he invited individuals to step forward to say anything they wanted to. He asked the boys to agree that whatever was said would be received with no judgement. These 14-15 year olds poured out their hearts. Some spoke, and got out of their system, the burden of hurt that had built up because of the names others called them in the school yard. Permission was there in that moment to really say, and not hide, the impact that bullying had had on them. Some of these things had gone on for years.

The boys who had been the bullies also stood up and said that they were sorry directly to the person they had offended. Again, Jim reinforced the pact of ‘no judgement’.

Jim would ask, each time, the young bloke how he felt. The common response was ‘relieved’. Some of these boys, tough-looking exteriors, sobbed their hearts out.

This post started with the declaration that Jim’s autobiography is extraordinary. Why?

Yes, he covers off on all of the infamous and glorious moments of his sporting life... running across the mark in the 1987 prelim’, his freakish 244 consecutive AFL games and his fairy-tale Brownlow medal of 1991. The latter he shared with his dad as his guest. But, this is not why My Journey is extraordinary...

In his book he applies the same process to himself that he offered to those kids at school. He shares the everyday stuff that he struggled with, as a dad and a husband. It is all laid bare in his book (written with the support of his good friend, Warwick Green). In the chapter called ‘Fatherhood’, he explains,

Whether it was because of stress, exhaustion, medication or my brain tumours I could not be sure, but there were times when I was terribly short-tempered with the kids. It felt like there were days when I was seeking confrontation with them. I would find myself shouting, sometimes in such a ferocious way that it scared them. Afterwards, I would feel ashamed. It was something I’d always said I would never do as a parent, and here I was making my own kids cry.
From both a dad’s and a bloke’s perspective, I find myself grateful to Jim Stynes as I read these words. Here he is still giving beyond the grave.

Jim Stynes died earlier this year on March 20th. Seven days later, Melbournians turned out to his funeral in their tens of thousands to honour a man who, in 1984 had arrived in that city as an eighteen year old. A young Irish Gaelic footballer, picked out by Ron Barassi to play Aussie Rules for the Melbourne footy club. The twenty seven and a half years that ensued were filled with a generous life. His funeral is one of the biggest ever seen and it fittingly sealed his legend… he will be eternally part of the pantheon of his adopted city.

But what gets me is the ordinariness of his struggle as a dad. Have you ever lost your rag with your kids? I have for sure (and I am fit and well – he had a good excuse). For fellas, often emotions find their way out through the funnel of anger and that’s what is liberating about Jim Stynes sharing his tough moments as a dad. Here is a bloke who will be remembered by two countries for near on forever, for his greatness, persistence, positive attitude and leadership. Yet, in his own life experience, he puts it out there that he had shortcomings. Just like those kids who shared their tough stuff, reading that Jim was human, makes me feel what the kids said they felt back in those school sessions – relief. Someone who has become a giant figure in the mythology of two nations sometimes got grumpy with his kids. It’s good news for those of us mere mortals who are around this Christmas.

Christmas’ original story is set over two thousand years ago, in a stable at the back of an inn in a small town that now is part of modern Palestine. There is humanity, ordinary humanity weaved right through that story. I reckon the story tellers who wrote it down, were very mindful of making sure that that scene was set. Out of that humble beginning, emerged a great story.

Jim Stynes’ story is like that. He embraced his humanity and lived a life that was extraordinary.

He gives us all hope.

If you’ve got some time over Christmas, I commend his story My Journey to you.

Friday, 21 December 2012

First World Problems

Have you heard this phrase popping up in your conversations this year? My teenage kids are quick to spot a first world problem when someone is complaining about an issue that pales in comparison to what people face in the majority world every day – like having access to a regular fresh water supply. Recently our dishwasher broke and our household has returned to having to hand-wash and dry all the dishes in the sink, with its hot and cold running water. What did Monty Python’s Four Yorkshire men say? “Luxury. You were lucky!” There are so many instances where we can catch ourselves feeling hassled by the loss of something that really is a luxury. What has this slight inconvenience created? We’ve had more side by side time, as somebody washes and someone dries. Usually someone would stack the dishwasher in isolation.

It is Christmas time and a first world problem our extended family faces each year, is the allocation of a Kris Kringle person for the ten adults in the tribe. The process of finding a person to secretly buy a gift for, has conditions to it, you can’t draw your partner’s or your own name out of the hat. My daughter is the oldest grandchild and manages the ballot sometime in October each year. There is feigned annoyance and groans as we try to draw names out one by one and get to the last person who says – “nup, I’ve just drawn out my husband’s name.” At this year’s family Kris Kringle draw someone remarked that it must be easier to elect a new pope! The drawn out process has become a quirky annual tradition for our family. When the KK’s are finally decided and people have written the names into their smart phones (because another first world problem is that we can easily forget who we finally got), the big post-mortem ensues on how excruciating the process was, and theories are proffered about how this ‘problem’ could be solved next year.

Recently, I found a website, believe it not, called Manage my KK. It enables workplaces and families to input all the KK recipients, the conditions of allocation etcetera. It can include elaborate features like a gift price limit. Participants can log on and drop hints, suggesting the particular gift they want. What do you think? Is this an over solution of a first world problem? Isn’t the fun found in the way a family enjoys the familiarity and playfulness of complaining about how arduous it is to draw a KK?

Whilst you are seeing flippancy in this ‘first world problem’ discussion, I think affluenza, as it has been termed, does create a deeper challenge for parents who raise kids in the first world. Our kids have access to a lot of ‘stuff’. My nineteen year-old daughter has never known a world without the internet. For young people, I reckon having so much stuff threatens their opportunities to be kind, to reach beyond a concept of self-centredness. Without providing opportunities to contribute and us parents noticing these moments, the default becomes the world and all its gadgets doing things for them. It could shovel out their capacity to know the joy of deep humanity.

This Christmas time, let me share two moments I have spotted in each of my teenagers. Recently I had a minor medical procedure booked. As usual, I was busy... the appointment rushed up in the schedule and Amber (the 19 year old) showed concern when she learned I would have a local anaesthetic injected into my eye.

“Dad – how are you going to get home after having a needle in your eyelid?”

“You know I actually hadn’t thought about that Amber,” I replied.

“OK”, said Amber, “then I will drive you there.” Wow – a small act of kindness from a grown up daughter to her dad. I was touched and proud of her.

The young bloke was not to be outdone by his sister. He’s sixteen and doing his job as an adolescent... pushing boundaries and causing his dad to keep the line clear. It is parenting trench warfare sometimes and his mum and me see ‘two steps forward, one step back’ as a clear ‘win’. In the midst of all the grumpy growing up and the tense conversations that we have as father and son, there are still the moments that pop up and offer the reminder of the kind heart that is in the good young man he is becoming.

We had been working on the young bloke getting consistent with a weekly chore – taking the bins out. It is a big help as I travel to do the Time & Space programs. My schedule is varied and I am not always home on ‘bin night’. We had sat down and I’d explained how this, being a small job, could make a big difference in our household. Can you imagine the delight when I returned from a Mother & Son night in South Australia, arrived home just after Jack had left for school in the morning to find a note he had written on the floor as I opened the door. Again, how proud was I when I read the following words...


I hope you really enjoyed Adelaide, I took the bins out last night and there’s a coffee for you in the pot.

Love Jack.’

We are lucky where we live. The challenge for first-world parents, around Christmas time is to find the true gifts that we can give to each other. A good starting point is noticing where our kids have been truly kind.

If you are a mum, dad or guardian – how about this Christmas letting your kids know that you spotted a kind act of theirs that made you proud.

For the young people who might have found this on mum or dad’s ipad, maybe there’s something you appreciate about what they do for you that you could tell them about this Christmas.

Feel free to share the kind moments you have spotted in your tribe this year in the space below.

Thanks for reading this year and have a great Chrissie.

Bill Jennings