2017: The Year of Cautious Optimism

Despite the many terrible world events that happened in it (Brussels, Paris, Nice, Orlando, Syria, Turkey, Brexit, Trump, Berlin to name but a few), 2016 was a great year for me personally. I married the love of my life after five years together, had the most joy-and-love-filled celebration with friends and family followed by a two week trip around my favourite places in northern Italy. I also had not one, not two, but THREE fantastic hen celebrations in London and Las Vegas (!), a relaxing break with friends in the beautiful Belgian Ardennes and an amazing holiday to Vietnam (thanks to Tom and Lily for having their wedding there!), plus numerous other special moments shared with special people. And for all of this I feel incredibly thankful.

The instability in the world has proved our future is far from certain, and that every day is a blessing and not a guarantee. I am therefore approaching 2017 with an attitude of cautious optimism. From a personal perspective there is much to look forward to, and potentially big changes afoot, not least my MSc in Applied Positive Psychology and Coaching Psychology starting in February.

From a wider world perspective, I do believe that we can, to some extent at least, be the change we want to see in the world. Even if it’s only on a micro rather than a macro level, when individuals come together to realise a common goal – whether it be helping other humans, animals and/or the environment – something magical happens. If we never look outside of ourselves and our own immediate concerns we not only lose perspective but we also fail to make a positive impact on the world around us. Whenever my time comes to shuffle off this mortal coil I hope it can at least be said I made some progress on that front.

So here we stand on the threshold of a new year. The future may be uncertain, but it is also what we make it. I don’t know about you, but I plan to make 2017 the best year yet. Happy New Year.

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Bursting Bubbles

Today I attended the Belgian PR Summit (or at least the first hour of it, which was in English. Unfortunately my French and Dutch skills, or lack thereof, didn’t allow me to participate further), and a point that one of the keynote speakers, Will McInnes, made has really stuck with me. We are living in a time where, globally-speaking, we are more connected than ever. And yet, social media has put us into ‘filter bubbles’ from which most of us fail ever to break out. When we search for things on the internet, the results aren’t a real representation of what’s ‘out there’, they are merely holding up a mirror to our own narrow viewpoint, enabling us to reinforce these views without scrutiny. Will used Brexit (I still shudder at the word) as an example: so many of us believed we would remain, because our personal bubbles reassured us that we would. In reality, however, a totally different conversation was happening all around us, one that we were dangerously blind to. And now the same has happened in America.

If ever there were a time for us to collectively wake up, this, my friends, is it.

But how to shout outside the bubble in which we have unwittingly found ourselves? I am scratching my head as I type this trying to work it out. But work it out we must. Instead of having conversations with other people like us, it’s time to start initiating conversation with those who aren’t. As someone who believes that fundamentally humans are good (because otherwise stop the world, I want to get off), I cannot let myself fall into the trap of branding everyone who voted for Brexit or for Trump (very different situations, I hasten to add, but both with far-reaching consequences for us all) as ignorant, racists, or any of the other terms being bandied about by people in ‘my’ bubble. Even if I find it hard to disagree, I have to try to stop thinking of ‘them’ and ‘us’, because that just makes the problem even worse. Vilifying people makes the gulf even wider. Instead, would it not be logical to try and start a dialogue with those whose views are different to our own, so we can better understand their point of view, and they can better understand ours? True, the most vocal people in both camps are a lost cause in this respect, but there must be many moderates on both sides who are prepared to hear each other out. Surely if we engage in a non-confrontational way we can better understand the real issues, and work out a way to address them that doesn’t involve stirring up anger and hatred?

I don’t know what the answer is, but I plan to do a lot of thinking about it. Because if we don’t work out how to break free from our bubbles, we are essentially just shouting into the void. And the future of humanity in a world where bubbles never burst is a truly terrifying prospect.

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No Man is an Island

The news has always been a divisive thing. On the one hand we all want to feel connected, to know what is going on ‘out there’ in the world. On the other we do sort of suspect that the version of life we are spoonfed by the media is skewed and distorted like a picture taken through a fish eye lens.

Is it getting worse? That’s hard to say. But my own experience as a Brussels resident who has been reading news reports from the UK media on the recent bombs at Zaventem airport and the metro would suggest it is – or at least that the media is as sensationalist as ever.

Both to loved ones and idiots on social media I have defended this city I love, which, if you believed every BBC news report you read you would think was besieged by jihadists on every street corner. Contrary to public media opinion, who take great delight in filming some dickhead reporter roaming the streets of ‘jihadi capital of Europe’, Molenbeek (incidentally also the suburb in which I work), or the use of water cannons against a small group of self-declared fascists downtown, it is still possible to walk down the street here without the need for police protection and an armoured vehicle.

The thing I love most about Belgium, and Brussels in particular, is people’s resilience; their ability to stay clear-headed and articulate in a crisis. And also, as the police cat food Twitter episode so clearly demonstrated, their sense of humour.

Though I will always love it, increasingly I feel glad I left the UK, and am experiencing life on the ‘outside.’ Because when you are inside the Kingdom we ironically still call ‘United’ it is frighteningly easy to adopt the media’s attitude to issues such as terrorism; to become closed-minded and biased without even realising it, due to the diet of twisted information you are fed by power-hungry media outlets and politicians.

If you listen to the likes of Boris we are far better off out of Europe, away from all these nasty jihadis. Raise the drawbridge! Keep Britain safe! What good can Europe do us? Look at the mess France and Belgium are in! Though I have neither the political knowledge nor inclination to address these tenuous arguments here, I will highlight one thing, a poem by John Donne, entitled ‘No Man is an Island’:

Entire of itself, 
Every man is a piece of the continent, 
A part of the main. 
If a clod be washed away by the sea, 
Europe is the less. 
As well as if a promontory were. 
As well as if a manor of thy friend’s 
Or of thine own were: 
Any man’s death diminishes me, 
Because I am involved in mankind, 
And therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; 
It tolls for thee.

Whether we are part of Europe or not (and I personally believe we should be), none of us is an island. We must stand together in the face of terrorism and not let it divide us, by faith or for political gain. The media and politicians have ulterior motives. It is for us, the ‘normal people’, to look past those, to look past religion, past race and past hatred;  to look into our own hearts. Because it is only there we can find the good, the pure and the true; and understand that love is the only answer there is.

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