Critical Mass

Until this point in my life I’ve never identified with ‘activists’, the very word conjuring up images of bra-burning, flag-waving hippies intent on ‘sticking it to the man’ but with limited success. Now, however, I’m noticing a change. Not only in myself but in those around me, in my social networks, and also in the wider world. The change is this: It’s no longer just the ‘activists’ who feel the need to take to the streets and decry the social order. The rest of us are beginning to wake up to the need to have our say. Because it’s becoming increasingly clear that our governments and world leaders aren’t going to be the change we want to see. And, more than that, we are realising that time is running out.

According to the UN Refugee Agency Global Trends Report,  65.3 million people, or one person in 113, were displaced from their homes by conflict and persecution in 2015. Wars and persecution have driven more people from their homes than at any time since UNHCR records began. According to the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, Filippo Grandi: “At sea, a frightening number of refugees and migrants are dying each year; on land, people fleeing war are finding their way blocked by closed borders. Closing borders does not solve the problem.” Until now, in the ‘West’, we have had the luxury of turning a blind eye to the suffering of so many on the other side of the world. But now it’s getting more difficult. Because those people are on the move. Our governments and leaders have driven them from their homes for their own political gain, and now they are on our doorstep.

The situation is compounded by the critical situation with the environment. Despite the landmark signing of the Paris Climate Change Agreement, a terrifying number of world leaders don’t believe the threat of climate change is real. On the website for the recent documentary Before the Flood we learn that “Earth has been warming steadily now for over 100 years. After decades of carbon pollution and deforestation, we are now regularly witnessing record-breaking hot months and hot years. 2015 was the hottest year on record and 2016 is hotter.” Furthermore, “Most experts believe we have locked in at least 1.5 degrees in temperature from the carbon pollution we have already emitted, and we are fast approaching the dangerous climate threshold of a 2°C rise in temperature rise.”

In many respects the damage is done. The world is already on course to heat to unprecedented temperatures that will have catastrophic effects on humanity (I say humanity, because, as my husband constantly reminds me, the world will be just fine once we humans have killed ourselves off). It is true that it’s already far too late to reverse the changes, but there is still the narrowest of windows to prevent total disaster – if we act NOW.

So back to my original point. There are a growing number of people who, like myself, are starting to wake up to the need to do something – however small – to stop the bad stuff happening, instead of sitting in front of the (warped) news reports with our heads in our hands thinking that it’s all so hopeless. We don’t want to watch from the sidelines as humanity implodes. We want to get out there and (here comes that classic cheesy phrase) make a difference. Because no matter where we are born or the colour of our skin, we are all human beings. And, for the foreseeable future at least, this planet is the only home we’ve got. Why must we abuse it, and one another, when these facts are so inescapably true?

I’ve recently joined a Facebook group of like-minded women, one of whom made the following wonderfully eloquent comment which resonated deeply with me:

“As I say, regularly, to my clients: our job is to do the best we can with the corner we’re in. Chase the causes in our own heart. Show compassion to those we find around us. That’s actually enough. Everyone’s corner is the size that it is. Just because you see someone with global reach doesn’t mean yours, that reaches a few houses down, is any less important. I also wax lyrical about how wonderful it is that every person I meet has different passions! My own efforts have always been for social justice, children in developing countries, and care for families touched by poverty, but I love meeting people whose passion is care for animals, or saving historic buildings, or sponsoring artists whose work makes no sense to me… because I think “thank goodness, it’s all covered!”. We are all unique, and I am grateful for that!”

Sometimes we all feel hopeless. But my own recent experience of raising money to buy sleeping bags (65 so far – yay!) for the homeless refugees in Brussels, and volunteering alongside other motivated individuals with Serve the City and now also the fantastic new NGO Unless – has made me realise how much better it feels to be in it, instead of watching it, or worrying about it but ultimately doing nothing.

So whatever your cause, whatever your passion, don’t be afraid to live it, to get out there and wave your flag – whether metaphorically or physically – and make a positive difference to the world and those around you. Because if enough of us care – and I truly believe enough of us do – then we CAN be the change we want to see. With or without our governments and leaders.

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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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The Motions

And so, here we are again. Mere weeks after the first ‘Brussels Lockdown,’ we are in the midst of another one. Only this time it’s different. This time our fears have been realised. This time the carnage that was originally predicted has happened. This time there have been deaths (over 30 at the time of writing, but with many more critically ill in hospital); at the airport, on the metro. Two places where we most want to feel safe, but no longer can.

One of the three terrorists from the airport is still at large. Sirens blare on every street corner. Stony faced soldiers stand watch over frightened pedestrians. No matter how much we don’t want to be, we are afraid. And we are angry. But alongside our fear and anger is something else, something far more unsettling: the total absence of shock. I can only speak for myself, of course, but when I woke up yesterday morning to see my phone going crazy with messages from concerned loved ones, I instinctively knew what had happened. And I wasn’t surprised. Not in the least.

Thankfully I had stayed at home ill (the only time in my life that I will ever be grateful for a tummy bug), which meant I hadn’t taken my usual route to work via the metro. Instead of being physically caught up in the chain of sickening events I therefore watched the horror unfold on the news and social media, where the vile reactions of people like Trump and Hopkins turned my stomach.

Today, as a new day dawned, I still felt numb. And I still do. The outpouring of sentiment from around the world is fitting for the victims, but no amount of brightly coloured monuments will bring them back. And sentiment alone will not address the threat that we are facing – which, let’s be clear, is far more than a group of radicalised people on the rampage in the name of their twisted and hate-fuelled ideology.

We are as threatened by the ignorant, yet terrifyingly prevalent, attitudes of the Trumps’ and Hopkins’ of this world as we are by the terrorists themselves. In the battle between love and hate, hate is gaining ground. But it will never win, because for every ignorant, hate-filled person there are a thousand more who can not only see the truth but whose hearts are fit to burst with love. Yes, LOVE; the one emotion that the people who are trying to threaten our freedom are incapable of feeling, and the only thing that can unite us in the face of such unspeakable terror.

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Thoughts from Brussels

Exactly one week ago we woke to the news that 129 people had been murdered in cold blood by terrorists in Paris. These were ordinary people like you or I, who were letting their hair down after a busy week, enjoying a few drinks, dinner or a concert on Friday night. But the terrorists had other ideas.

It has since transpired that one of the masterminds behind the Paris attack came from the Molenbeek district in Brussels, one of the most deprived areas in Belgium, which is purported to be an easy target for Islamic State (ISIS) militants trying to recruit young Muslims. It is also, incidentally, where my office is located.

Belgium is coming under fire for its lax security measures where tracking terrorists is concerned. For a small country a disproportionate number of people have been recruited to ISIS and left to fight for them abroad – indeed some reports claim Belgium has supplied the highest per capita number of fighters to Syria of any European nation –between 350 and 550, out of a total population of 11 million that includes fewer than half a million Muslims.

These are worrying times, made more worrying still for those of us residing in Brussels by the news this morning, exactly one week on from the news from Paris, that the threat level in Brussels has been raised to very serious, with metro services suspended all weekend, concerts cancelled and a warning not to go to public places.

I feel conflicted by this latest threat. A part of me is defiant and wants to continue exactly as I always would, because to do otherwise, to change our way of life, is to show them they are affecting us, to let them win. But obviously there is also a part of me that is concerned for my welfare, for my partner’s and friends’ welfare. A portion of my daily commute involves taking the metro. Should I now avoid it, in case of an attack? Or carry on taking it and trust in the security forces (and statistics that would probably say my likelihood of being caught up in an attack is small) to protect me from harm?

At any rate, I can’t help but feel the terrorists would be stupid to do anything now the threat has been raised. Far better to wait until it has subsided, until people are less scared and come out of their shells to resume normal life, and do it then. We must remain vigilant. But, beyond that, what can we do?

The bigger issue does of course tug at my heartstrings every day. The ignorance, bigotry and racism shown by so many in the face of the refugee crisis is not only dividing communities but playing directly into the hands of the terrorists. I am not so naive to believe this situation can be resolved purely with love. Sadly now we have let it develop this far the only way it can be addressed is with more violence and bloodshed. But I do believe it is essential that people are tolerant, and that they seek to be informed about the situation instead of believing the hateful bile reported in the tabloids.

In the West, until now, we have been largely protected from the terrible things that have been happening across the world for decades – many of which were, ironically, brought about by the actions of our own governments. Our hands are not clean, and it’s time we stopped pretending that they are, that what is happening now in Europe is nothing to do with us. We funded terrorism for our own economic gain, and it backfired. Now those terrorists have become strong, and they are striking at the heart of the freedom we hold dear. They are also, let’s not forget, driving terrified people from their countries, terrified people who now reside at refugee camps across Europe. These people are like you or me. They are not, as the idiotic Republican hatemongers in the US would have us believe, ‘rabid dogs’ seeking to kill us all.

We started this, it is our responsibility to finish it. And beyond the guns and rhetoric, it is all of our responsibility to bring about a society that is centred around tolerance, hope and love. If we can succeed in this the world, and humanity as a whole, may yet be saved.

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Friends Like These

Last Friday, UK-based social media news feeds were awash with post-election bitterness. Profanities, accusations and rudeness abounded between those who were – according to their profile descriptions if not evidenced elsewhere that day – ‘friends’ with one another. Characterised by a desire to shove opinions down each other’s throats whilst savagely and wantonly disregarding the pesky facts of emotional sensitivity and human decency, this was a war of attrition using words as weapons. And by God was it unpleasant.

To quote a friend who has herself been subject to recent politically-charged vitriol:

“Friendship does not spout vile names. It involves two parties making equal effort. It involves honesty delivered with tact and kindness. It involves laughing, a lot. It involves knowing when to step in and when to step back. It involves communication, balanced and regular. Anything that feels one-sided and wrong, probably is.”

Friendship isn’t always easy. As individuals (the clue is in the name), we will rarely find people with whom we always agree. But that’s okay, because being challenged in our views is the best way we can grow – so long as those who are challenging us do so in a way that is considered, measured and, above all else, respectful. Without mutual respect, friendship cannot exist. In its place is a barren wasteland of forced opinions, deaf ears and closed hearts. This world is full enough of hatred as it is. If we turn on those closest to us, what hope is there for a better future?

Another feature of friendship that is paramount to its survival is honesty. So many people let the behaviour of so-called ‘friends’ go unchecked, despite it impacting negatively upon them, because it’s easier to put up and shut up than it is to rock the boat by being honest. But if you can’t be honest with the person in question, can you truly call your relationship a friendship?

Finally, and most importantly of all, friendship cannot flourish without kindness. When we are going through our own struggles, it is easy to forget that others have theirs too. We cannot change the way others behave towards us during challenging times, but we can try to understand and forgive negative words and behaviour, and stop ourselves from getting drawn into a vortex of negativity.

We are, all of us, only human, and our time on earth is short. Friendship is one of the greatest gifts we have, so instead of squandering it we would do well to work on nurturing it.

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On Being Judgemental

I don’t remember much about my religious education at school, but one passage from the Bible I remember very clearly was this one, from Matthew 7:1-5:

“Why do you see the speck that is in your brother’s eye, but do not notice the log that is in your own eye? Or how can you say to your brother, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ when there is the log in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your brother’s eye.”

Recently I’ve been thinking a lot about the human inclination towards judging others. I like to think I’ve been brought up to be accepting, but the reality is that as a result of my experiences, education and interactions with others, a million layers of conditioning have permeated and fused with the synapses in my brain, and they are influencing me every day without me being consciously aware.

I know this because I occasionally catch myself having a fleeting judgmental thought that doesn’t fit at all with how I view myself as an accepting individual. I am so shocked, in these moments, as I cannot reconcile such thoughts with how I see myself or how I want to be. But, whether I like it or not, those thoughts are a part of me, perhaps not a part I am proud of or happy about, but a part of me nonetheless.

Why do we, as a species, so often seek to ridicule – and, in some cases even hate – that which we don’t understand or identify with? What is it that compels us to develop prejudices that serve only to blind us of the very things in our own character that are flawed and need attention? I do not, nor ever could, pertain to know the answer to these questions. But I can’t help feeling that the world would be a better place if someone could.

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Stop Fighting Hate with Hate – Try Love Instead

As tempting as it is to wallow in depression at the future of humanity after today’s horrific massacre of satirical cartoonists in Paris, to do so would achieve one thing and one thing only: It would mean the terrorists have won.

Whilst it’s heartening to see the numerous messages of support for the victims (and indeed for freedom of speech itself) on social media, as well as the hastily organised rallies across Europe and the newly created cartoons in response to the tragedy, less heartening is the hashtag #killallmuslims, currently trending on Twitter.

It is sadly inevitable that the events of today will lead to reprisals against innocent Muslims, as well as the usual torrent of ignorant comments about religion being the root cause of all evil. But as British journalist Emily Davis succinctly put on Twitter in the aftermath of the incident: “Islamic extremists. Not Islam. They are different entities and shouldn’t be casually associated. Terror has no religion.”

Terrorism in the name of religion is NOT religion, but rather extremism based on a warped perception of it. As someone who has grown up in a household with religious leanings, I have witnessed the positive side of having faith, such as the sense of community and charity that it fosters. Blaming religion in all its forms for this kind of evil, extremist activity is almost as ignorant as the terrorists themselves. Not only that, it instigates a misguided campaign of hate against innocent people who are merely trying to follow their religion in the name of peace.

If only we could all learn to practice tolerance and acceptance, we might yet be able to pull ourselves back from the brink of what could well be the end of civilisation as we know it. Hate is not the way to fight hate. The only thing that will defeat it is love.

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