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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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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The “Not on our Doorstep” Delusion

This week I’ve been feeling particularly depressed about the migrant situation in Calais (and, as an aside, also furious with David Cameron for referring to human beings in crisis as ‘swarms’ and expressing his condolences not to the families of the displaced people who have died trying to enter Britain, but rather to British holidaymakers for the inconvenience to their travel plans – disgusting).

The migrant situation is bleak indeed, and with the current political climate and rise of groups like IS it’s hard to see how things will get any better – more likely they will get worse. It makes my blood boil when people say those attempting to enter the UK should just ‘go back to where they came from’. In many cases they would see that as a fate worse than death, and in many cases it would be.

It is also infuriating to hear the argument that migrants should go elsewhere in Europe – what this ignorant ‘not on our doorstep’ stance fails to recognise is that other European countries accept far more displaced people than attempt to enter Britain each year: according to this article in the Huffington Post, Germany, for example, takes over 100,000 asylum seekers compared to Britain’s paltry 20,000, and Turkey is hosting the largest number of refugees in the world – at least 1.59 million people according to the UNHCR. Why shouldn’t Britain help?

I’m no expert on humanitarian crises, but as I see it the only way the current situation can be resolved is to tackle the problem at the source – through a coordinated and sustained attack against the groups that are oppressing and killing those same innocent civilians who are being forced in their thousands to flee, so that one day their homeland may be a place they can safely return to.

I’m also no advocate of war, but let’s not forget the UK government is in no small part to blame for the rise of groups like Al Qaeda and IS – instead of building fences to keep their many victims out of the UK, therefore, would it not be more responsible to take action and stamp them out?

The fundamental truth that many are conveniently choosing to gloss over is this: Most of the migrants entering Europe are doing so not to ‘seek a better life’, but to escape from one that was a living hell. These people are not cockroaches, scattering amongst our ‘civilised’ society to wreak havoc and threaten all that we hold dear. These people are PEOPLE. And, no matter how much you want to make out otherwise, they have the same right to a fear and oppression-free life as you or me.

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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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Choices

Yesterday I learned a valuable lesson: When you carry the weight of the world on your shoulders you’re not helping anyone, least of all yourself.

Bad things happen in the world – terrible, unforgivable things. It would be inhuman to never feel affected by them. But if you let your defences down too much they will burrow into your skin like maggots and take root in your soul.

Hate breeds hate like a cancer, and it’s precisely this type of disease that the terrorists and white supremacists have. Their disease is terminal; they’re too far gone to see the errors of their ways and the flaws in their thinking.

But the rest of us have a choice. We can let the hate seep into our consciousness and destroy us, or we can fight against it and tell ourselves life isn’t hopeless and that there’s much more goodness in the world than bad.

Internalising the world’s problems is, ultimately, pointless. If you want to make positive change then go ahead and make it, there’s nothing stopping you. But accept the boundaries within which that change is attainable. In this life we get back what we put in, so there’s little point in being negative. It’s bad for our hearts and bad for our health – and without our health how can we expect to achieve anything positive?

In the wake of this realisation I’ve decided not to read the papers or watch the news today, to step away from the perpetual misery and propaganda and just enjoy my own life; my work, my family, my book, my writing. Sometimes it gets too much to bear, the constant onslaught of negative reporting on the world’s plethora of problems (though this, of course, is a first world problem. I have the luxury of turning my back on them, whereas millions don’t; they live those problems every single day with no respite. Those problems are their lives, there is nothing else. This, too, is worth remembering).

My new mantra is this:

Focus on the things you can change, rather than worrying about the things you can’t.

Despite the bad things that happen in it and the ignorant people we share it with, the world is still a beautiful place. And for the short time we’re on this planet, we should at least try to enjoy it.

Epiphany on me

Every so often when I’m engrossed in a book, or lost in a song that’s so beautiful the hairs on the back of my neck stand up, I get a sudden rush of overwhelming anxiety. Why? Because in that moment it dawns on me that I will never be able to read all of the amazing books in the world, or hear all of the glorious music that’s been produced over the many years since music began. It’s obvious, of course, but whenever I think about it for any length of time it’s still a sobering enough concept to take my breath away.

Phase two of this bizarre anxiety involves my ruminating that I haven’t read the right kind of books, or listened to the right kind of music. As I’ve grown up – and I should point out at this juncture that I still find it hard to accept that I am, in fact, grown up. Indeed when the prodigal and only child of the family returns home for a familial visit my parents also often have some difficulty believing this – I’ve always thought my capacity and hunger for knowledge would increase and my tastes would mature, not unlike a fine wine.

By my early thirties I was certain I’d have moved beyond childish chick lit ‘novels’ and the kind of soulless popular music that’s relentlessly and indiscriminately spewed out by endless commercial radio stations. I would, I thought, be reading Proust and Tolstoy, listening to Beethoven and Chopin, spending my spare time studying philosophy and going on cycling holidays to French vineyards with my similarly-inclined peers.  

But alas, ‘twas not to be. At thirty one I’m ashamed to admit I still spend most weekends drinking cheap cider and falling out of clubs (playing – you’ve guessed it – popular music). I still haven’t read most of the Orange and Booker Prize-shortlisted tomes I acquired some years ago in a fit of pique at my own ignorance of the workings of the literary world (‘you want to be a writer!’ I’d scold myself. ‘How can you write without reading the works of the great writers?’)  And the sum total of my knowledge on classical music and wine would fit on the back of a postage stamp (and still leave room to spare).

The interest in politics and international affairs that I thought was a rite of passage of getting older never quite materialised. Nor the savvy business mind which would easily decipher tax codes, pensions and such like. Instead of a one woman dynamo I stand before you as an empty, muddled and ignorant shell. I am a caterpillar that failed to undergo metamorphosis and turn into a butterfly. I am a Monopoly piece that didn’t pass Go.

I suppose a psychologist would say that the root cause of my anxiety is my feeling small and insignificant, not knowing my place in the world and worrying I will never make my mark. And I suppose with that analysis they would be pretty spot on (in fact I’ve surprised myself by trotting that out without too much thought and whilst simultaneously wondering what to cook for my dinner – who says we women can’t multitask? Oh, I did, in yesterday’s post. Damn).

But hang on just one cotton picking minute. What about the things I have achieved, the books I have read, the music I have listened to? What about the friends I’ve made, the stories I’ve written, the places I’ve visited? I may never know my Beaujolais from my Fleurie, or be able to discuss the merits of Aristotle’s theories over Plato’s. I may not develop a discerning ear for classical music, know the background to every international conflict or be the next Jane Austen. But I’ll tell you what I will do. I’ll write for pleasure, read for pleasure and continue listening to music that makes my hairs stand on end – even if I heard it on Radio 1.

And above all else I’ll do my best to be a good person and make other people happy. Because no amount of knowledge, maturity and finesse can make up for not being able to do that.

I took this photo when I went on a walk by myself along the beach in Lombok. It reminds me of a quiet, reflective period in my travels – appropriate for this post, which actually made me feel surprisingly emotional as I wrote it.