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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Further Thoughts from Brussels

Yesterday was tough.  After three days of ‘lockdown’ in the city of Brussels it was announced the terror threat level would stay at four for another week, with the metro remaining closed on Tuesday and re-opening gradually from Wednesday. I doubt I speak only for myself when I say this was scant comfort. The world has been watching us for days now and we, in response, have moved from stoicism to humour to frustration. I hadn’t even registered how obsessively I had been checking the news and social media for updates until R pointed it out to me, along with the obvious fact such behaviour is neither productive nor healthy.

I was in London when the 7/7 bombs went off, and that day is etched upon my memory. I have friends who lost friends that day, and what I will always remember is the eerie quietness of the streets as tens of thousands of people trudged in silence out of central London. I have always considered myself to be stoic in the face of terrorism, staunch in my refusal to change how I live because to do so would be to let ‘them’ win. But I can’t deny the recent Paris bombings and tense situation here in Brussels have shaken me to the core.

I’m ashamed to admit I have felt fear, pure and unadulterated, at the thought of resuming my daily commute on the metro. I’m also ashamed to admit I have had dark moments when I have felt quite hopeless about the future of humanity. I realise now the constant flow of information – and, in many cases, sensationalist misinformation – has not been helping me at all, and so today – another day of working from home – I’m going to step away from the news. R said to me yesterday: “Look outside, at all the people in the bars and restaurants. That’s what’s real. Not all of the crap you see reported in the news.”

And he’s right. We have to carry on as normally as we can. We cannot be cowed into living life in the shadows. That’s what they want us to do. It is unsettling to be in this situation but we have to hope it will end soon, and believe there is more good in the world than evil. Because there is. There really is.

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Generation Y: We’re not apathetic, we’re just overwhelmed

Last night, after watching the news, an overwhelming surge of sadness washed over me. There are so many dreadful things happening in the world – bombings in Gaza, terrorism in Syria, war and famine in Sudan, Ebola disease in West Africa, irreversible climate change…the list goes on and on – that sometimes it’s hard to feel positive about the future of the human race. On top of these issues, in the UK we also have untrustworthy politicians who are currently (on top of many other questionable decisions) rushing Big Brother style privacy laws through parliament. The result? We, ‘the People,’ feel powerless and trapped. And none, perhaps, more so than my generation.

Today at work a colleague, herself a generation older than me, was talking about last night’s Newsnight programme, which had a feature on ‘Generation Y,’ as today’s 18-30s are collectively known. The feature discussed the differences between my generation (Y) and hers (Generation X), one being the fact we don’t fight for causes by campaigning in the streets in the same way that many of those who grew up in the ‘welfare state era’ did. One Generation X spokesperson said she didn’t believe this was because Generation Y are apathetic about causes and only interested in being a ‘selfie generation,’ as many older people might posit, but rather that the political and economic issues being faced today seem so big they are impossible to solve. Generation Y have seen uprising fail time and again (Iraq War anyone?), and we’ve lost all faith in the political system to do what’s right. Even if we do stand up to be counted, we don’t believe our voices will be heard, so the collective feeling is ‘why bother?’

We are the first generation to be brought up with the internet, the consequences of which have been far reaching, and both positive and negative. As a Generation Y spokesperson said on Newsnight, we have a thirst for individualism that derives from constant online comparisons, and a drive to be self-reliant rather than state-reliant. We are flooded with information in a way that previous generations were not, and whilst this is liberating it is also, sometimes, quite debilitating. The internet has both connected and isolated us, and whilst social media has led to a level of inter-connectedness never previously imagined, many people feel lonelier than ever.

The rise of face to face gatherings like ‘swishing’ (clothes-swapping) parties (to name but one) shows that, despite embracing the digital age, Generation Y are trying to stay connected with their peers and local communities. Perhaps it’s through these types of initiatives, rather than by waving placards in the street, that we will make some small difference in the wider world we feel so powerless to change.

A final thought (and my own attempt at micro-activism) on Sudan. I have a personal connection, having visited Juba in South Sudan some years ago, and have been deeply saddened to read of the war and impending famine in the region. At the time of my visit in 2006 it was a fairly barren place. I stayed in one of the aid camps and saw little of the locals’ lives outside of the compound. But I do remember an overriding feeling of hope – that things would, and could, get better. Which is why it is so tragic to hear just how much worse they have got since my brief time there. Recent news reports have said there is a serious danger of extreme famine in the coming weeks, but there is no money to run a big advertising campaign to ask for funds. And so I close by asking anyone with a few pounds to spare to consider donating to this cause via World Vision.

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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.