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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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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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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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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