Makes you think…


The Universe has as many different centres as there are living beings in it.  Each of us is a Centre of the Universe…

Alexandr Solzhenitsyn, The Gulag Archipelago, p. 3

This means that while I am looking at you thinking that I’m the Centre of the Universe, you are looking at me thinking that you are – and everybody else in the room/world thinks it’s them.

This makes sense of lots of human attitudes when you think about it…

The Still Face


Humans are social beings.  We’re not the only ones on the planet but we most definitely belong to that group.

Our interactions with other people do more than just shape our manners and our view of the world, these interactions actually shape our physical brains.  As the saying goes, neurons that fire together, wire together. 

As we lumber about in our lives, we often believe, erroneously, that only our big actions count.

If I don’t hit you or shout at you or curse or show my disdain I can tell myself I haven’t revealed anything of myself – or done any damage to you.

But what if that isn’t true?

What if our sensitivity to response is so ingrained in us and so long-standing that we don’t consciously recognise how subtly influenced – or influential – we can be?

Everybody knows that new-born babies respond to the world around them and we instinctively try to interact even with the youngest babies.  But do we realise how vital this seemingly trivial interaction really is?

Watch the video below – if you can handle it – it tells a very interesting story.

Suffering…what is it good for?


Evil causes suffering and evil is preventable, but even in a paradisiacal world without evil, suffering would still exist.

In the most wonderful and peaceful of worlds, completely free of war and violence and famine and prejudice, children will still die and be bereaved, people will become ill and have accidents, make mistakes – there will be natural disasters and unfortunate events. Suffering will still exist.

So.  What is the point of suffering?

Viktor Frankl, concentration camp survivor and author of Man’s Search for Meaning, said that suffering should be alleviated whenever possible but when it isn’t possible it presents us with an opportunity for change.

When we are no longer able to change a situation – we are challenged to change ourselves. (1)

What does this mean?  Perhaps it means that suffering changes us anyway and we can either be a part of that change or allow ourselves to be formed against our will by circumstances outside of our control?

The more you plough and dig the ground the more fertile it becomes. The more you cut the branches of a tree the higher and stronger it grows. The more you put the gold in the fire the purer it becomes. The more you sharpen the steel by grinding the better it cuts. Therefore, the more sorrows one sees the more perfect one becomes…Strange it is that I love you and still I am happy that you have sorrows. (2)

Maybe the purpose of suffering is so incredibly individual that there is no one answer other than that its very inevitability suggests it does have a purpose – however hidden?

Maybe it exists so that we’ll question the things around us that seem real and permanent and important and learn to distinguish between them?

Maybe our suffering can soften our hearts so that when we see others suffer we respond?

I don’t presume to know.

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(1) Viktor Frankl, Man’s Search For Meaning.

(2) ‘Abdu’l-Bahá, published in “Star of the West”, volume 14, number 2, May 1923.

Mind the (Income) Gap


The Spirit Level : Why Equal Societies Almost Always Do Better – a controversial book by Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett, makes the claim that inequality has a negative effect on the majority of the population – not just the poor.

According to the authors, in states and countries with a big gap between the rich and poor, mental illness, drug and alcohol abuse, obesity and teenage pregnancy are more common, the homicide rate is higher, life expectancy is shorter, and children’s educational performance and literacy scores are worse.

According to this data, Japan and the Scandinavian countries have the smallest differences between incomes, and the best record of psycho-social health. On the other hand, the widest gulf between rich and poor – and the accompanying highest incidence of health and social problems – is to be found in Britain, America and Portugal.

One explanation, suggested by the authors, is that inequality increases stress right across society, not just among the least advantaged. Much research has been done on the stress hormone cortisol, which compromises the neural system and in turn the immune system. When stressed, we are more prone to depression and anxiety, and more likely to develop a host of bodily ills including heart disease, obesity, drug addiction, liability to infection and rapid ageing.

Societies where incomes are relatively equal have lower levels of stress and high levels of trust, so that people feel secure and see others as co-operative. In unequal societies, by contrast, the rich suffer from fear of the poor, while those lower down the social order experience status anxiety, resentful of those more successful than them and ashamed of themselves.

According to Wilkinson and Pickett, social problem often create downward spirals – for example, babies with teenage mothers are at greater risk, as they grow up, of educational failure, juvenile crime, and becoming teenage parents themselves. In societies with greater income inequality, more people are sent to prison, and less is spent on education and welfare.

This is an interesting book.  Lots of people disagree with it, dispute the statistics the authors present and deny their conclusions. But perhaps the title of the book – The Spirit Level – Why Equal Societies Almost Always Do Better –  still makes a statement with which most of us would instinctively agree.

Our approaches to how this should happen might differ, but almost all of us would prefer to live in a just and equal society, given the choice.

So – why don’t we have more just and equal societies?___________________________________________________

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Chaotic Butterflies


Photograph of David Bohm, taken from this page.

David Bohm

In ordinary life chaos means disorder – random, disorganised confusion.  In science it means something entirely different – it means apparent randomness. In other words, things that appear to be random and disorganised but actually obey an order that we either can’t see or don’t understand.

The physicist, David Bohm believed everything was governed by a hidden – or as he termed it – implicate – order.  He demonstrated this using a very simple but graphic experiment copied from a BBC Children’s TV programme.

Take a vessel composed of two glass cylinders, put glycerine (or other viscous fluid) in the space between the cylinders, then put a drop of insoluble ink into the glycerine and turn the outer cylinder.  As the cylinder turns, the ink is drawn out into a thread that eventually becomes so thin it disappears from view as it is enfolded in the solution.

But if the cylinder is then turned in the opposite direction, the thread form reappears and retraces its steps until the original droplet is reconstituted.

Bohm offered this as a visual example of how order exists even when it is hidden and not obvious to us.

But David Bohm is far from the only scientist to suggest that the seeming ‘chaos’ that surrounds us may not be as haphazard as it appears.

In the 1960s, Edward Lorenz, a MIT meteorologist and the originator of the Butterfly Effect theory, tried to explore why it is so hard to make good weather forecasts and as a result chaos theory was born.  Lorenz was the first to recognize what is now called chaotic behaviour in the mathematical modelling of weather systems.

Soon, many other scientists – including social scientists – were attempting to use chaos theory to search for the hidden order in everything.

Nowadays, chaos theory (and it’s offspring, complexity theory) provides us with models we can apply to everything from epilepsy to social problems.

So, organised chaos is not a contradiction after all – who knew?

An Answer to Evil


Fear is the main source of superstition, and one of the main sources of cruelty.  To conquer fear is the beginning of wisdom. Bertrand Russell

Dear Anders Behring Breivik,

A lot of the friends I met at Utoya are dead and you are the perpetrator. You are the man who, by coincidence, didn’t kill me. I was lucky.

You might think that you have won. You might think that you have ruined something for the Labour Party and for people around the world who stand for a multicultural society by killing my friends and fellow party members.

Know that you have failed.

You haven’t only made the world stand together, you have set our souls on fire and should know we’ve never stood together as we do now. You talk about yourself as a hero, a knight. You are no hero. But you have created heroes. On Utoya that warm day in July, you created some of the greatest heroes the world has seen, you unified people from all over the world. Black and white, man and woman, red and blue, Christians and Muslims.

You made your victims martyrs, immortals, and you have shown the world that when one person can show as much hatred as you have done, imagine how much love we can show when we stand together? People who I thought hated me have given me hugs on the street, people I haven’t been in contact with for years have written 300 to 400 words about how much it means to them that I survived. What can you say about that? Have you broken anything? You have united us.

You have killed my friends, but you haven’t killed our cause, our opinions, our right to express ourselves. Muslim women got hugs of sympathy from random Norwegian women on the street and your goal was to protect Europe from Islam? Your actions worked against its purpose.

You deserve no thanks; your plan failed. A lot of people are angry, you are the most hated person in Norway. I am not angry. I do not fear you. You can’t touch us, we are greater than you. We do not answer evil with evil, as you wanted it. We fight evil with good. And we win.

Benjamin Ostebo, aged 16.

God couldn’t be everywhere…


Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo (Madres de Plaza ...

God couldn’t be everywhere, so He created mothers – or so the Jewish proverb goes.

Mothers like, Las Madres de la Plaza de Mayo – The Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo – the Mothers of the Disappeared – a famous, emblematic group of women in white headscarves.

Butterfly Effects For Change – Part 9:

God’s Assistants

They came in their hundreds, marching around the main square of Buenos Aires, demanding that the military government of the time – 1976-83 –  tell them the fate of their children – Argentina’s estimate 30,000 Desparecidos.

In desperation, these women had searched for information  – knocking on doors, going from government office to government office, begging and pleading with the authorities to tell them where their sons and daughters had been taken. To no avail.

These sad, desperate visits were fruitless insofar as the authorities never helped the women to find their missing sons and daughters. However, they did bear a very different – and powerful  –  fruit. As the women trailed wearily in search of their children, they may have met with silence and opposition from the government but they also met each other.

On April 30th, 1977, fourteen mothers went to the Plaza de Mayo, across from Government House to publicize their predicament.   This demonstration took great courage as many of their children had disappeared for lesser ‘crimes’.  These women went to the Plaza to publicize the issue of the thousands of missing Argentinians. Everybody else – including the media – was afraid to speak up.

And I’m sure these women were afraid – but they spoke up anyway.

They collected in the Plaza around the Pirámide de Mayo – the oldest national monument in Buenos Aires and a symbol of liberty. However, as the military government had forbidden groups of more than three people to stand in one place, the mothers were told they couldn’t stand there, which is why they began their silent – and evocative – processions around the Plaza.

Soon these 14 mothers were joined by others, until every Thursday between 3.30 and 4.00pm, hundreds of people – men as well as women – walked silently around this square in Buenos Aires protesting the disappearance of their children. To identify themselves, the mothers wore white headscarves emblazoned with the names of their missing children and carried placards with their photographs.

This moving and non-violent protest captured imaginations across Argentina – and even outside –  as similar ‘mothers’ groups took to the streets, inspired by the actions of the Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo.

Eventually the military regime was replaced, but in Argentina – and indeed throughout the world – the memory of heartbroken mothers with placards bearing the photographs of their disappeared children, endures.

It is not power that corrupts but fear. Fear of losing power corrupts those who wield it and fear of the scourge of power corrupts those who are subject to it.  (Aung San Suu Kyi, 1990) 

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http://www.madres.org/navegar/nav.php

Image by willposh via Flickr

Ubuntu


Chris Abani

Chris Abani

The Nigerian writer, Chris Abani describes the African philosophical concept of Ubuntu as, “…the only way for me to be human is for you to reflect my humanity back at me.”

In 2008, Desmond Tutu said –

One of the sayings in our country is Ubuntu – the essence of being human. Ubuntu speaks particularly about the fact that you can’t exist as a human being in isolation. It speaks about our interconnectedness. You can’t be human all by yourself, and when you have this quality – Ubuntu – you are known for your generosity.We think of ourselves far too frequently as just individuals, separated from one another, whereas you are connected and what you do affects the whole World. When you do well, it spreads out; it is for the whole of humanity. 

Butterfly Effects for Change – Part 8

“What I’ve come to learn is that the world is never saved in grand Messianic gestures but in the simple accumulation of gentle, soft – almost invisible  – acts of compassion  – everyday acts of compassion.” (Chris Abani)

The Women of Rosenstrasse


Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, Russian writer and Nob...

We have become so result oriented that we have moved away from doing what we believe is right towards doing only what we believe will succeed.

This move has defined us by our successes and failures rather than our actions. Hence a moral action that doesn’t result in a ‘successful’ outcome is seen as a waste of time. Meanwhile, an amoral – or even immoral – action that brings about a desired result is seen as not only more practical but also better in every way.

This approach has very serious consequences, because the choice between good and evil is ours.  Individually.

As Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn put it:

Gradually it was disclosed to me that the line separating good and evil passes not through states, nor between classes, nor between political parties either – but right through every human heart – and through all human hearts. (1)

Butterfly Effect Actions for Change – Part 7:
The Women of Rosenstrasse 
On February 27, 1943, the ‘Final Roundup’, took place in Berlin. This operation involved arresting the Jewish husbands of Aryan German women and their Mischling (mixed ancestry) children.  Within hours of the arrests, 150 women had gathered on Rosenstrasse where the Jewish prisoners were being held.
By the second day, 600 women were gathered outside, holding hands, singing and chanting, ‘Let our husbands go.’
On day three, the SS were ordered to fire warning shots into the crowd – which they did several times.  Every time the soldiers fired the women scattered and hid in the surrounding alleyways and then regrouped.

“The SS trained machine guns on us: ‘If you don’t go now, we’ll shoot.’ But by now we couldn’t care less. We screamed ‘you murderers!’ and everything else. We bellowed. We thought that now, at last, we would be shot. Behind the machine guns a man shouted something – maybe he gave a command. I didn’t hear it, it was drowned out. But then they cleared out and the only sound was silence. That was the day it was so cold that the tears froze on my face.” (2)
The soldiers couldn’t be seen to mow down the flower of Aryan womanhood so the firing stopped.
Now the women were joined by others – men and women unrelated to the prisoners – and the crowd swelled to over a thousand.
On March 7th, Goebbels let the prisoners go – even 35 men who had been sent to Auschwitz were brought back to Berlin.

The women of Rosenstrasse got their husbands and children back but their courage actually achieved more than that –

…the Rosenstrasse women had forced the Nazis to make a choice: They could accede to a limited demand and pay a finite cost – 1,700 prisoners set free, if all the intermarried Jewish men were released. Or they could open a Pandora’s box of heightened protest… For the Nazis, maintaining social control was more important than making sure every last Jew made it to the gas chambers…

The protest confronted Nazis officials with an unresolved question: what to do with other intermarried Jews….On May 21 Himmler’s deputy released them all, everywhere, from the camps. (3) 

I’m sure the women of Rosenstrasse didn’t think they’d succeed when they took to the streets demanding that their husbands be released.  I’m even more sure they didn’t think other women’s husbands would be released.

But they still acted – with great courage – and did what they believed was the right thing to do, with no regard to the outcome.

Even if they had failed in their objective, their actions would still be brave and praiseworthy.

If they had stopped to consider their chances of success – they probably wouldn’t have even tried.

Makes you think… 


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Photograph – Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn – on a train in Vladivostock as he returned to Russia in 1994 for the first time in twenty years.

(1) —  Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn – The Gulag Archipelago: 1918-1956

(2) – Nathan StoltzfusResistance of the Heart: Intermarriage and the Rosenstrasse Protest in Nazi Germany. Rutgers University Press, 2001

(3) http://www.aforcemorepowerful.org/book/excerpts/denmark.php

(4) In 1995, a memorial created by Ingeborg Hunzinger, an East German sculptor, was erected in the nearby park (which was ironically the site of a former synagogue). The memorial, named “Block der Frauen (Block of Women)” reads The strength of civil disobedience, the vigor of love overcomes the violence of dictatorship; Give us our men back; Women were standing here, defeating death; Jewish men were free.

Tsunami of Good


If you take each tiny ethical action and add it to the next tiny ethical action and continue to do this across the board – eventually you’ll  have a huge tsunami of moral behaviour which has the power to effect great change.

Unfortunately this is also true in reverse.  All those tiny and seemingly insignificant immoral actions that we all perform – the white lies, the small cheats – also add up and engulf everything, but not in a good way.

Every single thing that every single one of us does all of the time matters in the overall scheme of things.  There is no such thing as a deed – good or bad –that doesn’t have some effect somewhere.

Scary?  Maybe.

But heartening too when you think about it.

Butterfly Effects for Change – Part 6 – The Fruits of Their Labour

On July 19th, 1984, 21 year old Mary Manning, a cashier working at the Henry Street branch of Dunnes Stores in Dublin, refused to handle two Outspan grapefruit.  Mary Manning did this on the orders of her union as a protest against the system of apartheid in operation in South Africa at that time.  Manning was suspended for her actions and ten of her colleagues went on strike to protest against her treatment.

This refusal to handle South African produce by Manning and her colleagues was not well received by their employers and resulted in a strike that lasted almost three years – a very brave action in a time of great unemployment.

Eventually though, the Dunnes Stores workers prevailed and the Irish government agreed to ban the importing of South African fruit and vegetables until the apartheid regime was overthrown.

Today in Johannesburg, a street is named after Mary Manning and she and her colleagues have been personally commended by Nelson Mandela and his successor, Thabo Mbeki.

As Margaret Mead, the well-known anthropologist said –

Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.