REPORT A PROBLEM
Iíve been feeling lost for words. I ought to have started writing long before now. Iíve been so busy at work and so overwhelmed by all the terrible global events of the last few weeks Iíve been feeling somewhat immobilised when it comes to gathering my thoughts together. It doesnít help that Iím a news junkie. The 24 hour news cycle can serve to amplify horror in a way that makes our individual daily concerns seems petty and trivial. The human capacity to inflict trauma, injury and death upon others can instil a sense of hopelessness thatís hard to shake.
I remember the first time I heard John Lennon sing
. I was 12 years old and full of wonder. I thought it was one of the most amazing songs Iíd ever heard. Its meaning resonated for me in a way lie nothing else had done. It spoke of a world in which people mattered more than anything else; more than politics, more than religion, more than greed. For a whole host of reasons, it moved me and helped instil a world view that I still try to cling on to today. Such is the power of oneís formative years.
The very idea of genocidal, gun-toting ideologues surrounding a mountain filled with terrified Ďnon-believersí and threatening to kill each and every last one of them simply because they refuse to Ďconvertí to an extremist interpretation of Islam defies any known logic or sense of what it means to be human. Itís the intention behind the act that horrifies; the intention to kill and/or enslave in the name of religion. What horrifies me in equal measure is the emotional response it elicits in me; that for all my idealistic tendencies I believe such zealots should themselves be erased from the planet.
I grew up in the shadow of the bomb. As a teenager I was so freaked out by the discovery that the worldís two superpowers had tens of thousands of nuclear missiles aimed at each other ready to fire caused me no end of grief. The fact that I lived at the bottom of the planet and about as far away from those two superpowers as it was geographically possible to get provided no reassurance. If war broke out there would be nothing and no one left, except cockroaches. It was a pretty bleak shadow under which to grow up.
I may have only been a teenager but it was plain to see that all was not well in the world. Watching the news didnít help. Nor did reading such spurious Christian publications as The Plain Truth, a dishearteningly bleak publication regularly placed in our letter box which, under the guise of pseudo journalistic respectability, thoroughly depressed me with its continuous and multiple end-of-the-world scenarios which for some reason I morbidly consumed, fueled in part by my guilt driven fear that I was somehow on the wrong side of God. Needless to say, I was an often morose young lad.
One of the reasons music was so important to me while growing up was its ability to lift me out of myself and, more specifically, out of my moroseness. As with any typical teenager growing up I had multiple anxieties, not least my growing awareness of being gay, which compounded my fear of annihilation. Given that my sexuality excluded me from ever getting into heaven, not only would I be annihilated but damned for all time into the bargain! Such a heartening thought. But music had the power to lift my spirits and instil hope when little else seemed to.
The 70s gave rise to a profusion of feel good tunes. Disco was in part born out of a weariness of the cynicism that accompanied the various conflicts and stagnating economies around the world, expressing a desire to let loose and Ďhave a good timeí no matter what. But before disco there were the singer songwriters who often spoke of friendship, hope and a belief in the power of love. To write it down in so many words sounds a little corny and no doubt much of it was, but for this troubled young teenager it provided an emotional anchor.
Growing up, I was attracted to and repelled by the church in equal measure. I was drawn to its promise of fellowship and its message of love but I was repelled by its narrow definitions of what love could be and its exclusion of anything outside the norm. I was also seduced by a great deal of nonsense that my parents were involved in - spiritualism and various other new age offshoots that promised much but delivered little more than a temporary, self-satisfied glow. I needed to believe in the basic goodness of people and was constantly seeking confirmation of this.
Iíve always had difficulty with hatred. We all know people who apparently take great delight in hating others. Then there are those whose hatred created a mountain over which they can never climb. As a teenager, whenever I had a strong dislike of someone I would invariably have a dream about them in which they were completely different. Upon waking I would find myself feeling warm and fuzzy towards them in a way I could not previously have imagined. Thereafter, any ill-feeling I may have harboured simply evaporated. Even today Iíd find it hard to name someone I actually hate.
There are some people who thrive on hatred. It used to fascinate me how quickly someone could switch from Ďundying loveí to really hating someone. Iíve known many disappointments in life and there have been times when hating someone would have been a lot easier than forgiving them. On the forgiveness front Iíve not always been successful but Iíve generally been able to avoid actively hating people. I thought I hated our builder a few months ago but even that has dissipated over time. Heís still far from being my favourite person but do I hate him? No, not really.
Iíve lived long enough to have seen a variety of conflicts play out around the world though like most people, Iíve observed these conflicts from a distance. I remember how when the Russians invaded Afghanistan we all feared it would lead to direct military conflict between the US and the USSR. So convinced was I of this that I took to a cold bath during a particularly hot summer and read all three volumes of The Lord of the Rings just in case I didnít get the chance later.
My bucket list has become a little more ambitious since then.
I recall my anxiety in 1982 when, as I was heading off to London on my first overseas adventure, the Faulklands War broke out. Once again my imagination ran wild as I imagined landing back in the UK only to be conscripted into the army. That was never going to happen of course but it tapped into my deepest fears nonetheless. As it was, the whole drama was played out in the South Atlantic and the closest I got to anything vaguely military was seeing the warships sailing in and out of Southampton and following the rabid British tabloid news.
A few months later I was in Israel driving up near the border of the Golan Heights. The Israelis had invaded Lebanon and the whole country was abuzz. I remember thinking how surreal it was that only a few miles away bombs were falling and people were killing each other. After living so far away from anything even remotely resembling military conflict, here I was travelling through countryside that was eerily reminiscent of Australia with its dusty plains and surprising number of eucalyptus trees. It was my first taste of normal life going on so close to a war zone.
That same year I went to Belfast in Northern Ireland. The city centre was surprisingly beautiful but everywhere I went there were army checkpoints posted outside each major department store and intersection and I was wary of cars that might explode as I walked by. I remember getting a proper dressing down by a man on the desk at the museum. ďYer a fucking idiot walking around looking like that. Yer likely to get yerself shot!Ē He was referring to my cropped hair and army surplus clothes. I was completely taken aback. Thereafter I couldnít wait to leave the place.
A few years later in 1993 I was living Stockwell, London. One sunny morning I heard what sounded like a dull thud in the distance. When I turned on the TV later that day I discovered that the IRA had blown up a sizeable area of Bishopsgate in the City, a couple of miles down the road. I remember thinking how weird it was that something so massive could make such a dull thud. I was also gobsmacked by the scale of the damage. These things simply donít happen in Australia. That said, in London two miles feels like fifty.
Twelve years later I was again living in London when on a beautiful sunny morning three suicide bombers detonated bombs on the London Underground and another on a London bus. I arrived at work as the news was breaking and for a while we were all under the impression that there were many more bombs to go off. Having taken the Underground and bus service to get to work I was completely unnerved. By the end of the day the full scale of what had happened emerged and the complete arbitrariness of the horror inflicted on so many unfortunate commuters.
I was teaching in a predominantly Muslim school in Whitechapel, London when the Twin Towers were attacked. Consequently I was afforded insight I might not otherwise have benefited from. At a time when many were tempted to look for simple scapegoats to explain the terrible events of that day, I was working within a Muslim community that was as appalled and shocked as everyone else and from that day the distinction between Muslims and extremists has remained crystal clear. Following the attack the school had to hire police protection in case of any misplaced attempts at reprisal. Thankfully, none materialised.
When Lee Rigby was gutted and beheaded on a street in London last year we were all horrified. When I saw where it had occurred I was even more shocked. The murder took place across the road from the first school I worked in when I moved back there in 2001. It was a road I have walked down literally hundreds of times. That something so barbaric could happen was terrible but the fact that it occurred right outside where I used to work brought with it the full realisation of how arbitrary and devastating such acts of barbarity are.
How ironical. An American journalist was today beheaded and the footage beamed around the world via social media. Compared to the dreadful atrocities of the Israeli-Gaza conflict, the nearly 200,000 people killed in Syria or the multiple victims of the conflict in Ukraine, one American beheading may not seem like much. But what it does demonstrate is the chilling nature of a new force the likes of which we can barely imagine. The utter nihilistic and murderous nature of those who are rampaging across northern Syria and Iraq is like nothing we have ever seen before. It doesnít bode well . . .
Itís becoming hard to keep the faith: faith in human nature; faith in the essential goodness of people; faith in the idea that as a species we have the capacity to rise above the things that divide and separate us and the ability to make that capacity manifest within the world. Good people exist, but good people get shot out of the sky, incinerated in targeted bombing attacks, chased up mountains and threatened with genocide. Good people get murdered, raped and denied safe passage to a safe, rich country like Australia. Good people suffer. And we never seem to learn.
I remember last year in the wake of the Boston bombings a conversation I had with a colleague at work. We were discussing the evil that some people perpetrate upon others when she made a very astute observation: she said that when tragedy strikes we often forget the number of people who rush towards the scene of devastation to help. And itís true! The majority of people do have an innate sense of decency. The true bastards really are in the minority, but boy can they do some damage!
And what's scary is, they appear to be on the ascent.
If anyone was trying to identify a hero for our times they would need to look no further than Malala Yousafzai, the 14 year old Pakistani girl who was brave enough to stand up against the Taliban for the right of girls to have an education and was shot in the head and left for dead for her efforts. Against all odds she managed to not only survive but to then go on and become a global ambassador for all that is decent and good in the world and an embodiment of bravery and courage that few others could equal.
In my mid to late twenties I experienced an epiphany. I began to have hope. I began to believe that for all its madness the world was beginning to make sense and that we were on the brink of something extraordinary. This came about through a variety of means, the details of which I donít intend to chronicle here. Suffice to say I found my inner well of optimism and it managed to sustain me through some pretty challenging times in my life. Call it youthful idealism if you wish but it all made sense to me at the time.
Over the years I've maintained my optimism. Iím the kind of guy who tends to see the glass as half full. I believe the way we think determines the way we feel. I know what itís like to plumb the depths of depression; itís by no means foreign territory, but itís not a place I choose to spend any length of time. I believe itís important to count oneís blessings. None of us get to choose our circumstances or where we are born. We do get to choose how we feel about it however, and I choose to feel positive.
My optimism has been challenged of late. I was at a conference a few months ago where one of the speakers was talking about the way we absorb negativity. She talked about the 24 hour news cycle and coined the term Constantly Negative News, as in CNN News. I thought it was a clever play with words. More than that, it struck a chord. Itís not easy to avoid hearing about all the horror in the world and a part of me feels irresponsible if I try to ignore it. Itís the world we live in, like it or not.
I work in a bubble. What I mean by that is, I work in a privileged school with privileged kids. Unlike my former job in London, there are absolutely no behavioural issues to deal with. The children I teach are well fed, well dressed and well mannered. The parents I deal with are delightful. The staff I work with are fantastic. The school facilities are excellent and the school grounds are beautiful. Meanwhile, elsewhere in the world, unspeakable horrors are being committed on a daily basis. Ever has it been thus, some would say but itís a depressing thought nonetheless.
The question arises: is it acceptable to go about oneís daily business and simply hope that things will get better? Has there ever been a time when the world was a peaceful place? Are there more atrocities taking place now or are we simply better informed? When I read about what went on in the world during my parents earlier years I have to wonder. For all the terrible things currently taking place we donít live in a time when a city is carpet bombed and 70,000 are killed in a single night or incinerated with a single, deadly blast.
While teaching in Whitechapel, London, I taught one young lad who completely stood out from the rest. He was gentle, kind, considerate and driven. He has since gone on to become a highly successful writer and motivational speaker who travels the world. His message, specifically directed towards young people but by no means lost on the rest of us, is that we control our destiny; we can take charge and make a difference, in our own lives and in the world. A young Muslim boy from the poorest borough in London, he embodies much that is good in the world.
Living is a complicated business and the more people who arrive on the planet, the more complicated it becomes. Iíd like to think that the sheer pressure of having to accommodate so many would force us to rethink the way we interact, especially when conflicts arise. Thatís what makes a phenomenon such as the Islamic State so frightening. In an increasingly complex world it stands for everything that is diametrically opposed to a just and multicultural future. One can only hope that their presence acts as a catalyst that forces the world to reassess and reevaluate our common human potential.
There are things in life we have control over and there are thing over which we have no control. Thereís a temptation at times to feel guilty about the good things in life when so many who are denied so much, but what good does that serve? Does it change anything? Beyond signing petitions, lobbying politicians and donating to charity, what else can one do other than go about oneís business, try to be a decent person and take care of those around you? Thereís still beauty in the world, and kindness and good. Itís not all doom and gloom.
Arguably my favourite inspirational song of all time is Louis Armstrongís Itís a Beautiful World. Its potency arises in part from the fact that his was not an easy life, nor were the times he lived in easy either. Yet he sings the song with all the conviction and spirit of someone who truly believes in the essential goodness of people and the essential beauty of the world. Itís a powerful message and one Iím trying not to lose sight of.
As Max Ehrmann once wrote, Ďfor all its sham, drudgery and broken dreams, it is still a beautiful worldí.
The Tip Jar