2015: My year of writing

Now I know there is no value in sitting about wishing and hoping. If I’m daydreaming about something, it’s down to me to make it happen.

– Daisy Buchanan, ‘Lessons in life that online dating taught me’, The Guardian

2014 was the year of meeting more men. I wrote about it in my article ‘The art of conversation’ for Together magazine. I realised that if I wanted to meet the right person for me, I had to have a good idea about what I was looking for and then get out there and look for it. I learnt that my love life is in my hands.

It has been over two years since I started Living room philosophy. Thanks to the blog, I got the opportunity to write for Together magazine: my very own personal development column. Thanks to the magazine, I did my first interview: it was with Ratna Osman, from Sisters in Islam, an NGO fighting for equality and justice for muslim women in Malaysia. I will post the interview on the blog soon.

I am so thankful that my writing is gaining traction, although I admit I’d like to do more and I guess I am looking for that lucky break: the opportunity to write full-time on the topics that really interest me. The freedom to choose and still be able to make a decent living.

Earning a living is for me what makes writing as a career so scary. I hear a lot about how journalism doesn’t pay, it’s all about free content, and it’s best to find other lucrative channels to support your writing. Yet, I can’t help but feel that earning a living in the arts has always been tough and always will be. Plus, I hear that some people do earn a good living: a journalist recently told me that he’s faring very well. In Margaret Atwood’s book ‘Negotiating with the Dead: A Writer on Writing’, she accepted that when she started out in late 1950s Canada as a poet, she definitely wasn’t going to earn money. But she did.

For making the transition into writing, the most sensible advice I’ve read (and heard) is to start building it up slowly and then make the leap when I have the resources to. As the Guardian journalist George Monbiot says in his article about career advice, “Work hard, but don’t rush. Build your reputation slowly and steadily.” And he thinks specialisation, instead of what journalism school (and actually many schools) thinks is a trap, is actually the key to escaping the trap: “You can become the person editors think of when they need to cover a particular issue from a particular angle (that is to say your angle). They then respond to your worldview, rather than you having to respond to theirs.”

So 2015 is going to be my year of more writing: more blog posts and more published articles. And just like my love life, my career is in my hands.

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Confronting the news

Hold on to your hat. Hang on to your hope. And wind the clock back for tomorrow is another day.

– E. B. White

For the November 2014 issue of Together magazine, I wrote about what was the best way to confront the bad news that we’ve been reading about and hearing a lot of. Even though I wrote the article five months ago, the amount of shocking news doesn’t appear to have decreased: there still seems to be an awful lot of it out there…

I grew up in the nineties and I do wonder whether the world was a better place back then, pre-September 11 and all the raging conflict that has ensued. But then I recall the terrible things that happened in the nineties too: the genocides in Bosnia and in Rwanda, the Omagh bombing, the Dunblane and Columbine shootings, Waco, the Toyko subway attack. Tragic events have happened and they continue to happen.

So how do we deal with the news? In this article, I attempt to figure it out.

Confronting the news: Gemma Rose tries to find the balance between being over-emotionally invested and burying her head in the sand

Let’s admit it, this summer was an aestas horribilis: the downing of the Malaysia Airlines flight MH17; the civil war in Ukraine; the ISIS ethnic and religious cleansing, beheadings and rapes; the ongoing Israel– Palestine conflict; the spread of the Ebola virus. And it never stopped raining in August.

It’s after such a horrible summer that I seriously consider going on a news fast, eliminating the newspaper, news sites or news programmes from my life for a while. I become completely oblivious to the sheer horror and tragedy that seem to happen every minute in this glorious, expansive, yet seemingly small and terribly interconnected world. For a couple of days it feels good – I feel like I’m sort of returning to normality, focusing on me and staying present. But then I feel the tug of the news again.

I often wonder what my role is in confronting the news. I mostly feel helpless, and usually guilty. I say to myself: “I was raised Muslim, why aren’t I out on the street condemning ISIS as a force of evil and wholly contrary to the principles of Islam?” Or: “I’m European, why aren’t I out on the street denouncing Russian foreign policy and demanding more from Europe?”

The truth is, I’m either pretty darn cowardly, or I feel pretty darn powerless. I’m not alone in feeling this way. I recently asked friends the question, “How do you feel about the scary things that are happening in this world?” The most common response: fear and anxiety, coupled with helplessness. We are scared about the depths of depravity we can inflict on one another and yet we are unsure as to how to stop it.

How do we balance processing the bad news, which is normally happening in far-away lands, with getting on with our lives right here, right now? On the one hand, it seems a massive drain on our emotional resources to be consumed by the destruction and devastation of our world. Yet on the other, it seems selfish to live in blissful ignorance. My friends’ replies were: we elect politicians to protect and promote our freedoms and prevent further suffering in the world; we donate to charities that provide humanitarian relief in conflict zones. Even if we don’t mobilize ourselves on the streets, they say, we can make a stand in our own living room, signing petitions via Change.org, Avaaz.org or #Making a Stand.

Talking about the news to one another was the most common response. When we share our concerns, not only are we informing ourselves and each other, we feel less alone in our anxiety.

It is perhaps this shared anxiety that fulfils one of the purposes of news. In the article ‘Why isn’t the news more cheerful?’ by the Philosophers’ Mail (a news organization run and staffed by philosophers), it is held that we need to hear about certain types of bad news (disasters, plane crashes, wars) because it is evidence that life is bleak, it is unfair and all of humanity suffers.

The Philosophers’ Mail states that the reporting of news must be helpful to enable us to live the good life. The problem however lies with the powerful influence of the media. In the short film ‘What is the point of news?‘ the philosopher Alain de Botton forcefully contends that we are not taught how to be critical of the news. The news can overload us with information, rendering us overwhelmed and therefore very unlikely to change the status quo; or it can constantly anger or terrify us because it needs to keep itself employed.

The last point de Botton makes is that we have to learn when to switch off the news and deal instead with our own anxieties and hopes. I would go one further: that the balance between switching on and off lies in knowing what we can and can’t do within our sphere of influence. I know I can’t broker a peace deal in the Middle East or find a cure for Ebola; but I can sign that petition, share that campaign and inform myself of that virus.

Lastly, I can hope: hope that things will get better, that the light prevails over the darkness. As the author E. B. White replied in his letter to someone who had lost their faith in humanity: “As long as there is one upright man, as long as there is one compassionate woman, the contagion may spread and the scene is not desolate. Hope is the thing that is left to us, in a bad time.”

E. B. White then signs off with this indelible reminder: “Hang on to your hat. Hang on to your hope. And wind the clock, for tomorrow is another day.”

Going grey gracefully

I have my second living room letter!

Dear Gemma Rose,

I am a woman in my mid thirties and I’m starting to go quite grey. I’m wondering whether I should dye my hair or not. My mother keeps nagging me to do it, but I quite like my grey hair. I think it makes me look distinguished. Yet dying it would probably make me look a lot younger. What do the philosophers say on grey hair? Should I resort to dying it for the sake of looking young, and pleasing my mother?

Love the blog by the way.

– K

Dear K,

I feel honoured that you should bestow such a request for advice on me. As someone who is similar in age and going grey herself, it too is something that I’ve been reflecting on for a while. I have very dark hair, so my greys (or are they white?) really are on show. I must say that I sometimes grieve at seeing more and more grey, and I try to hide the strands by changing my quiff or cut. I guess for me it’s like grieving my youth, that I’m not a “youngin'” anymore and that I am sort of approaching middle age.

There has been a double standard with going grey between the sexes. George Clooney is your typical salt and pepper (although he seems pretty much salt these days) hearthrob, or silver fox. Today, it’s pretty much accepted in society that men don’t feel the pressure or need to dye their hair, in comparison to the nineties when the use of ‘Just For Men‘ was rife. I definitely notice it with colleagues: the male ones revel in their grey, whereas the female ones tend to get the dye out.

However, there seems to a revolution going on: a grey one. ‘Grey is the new black! Blondies, it’s quiet for y’all!’ tweeted the fashionista Rihanna back in 2013. Young people who probably don’t have grey yet are flocking to colour the hair grey to be “on trend”. A Kardashian clan member even spent 11 hours for the privilege!

So grey is cool in the celeb world. But the difference seems to be that these are celebs who are dying their hair, not celebs who have bitten the silver bullet (I couldn’t resist) and decided to let nature do the talking, instead of Clairol. As you know, naturally grey hair is coarse and can have a life of its own, so to look good with grey, a bit of haircare and a good cut is needed. The tendency is that if you are going grey, better to go short too but I’ve seen some women who look fantastic with long, grey hair and I’ve seem some women who look like they have a bird’s nest on their head.

What do the philosophers say? Well, I reckon a few them were grey. For instance, Socrates was grey by the end of his life. As was Jeremy Bentham, David Hume and Michael Sandel. What about the women? Well Simone de Beauvoir looked like she might have only stopped dyeing her hair when she was well into her third act, same goes for Ayn Rand. I am no academic, but I’m not sure if hair colour was on the agenda. Hannah Arendt was kept occupied fleeing the Nazis and then covering Adolf Eichmann’s trial. Simone de Beauvoir was probably way-laid writing that feminism can never be achieved as long as women are considered a “deviation” of the male norm. Susan Haack is most likely spending a lot of her time writing about “foundherentism”. Not sure if philosophising about going grey is on her to-do list.

In a 2007 Time article about going grey in showbiz, political, business and even in the healthcare circles, this was practically unheard of and frowned upon. One doctor said she would be taken less seriously, viewed as an “alternative” practitioner, for going grey. One business woman admitted that her career success depended on not going grey. But that was 8 years ago, I think times have changed.

If you do decide to dye, according to the Guardian’s fashion expert Hadley Freeman, once you start, you can’t stop. And your bank balance won’t thank you for it.

Whatever decision you make, make sure that you feel good about it. If letting nature take its course displeases your Mum, I’m sure she will get over it. Of course, you can always suggest that she foots the bill every time you get your hair done. She might soon change her mind.