Saying f**k it to goals

My goal, ahem, for what’s left of 2016 is to try and put up all my publications online.

This article for Together magazine focused on goals. Is it good to set goals? Yes, they give you direction, a target, and a sense of achievement once you’ve reached them. On the other hand, no it’s not good, as you can become goal crazy, putting your health, self or others at risk just to achieve them.

Sometimes, it’s really nice not to have a goal. It’s great to just drift along and see where life takes you. You may be pleasantly surprised. I’m quite partial to the “go with the flow” attitude, but once and a while, I check in with myself and stay conscious of where I’m going. When it no longer feels like the right direction, I pull over and get my map out (or ask someone)!

So I hope you enjoy the article.

Finally, you may have noticed that the citizens of the US did something quite spectacular on Tuesday. There’s been a lot of fear mongering since and it’s true, we really don’t know what’s going to happen. But just with Brexit, maybe the best thing is to focus on today, rather than on what might be, and on what is beyond our control. Let’s do what we can: protest peacefully, hold our politicians to account and be part of the citizenry.

P.S I’m with Dilbert.

dilbert_unmentioned-goals

Sisters in Islam

You must be responsible for what you do, as well as for what you don’t do.

– Seyran Ates, muslim feminist

During a visit to Malaysia last year, I was very fortunate to spend some time volunteering at Sisters In Islam, an NGO that advocates the rights of muslim women predominantly in Malaysia, with many networks across the muslim world.

I came across them through an article on Facebook that a friend had posted. I can’t quite remember its content but I remember feeling particularly heartened by what they were saying. They were muslim women who believed in reform in Islam, as well as the application of critical thinking and common sense when it comes to the practice of Islam. They appeared open, liberal, spiritual and erudite. I knew that I had to contact them.

It was through my voluntary work that I met and got to know Ratna Osman, the then Executive Director of SIS. My first proper occasion with her was going to Australia Day celebrations just beside the Petronas twin towers, right in the heart of Kuala Lumpur. It was during the car journey that she told me a little bit about her life story, that she had gone from a path of extremism to one of reform. Those few minutes of listening to her encouraged me to later interview her for Together magazine.

If you have followed my blog over the years, you probably know that I am very much an admirer of Irshad Manji, whose work in trying to prevent Islam from being hijacked by extremists has put her life at risk. Thus through SIS, I learnt about other incredible muslim feminists, like the American Amina Wadud, who led Friday prayers of a mixed gender congregation, and the Iranian Ziba Mir-Hosseini, who writes and teaches extensively on gender equality in Islam. These women, Ratna Osman, and Sisters In Islam give me hope. Their voice, intellect and courage are much needed in this time when we are asking, what does it mean to be muslim?

Perhaps my tardiness at uploading my articles comes at an opportune time. This week I met Seyran Ates, a German lawyer of Turkish decent, at a debate on the integration of migrants. She has written books on Islamic reform, one notably called ‘Islam needs a sexual revolution‘. At 21 years of age, she was shot in the neck because of her work at a womens’ shelter. Today, she lives under police protection. Her devotion to show the moderate, tolerant, peaceful side of Islam is worth more than her own life. She believes that she has to take on the responsibility of being a role model, not only to young muslims (and in particularly female ones) but also to the rest of society. Next year, she will open a mosque in Berlin.

This week’s blog post is dedicated to the sisters in Islam: the women like Ratna, like Seyran, who despite the rise in extremism, don’t give up on their faith, and work even harder to understand it and tell us about it.

The interview with Ratna Osman is my first ever interview for the magazine. Of all my articles, it is the one I am most proud of. Read the article in full online, or it is also on p. 44 of the magazine. Below is a short extract to get you started.

Until next week, happy reading!

Sisters in Islam: In search of peace – Gemma Rose learns about Ratna Osman’s journey from extremism to reformism

The first thing I notice about Ratna Osman – the Executive Director of Sisters in Islam (SIS), a Muslim women’s NGO based in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia – is her hijab, or tudung in Malay. It’s not quite a hijab in the traditional sense where only her face is left uncovered. Rather, her hair is covered in a wrap leaving her whole neck visible. Ratna has worn the headscarf since the age of 15. “I used to say that once I reach 50, I’ll take it off because then I would be considered an old woman,” she recalls to me, “but now that I’m approaching 50, I still think I’m quite young!” she giggles. Her beaming smile is the second thing I notice. It’s broad, complemented by dimples, on a face that exhibits much warmth and hospitality. “I’m not sure if I’ll ever take it off,” she reflects. “It’s become part of my identity.”

The headscarf remains a controversial issue in Muslim majority Malaysia, where it is not compulsory. In her youth, Ratna felt ostracized from her peers, both Muslim and non-Muslim, for covering her hair. “I was part of a small minority wearing it at that time,” she explained. “I was laughed at, jeered at, made uncomfortable. A teacher told me to take it off because it was an obstruction. Most of my close friends stayed away from me. It was quite a lonely world,” she says. “Now, it’s the other way around.” She refers to cases where Muslim girls at school have been harassed for exposing their hair. “And I feel for those who are not covered. They have the right to dress as they are because I believe in the freedom of choice, and that nobody needs to dictate to another human being. Only God can do that.”

Read more…

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Ratna Osman’s beaming smile. Photo from Malaysia Tatler magazine.

 

Late bloomers

“The fashion in recent times has been for the young to hold centre stage as if they were the only important form of human being.”
– A.C. Grayling, The Meaning of Things

For the February 2015 issue of Together magazine, I wrote about “Late Bloomers”.

I consider myself a bit of a late bloomer. My love of writing, reading and philosophy only came to me later in life. I certainly recall hating reading as a child and the only writing I enjoyed was doodling a few poems here and there on the back cover of my exercise books. As for philosophy, well that involved reading so enough said. I did, however, have an inquisitive mind.

I was (and am) particularly struck by very talented people who also happen to be very young. Unfortunately, it is more out of envy rather than awe or admiration. To appease my jealousy and reassure me that it’s ok to be one, I embarked upon a quest to discover late bloomers. I learnt about many a late bloomer, some to my surprise and perhaps to yours.

Although it’s wonderful to marvel at the great, late bloomers, we should just as well welcome the lesser known ones: those who flourished in adversity; or those that found joy in finally finding something they enjoy doing and became good at, e.g. cooking, aromatherapy, mentoring, DIY.

Here’s a short excerpt to entice you with the link to the magazine. It’s on page 29 of the magazine (p. 15 of the Pdf). Alternatively you can read a shortened online version. But to get a good sense of what I’m talking about, read the full magazine version.

Enjoy and do leave me a comment. Are you a late bloomer? I would love to hear from you.

Late bloomers : Gemma Rose writes in praise of those whose talent bloomed later in life

At last year’s TEDxBrussels, I was particularly struck by one of the speakers, Lina Colucci, who spoke about health hackathons. Health hackathons bring together specialists from different disciplines as well as consumer groups to respond innovatively to medical problems. At the age of 16, Lina began redesigning the ballet shoe so as to limit the pain and deformity done to the ballerina’s foot. This award-winning idea led her towards collaborating with Nike in updating the pointe shoe. Currently, she is a PhD student on a joint MIT and Harvard programme, dances ballet with the Harvard Ballet company and is an accomplished clarinetist. Judging by her CV and her appearance, she could not have been any older than 25.

Society tends to place a lot of value on youth. We often hear of the meteoric rise of actors, musicians, entrepreneurs, CEOs and inspirational leaders in their twenties, sometimes even in their teens. Forbes magazine does an annual “30 under 30” with movers and shakers in several domains including law and policy, education, entertainment and social entrepreneurship. This phenomenon is nothing new. Some of the greatest artists, composers, writers and scientists were so notable in part due to their youth – Picasso became well-known at 26, Mozart at 21, Orson Welles at 25 and Einstein at 26.

Read more… (pp. 15 – 16 on the Pdf)

cezanne-gardanne

Gardanne (1885 – 86) by Paul Cézanne, a late bloomer.

References

Late Bloomers, Malcolm Gladwell for The New Yorker

Interview with Uncle Yee, Lite FM

The Meaning of Things, A.C. Grayling

Why we should all hack medicine, Lina Colucci, Tedx Brussels 2014

It’s not too late to make a difference, Jonathan Sackner-Bernstein, Tedx Brussels 2014

Spring is here

Hello All,

It’s been a long time, hasn’t it?

Well, since my last post, which is over 8 months ago, I’ve been doing a lot of thinking. One of the things that I’ve been thinking about is my writing. I had really big hopes for my writing. I wrote monthly for the magazine, Together, and I had a good column, which focussed on personal development. I thought that perhaps it would be a start of things to come.

And well, I thought I would become FAMOUS! Like, writing that column would lead me to bigger and better things. I would get a book deal, or I’d get more work, someone from the Guardian might pick up on my absolute brilliance and talent and offer me a job. Then I’d be a best-selling author and esteemed writer and I could quit my day job and just spend my days getting up whenever I want, going for walks, visiting the seaside, eating fish and chips.

But alas! I’m still in my day job and there is no book deal in sight. Very slowly, over the course of the last  few weeks, I’ve come to the conclusion that I was looking at things from quite an entitled point of view. The whole point of me starting a blog was to just write about the things I enjoy, not for the fame and fortune. Frankly, there are a lot of people like me who write stuff like mine and probably don’t have a mega 52 foot yacht, and have regular drinks with Leornard Di Caprio on it. They just love what they do.

I love my writing. It may be a bit naff sometimes, it may be a bit philosophical, it may be (very) self-indulgent, but it’s just a wonderful thing. Amen!

I visited the pretty city of Leuven (Belgium) today. As I wandered along the streets, I was startled by the light pink cherry blossoms. They reminded me that the days will be brighter,  the air lighter, and that it is time for a new start.

Two weeks ago, my home town of Brussels was struck by bombs. They tried to intimidate us, and darken our days. But by venturing out today, and welcoming the spring, I was reminded by the saying that I heard at a Christmas sermon, “that even in the darkest days, there is light.”

So here’s to spring: a symbol of new beginnings, new writing, and light.

The driving force of fear

“Fear drives us to do many things in our lives. For me, the fear of losing a loved one, and all those terrifying thoughts of what it’s like to be left behind and feel alone, drove me to conceive and write this story.”

Cecilia Ahern, P.S I love you

I read this book recently on my holiday. Honestly, I’ve read better books but what encouraged (forced) me to keep reading was this first sentence of the note from the author. When I got back from holiday, I also decided to watch the film to see what all the fuss about and I have to say the book was far better (why do Americans overdo Ireland so much?), although the film’s saving grace is Lisa Kudrow.

The quote above resounds so much with me because I have a fear that drives me. A fear of being stuck in a routine, or a lifestyle that doesn’t suit me. I know that something isn’t right when I get a funny urge in my body, one where something inside just wants to leap out of me, take hold of me and shove me into the spotlight. But then my slow brain takes over – the thinker – and it just says, “Not yet.”

I am waiting for the day when the urge is so strong that my slow brain will say, “Now.”

Know Thyself

Die to the future, die to the past, and wake up now.”

– Jon Kabat-Zinn

I have come across this incredible resource on philosophy – BBC Radio 4’s A History of Ideas. The presenter of this programme, Melvyn Bragg, asks a question of philosophy, such as “how can I tell right from wrong?” to a panel of experts including philosophers, scientists, historians and writers. After the programme, each panel member then investigates the question further for their own follow-up programme.

I came across the Know Thyself short animation as part of the “What does it mean to be me?” episode. This animation touches on four thinkers – two philosophers and two scientists. It begins with Socrates, who went to great depths to know that he didn’t really know much. Then to Thomas Hobbes who said that by engaging in introspection, observing ourselves and understanding our thoughts, feelings and desires, not only would we know ourselves better, but so would we too of others. The unconscious plays a big role in knowing who we are, and it’s something that we still don’t fully understand. Freud believed that our repressed desires only come out in dreams or slips of the tongue, making us wonder whether we ever truly understand our behaviour. Finally, the evolutionary psychologist Bruce Hood said that actually the self is just an illusion – there is no self to know.

Therefore, how do we know that we actually exist if there is no self, or at least the jury is out on what ‘the self’ is? The philosopher René Descartes said that we exist because we have thoughts. But, in contrary to Descartes, we are more than our thoughts. As Aristotle reminds us that “It is the mark of an educated mind to be able to entertain a thought without accepting it.”

According to probably one of the most well-known mindfulness practitioners – scientist Jon Kabat-Zinn –  he says that the key to the good life is to know ourselves. In a recent lecture of his, he basically explained that to be mindful is to be awake. In order to be awake, we have to tap into ourselves. This talk reminded me of a story that I read recently, as part of a book on philosophy. It is a fictional story about two passengers on a plane. The female passenger doesn’t like flying, so she takes a sleeping pill that lasts the whole flight. Yet, she’s not actually asleep, it’s her awareness that is. She still functions as a normal human, having deep and engaging conversations with the passenger sitting next to her. She tells him about the pill she has just swallowed, and he is amazed at how she appears to have full use of her senses.

How many of us spend our days being fully functioning but not actually awake? “Die to the future, die to the past, and wake up now,” said Jon Kabat-Zinn.

To figure out how to know oneself is probably one of the hardest things to do, because identifying what the self is in the first place is still a tricky task. For now, I turn to poetry as a source of help. For my post on ‘Know your value, know your self‘, I referred to a part of the poem ‘Nosce Teipsum’ by Sir John Davies. We can easily go to each end of the poles, and yet still be unacquainted with our own soul.

For this post, I leave you with the poem by the St Lucian Nobel prize-winning poet and playwright, Derek Walcott, which Jon Kabat-Zinn recited during his lecture.

Love after Love

The time will come
when, with elation
you will greet yourself arriving
at your own door, in your own mirror
and each will smile at the other’s welcome,

and say, sit here. Eat.
You will love again the stranger who was your self.
Give wine. Give bread. Give back your heart
to itself, to the stranger who has loved you

all your life, whom you ignored
for another, who knows you by heart.
Take down the love letters from the bookshelf,

the photographs, the desperate notes,
peel your own image from the mirror.
Sit. Feast on your life.

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.”