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.”

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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.

I’ve quit Facebook (for the time being)

In February, I quit Facebook. One afternoon, when I was just slightly more bored than usual, I decided to facebook stalk a facebook friend, so a friend who wasn’t really my friend in real life. I spent an awful lot time on this person’s profile page. I then saw this person in a picture with someone I really disliked. And that really got my goat. I then tried to facebook stalk the person I really didn’t like (who isn’t a facebook friend). And then suddenly it hit me: “Why the eff am I wasting my precious time on this planet in this speedy gift called life giving a toss about people who wouldn’t do the same?” I immediately logged off. The next day, I deactivated my account. I told Facebook that I would be back.

Over a month on, and I’m not so sure I will be back. I don’t miss it. Actually life has been considerably better since I deactivated. I don’t get mad about people I don’t care about because I don’t know what they are doing. I don’t miss the “trending” (very irritating), the cute baby photos or the “so and so has just got engaged” on my news feed. I don’t miss getting addicted to the news feed and having to click on articles, like things, comment or share. I do miss certain things – hearing news from close friends and family who live abroad – but it also means I have to make an effort. I have to write an email. I have to ask people to send me the photos, I might even have to arrange to see them offline. But this is also wonderful because I have stories to tell. I can tell people they do actually look great, or I love their hair cut, or outfit, because I haven’t already seen it on Facebook.

What about Living room philosophy’s facebook page? It was quite popular (in my world and by my standards, not say, compared to Taylor Swift or One Direction). I enjoyed putting up quotes, or sharing articles, and it did help with my blog traffic. But, I noticed that having a facebook page stopped people doing what I really want them to do: subscribe to my blog. I had quite a bit of traffic but little subscribers. Having the page also meant that I became obsessed with statistics – the number of likes to my page, posts, postings, photos. But to quote from the famous ‘He’s Just Not That Into You’ book :”F*** statistics! Statistics just keep you down.” Yeah, they do. So that just leaves WordPress, Twitter, Gmail and I. I will try to be more of a tweeter. I think it might be better for me because I can just ignore a lot of the junk more easily. Relying more on Gmail means that I subscribe to new sites, websites and blogs that I really like. The same goes for WordPress. And the great thing is, is that I can unsubscribe or unfollow whenever I like, and no one’s feelings will get hurt.

Where does all this leave LRP? Well, I’ve decided to be a bit more casual about my writing style and posts. I will also try to take a few more photos and perhaps be a bit more “arty”. Who knows? I will still also post my publications, because they are good.

I did an entire F*** It month nearly three years ago. I realise that I need to go back to that philosophy with this blog. To just say “f*** it” and just being open to something spectacular happening today.

Thanks for following and I hope you continue to do so.

All about intuition

Every decision that has profited me has come from me listening to that inner voice first. And every time I’ve gotten into a situation where I was in trouble, it’s because I didn’t listen to it. I overrode that voice, that instinct, with my own head and with my own thinking.”

– Oprah Winfrey

I am a big fan of Oprah. I watched an interview that she did at Standford University and I was just so impressed with how in touch she is with her intuition. She’s not the only successful person to do so. My relationship guru, Matthey Hussey, does the same. He admits that every mistake that he’s made is because he did not follow his own advice.

Intuition, trusting our instincts has always intrigued me. For this article in Together magazine, I try to understand what it means to follow our instincts, and also what they actually are in the first place.

Enjoy!

Going with your gut: Gemma Rose attempts to subject intuition to rational analysis

Every decision that has profited me has come from me listening to that inner voice first. And every time I’ve gotten into a situation where I was in trouble, it’s because I didn’t listen to it. I overrode that voice, that instinct, with my own head and with my own thinking,” counselled Oprah Winfrey in the recent interview ‘Oprah Winfrey on Career, Life and Leadership’.

I have always been fascinated by this counsel embedded within us. Sometimes it’s a voice; other times it can be a sensation or a feeling. It can even be physical pain or discomfort. It prods us, awakes us. It tells us that it’s time for a change; or that something isn’t right; or it is. There are many attempts to label it: intuition, instincts, gut feelings, the subconscious, a hunch, the inner voice. I’m not sure one term ever sufficiently describes this thing that voices its opinion ever so delicately one moment, and then blasts a code red alert the next.

Intuition is defined by the German psychologist Gerd Gigerenzer (who’s considered an expert on the study of intuition) as this: “I use the terms gut feeling, intuition, or hunch interchangeably, to refer to a judgment that appears quickly in consciousness, whose underlying reasons we are not fully aware of, and is strong enough to act upon.

‘Go with your gut’ is common self-help advice, and it appears to hold the key to our search for the good life. But how do we know what our intuition is? How can we tell the difference between it and the other voices in our head or sensations in our body? Can we really trust it? I cannot do this topic full justice, but my gut is telling me to write it all the same.

According to Gerd Gigerenzer in his TedX Talk, trusting our gut appears to be useful in a world of uncertainty. It is not so clear what or where this world is, but I can imagine it’s this messy, jumbled-up and confused world we live in. Freud believed that intuition was best reserved for vital or complex matters such as choice of a profession or a mate, whereas a pros and cons list suited the more simple problems. Gigerenzer also argues that more information, more time and more computation are less conducive to good decision-making. Malcolm Gladwell in his book Blink certainly agrees. He says that too much information over-saturates our brains so that it becomes difficult to see the wood for the trees, hence hampering our good judgment.

Our intuition can also get it wrong. The fatal shooting of Amadou Diallo in 1999 – shot at 41 times – by NY police who instinctively thought he was a criminal and that his wallet was a gun is a tragic example. Research from Yale University last year showed that unstructured job interviews and going on a hunch when selecting a candidate is not an accurate predictor of the right person for the job. Our intuition can fail us in relationships: divorce and break-ups can signify that the one who we thought was ‘the one’ actually wasn’t. It can be argued that these decisions may not have been based on intuition, but rather on fear or conditions or beliefs that are familiar to us. How are we really to know what intuition is and what it isn’t?

Perhaps one of the ways to be attuned to our intuition is to listen to ourselves. Easier said than done, I know. Keeping a journal of our thoughts and sensations may help us to distinguish the wisdom from the paranoia. Meditation is also a good way to clean up the mind and to stay present. Sometimes, something just feels right or wrong. Pay attention to it; you don’t have to act on it just yet, especially when you feel you have insufficient information or there is no sense of urgency. Just be aware.

Plato believed that intuition must be subjected to reason. For Malcolm Gladwell, the best way to make a decision lies in the balance between conscious deliberation and instinct. Research from the careers charity 80,000 Hours states that we can trust our intuition when: the environment is sufficiently predictable to make decisions; we have enough experience from making similar decisions in similar environments; and feedback on decision making is quick and accurate, enabling us to learn from it.

Fully understanding our intuition is probably one of the greatest mysteries of life. It takes trust and courage to listen to it and to act upon it. My rule of thumb is Oprah: if she goes with her gut, then I might as well too.

The art of conversation

“Human relationships are rich; they’re messy and demanding. We have learned the habit of cleaning them up with technology. And the move from conversation to connection is part of this. But it’s a process in which we shortchange ourselves. Worse, it seems that over time we stop caring, we forget that there is a difference.”

– Sherry Turkle

My article (p.17 – 18 of Pdf or pasted below) for Together magazine’s September issue focussed on the art of conversation. I have to admit, I started having more conversations with strangers because I wanted to practise getting more dates. But as this, er, “practice” continued, I realised how important it was to just converse with someone, even anyone!

A couple of years back, I watched the Ted Talk ‘Connected, but alone?‘ by Sherry Turkle, a cultural analyst who studies how technology is shaping our culture. Her talk chilled me slightly, that we are withdrawing more and more from face-to-face interaction and substituting it with technology: text, email, social media. In her New York Times article, she questions whether we have lost our trust in each other as human beings when we prefer a technological device as our confidante.

Please let us prove her wrong.

A little bit of conversation: Gemma Rose suggests that conversation should be treated as an end in itself

In January, I made a pledge to meet more men. My dating history was a bit chequered. I was often flummoxed as to why I wasn’t meeting many men in general, let alone decent ones. I lamented to my girlfriends over all the good guys being taken and so consigned myself to spinsterhood. Sick of hearing my dating woes, a friend floated the simple, yet ingenious idea of having fun with single people instead of drowning my sorrows with smug marrieds. My ears plucked up; I awoke from my stupor. The year 2014 would be the year of more dates, which meant meeting more men.

I sought knowledge on how to ‘put myself out there’ from the New York Times best seller Get the Guy by Matthew Hussey. Unlike other dating books that are either akin to the Ten Commandments (The Rules), or summarize all disingenuous male behaviour into one line (He’s Just Not That Into You), Matthew Hussey’s approach differs: take the focus off him and put it back on me by living  a life that I love, true to my values and my worth. Being sociable is part of loving life. So if I wanted more dates, I needed to meet more  men. If I wanted to meet more men, I needed to start talking to them.

The first step was to start conversations with anyone. I asked the security guard at work about his day; I discussed the dangers of processed carbohydrates with the dinner lady at the canteen; I got life tips from the elderly lady at the hair salon. I started complimenting people more, from strangers to friends, ranging from their shirt to their character. A little conversation and a smile went a long way.

This practice made me more at ease and confident when starting conversations with attractive men at parties, in bars, in the supermarket or on a plane. The key to building connection and seeking compatibility, according to Matthew Hussey, is to “seek values, not facts”. It is fine to launch into the “What do you do? Where do you come from?” type of questions, but the values lie in the ‘Why?’ questions: “Why do you do what you do? Why did you move to this city? Why did you decide to quit your job and go travelling? Why did you have a sex change?”. ‘Why?’ gives you the clues to probe more, to respond, or to subtly move the topic on. It opens the door to let the other person out, and to let you in.

It soon dawned on me that great conversation was not just for meeting men but for all the encounters in my life. With more opportunities to talk to people, I became more authentic in the questions I asked and the answers I gave. If I was stuck in a boring or difficult conversation, I made a bigger effort to be interested. I studied the person’s facial expressions and voice, I asked for clarification when needed. I placed  myself in my companion’s shoes. My  frustration, annoyance or boredom soon faded.  I made a connection.

There is a wealth of information on how to have good conversations. The book How To Talk With Anybody About Practically Anything by Barbara Walters is lauded as one of the finest books on the subject. It’s dangerous to believe that some people are blessed with good conversational skills and that a good conversation arises by pure chance. Beliefs like these give us an excuse to be lazy and complacent in our interactions. A good conversation takes work, practice and cultivation. It requires listening, understanding, openness and creativity; it demands the communication of our views, the clarification of our thoughts and the confirmation of who we are, all under the auspices of politeness, care and respect. Making conversation is about adding value to that person at that moment, whether that moment lasts a minute or an eternity.

As we conduct more of our lives over the internet, never have our efforts to have good conversations been so vital to our wellbeing and for living the good life. If we don’t force ourselves, we risk becoming as banal, soulless and disconnected as a 140-character tweet.

In the book The Four Loves, C.S. Lewis defines the love of friendship by this question: “Do you see the same truth?” He writes that a friend is someone who agrees with the question, yet may not necessarily agree with the answer. This is what a good conversation should be based on: the willingness to see the same truth, irrespective of whether you actually do.

The thin veil of equality

I have learned through bitter experience the one supreme lesson to conserve my anger, and as heat conserved is transmitted into energy, even so our anger controlled can be transmitted into a power that can move the world.”

– Mahatma Gandhi

Sex. Religion. Money. Politics. These are the subjects which are traditionally known as taboo subjects at the dinner table. I agree that sometimes it’s far more pleasant to skirt around controversial and potentially explosive topics for the sake of a nice meal and some chit-chat. But by avoiding such issues, it creates a very superficial version of ourselves and in its own way, it can lead to censorship and oppression.

I am an admirer of Irshad Manji. She is a Muslim who considers herself a reformer of the Islam that is practised widely today, the version of Islam that we see on the news, that we see in a veiled woman, that we see under Sharia law. In her book, ‘The Trouble with Islam Today‘, she calls on Muslims to lead not in reforming the Islam that is held in the Qur’an but rather for Muslims to reform themselves. She turns to the practice of ijtihad, a commitment to critical thinking on the context, application and interpretation of the Qur’an. What should be a religion of justice, of equality, of seeking knowledge and of peace has been twisted and distorted into one of violence, of literal interpretation, blind submission and of fear. She writes:

The Trouble with Islam is an open letter from me, a Muslim voice of reform, to concerned citizens worldwide – Muslim and not. It’s about why my faith community needs to come to terms with the diversity of ideas, beliefs and people in our universe, and why non-Muslims have a pivotal role in helping us get there.” – “That doesn’t mean I refuse to be a Muslim, it simply means I refuse to join an army of automatons in the name of Allah.

Irshad Manji is Muslim. She is Canadian. She is a journalist. She is a feminist. She is gay. She is not afraid. She is awesome.

She has received death threats, her apartment windows are bullet proof, she does not carry a mobile phone. She has been called “the devil in disguise”, has been subject to vilification and vitriol, but her love for God keeps her going. She recognises and is grateful for the freedoms that are granted to her living in Canada, which are denied in many Muslim or Muslim majority countries. Would she suffer the same treatment if she were a man?

I am blessed to live in a free society, where my views can be considered and contribute to the conversation. As a woman, I am considered as an equal here; a value which is prized in the Qur’an, and promoted by the Prophet Muhammad.

Islam is often regarded as a religion which treats women as second class citizens. I have been to Muslim countries where this is indeed the case. But I’ve also been to Muslim or Muslim majority countries where this isn’t the case, my country of Malaysia, for example. So is it the religion that teaches the discrimination, or is it the culture? Take the ancient Greek philosopher Aristotle’s view on women. He regarded a woman as an ‘unfinished man’. Women were incomplete, and secondary to men, playing a passive role. As the ‘enigmatic philosopher’ Albert Knox writes in Jostein Gaarder’s ‘Sophie’s World’: “Aristotle’s erroneous view of the sexes was doubly harmful because it was his – rather than Plato’s – view that held sway throughout the Middle Ages. The Church thus inherited a view of women that is entirely without foundation in the Bible. Jesus was certainly no woman hater!” As Lesley Hazelton acknowledges in ‘The First Muslim: The Story of Muhammad’, it was the all-male clerical elite who ruled after the Prophet’s death: “These men became the gatekeepers of faith, elaborating the principles of islam (emphasis added) into the institution of Islam, often by projecting their own conservatism onto the Qur’an itself.

But as we see daily, in the media, and in our own lives, women in the West also suffer at the hands of the male elite, who aren’t clerics. They are our bosses, our peers, our neighbours, even our friends. Sexism and misogyny exists in our Western world. Women still don’t get equal pay to their male counterparts; they are still subject to sexual harassment in the workplace; women “can’t play football”; they are raped by their husbands or boyfriends; they are told to shut up because they are stupid; they get killed for speaking their views, or because they weren’t attracted to a guy, as what happened in the recent Isla Vista murders.

This week, an acquaintance labelled me an apologist for inviting him in person to discuss our religious or non-religious beliefs. It happened as a result of me posting the story of an inter-faith place of worship in Berlin on Facebook, something which I welcome and champion. He commented that the monotheist faiths are “Great lies” and criticised them for their treatment of women. Upon my response to his comment, willing him to discuss our views in person, he subsequently blocked me on Facebook and ended our acquaintance. The irony of a person speaking out against the treatment of women preventing a woman from challenging his views.

In her remarkable article, “Our Words Are Our Weapons: The Feminist Battle of the Story in the Wake of the Isla Vista massacre”, Rebecca Solnit reminds us that violence against women and abuse of power – from being cut off at the dinner table to murder – should be viewed as a slippery slope, not as incidents independent to one another: “That’s why we need to address that slope, rather than compartmentalizing the varieties of misogyny and dealing with each separately. Doing so has meant fragmenting the picture, seeing the parts, not the whole.”

The Facebook incident has stirred in me a greater question around the treatment of women: that whether such treatment derives from religion or mainstream culture, we need to talk about it.

Literature for life

“To read is to enter other points of view; it is to be an invisible observer of circumstances which might never be realised in one’s own life; it is to meet people and situations exceeding in kind and number the possibilities open to individual experience.”

– A.C. Grayling, The Meaning of Things

In my latest article for Together magazine, I wrote about how literature can challenge us and teach us how to live. It is pasted in below or you can click on the link.

My love for reading is really something that has come later in life. During childhood and adolescence, I viewed reading more as a chore then a leisure activity (apart from loving Roald Dahl’s books). In secondary school, I remember once discussing Harry Potter with my Head Mistress during a formal lunch. I will never forget her stern look when I told her that I just didn’t get why Harry Potter was so amazing (I tried reading ‘Harry Potter and The Philosopher’s Stone’ and I got bored and gave up just after Harry arrived at Hogwarts).

I’ve gotten used to not finishing books, whether it’s because I did not have the courage to carry on due to the sheer sadness of the story (Primo Levi’s ‘If This is a Man’), the author’s neuroticism pervading through the book (Franz Kafka’s ‘The Trial’), a really annoying character (Jane Austen’s Mr Knightley, and Emma for that matter), or due to boredom (sorry, Harry). I have made peace with leaving books unfinished.

Saying that, reading is one of life’s pleasures. People often say that to travel broadens the mind and expands our horizons. I don’t disagree, but reading trumps this because it enables us to take the most important journey of all, the one inward.

Enjoy the article!

 Living by the book: Gemma Rose believes that literature challenges us and teaches us how to live

I am my father’s daughter. I can spend hours in a bookshop or library. I go in with the intention of getting one book but end up coming out with three or four more. I absolutely love stumbling upon hidden gems: books with catchy titles or front cover artwork, recommended books or other works by my favourite authors. These are really magical moments. I have to admit though, I still have books that I’ve bought which I haven’t got round to reading yet (but I still like showing them off on my bookshelf), paying heed to the German philosopher Schopenhauer: “One usually confuses the purchase of books with the acquisition of their contents.”

Another magical moment is when I have let a book go and it finds its way back into my life again, sometimes years later. One such book is JK Rowling’s The Tales of Beedle the Bard, a set of short-stories for young wizards and witches written by Beedle the Bard, a mysterious figure from 15th-century Yorkshire, England, with an exceptionally luxuriant beard. A friend of mine had lent it to me back in 2008. I had been particularly taken by the story The Fountain of Fair Fortune, a tale of three ill-fortuned witches and a luckless knight striving to bathe in the fountain to cure their ills. One witch, Amata, had been abandoned by her lover and yearned to mend her broken heart. At the time, I, too, had been struggling with heartbreak, so I found this story particularly touching. This story stayed with me for a long time, and I would often recall it when I needed consolation. A couple of years later, I found the book in a charity shop staring right back at me. It’s been with me ever since.

Last year, there was a wave of press about how reading had been scientifically proven to make you more empathetic. The journal Science published a study by New York’s New School of Social Research, which showed that, in five experiments, persons who had read excerpts of literary fiction performed better in emotional intelligence tests than those who read nonfiction, popular fiction or nothing at all. Dan Hurley, science journalist and author of Smarter: The Science of Building Brain Power, has reported that there is a symbiotic relationship between reading and emotional intelligence, fluid intelligence (the ability to solve problems) and crystallised intelligence (knowledge that you build upon, such as vocabulary and information).

The importance, though, is not just what we read but how we read it. The study in Science used Chekhov, Don DeLillo and Téa Obreht as examples of literary fiction and Danielle Steel as an example of popular fiction. It is often acknowledged that popular fiction has the element of passivity in it, that perhaps the plot and the characters’ lives can be predictable. Rather, for reading to become an activity and for us to be thoroughly enriched by it, we ought to read books that challenge us, forcing us to reflect and to think for ourselves. The Man Booker Prize winner Eleanor Canton recently wrote about the danger of treating literature as a consumer product, something easily attained and easily disposable without putting in the effort: “Consumerism, requiring its products to be both endlessly desirable and endlessly disposable, cannot make sense of art, which is neither.”

Stories – for me particularly, short stories – remind me that I am human: I make mistakes; I make assumptions; I accept life’s lemons with serenity one day; I fight against it the next. I experience unrequited love, abandonment and romantic regret. And, yet, I also feel the sensation of growing attachment and unconditional love. By reading stories, I am comforted that I am not alone and that I, too, am part of the imperfection that constitutes mankind.

Most recently, I made an assumption that could have cost me an important friendship. Before I let this assumption take hold of me, I brought myself back to the short story Painted Ocean, Painted Ship by Rebecca Makkai. The story focuses around a young woman who was becoming frustrated at her partner’s unwillingness to reassure her of her beauty and her worth. The woman realizes how her obstinate nature could have cost her the love of a good man: “The point, the moral, was how easy it was to make assumptions, how deadly your mistakes could be. How in failing to recognize something, you could harm it or kill it or at least fail to save it.”