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

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.”

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.

Know your value, know your self

Hi All,

I hope to be back posting on a regular basis. I have spent the month of March travelling and spending time with family. I managed to get another article published with Together magazine, entitled ‘Know your value, know your self’. It’s on p. 15 of the pdf link to this month’s issue. We often hear experts telling us to “know our value”, “appreciate our worth” etc., but I wonder what these phrases actually mean. I hope to shed more light on the subject in the article. I hope you enjoy reading it.

together-47

On my 24th birthday, my Dad quoted part of the poem Nosce Teipsum (“Know Thyself”) by the Elizabethan poet (also a lawyer and politician) Sir John Davies in my birthday card. My Dad dedicated the following lines to help me in my journey throughout life:

We seek to know the moving of each sphere,
And the strange cause of th’ ebbs and floods of Nile;
But of that clock within our breasts we bear,
The subtle motions we forget the while.

We that acquaint ourselves with every zone,
And pass both tropics and behold the poles,
When we come home, are to ourselves unknown,
And unacquainted still with our own souls.

These lines inspired me to write this article. If we are ever to truly know our value, we first must know who we are.

Thank you Dad for providing such inspiration.

See you all soon,

Gemma

My first magazine publication

This week, a Brussels’ lifestyle magazine Together published my article ‘Three deep breaths’. It is about how leaving space in our lives can help us make more positive and healthier choices. Just click on the image below and it will take you straight to a Pdf version of this month’s issue. My article is on pp.15-16 of the Pdf version.

Together magazine

I hope you enjoy reading my first ever magazine publication and do let me know what you think!

Higher Pleasures

“Anyone who lives within their means suffers from a lack of imagination.”

– Oscar Wilde

I am trying to live within my means as of late. I went on such a crazy spending spree in January that I was very close to reaching my credit card limit. I am now feeling ever so slightly guilty at my over-indulgence; my poor will-power and absolute lack of discipline in saving money.

I was in a real pickle last week about whether to go to a Jazz concert. I have always been a bit of a Jazz fan – and my Dad and I are currently doing an online Jazz appreciation course – so I was extremely excited when I recently picked up a flyer for this concert. I naively thought that there would still be cheap tickets available. But no, only the expensive ones were left.

I agonised about whether it was worth buying a ticket. I had already dipped into my savings to pay off last month’s credit card bill and it didn’t seem like I would manage to save this month either. Could I really afford to go to a concert? “A penny saved is a penny earned” said founding father of the US and polymath Benjamin Franklin. My guilty conscience was telling me to save the money.

I ignored it all the same and bought the ticket. Over the following days, I attempted to rationalise and justify my decision as being a good one. My first justification was that it was my hard-earned cash and I could do whatever I like with it. Unfortunately, this reasoning is very superficial, and its sparkle soon faded. My Mum’s words of wisdom came next: “You have to spend money to make money”. My spending was helping the local economy make money – I skilfully argued with myself – and you never know who I could meet there or what opportunity may come out of going. This reasoning was more plausible, but I was still yet to be fully convinced.

It was the English philosopher, John Stuart Mill (also a polymath), who assured me that my purchase was justified. Mill developed Jeremy Bentham’s greatest happiness principle to incorporate the idea of assessing happiness on its value and desirability. Bentham’s theory on utilitarianism was non-judgemental: it was not the quality of the thing that made you happy which counted because all preferences were rated equally. What only mattered was whether this thing also made most people happy too. To Bentham, the enjoyment of watching reality TV shows would be of the same value as the enjoyment of watching Shakespeare.

However, the idea of all preferences being equal raised moral questions: surely it would still be morally wrong for society to allow horrible goods e.g blood sports even if this pleased the greatest number in society? Mill tried to rectify such an outcome occurring in his essay Utilitarianism (1861) by developing the happiness principle on the basis of “higher and lower pleasures”: society does value one good over another, and that the higher pleasures are the ones which contribute to society’s greater good. Thus “higher pleasures” are goods which are more valuable or desirable; they appeal to our higher senses and faculties. Perhaps they are harder or more difficult to acquire, comprehend or grasp, but we know intrinsically that they raise the quality of our being.

To me, watching a Jazz concert is a higher pleasure, and ever since I started the Jazz appreciation course, I have begun to understand how technically difficult Jazz is and how creatively ingenious its musicians are. I think John Stuart Mill provides an excellent moral justification for me forking out more than I would expect to for a Jazz concert.

When caught in a position of living on a budget and trying to save for a rainy day, it is natural to give ourselves a hard time about spending money on a pleasure that may seem like a waste. Nevertheless, if this is a pleasure that cultivates our mind, which adds to our character and nobility (and in the grand of scheme of things, it is affordable), then we should be reluctant to deny ourselves such a pleasure.