Do what you can, according to who you are

“First, we must ask ourselves who we are before we know what we can do.”

– Robert Bilheimer

October 18th is the European Union Anti-Trafficking Day. On this day, I attended a screening of the film documentary, Not My Life by Robert Bilheimer. This was an evocative yet distressing film mainly showing the lives of children who have been trafficked and coerced into labour in Nepal, Senegal and Ghana; prostitution in the United States, India and Cambodia; and into combat as rebel soldiers in Uganda.

The film showed the magnitude of what constitutes modern-day slavery and what it is used for: sex work, menial work and war. It is beyond belief what people can do to one another for money or power, and particularly abhorrent what grown adults can do to children: stashing them away under the floorboards or in the roofs of brothels to evade police raids; kidnapping them from schools to train them to kill; selling them into prostitution for the services of paedophiles.

According to Robert Bilheimer and Cecilia Malmström (the EU Commissioner for Home Affairs), there is no global anti-human trafficking movement. It is hard to detect and prevent human trafficking and it is even harder to know what it is –  the film gave varied examples of trafficking which was intertwined with slavery and child grooming. Also getting tough on slavery may be bad for business. In times of austerity, consumers are lured by even cheaper prices, companies are ever-pressed to be competitive yet profitable.

At the Q&A after the film, it was asked what young people can do to help tackle the issue. Robert Bilheimer used the example of the actress Glenn Close, the narrator of the film. Faced with the magnitude of this human rights violation (it has been conservatively estimated by the International Labour Organisation that 21 million people worldwide are exploited for labour and sexual services), she humbly said that what she can do to help this cause is to lend her voice to the film. He advised young people to take a small, first step in helping the cause: share the film through social media.

Slavery has existed for thousands of years. Aristotle was of the opinion that some people are born be slaves, since it is in their nature to be so. Although he was (unfortunately) a proponent of slavery, he was not a proponent of those who were forced to be slaves: anyone who was coerced into slavery suggested an unnatural fit and it was therefore unjust.  Today, all slaves are forcibly (not to mention illegally) coerced into work which is not suited to their nature. It is unjust.

All of us can have a role to play in fighting injustice. But as Robert Bilheimer said, we first need to know ourselves so as to know what we can do. We have to figure out what our qualities, talents and limitations are so that we can make the best use of them. Our role can be large, it can be absolutely negligible, but this is beside the point.

For a long time, I had struggled to work out what I could do to make the world a better place.  I realise that doing my bit is probably not going to be particularly remarkable: it might just be in telling the story and spreading the word.

I encourage you to watch the film (password: nml123) and spread the word.

Where have all the polymaths gone?

“Knowledge is power.”

– Francis Bacon

It is of late that I have admitted to myself that I have many interests. I like writing; singing; reading; public speaking; acting. I enjoy practising languages; getting my head around psychology, reading philosophy; reflecting upon spirituality. Even within these areas, there are so many sub-categories that really engage me. Whether I am good at any of them, I hope time will tell.

My recent trip to London turned out to be a bit of a philosophy tour. It sort of started as I was walking in Gray’s Inn Gardens off Chancery Lane that I was reminded of a plaque with two quotes from the English philosopher Francis Bacon, situated at the back of the gardens. Have a read:

Inspirational quotes from Francis Bacon, situated in Gray's Inn Gardens in London.

Inspirational quotes from Francis Bacon, from his works ‘The Advancement of Learning’. They have provided much encouragement to me during some difficult times in London.

Sir Francis Bacon, as he is better known, was a polymath. As well as being a philosopher, he was a lawyer (he served as Lord Chancellor and Attorney General), a politician, a scientist, orator and author. He wrote works on science, philosophy and religion. He is reported to be the founder of  British empiricism. Empiricism holds that all the knowledge of this world derives from the senses; there is nothing in the mind that we have not already experienced through the senses. Empiricism was first put forward by the ancient Greek philosopher, Aristotle.

Here I am with the big fella:

Sir Francis Bacon and I in Gray's Inn square.

Francis and I in Gray’s Inn Square.

Visiting Francis spurred me on to visit another great English philosopher, Jeremy Benthamthe founder of the ‘Greatest Happiness Principle’, otherwise known as utilitarianism. In short, this principle states that the morally right act is one which maximises the total amount of pleasure to all who are affected by the act (“the greatest good for the greatest number”). He qualified as a barrister but decided that his calling was in leading social and legal reform, rather than in practising the law. Thus he was a lawyer, a reformer and a philosopher: a polymath.

I went to visit him at University College London:

I felt honoured to meet the great man himself. That's him: the skeleton, the clothes, the hair. His head is a wax model since the embalming of his head did not turn out so well so it's a bit gruesome.

I felt honoured to meet the great man himself. That is really him: the skeleton, the clothes, the hair. His head is a wax model since the embalming of it did not turn out so well, so it’s a bit gruesome to look at.

My next stop was King’s College London, where I stood beside Confucius. Confucius was a teacher, politician, editor and philosopher. I am not so familiar yet with his teachings, but he is arguably a polymath.

Like me, Confucius likes his tea. Just my luck to stumble on a great quote of his about tea at the Twinnings shop nearby: “Tea tempers the spirits and harmonises the mind, dispels lassitude and relieves fatigue, awakens thought and prevents drowsiness, lightens or refreshes the body, and clears the perceptive faculties.”

The sage and I

Finally, I stopped at Parliament Square in Westminster, where I stood by two inspirational leaders, Winston Churchill and Nelson Mandela. As well as being a courageous war-time Prime Minister, in his lifetime Churchill was an artist, historian and writer.

Alas, Nelson Mandela would probably not have been considered a polymath; not that it matters in his case since he has lead such an extraordinary life.

Us in Parliament Square. One of my favourite quotes from Churchill: "Never give in--never, never, never, never, in nothing great or small, large or petty, never give in except to convictions of honour and good sense."

Us in Parliament Square. One of my favourite quotes from Churchill: “Never give in–never, never, never, never, in nothing great or small, large or petty, never give in except to convictions of honour and good sense.”

Nelson and I. I would like to attribute this quote by the Canadian author Robertson Davies to him: "Extraordinary people survive under the most terrible circumstances and they become more extraordinary because of it."

Nelson and I. I would like to attribute this quote by the Canadian author Robertson Davies to him: “Extraordinary people survive under the most terrible circumstances and they become more extraordinary because of it.”

Just before my London trip, I read a book about early Islamic civilisation: that during the Middle Ages, Islamic science and philosophy in the East was thriving whilst Western civilisation had appeared to come to a standstill. What amazed me about this book was how many Islamic innovators, scientists, mathematicians and philosophers were polymaths.  As the book’s author Ehsan Masood notes, they switched effortlessly from science to philosophy to poetry. The original polymath was Al Kindi – known as the ‘Philosopher of the Arabs’ – who was a mathematician, physician, musician and of course, a philosopher.

Learning about all these polymaths lead me to this conclusion: that being one is a good thing. However, where are they in today’s world? We have been primed to such an extent to be specialists that we forget that the greatest pioneers of Western and Eastern civilisations were those that loved doing different things, and not just doing things differently.

Why don’t we seek knowledge in different areas, enjoy the variety and complexity this world has to offer and see what we can create out of it? Being or trying to be a polymath opens the mind; the senses; and the faculties to the endless perspectives of this world and undoubtedly, it extends our creativity.

My London trip assured me that my varied interests are invaluable and that I should never stop seeking knowledge. As Prophet Muhammed once said, “Even if you must go all the way to China, seek knowledge.” On this trip I didn’t quite go that far, but I feel like I am on my way.

I would love to hear your thoughts – are you a polymath? Do you think they are becoming extinct? Do you think it’s good for society to be one?

Identity as our moral starting point

In June 2003, I flew from Belfast to Washington D.C as part of a programme called the Washington Ireland Program for Service and Leadership (WIP). A programme that brings together young people from Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland to Washington D.C to work together, play together, break down prejudices and pre-conceived ideas about one another in the hope of building and sustaining peace in Ireland.

I always felt a bit different to the rest of the group. I am Irish-Malaysian. I was born in Ireland; I spent my childhood in Malaysia; my adolescence in England; and my young adulthood in Ireland. I found it hard to relate to the troubles of Northern Ireland and its relationship with the South. To boot, I have an English accent, which made me feel very self-conscious about having any claim to Ireland at all.

When I first came to Brussels, I was invited to a few events organised by the Irish Embassy. There, I met fellow Irish interns but I always felt uncomfortable being around them because I felt like a fake. When asked where I was from, I would say Dublin and name the area where I lived during my University years. I would then explain my accent, which ended up being a recount of my life in ten seconds. I always got the impression that they didn’t really believe that I was from Dublin. The truth is, I didn’t believe it either.

When I decided to not let things matter so much and be honest with myself, my Irish identity was one of the hardest things I had to grapple with and understand. The first thing I accepted was that I am not just Irish: I am Irish, I am Malaysian and I am – in a way – British too. Once I accepted that, I decided that I had every right to go to Irish events and to be considered Irish. But, I would be honest about who I was. Since taking this approach, I have felt more at ease and open at these events. I’ve made more Irish friends and I have felt – strangely – more Irish.

The philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre writes about our nation’s history, culture, our ancestry and our family as constituting our moral starting point. He writes in his book After Virtue that all these circumstances and characteristics are in part – he quotes – “…what gives my life its own moral particularity“. It is from this moral starting point that we can move forward and figure out “the good life”.

My ancestors, my mother, my father, my birthplace, my nations’ histories and cultures all provide the framework of who I am. As I flip through my WIP scrapbook of ten years ago, I finally understand this touching note from one of my classmates given to me just before leaving D.C: “You have an amazing story – let the world hear it!! Be a foreign ambassador for us and Ireland. You go girl.”

As we continue to understand who we are and where we come from, we continue to move forward in figuring out our concept of the good life.