The point of protest

The point of protest

I was involved in two protests over the last two weeks, one out of pure volition, the other out of pure necessity. The protests had similar themes: the victims were oppressed and being imprisoned by authorative States. The European Union and the international community were turning a blind eye to the indignity and lack of humanity. The protesters chanted, “Freedom! Dignity! Equality!” and “Wake up Europe!”

I was particularly committed to one of the protests, on slavery in Libya. We, the world, had known about the thriving slave trade in Libya since April when the International Organisation for Migration published accounts of migrants being bought and sold, for menial work, hard labour and for sex. Sub-saharan Africans were imprisoned in private and government-run detention facilities, and as well as being auctioned, many were tortured by smugglers, militia, or whoever was in authority if they failed to pay up extra money for their journey to Europe.

It had to take another seven months, this time thanks to a CNN documentary for we, the world, to react. This time, thankfully, we woke up. We took it seriously and we say that we are doing something about it.

I had never protested in my life. Yet, I had never felt so appalled and disgusted over something as much as I did over this issue. Not even Brexit, as gut-wrenchingly revolting as it is, did not stir up as much frustration, anger and passion as watching people being sold off did. On Saturday, 25 November, I joined 2 500 people in Brussels to protest against slavery in Libya.  That’s me in the picture saying no to slavery (courtesy of Camille Van Durme).

The second protest I was involved in concerned 45 000 Catalan nationalists protesting against the forced exile of the President of the Government of Catalonia, Carles Puigdemont; the imprisoned members of his government; and against the EU’s stance on the supposed independence referendum. I unfortunately ended up in the melee as it was literally outside my flat and I had to walk through the masses streaming Catalan flags to get to work.

Like with the slavery protest, I was inflamed by the same passion. Yet this time, the anger and frustration was pointed at these nationalists. How can two protests, with the same chants, calling for almost the same thing be worlds apart from eachother? How can the voice of one set of oppressed people be equal to the other?

They can’t. I don’t pretend to understand the Catalan independence movement and the suffering of its people but I do understand this: there really are people on this earth who do not have the freedom to express themselves, who do not have a constitution that protects them, who ARE NOT FREE. The Catalan people, in the most basic sense of the word, ARE FREE. They can vote in elections, they can express their opinions, they can freely travel, they are NOT BOUGHT AND SOLD.

The freedom to protest is a precious and hard-fought freedom. I am thankful we can do so without risking our lives. But the chants and demands of one protest this week cannot equate with the other the week before. Protest without perspective is pointless.

 

 

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Money versus happiness

…that of all things worth having in life, such as kindness, wisdom, and the human affections, none are on offer in the world’s shopping-malls.

– A.C. Grayling, The Meaning of Things

I followed a course on how to be idle, run by the Idler Academy. I came across this academy a couple of years back when I was doing a bit of research on being idle for the blog. Becoming idle (rather than ‘being idle’, as I feel that I am yet to achieve such a state) is very much a goal of mine. How do I free up my time and rely on less materially, to cultivate my mind and one day, make a living from something I really enjoy doing? That is a lot to ask, but one has to at least make a start.

One of the sessions of the course is about being thrifty, this is very much a key to becoming idle. Being thrifty is necessary since idleness inevitably involves earning less. The Idler Academy advises us to learn to love accounting. A simple way to start is to note down how much one spends every day. I have been doing this for over a year and it’s amazing to realise how much I can spend on not that much really. I remember I spent over €20 on a very disappointing fish and chips. When I noted it down in my little accounting book, I swore that I would never spend as much money again on shite. If I’m going to fork out €20 for lunch, it better be good.

I have also miraculously managed to work part-time. I say miraculously because my day job is in a very big organisation with a lot of rules, procedures and hierarchy. I honestly didn’t think it would be possible, but with preparation, opportunity and negotiation, I managed to get some time off per week. I plan to use this time to write more and explore other opportunities, and sometimes, just be idle.

With the reduced working week comes the reduced salary. The difference is quite remarkable and I have to tighten my belt. But again, my little accounting book comes in handy: I’ve learnt to budget and stay on top of my spending. Plus, it’s fun to be a bit more resourceful and less wasteful.

When I returned to work on Monday (after the first week of part-time), my boss asked me how were my few days of freedom. “Really nice,” I said. They were. For a couple of days a week, I am free. I remember on my first day off I was dancing around listening to Justin Timberlake. I was elated.

Sometimes I miss the extra cash, but then again, what’s the point of having it if I don’t actually have the time to spend it? I could save it, of course but I’m saving it for future expense. If my goal is to try to make a living out of my passion, then my free time is worth more now than the additional money in the future.

For Together magazine, I wrote about the money versus happiness dilemma. The inspiration for the article came from staying with a widower in Indonesia. She didn’t have a lot materially, but she was happy. And I think what made her happy was the daily connections and interactions with her neighbours and her family. Enjoy the read.

The shy Iranian

“There is the shy Iranian in all of us who dances in quick bursts of energy.”

– Omid Djalili

“Be yourself; everyone else is taken.” This quote from Oscar Wilde has chimed with me for many years. I have often tried to be myself, but I am never really sure what this means. There is also another “be yourself” quote which I hear regularly, attributed to Marilyn Munroe: “I’m selfish, impatient and a little insecure. I make mistakes, I am out of control and at times hard to handle. But if you can’t handle me at my worst, then you sure as hell don’t deserve me at my best.”

Growing up, I was frequently told to “be myself”. Especially when it came to dating, my friends encouraged me to stay who I was, and that the right guy would inevitably love and accept me for me. My favourite boss told me to never change who I was. These were lovely sentiments that made me feel very good.

I also had friends, family and colleagues telling me what I was like. A former colleague of mine once described me as a “thinker, not a doer”. A loved one told me that I am sometimes “too nice” and that I try too hard to please others. In my early twenties, a forty something singleton friend of mind told me that I reminded her a lot of herself when she was my age.

It’s funny to think that on the one hand people tell you to be yourself – the uniqueness that is you, and yet on the other hand, they tell you who they think you are.

One of the keys to happiness, says Tal-Ben Shahar on his Happiness 101 lecture, is the permission to be human: to express your emotions, frailties and vulnerability. I think that we all should do this, but only to a certain degree. I believe we have an obligation to one another to bring our best selves to the table as much as we can. And sometimes, bringing our best self means being someone we usually aren’t.

I used to find it very hard to temper my emotions. I got great joy from raising my voice and shouting people down. I used to fall in love quickly and deeply, and then be brought down to the depths of despair when it all went horribly wrong, which was most often the case. I believed in confrontation, in righting the perceived wrongs done against me. Somedays fear and self-consciousness would paralyse me in anxiety. Other days I would bounce off the walls, full of extroversion and energy.

The F**k It philosophy says that we have many sides to our personality, character and behaviour, and that it’s far better to just accept these different sides and not attach any positive or negative associations to them. The danger in fully accepting this philosophy is that it excuses the behaviour which prevents me from living freely. The philosopher Immanuel Kant believed that when we are a slave to our emotions, we are not truly acting freely, because we are letting them rule us. When I let my emotions overpower me, I wasn’t being my authentic self, because my authentic self would chose to act in a more responsible way.

I think we can be many things and we can change or adapt behaviour to become someone different. We can fake it until we become it. And how do really we know what we are like until we test the boundaries of what we are capable of? For instance, I didn’t think I was a particularly good flirt, but actually since I’ve been practising, I’m becoming quite good at it. I didn’t think I was particularly artistic but since I’ve started making cards, I consider myself a bit of an artist!

My nephews (who are 9 and 11 years old) brought the British comedian Omid Djalili’s quote to my attention when they wrote it in my birthday card. At the time, I had no idea why they chose this particular quote. With hindsight, I realise that they are geniuses. We all have shy, dancing Iranians inside of us. We just have to dare to bring him or her out.

Let’s not believe in who we think we are, and let’s not be overruled by our emotions. Let’s play, and test, and dance. And let’s always bring our best selves to the table, even when we don’t think we can.

Last week was Living room philosophy’s first anniversary. Thank you, dear readers, for this wonderful year.

Taking a chance on love

The stories of Toni Kurtz and Brian Guest remind us that risk – whether at work or play, at home or abroad – is part of life itself; an enhancement, rather than something to be avoided.”

– Editorial, The Independent, 2010

In the old days when I used to buy the paper, I would often keep clippings of articles that made an impact on me. I’d place them in the back of my journals or in a keepsake box. I take great pleasure in digging them out, re-reading them and reminding myself of the lessons they teach.

Today’s quote is from an Editorial in the Independent entitled, ‘Making life worth living’, which is probably my favourite paper-clipping. It recounts the courage of two individuals: Toni Kurz and Brian Guest, both from different eras, both encountering different challenges. Toni Kurz led a group of climbers to make the first ascent of the North Face of the Eiger, Switzerland in 1936. They all perished in the attempt, with Toni, dying of exhaustion, suspended from a rope just 15ft away from rescue. Brian Guest was a campaigner for the protection of sharks, and four years ago he disappeared off the coast of Western Australia, falling victim to what was believed to be a shark attack.

Whenever I feel fear or whenever I feel like life is passing me by, I return to this clipping. Recently, I have been returning to it in the context of love.

This time last year, I took a chance on love. I crossed the Atlantic to be with someone I came to love. We had been old friends who had met in the Caribbean many years ago. He came to visit me in the autumn of 2012 and our friendship turned into courtship. The downside is of course, he lived in America. But I decided to throw caution to the wind and visit him, because I knew that the regret of taking this chance on love (and it not working out) would never be as great as the regret of not giving it a try in the first place.

A little under ten years ago, someone else took a chance on love. A Dutch man had decided one morning to take the train from the Netherlands to Paris, to surprise a girl whom he had become enchanted with four months before. That girl was me.

By no means do I want to compare my stories to the heroism of Toni Kurz and Brian Guest. But courage comes in many forms and cannot be compared. As the philosopher A.C Grayling in his book ‘The Meaning of Things’ writes:

Ordinary life evokes more extraordinary courage than combat or adventure because both the chances and inevitabilities of life – grief, illness, disappointment, pain, struggle, poverty, loss, terror, heartache: all of them common features of the human condition, and all of them experienced by hundreds of thousands of people every day – demand kinds of endurance of bravery that make clambering up Everest seem an easier alternative.”

Some would say that there is no greater risk than the risk of love. For many of us, romantic love is what gives or adds meaning to our lives; it is the glue that keeps us together, or that binds us to the living. It can take much courage to take a chance on love, especially since the reward can be so great, and yet the loss so devastating.

Taking a chance on love does not need to be as dramatic as flying across the Atlantic, or taking a spontaneous train ride to Paris. It can be as simple as telling someone how you honestly feel about them, even if you are aware of the risk that they will not reciprocate your feelings.

Taking chances, assuming risk is part of what makes life worth living. It takes courage; not only in doing the act itself but also in facing the consequences. But along with courage comes freedom: freedom to follow your heart and – if it all goes horribly wrong – freedom to let go and move on. In this way, the return already far exceeds the investment.

My mini-oven

To say that trifles make up the happiness or misery of human life is to voice a cliché no less true for being one, and no less worth remembering.”

– A.C. Grayling

I’ve decided to cook more. I could make a decent chicken curry, an ok spaghetti bolognese, and a pretty fluffy omelette. But, I was really scared of cooking. Inviting friends over for dinner was always quite a fearful prospect. I would dread the thought of what to cook, how to cook it and whether it would taste any good. So I would normally opt for my chicken curry and stir-fry vegetables for one dinner and then spaghetti bolognese for the next. I didn’t have many dinner parties.

It’s not that I was a bad cook; my fear meant that I just didn’t particularly like cooking. And the thought of making dessert was even scarier. I had in the past tried to make a Curly Whirly cake, a cake of such unimaginable sweetness from tonnes of sugar, chocolate and vanilla essence that what resulted was a dewy, gooey consistency with the vanilla icing being absorbed into the sponge. It looked awful and one teaspoon of it sent you into a psychedelic trip that would last at least three hours. I had made it one Christmas for the family. It couldn’t be saved nor turned into something else. It was left in the fridge for days, with me trying a little bit every day in the hope that it would taste that little bit better, as beef bourguignon tends to. Despite my wishful thinking and sending positive vibes to my Curly Whirly cake, it was still awful and hence abruptly discarded.

I spent my early childhood living in Malaysia. In Malaysia, it was fairly common for middle class families to have maids who did all the household chores: cooking; cleaning; washing and ironing; not to mention the child care. Our maid, Kakak, came with us when we moved to England back in the early 90s. I never cooked nor was I ever bothered to want to try. I took some cooking classes during secondary school. I remember making a clementine cheese cake of which the taste reminded me of a fridge – cool and sterile, with a slightly pongy whiff.

Looking back, I sort of wonder how I’ve managed to live a pretty healthy lifestyle after leaving home considering my deficiency in the cooking department. My repertoire (including the bolognese and it’s variations – shepherds pie, cottage pie, chilli con carne – and the curry and its variations – vegetable curry, beef curry, mushroom curry, prawn curry, egg curry) has served me well. But I really envied people who could whip up dishes pretty easily. My best friend would often invite me over for dinner. I both marvelled at and felt intimidated by her culinary expertise. But to her, it was nothing extraordinary, “Since I’m cooking it anyway, you might as well come over,” she’d say and would then summon up a sumptuous butternut squash and goats’ cheese risotto. Simples.

Last Thursday, as I perched my newly-bought brand new mini-oven against the ledge in the metro station, waiting for the metro, looking out over the car-park of a Carrefour hypermarket; the grey, drizzling, over-cast day did little to dampen my spirits. I was awash with emotion. It felt like my mini-oven was the last piece of the jigsaw puzzle to my happiness. I bought it – with my own money. I carried it – by myself – to my flat, a flat which I furnished myself, which I pay for – myself. With that oven, I would continue to learn how to cook well – for myself.

The previous paragraph probably sounds terribly melodramatic but I was brought up in an environment where many things were done or provided for me. Kakak was always there, cleaning up after me. When I was starting out my career in London, I lived in a house furnished by my parents, who were also my landlords. It is not easy to write about this without feeling some sort of guilt for my privileged upbringing. But I remain ever thankful and grateful to Kakak and my parents for the help, support and care they gave to me.

One of the first books that introduced me to philosophy is The Meaning of Things: Applying Philosophy to Life by the philosopher A.C. Grayling. The book is based on his former weekly column, ‘The last word‘, in the Guardian. He divides the book into three parts: ‘Virtues and Attributes’; ‘Foes and Fallacies’; and ‘Goods and Amenities’. The last piece in the last part is called ‘Trifles’. He writes, “There are at least two senses in which something can count as a trifle: one, by being small and unobvious, and the other, by being ordinary, familiar or mundane. In both cases it takes observation to single it out and see it for what it is.” He says that we should not lose sight of the importance of the small things because then we understand better the significance of the big things.

My mini-oven is in relative terms, a small thing. It’s a mundane and ordinary good. But it’s significance has much greater worth. My mini-oven is my trifle. What’s yours?

P.S There will be no post next week but Living room philosophy will be back the week after.