Sunday, 17 July 2016

Labels and uniqueness

Following my previous blog post, a friend linked me to a thought-provoking spoken word poem by Prince Ea.

I suggest that you view it in full before continuing to read on.

Here is how it begins:
I am not Black
I mean, that’s what the world calls me, but it’s not... me
I didn't come out of my mother's womb saying, “Hey everybody, I'm... Black.”
No, I was taught to be black
And you were taught to call me that
Along with whatever you call yourself
It’s just a... label

As you can see, he takes issue with labelling others. You might interpret his piece as a little simplistic, tackling just race and skin colour. However, I do not think he is asking us to limit our perspective to that particular example of labelling.

Labelling can be in terms of gender, type of employment or lack of it, weight or body shape, disability, sexuality, hair colour, intelligence level, height etcetera etcetera.

I would argue that it is not labels in themselves that are problematic, but any negative connotations behind them or negative interpretations of them. Or of course negative labels in themselves.

Labels become a problem when we indulge in stereotyping or refuse to challenge our own preconceived notions or prejudices which arise based upon our experiences and how we react to those experiences. Put simply, our judgement is the issue.

Labels can simply be a means of describing what we see and what makes us different from one another, internally or externally. They can help us to identify when a breakdown in equality occurs.

However, fundamentally, underneath all the categories we give ourselves and others we are all human beings.

I do not think there is any harm in people adopting a label for themselves in order to describe their identity if it is something that they are willing to identify with. However, their identity or indeed one component part of that identity cannot fully be appreciated when narrowed down to a word or short phrase. Every person's experience is unique and varied.

I have been vexed on multiple occasions when asked to fill in an equal opportunities form. I am firstly frustrated because not everyone can comfortably and neatly compartmentalise their race etcetera (even if there is a free text "other" option) and secondly because people should be employed based on their individual merits.

When it is for a medical establishment perhaps it is only frequented by certain groups of people because of its surrounding demographic. Of course there will be companies and facilities which deliberately discriminate, and intervention is necessary in those cases.

Returning to Prince Ea's spoken word piece, his overall message is to embrace our uniqueness. To see ourselves and others as entirely distinct on an internal level.

He uses the metaphor of our bodies being cars that we operate. In other words our bodies are the vehicles of our minds and souls. As he says, who we truly are is found inside.

He also highlights that labels are problematic when we allow them to limit us, when they become a shell that we feel unable or unwilling to break out of:

Please listen, labels only distort our vision
Which is why half of those watching this will dismiss it
Or feel resistance and conflicted
But, just remember...
So did the cater-pillar
Before it broke through its shell and became the magnificent butterfly
Well, these labels are our shells and we must do the same thing

To gain the most fulfilment in our lives we must blossom in our uniqueness and do everything that is in our power to break free from that which we do not wish to be restricted by. Let us do so whilst admiring and appreciating others for what makes them distinct and refrain from using labels divisively.

Wednesday, 13 July 2016


There has been a tendency to insert extra words around the phrase "black lives matter", such as "only black lives matter" or "black lives matter more". A better alternative for an invisible but implied additional word, perhaps, is "too" - in other words black lives are just as important as other lives.

Throughout history groups and races have been valued lower than others. You could quite easily imagine the hastag #Jewishlivesmatter gaining popularity during the Holocaust had the technology and cultural phenomenons of Facebook and Twitter been around. Perhaps then too there would be a backlash reaction of people exclaiming and proclaiming "all lives matter!".

It is not about putting lives on a set of importance scales. It is about tackling racial injustice, biased perception of threats and the use of excessive force by police. It is about recognising that societal ills do still exist and that we must do our utmost to overcome them.

I do not wish to go into minute detail on this. There are many eloquent writers examining the topic. Instead I wanted to encourage you to do some inner reflection. I propose a different hashtag for your consideration: #yourlifematters.

Throughout secondary school and even more so during my first year of university I had a skewed perception that my life did not matter and that my existence was unimportant. I convinced myself that not a single person would notice if I disappeared. I even tested this theory by physically disappearing from social events and seeing how long it would take for anyone to notice I had gone. Once I stood by a powerfully gushing stream contemplating jumping in and imagining how long it would take before anyone noticed I was missing.

In the passage of time and through experiences I have come to realise that my life makes a huge difference in this world.

There is a concept called the butterfly effect. Meteorologist Edward Lorenz suggested that the flap of a butterfly’s wings might ultimately cause a tornado. He had been surprised by a tiny alteration in a weather simulation drastically transforming the whole pattern his program produced over two months of simulated weather. His suggestion reminds me of the fictional situation of someone going back in time, accidentally killing a tiny creature to find that everything has changed when they return to the present.

The truth is your existence on this planet is exceedingly valuable and you can make an immeasurable difference not only to the lives of people you love but also to strangers.

Smiling at a fellow passenger on the bus might literally save their life by turing even just part of their day around and reminding them that their existence does have value. Your little gesture of love and kindness may not do something as dramatic as encouraging someone to no longer take action in ending their life, but it can have a profound ripple effect just like the fluttering butterfly.

That is not to say that your life would be unimportant if you decided to live in an environment where you never see another human being for the remainder of your days. Your value is innate not earned and who you are as an individual is absolutely enough. Your worth is not dependent on how many lives you can make a difference to. However, what a huge difference a little ripple can make. We are all on this planet together and collectively as individuals we can breed a culture that recognises the importance of each and every person without ignoring or belittling issues that still need to be addressed.

Wednesday, 22 June 2016

Love is stronger than fear and hatred

I am once again reminded of the immense capacity for the human being to love, and the power of love over fear and hatred.

Hundreds of people lined up to give blood to help the victims of the shooting at the Pulse Night Club in Orlando. Volunteers amassed to assist those who were waiting in the queue for hours to make their donation. Local restaurants arrived with food donations, church groups brought bottles of water and local companies donated portable fans. Thousands stood united in love in vigils honouring those who tragically lost their lives.

For 77-year-old Bernard Kenny it was love for a fellow human being which no doubt compelled him to risk his life trying when trying to assist Jo Cox as she was brutally stabbed and shot by Thomas Mair.

Today, thousands of people pledged to #LoveLikeJo, who spoke out against hatred and extremism in all its forms and believed passionately in a love that is fierce, brave and humble and could cross any divide.

What strikes me is how strongly loves begets more love and how the response of love in the face of an act of hatred, even in its most extreme forms is infinitely more powerful and far reaching than than the hatred.

The speech you can hear in the below video featuring Lin Manuel-Miranda's tearful sonnet tribute to the Orlando victims at the Tony Awards sums it up beautifully:

When senseless acts of tragedy remind us/That nothing here is promised, not one day/This show is proof that history remembers/We live through times when hate and fear seem stronger/We rise and fall and light from dying embers/Remembrances that hope and love lasts long/And love is love is love is love is love is love is love is love is love/Cannot be killed or swept aside

Let us all stand together united in love so that we can work together to create the better world which Jo believed in. Any act of love, no matter how small makes a difference. Like a phoenix love can and will rise through the flames that burn from hatred.

Tuesday, 21 June 2016

Failure just means you have tried

It took me a long time to figure out how to begin this blog post. I was so afraid of failing by writing some boring drivel that would immediately cause any reader to reach hurriedly for the search bar. The same fear has prevented me from posting anything since November last year, and before that 2013.

I have missed the fervour and enthusiasm I once delighted in when I posted regularly during my academic years and had great confidence in my writing ability. I had no fear of sharing my views and took intense delight in observing that my blog was reaching people in multiple locations across the globe.

Today, my anxiety has been bubbling away under the surface, manifesting itself through a shaking feeling, difficulty in concentrating and chest pain. But I wasn’t going to let it get the better of me.

Instead, I grabbed hold of it and used it to spur me on push myself outside my comfort zone. This was the first time I have encountered a positive experience of anxiety. Normally, I have allowed it to consume me and have spiraled into a full-blown anxiety attack.

Today was different. Some recent well-received advice was strongly manifesting itself in my mind. Embrace failure because all it means is that you have tried. If you don’t try you are already failing. It is my hope that in sharing this wisdom I will encourage others, for I feel my main aim in life is to enhearten others.

Failure does not have to be a bad thing. Just as I used my anxiety today to push myself, failure can be used as a steppingstone. It is in fact success if we learn from it.

I will close now by sharing with you some famous “failures” to give you some motivation and inspiration to keep on trying.

Oprah Winfrey, a lady dear to my heart for the insight she has given to me for meditation, was fired from her job co-anchoring the 6pm news at Baltimore’s WJZ. She was supposedly “unfit for television”.

Today, the admirable philanthropist is worth $3 billion. She could have simply given up when an assistant news editor told her she would be fired for “involving herself in other people’s stories” after she helped a family whose house caught on fire by providing them with blankets. Instead, she stayed true to her heart by continuing to involve herself in other people’s lives and allowed failures to be steps towards success.

At just 15 years of age, Jack Andraka had an idea to create a diagnostic test for pancreatic cancer better than those developed by scientists, research labs and major pharmaceutical companies.

He wrote a proposal to develop a superior test. He was rejected by 199 research laboratories. Fortunately he did not abandon his dream, and the 200th research lab — at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore — accepted him. There he successfully developed a test 100 times better and 26,000 times less expensive than the current test and will save thousands of lives.

In her own words, JK Rowling found that she had failed on an epic scale: “An exceptionally short-lived marriage had imploded, and I was jobless, a lone parent, and as poor as it is possible to be in modern Britain, without being homeless.” After penning Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone in Edinburgh cafes whilst she and her daughter scarped by on benefits, 12 publishers rejected her manuscript before she was accepted by Bloomsbury.

At Harvard’s June 2008 graduation class, J.K. Rowling spoke eloquently of failures:  “You might never fail on the scale I did. But it is impossible to live without failing at something, unless you live so cautiously that you might as well not have lived at all—in which case, you fail by default.”

So here’s to a life not without failure, but one in which we try and do not allow the fear of failure ensnare us.

Sunday, 15 November 2015

Liberté, Égalité, Fraternité

Two phenomena stood out for me with regards to the attacks in Paris. The first being the immense capacity for the human being to love. The hatred of the attackers and their superiors was immeasurable, but countering that was the outstretching of intense love and kindness. People opened their homes to assist strangers, offered condolence, gave their blood to save the lives of those who were gravely injured. As I write the doctors and nurses will be lovingly working tirelessly and selflessly to save all of those hurt. In the months and years to come the friends, relatives, and colleagues of those directly affected will lovingly support them through this horrific trauma so that they can enjoy life again, be able to go out to a restaurant or concert without fear.  We could look at the world and despair, but as long as love exists there is hope.

The second was the outcry on social media, and the wave of blue, white and red as the “world” stood in solidarity to show their outrage. In reality it of course not the entire planet who mourns for the ~129 deaths and the broken lives of the surviving witnesses. For there are many people too impoverished or trapped in a miserable existence to even be aware of what is happening outside their own country, city, town, village, dwelling, room.

As it happened in a Western capital city that normally experiences peace on a day-to-day basis, the shockwaves will be felt for a long time to come. Yet terrorist attacks happen all over the world, regularly, and I do not see long lasting waves of solidarity for victims in countries where it seems to be accepted that violence simply happens there. On the same day that the French capital was targeted, 19 people were killed, and 33 injured in Baghdad. Just the day before in Beirut an ISIL suicide bomber detonated a bike loaded with explosives and as onlookers gathered, another man detonated himself. Collectively, they killed 43 and injured 240. I do not see profile pictures washed with Lebanese or Iraqi flags, or people urging others to pray for those affected by those monstrous attacks. Throughout this year alone many have died brutally or been badly injured in Yemen, in Egypt, in Afghanistan, in Nigeria, in the Philippines etcetera yet their only seem to enter our consciousness for a fleeting period, their significance usurped as soon as something shocking happens closer to home or as soon as we become absorbed back into our own lives. 

Let us not just stand in solidarity with the victims of the Paris attack, but rather with each and every man, woman and child who has, who is, or who will be affected by violence so that we can live in a world where the French’s tripartite motto can stand true. A world of liberté, égalité and fraternité.  

Friday, 30 October 2015

You are amazing

"You are amazing," she told me. Those three words were exactly what I needed to hear tonight. There have been many occasions this year that I have felt far from being an amazing person. However, my friend's statement made me realise how far I have come in the past year, and powerfully enabled me to let go of all the times where I haven't behaved as the person I want to be.

Without going into detail, whilst I wish that my current circumstances weren't as they are, the experience is allowing me to take a deep look into myself and the way I interact with others in a way that I know will strengthen all the relationships I have and to be more comfortable with who I am. Sometimes it takes a mere few words to catalyse a powerful transformation. I say catalyse because it will not come without life experiences, or personal reflection. Of course, there are many life experiences that we would rather not suffer. However, horrible as they may be, they are opportunities for inner growth if we allow them to be.

Discovering who we are is not a linear process towards a set outcome. It is a journey, or rather an adventure. One which we go through not alone but with the help of others. What can your words do for someone today to help them in their path of metamorphosis?

Saturday, 16 March 2013

There was a time, O' Bee

There was a time, O’ Bee, when all crops were lovingly tended by conscientious farmers. Yet now the pesticide-soaked world is rapidly being seized by multinational companies like Monsanto who care not for you, nor your brothers, nor the farmers, nor the people who ingest their ‘food’ as they violate one species with the genes of another. gold and ebony black. Should your brothers see you laying there they would want to clothe themselves in mourning dress. Perhaps they too will fall from the sky, their wings suddenly freezing mid flight as they finally succumb to undernourishment  Your distant ancestors could buzz from flower to flower, soaking up their goodness.  But you, poor Bee, had no such pleasure. It was the genetically modified crops that slew you, deprived of the vital nutrients.

It was unbeknownst to you that the flowers you were pollinating would feed you so little. Tragically, many human beings too do not know the dangers of GMO, or chose to ignore them. Your brothers and I, O Bee, long for a time when the wickedness stops. When farmers will once again be in control of their precious lands. My dearly departed friend, how long will it continue that the rich in this world waste copious amounts of food whilst the spindly-legged, bloated-bellied poor wake up each day to a torturous struggle? It doesn’t have to be this way. You didn’t have to die. 

Photo by Peter Joseph Swanson, taken from here