Sunday, 22 November 2015

The Question I Don't Ask Anymore

Something has just occurred to me. Once upon a time, whenever faced with a terrorist atrocity I would find myself asking “Where is God?”
I've just realised that I haven't done that. And I'm delighted. It means I've shed the poisonous delusion in its entirety. I've come to realise that it's a non question, a sub standard question. It doesn't help to combat delusion with delusion. And whilst religion was clearly foremost in the minds of the Paris attackers, along with its promises of fast tracking to Paradise and more Virgins than they can shake their proverbial sticks at, I can't say I've heard a great deal of people ask the “Where was God?” question. For me this is a positive. It's the kind of question that takes up intellectual space. All I know is that if I was God, and if the people of Earth were my children and meant anything to me, I wouldn't be relying on the infamous free will defence to explain away my inaction. If I saw evil descending upon my children I would intervene. I would intervene because I exist. God does not intervene because he does not exist. And if he did, what should we make of such a creature that sits back in his celestial armchair and watches as armed goons unleash heavy weaponry upon terrified crowds? I don't doubt that there are a great many persons of religious persuasion that have been trying to square this circle, but I can save you the trouble. That belief that's so foundational to you, the thing that gets you through the rough stuff and gives you peace. A fabrication, I'm afraid. One you've spent years invested in, but one that is empty. Now it's not too late for most of you. You don't have to keep up the pretense, and let's face it you've wasted more than enough time already. As painful as it is to accept you have wasted years on a myth, on a zero, on the greatest lie of them all. This must be painful, perhaps terrifying to contemplate, but it is what it is. And in 2007 I walked the road myself, and it was a hard one. But my goodness, looking back now, jumping ship from religion to reality was the best leap I have ever taken. It meant turning away from friends, from a way of life and of being. And it took a very long time to fully extricate myself. But I have. And I survived. And the air is clearer because I don't have to defend the absurd anymore. Life is an incredible tapestry of experience, a rich banquet from which you can taste freely. You don't need religion to do your thinking for you. You never did. And as I write this, and as saddened as I am by the recent atrocities, I take comfort in the knowledge that there is one question I do not have to ask anymore.

Monday, 16 November 2015

A Letter To My Younger Self

Now there's a question. Instruction one would be to simply tell the arrogant and verbose younger me to be less of a cunt. I probably could have used a slightly less colourful word but none would capture the reality of what I was back then. Instruction two is predictable and would have been simply to value education, because I treated my entire school life as an inconvenience to be endured before I could find fame and fortune as a writer. As things turned out I made enough from writing to feed a couple of hamsters for a couple of weeks on the assumption that they ate conservatively. I should have listened more. End of. Instruction three, try to live your life without doing so at the expense of other people. I think I've apologised to most of the people I wronged during my school years as I felt genuinely bad about my behaviour. All but one were incredibly gracious and mature, and the one who was unable to forgive had good reason. Instruction four, try not to live your life as an apology, and don't get hung up over how others perceive you. I've mentioned before that the wait for universal popularity is a long one, so you might as well shed that skin before it makes you paranoid. Five, don't be afraid of who you are, unless the things that define you are likely to cause others harm, in which case get help. If you pose no such risk then experiment and enjoy learning about those shadowy corners of who you really are. Six, never be afraid to change your mind if that's where the evidence leads. You're probably not the genius you think you are so have a little humility and be prepared to think differently, even about the things you'd prefer not to. Seven; in this life you are going to be wrong about a great many things. Deal with it. Don't be proud and arrogant and oblivious to your own fallibility. That's a one way ticket to Stupidville. Eight; try curry. Curry’s great. This one requires no further exposition. Nine; don't worry about changing the world. You're doing that already by simple virtue of the fact you exist in it. You change the world every day. Ten; all that money you pissed up the wall from the age of 17-20 could have been spent doing any number of amazing things. Travel, or save; just don't let it all wash away. Eleven; don't get in that van with Craig Dawkins. He’s hammered and that van is going to end up on its side on a ditch with glass and sparks popping all around you. Twelve, just because you were a chubby kid doesn't mean you have to lack confidence with girls. They actually quite liked you once you stopped trying too hard. They like your sense of humour, and your big brown eyes. What you were doesn't equal what you are. Thirteen; value your relationship with your dad because he's going to be gone long before you hit 40. And realise sooner that he survived perfectly well without your advice before you began sharing your dubious teenage wisdom with him. Fourteen; stand up to bullies. You may win some and you might lose some, but the thing about bullies is that they love a soft target. So don't be soft target. Fifteen; those karate lessons you take once you've left school; when you fight the bigger guys get close to them. It's far more painful talking a full punch from a 17st lump and if you can get inside them you can cause all kinds of problems. Sixteen; learn that you're naturally a pleaser, and that it's OK to take pleasure in giving pleasure to others. And yes, I am talking about sex. You're already battling with this one ; give up buddy. It ain't going anywhere and somebody you'll meet this incredible lady who knows exactly what to do with what you are. It doesn't make you less of a man to want to put your lady first. Quite the opposite. Seventeen; that ability you have to laugh at yourself is going to be one of your defining qualifies. Never lose it. Eighteen; just because you never managed to earn a living as a writer doesn't mean you're not a really good one. Have confidence in your ability to communicate your thoughts, because someday you're going to have a blog that's read by people in over 135 countries, which when you think about it is really kinda cool.

Another Day In Paradise

Despite recent events in Paris, I'm still of the opinion that most denizens of planet Earth are basically good. I'm equally convinced that idiots come in all shapes, sizes, and skin tones. I don't heap all the religious people into the same group, but I do hold the view that that none say anything that secular voices haven't already said better. It would be easy for me to rip into the concept of jihad or Islamic extremism, but frankly if you're not clued up on the dangers these pose then there's simply no waking you up. So instead I'm going to reflect on the goodness of humanity, the better angels of our nature, and try to make the case that despite the existence of evil and delusion and barbarity, most of us actually want to leave the world in a better state. As such, when faced with terrorist atrocity the only thing to do is, well, exactly what we were doing before. We live out our lives, live by our shared values and seek to deepen the Well of human kindness. We alleviate suffering, comfort the stricken, and show sufficient courage when faced with the savagery of terrorism. I for one do not intend to let the bearded fools of IS prevent me from loving my wife, protecting my children, and making for ourselves lives that are rich and deep and satisfying. To change how we are would be to acknowledge that such evil has the power to do so, which I do not think we can allow. I cannot imagine what possesses a fellow human to seek the harm of another; the whole idea is alien to me. What I do know is that I want no part of it. Their violence is their violence; their delusion their own unique delusion. Nor will I let rage and bile get the better of me, for to do that is to take a tiny step towards mirroring the obscene hatred the extremists have of us. I do not hate them. I pity them. I find them tedious examples of what happens when people cease to see others as human. And at the end of day are we really so different? Aren't we just hairless apes bumbling through? And what makes certain people so committed to making the whole world dance to their tune? As if that's even possible. Give me diversity, give me opposites, give me an expansive banquet of colour and variety, and I'll give you world that's worth living in. And that's what we already have isn’t it? And you don't need to cross oceans to figure this out. Walk down any street and see divergence, variety, eclecticism and oddity. God forbid we ever find ourselves in world where we are required to think and act the same. Ultimately, the battles of today might look as though they are waged on the ground, but the truth is far simpler. These wars are battles of ideas, and they rage in the hornet’s nest more commonly referred to as the human mind. This is where tomorrow's world is forged, in the white hot furnace of today's intellectual discourse. So we better ensure our narrative is a good one, and that we back it up with courageous acts, because if we do not create the mood music then other’s will, and if it's all the same to you I'd like this world to remain a diverse and intoxicating place. Contrast this with the dreary monotone dirge of extremism with its edicts and instructions and prohibitions. What a horrible world it would be should it ever come to pass. What a small world. What a turd of a world. Put me on the next boat out.

Thursday, 10 September 2015

If I Was A Human Trafficker

If I was a human trafficker I would be rubbing my hands with glee. I would be salivating. I would be seeing dollar signs. I would be delighted that market conditions are ripe and that business is set for long term growth. And perhaps I'd also be allowing myself a sly grin at just how adeptly I've set the mood amongst the people of Europe. Their good nature is the key to my success, their immediate and admirable desire to see the suffering of so many alleviated. The doors of the continent are open, and this is a tide that will keep on coming. And all the time Europe thinks that it is helping when, as time will likely attest, we've inadvertently done the complete opposite. So long as we have such short range vision the market conditions will persist. The boats and the lorries will keep coming, and the tide of human misery will deepen as so many seek out the services of those who promising safe passage. Right now we think we're helping, and in the short term we are. But this is not a short term game; in fact it will be a game without end unless we tackle the problem at source. That boy on the beach isn't the first and won't be the last, and perhaps the biggest tragedy is that this stark image which has captivated us all will probably end up as the catalyst to even greater misery for the afflicted. I've struggled to balance my human desire to help with the hard headed rationalist in me that just knows that if we allow the tide to persist the misery will hit even greater heights than what we see already. And believe me, we ain't seen the half of it. And as we Twitter and Facebook our moral consciences please understand that you may very well end up causing orders of magnitude more suffering amidst those least likely to survive it. I've seen those images, and felt the rage and the frustration and the compulsions to help everybody now. Right now. The trouble is, I just can't shake the feeling that by opening the doors too wide we will witness catastrophic future affliction, death and deprivation on a scale greater than the horrors we've already seen unfold. If we want to help, and help in a way that is likely to alleviate suffering over the long term we need to stop those boats, disable these trafficking cartels, and deal with the wider issues that have turned the Middle East into a continent of death. I hope as you read this I do not seem cold or cruel. I do not mean to be. I just don't think short term solutions are any solution at all. Especially when the challenge is this big.

Wednesday, 26 August 2015

The Narrow Road To The Deep North - Book Review

I write this review in the absolute knowledge that I cannot do the book justice. Just can’t. I do not have the words. What I can impart are some of the feelings it left me with, powerful and shifting, along with this sense that I have just emerged from a deep and profound encounter with the human condition. Leave all that you know or think you know at the door, because Richard Flanagan is going to drag you by the collar through pretty much the entire gamut of human experience as you accompany him on this tour de force. The premise is straightforward enough, an account of the life of a fictional character called Dorrigo Evans, an aspiring medic whom falls in love with his uncle’s young wife before being torn away to war and eventually experiencing and surviving the horrors of the Burma railway. Thing is, whilst the book is about him, it is just as much about us. About humanity at its best, its worst, its most passionate, most cruel, most desperate, and most noble. My God how we seem so capable of reaching the heights and plumbing the depths. Our ability to rationalise the obscene, justify the un-justifiable, to cease to treat our fellows as anything recognisably human. In contrast, we see bravery and resilience and a refusal to yield to our base nature when we share the experiences of the many astonishing characters whom are also forced to endure those terrible months and years building those doomed railways. And the Japanese guards and Korean soldiers were as much prisoners themselves. Prisoners of the Emperors insane insistence that it was possible to build such a railway through the jungle without any of the tools normally required for such a vision. They saw those captured POW’s as dishonourable men, shameful creatures by virtue of their refusal to do what was perceived as the honourable thing, which to the Japanese was to commit suicide rather than be captured. In the eyes of their captors this at once rendered the prisoners as less, as perhaps sub human. And their consequent treatment appears to flesh this out. Starved and worked quite literally to death, thousands diminish to hundreds, and eventually to fewer still, death the norm rather than the exception. And as the railway slipped behind schedule the burdens upon survivors increased, forced to work longer, to survive on less. One truly harrowing episode see’s Evans seeking to perform an operation on the gangrenous leg of one poor soul whom had already suffered two previous operations. Only by this time there is really no leg left, and there is a true sense of desperation when Evans tries repeatedly, desperately to seal up the femoral artery as the patient bleeds out amidst the filth and the mud. And what becomes of the men that do survive these horrors? They are of course forever changed, and the book shifts focus perfectly as it explores how some cope, and how some do not. And what of the Japanese that evaded capture and execution? It emerges that some evolve into what we might term kind and benevolent creatures, able to justify their actions and continue living in the absence of other options. What was once evil appears to become, if not quite contrite, somehow less evil? The question mark is deliberate because I do not know whether I could ever see such men as good. Suffice to say they moved on, they become something else, ascribing the war as a unique time, and the demands upon them unique demands. Many felt proud to have served their Emperor, able to achieve the inner moral justification that the treatment of those prisoners was a necessary requirement of unique times. And then there is the love story that underpins the first 3rd of the book, the young Dorrigo Evans bewitched by his Uncle’s wife Amy, herself trapped in a marriage of convenience to a kindly man. Adulterous yes. Immoral perhaps. Yet both Amy and Dorrigo are drawn to each other with an intensity that neither is able to resist, and their relationship proves to be the defining intimacy of their lives. There is no grand re-union. No happy ending. For the world rarely grants us such convenience. And this strikes at the root of The Narrow Road To The Deep North. It is not just a book about lives. It somehow manages to distill life itself, exposing the raw nature of our humanity as the clumsy, cruel, and sometimes beautiful thing that it is. And finally a word on the writing style of Flanagan himself. Compact, taut, nothing wasted, no dreary self indulgence. The lad can write and then some. I said at the outset that I cannot do this book justice, and I know as I read this that I haven’t. But I just had to write about it. I had to say something. It moved me. It screamed at me and it made me think. For this alone I am grateful, and I commend it to you without reservation.

It Was Never Really Meant To Make Sense

To be human seems to me to be to be doomed to live as a contradiction. How many of us can truly say that our actions reflect our thoughts, or that we are completely genuine one hundred percent of the time? I know I can’t. It’s just beyond me. I’d love to be consistent in thought and deed, but if my history tells me anything it is that at various points along the way I’m going to be swept along amidst forces that, If I am lucky, I might understand in hindsight. To be human, or at least truly human, is to accept that fallibility is a coat we must all wear. We’re so temporal, so fleeting, so small. Is it any wonder? My desire to be a better man ebbs and flows, as does my desire to rage at all the bullshit and the inanity that we, as a species, seem to so hungrily devour. Sometimes I just try to keep it simple, to avoid the battles and the stupidity, but there’s this kernel of mischief inside of me that doesn’t seem to want to go away. And I probably do not want it to. I expect I like the mischief, the ability to rabble rouse, and to stoke up the occasional bonfire or two. This comes from my desire to have personal meaning in the face of the fact that my life is ultimately of no meaning at all. I’m going to die someday. I’m going to end. And the world will go on and I will become a diminishing ancestral thought seeping down through the family line. These days I just try to accept life for what it is; an often comedic series of episodes, peaks and troughs, the good and the ill. And the only constant for me is the desire to be non constant, which is to say open to new experience and ways of thinking and being that make this whole journey engaging. My atheism is deeply helpful in this regard, and I consider my abandonment of fairy tales to have been an important landmark. I’ve been “out” for 8 years now. Perfectly happy to treat the whole idea of the eternal as the sham that it surely is. I do not seek perfection, instead settling simply for betterment. I’d like to be a little wiser tomorrow than I was today, I’d like to retain an open mind and the ability to change it without feeling that I owe anybody an apology in the process. And since when was changing your mind such a bad thing? Surely it’s essential? Surely it is the epitome of a mind that is comfortable with re-calibration, re-appraisal, and other terms the start with “re”. If you await some cosmic point to this blog then prepare for disappointment. I’ve no wisdom to impart. I probably never did. Suffice to say that if you think you have things sussed then you probably haven’t, and that intellectual inertia is going to kill you if you’re not too careful.

Monday, 10 August 2015

Those Inner Voices

I wonder how many of you reading this are subconsciously, or perhaps even consciously driven by fear? Fear of how you are perceived, received, assessed? I wonder how many of you have allowed yourself to be imprisoned by fear of what the world would think should it truly discover what's going through your mind? Well I can't help you with that, it's your issue and not mine. I can however convey a few nuggets of my personal experience regarding what it feels like to smash through that particular glass ceiling. Put simply it feels good. Refreshing. Invigorating. Illuminating. It feels like freedom. Being able to walk into a room and have no concern for what others think is liberating in a way that's hard to describe. No interest in being liked or disliked, respected or despised. It matters not. The whole idea is white sound to me. I do not care about what you think of my views on religion, or my sexuality, or my insistence that freedom of expression is the primary challenge of our age. I'm fully aware of my capacity to irritate, and I know I'm a calculated button pusher under certain conditions. And I know that when I say most people bore me that's not a popular thing. On the bright side, if you do bore me I'm not going to be spending time around you so it strikes me as a win win. Anyway, I've digressed horribly. The whole point of this post is to suggest that if you labour too long under the expectation of others, or from some need to be approved of or accepted then what you will succeed at is making a prisoner of yourself. You'll be ruled by fear, by anxiety, and you'll probably never really discover what it actually takes to be the most authentic version of you. And worse, you risk wasting precious time on this amazing planet. And you are going to die, and there is no God and no heaven and no eternity in some asinine celestial theme park. Now is the hour and today is the day, so for goodness sake seize it. Explore who you are, and if people disapprove then is that really such a big deal? Every morning you wake up as the primary person capable of making a difference to your own existence. Why not appreciate the scale of that opportunity? Why not actively seek to exploit this? At journey's end you're only going to have yourself to blame if you've spent your days as a prisoner, as a serf, as some petrified emotional cripple. So get out there in the world and get it done. Whatever "that" is. And get better at ignoring those inner voices that tell you that this isn't OK. OK?