The Blog

The Freedom to Choose

Sometimes the choice lies between no words and too many words. When tragedies happen, as in Brussels, or Turkey, or indeed the daily carnage that is Syria, a feeling of overwhelm and helplessness sets in. For some, there's an invisible barrier that comes down when tragedies occur in perceived far-away places; when European cities come under attack, many feel it's 'us' against 'them'. The problem with that attitude is that it is all us. Let me tell you a story.

There was a very sensitive young boy who lost his father to cancer aged eight. He was the youngest of 4 and somewhat apart from the others in age (3 boys and one girl). In the aftermath of that death, each sibling went their own way in how they dealt with their grief. And in many ways, life, truly, dysfunctionally went on. He struggled with school and home-life, and went down a bit of wayward path, as many young adults do. In his early 20s, he was hospitalised for burning out the lining of his stomach through excessive drinking and drugs. Roughly about a year afterwards, and seemingly from out of the blue, he converted to Islam. (A family member claimed the conversion happened in the toilets of Dirty Nell's, a pub near Shannon. Stranger things have happened).

As the saying goes in Ireland, there's no convert like a reformed hoor and he was filled with the sort of righteous zeal that only the newly minted convert can exude. Islam gave him a badly-needed structure on the one hand, the sense of being part of something, of belonging, a family; on the other hand, like many zealots, his narrow interpretation of the religion (like most religions) and desire to prove himself worthy only served to underline some of his own pre-Islamic prejudices, encouraged and enflamed by hanging around with some Saudis with an all-too apparent radicalising influence. A massive turning point, though he did not know it, was when he agreed to an arranged marriage through his mosque to a Moroccan Muslima. With the benefit of fresh new eyes, she saw the potential in the rough diamond and began chipping away at it with love. A supportive kind of love that resulted in two little girls, a PhD and a very happy marriage and family life. Love triumphing in the essentials.

I offer this story, because that young boy is my youngest brother. I have seen from personal experience how, through circumstances often beyond one's control, life can buffet us about and lead us down some strange paths. We are faced with crossroads, where we are faced with our darkness or our light. If we're lucky, we will find a loving soul along the way who will direct us towards the light. Not everyone is so lucky; but ultimately everyone has a choice as to their path. I have arguments and fundamental differences of opinion with my brother politically, but these issues are everything to do with differing and long-held world views and nothing to do with Islam.

Where this becomes interesting in our world, as things currently stand, is how the microcosm of the life personal is intersecting on a global stage with the macrocosm of the life politic. It's long been a political ploy to divide and conquer; and as a political tool, its efficacy is tried and tested. It's why for centuries any group of people considered as 'other' has been viewed as suspicious, with the perceived threat amplified to conceal the actual.

The biggest question for me, whenever an attack happens, is: who benefits? Who actually benefits from disunity? Financially, politically and in real power terms? To me, it's blindingly obvious. Banks primary investments have historically been in the areas of munitions, energy and big pharma. We know that politicians have links to arms dealers, the financial industry, and pharmaceutical companies. We know now that the 1% do exist and most of them (not all) live on a different moral realm than the rest of us, where the lives of millions of refugees pale in comparison to a spreadsheet's bottom line.

So what's the solution? We can't ignore that the 1% who feed off the 99%'s pain exist, and whether we care to acknowledge it or not, they are human beings like the rest of us. They may often display the worst aspects of narcissistic sociopaths (yes, I'm looking at you, IDS and Camborne &Co) but they also reveal to us the dark little psycho that, Patrick Bateman-like, lurks deep inside us all. My guess is that this type of personality will always exist, and it is the moral responsibility of the rest of us to keep it in check - not to keep voting it in to positions of power.

So my solution is simple: make kindness pay. This solution arose, funnily enough, out of having Christmas dinner with some banker friends and suggesting to them that no one wanted the epitaph 'I made some great deals'. When faced with their own mortality, they agreed. Everyone knows you can't take it with you, so hold out the carrot of a legacy of kindness, of philanthropy even more powerful. Make unity pay. Be mindful about where you shop and what you buy. Give up your Sky subscription and stop funding a media mogul whose sole objective seems to be to spread disharmony across the globe. Change your bank to one that doesn't invest in munitions etc (hard in the UK, I know and especially with the Co-Op being overtaken by Lloyds - but they do exist). Do your homework on your MP and then make an educated vote. Speak to someone you are suspicious of - maybe it's because their skin is a different colour, the clothes they are wearing, too modest/flamboyant, they're disabled or homeless - our prejudices are many, but behind each person is a story. My experience is that when one gets down to brass tacks, our stories, to our own surprise, often overlap. And suddenly that person, who you were once suspicious of, is humanised.

If you're the type of person who dismisses this as do-gooder, happy-clappy nonsense - try it for a week. Or else ask yourself - why does the commonality of human experience and the concept threaten you so much? Do you want a better world, or do you want to be 'right'? Kindness is not for the faint-hearted, and we live in a world that needs more. The choice is ours.

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