Out of the Mouths of Babes…

Those of you who don’t live in Ireland may not realise that Malala Yousafzai was just awarded the Tipperary Peace Prize.

Those of you who don’t live in Ireland may not have heard her acceptance speech.  It was one of the best speeches I’ve ever heard.

Here it is -




Loves Are All You Need…

ValentinesWe love food, dogs, weather, football, music, clothes, places, books, movies, work, money, fashion, sex, cars, shoes, handbags, flowers, chocolate, yoga, tennis, skiing, sunsets, houses, status, TV shows, languages, cosmetics, cats, birds, wildlife, travel, adventure, excitement, gadgets, sports – but what about each other?

What happens when it comes to loving each other?

Roman Krznaric has an interesting perspective on the matter -







The Otherness of Others

philosophy?In a very interesting article called, Can non-Europeans think?, Hamid Dabashi, a Professor at Columbia University in New York, asks some extremely searching questions about how we perceive ‘reality’. For the purposes of his article he speaks mainly about the philosophical status quo, but it is a question that is valid right across the board.  He points out that even with good intentions we are inclined to see ourselves and the societies in which we live as the standard and all other societies – and ways of being – as being, well other.  Our music is – music – while music from other cultures is ethnomusic. Our philosophy – is philosophy - non-European/Western philosophy is ethnophilosophy and so on.  But the following is, perhaps, the most interesting observation in this entire article -

 Why is European philosophy “philosophy”, but African philosophy ethnophilosophy, the way Indian music is ethnomusic – an ethnographic logic that is based on the very same reasoning that if you were to go to the New York Museum of Natural History (popularised in Shawn Levy’s Night at the Museum [2006]), you only see animals and non-white peoples and their cultures featured inside glass cages, but no cage is in sight for white people and their cultures – they just get to stroll through the isles and enjoy the power and ability of looking at taxidermic Yaks, cave dwellers, elephants, Eskimos, buffalo, Native Americans, etc, all in a single winding row.

Professor Dabashi isn’t expecting Europeans to stop seeing their culture, thinking and experience as relevant or important – he just wants us – and I figure all Westerners – to see it as our view not the view of the world.  It’s an important distinction.

Can Non Europeans Think is a thought provoking and interesting article and one that is well worth reading.



[Portrait of Joan Brooks and Duke Niles, New York, N.Y., ca. Apr. 1947 - photographer - Gottlieb, William P., 1917-]




On Friday, December 14th, 2012, I visited Auschwitz. Steve - Birkenhau

I didn’t want to go.  I was scared of what I’d see and what I’d imagine and how I’d never be able to forget any of it.  But I went because I thought I had no right to be that frightened when I would be well-fed and warm and safe and free.  I went because I was ashamed not to go.

We arrived in Auschwitz and joined a group of English speaking vistors and followed a knowledgeable guide around this bleak and silent place and listened to her describe indescribable suffering. When I looked at the relics – clothing and bags and combs and bowls and shaving brushes and antiquated artificial limbs – I couldn’t keep out the reality of the people who had owned them, no matter how hard I tried.  Like hundreds of thousands of people before me I tried not to imagine the people who wore the clothes and the eyes that had focused behind the glasses now knotted into heaps. I tried not to see those same eyes reading the newspaper or peering through lenses to write poetry or shopping lists or fill out ledgers.  Eyes that looked into other eyes and saw sunsets and beauty and horror.

When I looked at the vast, jumbled heap of human hair behind a glass panel it dissolved in front of me and instead of disembodied hair, I saw nimble fingers trimming and brushing and braiding the hair on small heads, not knowing it was destined to be hacked off their corpses to be sold to factories.

I tried not to see other things too.

Shoulders hunched against the wind, heads down to escape the cold and the cruelty.  Big hands holding small hands and small hands holding smaller hands. Hands white-knuckled on the handles of heavy suitcases and bags.  Shuffling towards the lie of a new life where you’d need the contents of a bag.Steve - Auschwitz - cases

And I saw the feet as well.  The fat baby feet being fastened into baby shoes.  And the sore feet and tired feet and cold feet. Tramping, standing, walking, dancing, running – in boots and shoes and clogs. Inadequate peasant shoes and bespoke leather shoes…every colour, shape and size…and somehow the most real of all to me was the picture in my head of the young and beautiful feet that must have slid into the discarded red mules lying at the front of this monument to walking in suffering.

Steve - Auschwitz - shoes

And all the time I was in Auschwitz, my head rang with a strange silence as we walked through the snow covered site and the guide recounted the stories of pain and victory and loss and cruelty and survival. All the time inside me ran constant, looping prayers for healing.  It seemed idiotic to pray for healing for people who were long gone but I couldn’t stop the words unfurling and repeating inside my head.

Next day I realised that the healing prayers were for me – and my companions – trudging through this memorial of horror in the pristine snow.  We needed the healing because witnessing any account of pain and horror is like being flayed by whips. Which is why we turn away from witnessing the pain of others.

Realising this made me understand that it was reasonable for me to be afraid and not want to go to Auschwitz.  No human being walks willingly towards pain and this witnessing causes us real pain.

Because the truth is there is no significant difference between looking at our own pain and the pain of others. Whether this phenomenon is as a consequence of mirror neurons or learned empathy or something entirely different I don’t know, but I do know that looking at pain causes us pain and we all want to avoid that.  It’s only natural.

But what I learned when I visited Auschwitz is that the cure is also the same.  In both cases the only way to resolve the pain caused by suffering, to disarm the fear it creates, to stop it flourishing unchallenged, is to look it in the eye. To see it all.  Look at every part of it and learn how it works and how to stop it happening.

Before I went to Auschwitz I’d been afraid to look because I was afraid my own pain would make me helpless and I’d be overwhelmed by the suffering.

Since I visited Auschwitz I learned some very important things -

  • We need to look the suffering in the world in the eye and stare it down.
  • It’s true that to really look at it hurts, but it passes  - and after the pain and the overwhelming comes galvanizing.

And resolve.


Love is a Better Master than Duty*

The recent vicious rape and assault of a 23 year old physiotherapy student in New Delhi has caused rioting and outrage in India. A policeman injured in the rioting has died and most Indian politicians seem to be distancing themselves from having any responsibility for a justice system that allows so many similar crimes to escape unpunished.

This outrage against rape is an important change in a country where most women are stigmatised if they are victims of rape and are, therefore, afraid to ever report the crime in the first place. In order to have any safety or justice it is essential that rape is seen as a crime that is perpetrated by the rapist rather than caused by the victim.  It is an important societal change in India to have the voice of the public blaming the rapists rather than the victim. This public outrage may well help to create at least some will to act amongst the forces of law and order and thereby protect Indian women in the future.

But it’ll take more than just a change in law enforcement to make women in India – and elsewhere – safe.  It’ll take a radical change in attitude amongst both men and women.

Not just a rise in respect for women and girls and a real appreciation of how a society cannot function properly with one dominant gender any more than a bird can fly properly if it has one wing tied down.

Not just an understanding that rape is not an action of sexual attraction but rather one of violence and agression.

Not just a fear of being punished by the law and ostracised by society for committing this heinous crime.

All of these things are vital to creating change but they aren’t enough.

As well as these – and other  - changes there also needs to be a change at the level of the individual human being. A change that makes each one of us see every other person on the planet as something so precious, so special and so vital to even our own welfare that we wouldn’t dream of hurting their feelings let alone violating them in any serious or painful way.

I know we have a bit of a journey before we reach such a place of tender care for our fellow human beings but I believe it’s the place we need to name as our destination.  I don’t imagine that many people would object to a world in which they were held in such esteem and treated with such care and reverence.  I even think most might be willing to try extending this attitude to others.  However, I imagine that a huge number of people might think it impossible to achieve.

And maybe it is impossible.

How do I know.

But what if it is possible?

Isn’t it worth a shot?

If we fail we can just go back to being the way we are now.

But just imagine what might happen if we succeed…


*attributed to Albert Einstein









Maybe It’s True That All We Really Do Need is Love?

What is love?

Is it just the sentimental confection peddled to us in popular culture?  Could it be more than the powerful, visceral emotion we feel for our children?  We live for it and die for it and long for it and hope for it, but even so perhaps we are too sparing with it?

Maybe love is all we imagine and more.  Could it be that love has powers far exceeding the ordinary scope we allow for something as commonplace? Perhaps love is more than a nice optional extra and is, instead, a fundamental reality that drives our existence at a social as well as personal level?

Down through the centuries people like St. Augustine have spoken about love as an energy for social change.  They have played with the idea of love as the connection between everybody and everything rather than simply something driven simply by desire.

Could they have been correct when they suggested that all we need is love?






All Together Now…

Everybody knows the stories about WWII – we’ve all seen the movies – and we generally think that what happened was ‘of a time’.  A black and white era of seamed stockings and chain-smoking, totally unlike today.  We believe it is in the past and that we’ll never end up in that awful mess again.  But is that the case?  Here are a few things to think about -

  • Germany was a democracy in 1933 when Hitler came to power.  There was a great deal of civil unrest but it was still a democracy and Hitler and his party were elected in a democratic process.
  • Everybody ignored the Civil War in Spain in 1936 and let Franco take over in 1939.  This didn’t seem like an important conflict that had the capacity to impact on the lives of people outside of Spain.  It was the generally accepted view that it was safe to ignore it and let the Spaniards fight it out between themselves.  The Spanish Civil War was where Hitler and Mussolini tried out lots of the weapons, planes and tactics they later used all over the place during WWII – so, it would appear that the generally accepted view was flat out wrong.
  • None of these things would have happened if the ordinary people thought for themselves and acted on what they knew to be right.

Dolores Ibárruri, a Republican leader in the Spanish Civil War, is reputed to have said, ‘It’s better to die on your feet than live on your knees.’  While I imagine Dolores and I might have a different opinion of war, I still think she was right. We don’t have to be in a physical battle to need to find the courage to stand up for what is right.  And if we want to ‘defend’ ourselves and keep ourselves safe we need to understand that if we don’t defend people who appear to be far away and therefore not connected to us, we are increasing, not diminishing the risk to ourselves.

We are like climbers tied together scaling a tall mountain. Even enlightened self interest suggests we should look out for each other.

And seriously – after you watch this video do you think you’d mind being connected to any of these kids? (I know it’s unbearably cute but I just love it!)