2012 – Suck it up and survive, or: reasons to be hopeful

I have never been one to make (and subsequently fail to live up to) any New Year’s resolutions. Although I would like to go to the gym often enough so that the cost of an average workout does not exceed the cost of a case of beer.
With a new year upon us I can best sum up my outlook as: The planet’s screwed but that shouldn’t prevent us from trying to save it, and thankfully some people are still trying to do this but more of us should get out there and do something. I know it isn’t catchy but it’ll have to do. As I reflect on the title of this blog, A Change Is Coming, I’m reminded that change (for the better) won’t happen on its own; people have to make it happen.
The end of the year is always an opportune time to reflect on the past and hope for a better future. This should happen every day, not only now, but I guess most of us are too busy. Plus if all we did was reflect on the past and hope for the future, we wouldn’t be doing anything in the present. So as the year comes to a close I’d like to take stock of things. I have every intention of making this a top 10, but we’ll see if I can manage at least five things.
Here’s what I want for 2012:

  1. As an ordinary person, I know can make a difference in this world on my own and with others, including huge numbers of strangers who are just as pissed off at how things are as I am. I should try harder to make a difference.

How this can happen: On my own, I could try to be an Internet sensation and make a YouTube video of me dancing with a penguin that would go viral and make me (or at least the penguin) popular for a week. This would make 1 million people feel good for about 30 seconds or the length of the video, but I can’t make a career out of it. So for the moment, and over the next year, I’ll try to make a difference on my own by blogging more about things related to human rights that bug me or interest me, that discourage me and enrage me or that give me hope for a better future. My Christmas wish list to Santa covered many of these issues: a Canadian government that selectively shuns human rights violations internationally while ignoring its own actions here, including its discrimination of First Nations communities; killings, detentions and arbitrary arrests in Syria, Bahrain, Yemen, and Egypt; African despots who have clung on to power for too long; discrimination and violence against the LGBTIQ community; and Obama reneging on campaign promises such as the closure of Guantanamo Bay. I’d add to that increasing sectarian violence worldwide, violence against women, trafficking and exploitation of children, internal conflicts around the world that kill thousands every year, violations against migrant workers and their families, human rights abuses by transnational corporations, and the shameful reality that we know we are destroying our planet but those in power are unwilling to make the right decisions for our own sake and for the lives of generations to come.

OK so I didn’t quite get to five things, only one, but I like to think of it as all inclusive.

Believing in human rights education
I believe we (collective “we” of planet Earth) can make our lives and the lives of others better by learning about human rights, so I am a firm believer in human rights education. For many people who lead a nice life and don’t need to worry about having their rights egregiously violated (like me), learning about rights is a destabilizing reality. You realize that so many others in this world do not have the same liberties and freedoms and ability to live a full life of dignity. Learning about human rights violations elsewhere leaves you feeling privileged/guilty/blessed with what you’ve got, and can also push you to act out of empathy and respect for others to help them live a life as full as yours. I specifically say empathy and respect rather than sympathy because the latter term relegates the dynamic of those who have and have not to one of pity and charity. Rights are not about charity; rights are basic obligations that states have for all of us to live equal in dignity and rights. I don’t want to help someone living in poverty because I feel sorry for them. I want to help them because it’s their right to live a better life, and we (collective “we” of planet Earth, but also “we” as in governments) have the ability to eradicate poverty and improve the lives of millions within our lifetimes.
Human rights education is just as essential, just as vital for those who live a life of dignity and equality as for those whose rights are violated. Everyone needs to know about human rights; human rights are not just a trendy topic in university classes, human rights education is not boring (at least it shouldn’t be); human rights education is unavoidable, it cannot be ignored. The events of the past year, in particular with the Arab Spring and worldwide Occupy Movement – are a clear indication that average citizens can rise up and demand their most basic rights – freedom, life, security, equality, and are ready to sacrifice their own freedom in order to achieve these rights for others. The courage of ordinary people defying guns, bullets and tanks in the streets of their hometowns to defy the oppressive despots leading their countries should be incentive enough for the rest of us to get off our collective asses and express our indignation at the failure of our political leaders.

The most impoverished are the strong ones
Worldwide, human rights violations affect those living in poverty the hardest. An estimated 1.7 billion people around the world are living in poverty – it’s an unavoidable statistic that affects everyone. I have seen, though never experienced, conditions of poverty in many parts of the world. However, the crap I see that shapes and defines people living in poverty is only a partial reality of their lives. Living in Africa for four years, I saw enough poverty to leave me incapable of facing it for the first two years in Malawi and give me a fair share of nightmares upon my return to Canada. But I also left wondering how so many people kept going with a strength I found remarkable. If there’s anything I want to learn from others less fortunate, it’s how they keep going with a strength of character to suck it up and survive. Whether through faith or will or courage or love or instinct or a mix of all that and more, the most awe-inspiring part of the human condition is found in places where living conditions are the most deplorable and those oppressed are being violated by others embodying the worst of human nature.

As I look forward to a new year, I remain conflicted as I was last year at this time: hopeful for a better future, but discouraged by the violence, poverty, human suffering and willful degradation of the planet. But the resolve of so many to stand up for their rights, to suck it up and survive and strive for a more hopeful future where their rights are respected, pushes me a little further towards the hopeful end of the scale. That’s enough to keep me going for another year. To all of you, a happy and prosperous New Year. A change is indeed coming.

Peace of Mind

Today, September 21, is the International Day of Peace, or World Peace Day. Not a day that too many people know about – it’s probably up there with International Literacy Day from a couple of weeks ago. But I gather people know about Peace Day more than they know about World Meteorological Day (March 23 in case you didn’t know, like me). 

I asked Facebook friends what they were planning on doing to celebrate today. A few friends responded, some with tongues firmly in cheek (“Vote for Palin” – at least I hope that was in jest!), others sharing some experiences of their fieldwork. A friend from Nepal wrote this: “Participated [in a] program to mark In’l Peace Day organized by local peace committee and Human rights network….The specialty of the program was chaired by child conflict victims and many speakers were conflict victim children of mid west region of Nepal….” The significance of this statement should not be trivialized. When I first visited Nepal in 2004, during its civil war, my friend told me that children were being abducted on their way to school and brainwashed into fighting for the Maoists (the armed forces, it must be said, were not much better). How wonderful it is to see children who were once victims of the conflict now in a position to talk about peace.

Actions around Peace Day will be for many of us individual changes: small but noticeable efforts. Try to think of something you can do today – only today, and do it. Then see what would happen tomorrow if you did it as well. And the next day, and so on until it became either a habit or so ingrained in your character that it transforms itself into an automatic reflex. Take this zinger from a friend: “Not be a bitch to my bitchy colleague. Does that count?” Of course, not being a bitch (regardless of gender) counts. Perhaps not being a bitch might prompt my friend’s bitchy colleague not to be so, well, bitchy. To paraphrase Major Frank Burns from M*A*S*H, it’s nice to be nice to the nice (and the not so nice).

We took some time at the office today to write personal signs that all started with “I will” and ended with “for peace.” Some of our signs were about:

Our individual actions for peace at the Equitas office

  • Baking a cake for peace, which we all ate for peace.
  • Hugging her kids “extra hard” today for peace. 
  • Acting rather than reacting. 
  • Sensitizing people around her on the importance of peace here at home and elsewhere.

Peace can take on a range of meanings – it can be a plea for non-violence among warring states as much as it can mean showing kindness to a stranger. My peace sign at the office today was “I will blog for peace” and I honestly did not know what to write about, the topic was so broad. I’m thankful that my colleagues and friends on Facebook provided the fodder required for posting on peace. But there is another form of peace that’s been lingering in my head since yesterday, and it’s one’s own peace of mind. A friend wrote to me yesterday with the sad news that her sister had taken her own life; she left behind a husband and two children. I thought back to tragic events last year when someone I knew took his own life. How unattainable inner peace must seem to someone who chooses to end their own life. The loved ones who are left living can sometimes face a tremendous sense of guilt, and in plenty of instances, they have done all they could have. So if I have any kind of message I’d want to get through on this day of peace, it’s to keep an eye out for those around us who aren’t at peace with themselves and to lend a helping hand, or at least an attentive ear. 

I’ll end with reference to a song probably not heard often on this day. Apart from the standards “Peace Train” and “Give Peace a Chance” that you might have heard today, I’ve had “Peace of Mind” by the 70s rock group Boston rocking in my head:

I understand about indecision 
But I don’t care if I get behind 
People livin’ in competition 
All I want is to have my peace of mind.

And on that note, peace to you all.