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Scaring the bejeezus out of me

I’ve had a few scares in my time. Near misses that could have been nasty car accidents. A snow machine incident that could have had far more disastrous consequences. Air turbulence that resulted in freewheeling trollies and broken limbs.

I’ve had heart-stopping moments that are etched on some deep stratum of my subconscious. Like when I first went abseiling and had to make that 90-degree flip over the end of the cliff. Or my first trip to Disneyland. Or my first earthquake in Alaska.

Feeling scared, though, is a completely foreign feeling for me. An old friend of mine, long since dead, told me once that he reckoned I had guardian angels working around the clock. Just observing my life and the potential trouble I could have gotten into over the years, this was the only explanation he could come up with for my living a life relatively unscathed.

But here I am, in the prime of my life, and I’m scared. Very scared. I have a nasty, pervasive feeling in the pit of my stomach that is slowly seeping into every core of my being. And try as I might to think good thoughts and imagine good things, it just won’t go away. If anything, it’s getting worse.

I won’t get into the politics of it all. Far too much (albeit hardly anything about policy) has been said by both sides of the Great American Debate to warrant my adding my tuppence ha’penny. Be it Clinton or Trump, whoever wins next month, wins. What scares me silly is the immediate aftermath.

bbbbI was in California during the Rodney King riots and should Clinton win, I fear that those riots will be replicated on streets across America in a couple of weeks. Trump is just a penny shy of prepping his more radical supporters to ready themselves. Should Clinton win, I fear that her rather invasive tendencies could see the world caught up in even more war. Should Trump win, I can’t see Clinton supporters being anything other than resigned to their loss, but I fear the far-reaching consequences of having his brand of rhetoric behind a global microphone.

It’s not about policy. Or mandates. Or visions of the future. My fear has to do with legitimising hate speech. Fomenting a distrust of all things foreign. Replacing tolerance with insularity. It’s about example, or the lack thereof.

I was brought up well. I was taught that one should never raise oneself up by bringing another person down. If this election campaign is taken as an example of twenty-first-century politicking, then I fear that politicians here in Hungary, and in the rest of the world, will see it as a behavioural blueprint and follow suit. And what then?

Young people the world over are seeing a level of nastiness that seems to know no boundaries. Tshirts worn by Trump supporters emblazoned with foul-mouthed epitaphs are shown on TV. Derogatory comments aired, and aired again, travel the world like virulent viruses. And the behaviour of potential world leaders, behaviour that would have been decried with disbelief when I was still young and impressionable, is in danger of becoming the norm.

Earlier this month I read that those employed by the Russian government who have children studying abroad were told to cut short their schooling and bring them home to be enrolled in Russian schools. If this is about protection the minds of the young, I wonder if Putin is on to something.

We’re already seeing the rise of parochialism. Small-mindedness and pettiness are on the rampage. Shortsightedness is blinding us to the damage being done by seemingly throwaway comments that are taking root in our collective psyche and altering our moral code. Bigotry and bias are being bandied around at will. It’s scary. I’m scared. And I wonder how much worse can it get and when we will feel the full brunt of it in Hungary.

First published in the Budapest Times 28 October 2016

It begins with me

Way back in 2001, when the events of 9/11 rocked the world, I was living in a small Alaskan town of about 4000 people, a microcosm of American society. I saw how suspicions prevailed. How the word choice of seemingly intelligent colleagues broadened to include pejorative terms like rag-heads. How the immediate reaction was to shore up and dig in, to close borders, and keep America for Americans. Fast forward and this is Europe today.

I’d grown up in an Ireland where bombs were regular occurrences and being a terrorist was a job that came with and without a uniform. I’d been taught from an early age that if their actions changed how I lived my life, they’d won. I remember writing to the top ranks of the company I worked for, explaining how curtailing flights, changing work patterns, and modifying company behaviour was encouraging the very change in behavior that would give the terrorists their win. I never received a reply.

Bombs, loss of life, man’s inhumanity to man – none of it was new. America was no stranger to terrorism back then. The Oklahoma bombing was proof of that. But, as was explained to me back then, McVeigh et al. were home-grown. The 9/11 perpetrators were different. They had breached the border, broken through the defence. America was no longer a safe place in which to live.

The day before the Paris bombings, many lives were lost in Beirut. I saw little, if any media coverage. And then Paris happened. And the world became red, white, and blue. I wondered aloud when we had become so selective in our condemnation, in our reactions, with our sympathy. And this was one answer I received:  ‘This is on our patch. What they do at home [i.e., Beirut], that’s their business. But when they come into our back yard, and kill us – that’s different.’

RWB3What happened in Paris, and in Beirut, are atrocities. ISIS, in claiming the action as their own, will continue to foment anger and terror. Reports are already circulating that they have infiltrated refugees fleeing to Europe with 4000 militants, armed and ready to kill. Who knows if it’s true. Their aim would appear to be to split the world in two. To change how we live our lives. To turn us into Muslim-hating citizens who live in fear. And I do live in fear … fear that they will succeed.

Two centuries ago, politicians were citing eternal vigilance as the price of liberty. Today, we want our governments to protect us. Yet when they mention surveillance and accessing social media in order to track these terrorists, we cling feverishly to our privacy and cry foul on human rights. We want our security organisations to filter out the bad guys but when we’re held up at airport security, we moan about the inconvenience. Can we have it all? I wonder.

Are those branded ‘conspiracy theorists’ right? Is this nothing but a corporate war for profit and power being financed by the West using others as puppets to do their dirty work? Is it an excuse for countries like Hungary to put armed police on the streets to further agitate the masses and shut their borders to those in need? Is it about religion and false ideologies?  I don’t know.

What I do know is that I have a choice. I can choose to live in fear. I can choose to treat each Muslim I meet as a potential terrorist. I can choose to join those who are damning the millions fleeing ISIS-strongholds like Syria because one bomber got through the net. Or I can refuse to hate. I can have faith in human decency and hold fast to the belief that good will triumph over evil. It’s my choice. It begins with me.

First published in the Budapest Times 20 November 2015

2014 Grateful 15

I’ve heard tell that fear is faith that it won’t work out. It doesn’t matter what IT is – new job, new relationship, move to a new city – whatever. You’d think that the older we get, the less likely we are to be afraid. Armed with decades of life experience, various degrees of formal schooling, and a list of minor, yet not insignificant achievements that would stretch from here to the Balaton, you’d think that I’d have gotten over my fears. But no. There’s always the one remaining.

I did a quick search for the top ten fears and while Google coughed up a litany of lists, most didn’t vary much at all, so let’s use this one.

  1. Fear of flying (What’s the worst that can happen? I die. Am I afraid of death? No)
  2. Fear of public speaking (The cheapest, legal high you can get – ditto re the death thing)
  3. Fear of heights (It occasionally bothers me but not enough to stop me climbing)
  4. Fear of the dark (It has never been an issue as long as I’m not conscious that I’m in the dark – I know I am obviously, but if it’s not stated, then I’m fine)
  5. Fear of intimacy (Nope – not if there’s trust involved)
  6. Fear of death  (Nope – there are worse things in life than death)
  7. Fear of failure (One to come back to)
  8. Fear of rejection (As above)
  9. Fear of spiders (Not afraid of them, just don’t like them)
  10. Fear of commitment (I grew out of it – but there was a time when I wouldn’t commit to a six-month magazine subscription)

So we have two possibles – and both are closely linked – fear of failure and fear of rejection. In 99% of my life, I fear neither. Failure is relative. What might seem like failure to you, could be a huge achievement for me. Rejection, in my book, says more about those doing the rejecting than those being rejected. Better to know the score, I say, than wonder …

But that other 1% – the dream I’ve been harbouring for more years than I care to remember, the dream of being a published author whose books sell – that small percentage is rife with fear. I have been afraid to go for it not because I am afraid that I will fail, or that my work (and therefore me) will be rejected, but because of the void it will leave if I discover that my dream won’t come true. As long as I don’t try, I will always have hope, I can always dream.

American philosopher Henry James Thoreau said: Do not lose hold of your dreams and aspirations. For if you do, you may still exist but you have ceased to live. And this is what I’m most afraid of.

I have very little in the way of ambition. I’ve never been one to want power and glory and string of initials after my name. I’ve never coveted a corner office on the top floor or wanted a private secretary, a personal assistant, and a chauffeur-driven limo. I’ve never held out any hope of winning a Nobel prize or discovering something that would change the world for the better. My aspirations are much more refined – to live as well as I can for as long as I can, doing the least amount of harm and the most amount of good. That, and to have no regrets. And yet, from the day I chose my first book from a shelf in the village library, I’ve wanted to have my own book there, too. In the intervening years, I’ve managed to be sure that I have never had the time to write seriously. And when I’ve felt the urge get a tad stronger, I’ve found other work to occupy my time, justifying it all by telling myself that I need to pay the bills.

But last week, the subject of fear came up in conversation, as did death and dying. I decided that enough was enough. I realised that I would simply hate to die wondering. So I’ve signed up with a mentor whom I believe has the fortitude necessary to deal with my excuses and procrastinations and the talent and know-how I need to help me master this craft. Watch this space. If all fails and this dream turns to dust, I can always vacuum.

This week, I’m grateful to those who utter seemingly innocuous comments and throw-away remarks that lodge in my brain and make me think. And I’m grateful that such thinking occasionally leads to action.