In retreat

I really don’t do well with timezones and it takes me a while to recover. I was up early yesterday morning and nearly asleep by noon so the first few hours of the day are a bit of a blur. Something odd happened. I scrolled through my news update early that morning as I was having my morning constitutional (coffee) and read with some horror of the suicide bomb in Kabul, Afghanistan. I registered 60 dead and 350 injured with both the French and German embassies damaged in the blast.

Fast forward 18 hours and I was scrolling through Facebook because I couldn’t sleep. I must have scrolled through a dozen pages before it hit me. There was no mention at all of Kabul. Not in personal posts. Not in sponsored posts. Not in sites I subscribe to. So I thought to myself that I must have imaged what I’d read that morning. Perhaps I was more spaced out than I thought?

The site of a huge explosion in Kabul, the capital of Afghanistan, on Wednesday. Credit Shah Marai/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

So I checked. And yes.

In one moment, more than 80 lives ended, hundreds of people were wounded and many more were traumatized, in the heart of a city defined by constant checkpoints and the densest concentration of Afghan and international forces.

CNN  reported it. The Guardian had it, too.  Myriad news outlets from around the world carried the story and yet there’s no mention at all by anyone on my feed in Facebook. No standing in solidarity. No denouncements. Have we reached the stage where we are so inured to terrorism that we don’t feel anything unless it’s within radius? Or have we come to expect this from Afghanistan, so therefore it’s simply business as usual, just another day in a country that has seen 40 years of violence. But I took heart because I woke this morning to a FB post… asking Where is the minute’s silence.

This week’s latest terror attacks remind us that most of Isis’s victims in fact belong to the religion it claims to represent. It is important to note that the vast majority of Muslims not only condemn Isis but bear the brunt of its brutality. There is a sad irony in how the group which has the largest number of victims of terrorism are often blamed for it.

And then yesterday, arguably one of the world’s most powerful men told us how ‘loaded’ America is – more oil than Saudi Arabia, and more gas and coal than Russia. That he represents Pittsburgh, not Paris. The message I heard was ‘we’re alright mate – we don’t need the world’. The mind boggles at his logic, at his pulling out of the Paris Agreement, at his denial of climate change. And were he but one man, I’d say – whatever. Each to his own. But seriously?

I’m cranky. I’m hot. And I’m still jetlagged. So today, I’m going back to the village where life is uncomplicated, the air is pure, and hopefully the painter has been making progress. Thank God, I have that option.

Facing down the terror

Were I still in school, today would mark my last day of term. Were I in a full-time, paid, pensionable position, today would mark my last day of work before my holiday began. But as writing for the Budapest Times and going to mass on Sunday are the two most regular fixtures in my life right now (and admittedly, I’m a tad more religious about my Times deadlines that I am about mass), this last column in July is what marks my summer break.

This time last year, I wrote about the fun trips I had taken and was planning to take. I was full of the joys of life, grateful for the opportunity to see so much of the world both at home and abroad. My column ran with the title ‘Making Memories’ and ended with the lines ‘Whatever you do this summer, enjoy yourself. And take the time to make some memories. We know not what the future has in store.’

In the intervening 12 months, the world has gone mad. This week alone saw a knife attack claim the lives of 19 people and injure 26 more in a facility for disabled people in Japan. In France, an octogenarian priest, Father Jacques Hamel, had his throat slit in church while saying mass. The headlines noted that he was the 236th victim of jihadists in France since 2015. That struck me as odd. Not in that the number was so high, but that there was a number at all.

Also this week, Irish print and broadcast journalist, Vincent Browne wrote his own headline, claiming that ‘terrorism works only with the complicity of the media and its sensational reporting.’ I’ve been bothered for some time about the role the media plays in what we think today, in how we feel. It’s as if it is doing our thinking for us. Were we better off when news took time to travel? When we didn’t have news feeds clogged with videos of atrocities? When stories of terrorism were curtailed? I wonder.

A few paragraphs into his piece, Browne completes his heading: ‘Terrorism works only with the complicity of the media and its sensational reporting, for without the sensational reporting of such incidents, the intended terror would not materialise.’ He makes his case with statistics showing how the small proportion that deaths by terrorism represent are lost in the annual homicide figures for countries like France, Germany, and the USA. He notes that around the world, more than 1.2 million people die in road accidents [something we could rectify] and concludes with the observation that ‘the usual hysterics and attention-seekers don’t bother with these banalities.’

As I get ready for what is usually a quiet month for me work-wise, as I get set to close out the first half-century of my life and celebrate a big birthday, I do so with a heavy heart. I spent a lot of time with kids last week and I wonder what the future has in store for them. We adults are making a right mess of things. The world’s leadership landscape has rarely looked so bleak. Our elected, or soon-to-be elected leaders, offer little by way of hope. Our media seems hell-bent on fomenting the hatred sown by fanatics. And we’re all being sucked into a vacuum of despair.

focusing on goodWe need to stop focusing on our differences and start focusing on what we have in common – life. And we need to live that life, the only one we get, with a conscious thought for the children who will inherit our world. We need to take responsibility for what we say, for what we post, for what we share. And we could start by facing down the terror, by spending just one day focusing ONLY on the good stuff. It might just catch on.

First published in the Budapest Times 29 July 2016

Where has God gone?

Had I been born into a protestant family, I might have grown up to be a vicar. And if asked what the most attractive part of that job would be, I’d say the captive audience I’d have each Sunday. It’s every public speaker’s dream. Sadly, all too often, when I go to mass, I am frustrated that the priest hasn’t put his ten minutes of sermon time to better use. It annoys me that, on the one hand, the Catholic Church, as an example, bemoans the fact that young people are not interested in the Church, while on the other, it seems to be doing sod all to make the Church (and its teachings) relevant. It’s public speaking 101 and something I preach to my students ad nauseam: give me a reason to care.

When I’m in Hungary, I usually go to a mass said by a Hungarian priest, in Hungarian. Not understanding helps keep my blood pressure down. But over the Easter weekend, I went to a very multicultural Easter Vigil … said in English. We’d come back in from the courtyard, having lit the Pascal candle from the fire outside. The priest was moving up the church, lighting our candles along the way. As he disappeared into the darkness leaving behind him a sea of light, a child’s voice rang out, anxious, questioning: Mama, where has God gone?

Last week, in the Iraqi village of Al-Asriya, about 25 miles south of Baghdad, one suicide bomber decided to end his life and in doing so, cut short the lives of 32 innocents. They had come to watch a game of football. They had come to support their teams. They had not come to die. Nearly half were boys aged 10 to 16 – the village’s future. More than 80 others were injured. The attack was claimed by Isis.

Some days later, on Easter Sunday evening, in the car park at Gulshan-e-Iqbal Park in Lahore, Pakistan, another suicide bomber blew himself to pieces just feet from the children’s swings. At least 72 people died with him, including 24 children. More than 340 others were injured. This time, responsibility was claimed by Jamat-ul-Ahrar, a splinter group of the Pakistani Taliban, who specifically stated that it had deliberately targeted Christians and will continue to so do.

That child’s question is still bouncing around my head: Where has God gone?

When the subject of religion comes up these days, it’s often met by frustration and anger and in some cases, disgust. If it wasn’t for religion, people say, we wouldn’t be in the state we’re in. Muslims, Jews, Christians. What are we fighting for? Kofi Annan once said: The problem is not the Koran, or the Torah, or the Bible; the problem is never the faith, but the faithful and how they behave towards each other. And he has a point. The war being waged by Isis and the Taliban is one based in ideology. All the denunciation in the world won’t make it stop. They are immune to castigation, to rancour, to censure. The combined military might of those opposing them doesn’t have the power to finish it either. And as the death toll increases, the rest of the world spirals further into despair, wondering what we can do.

But what if we were to go back to God’s teaching – to whatever God we call our own – and look not at the letter of what’s in our respective gospels, not at the information it contains per se, but at the teaching, the essence. Be kind. Be selfless. Be honest. Be merciful. If we can relate to it again, then maybe, just maybe, we might realise that our God, in fact, hasn’t gone anywhere at all.

First published in the Budapest Times 1 April 2016