Saturday, 19 November 2011

the need for courage

There are small acts of courage and there are large acts of courage. And there are things that may seem small that require great courage and actions that appear huge that actually involve taking the easy way out.


A friend of mine wrote to me today telling me that her very young son was recently diagnosed with cancer and they are now living in Great Ormond Street hospital while he receives his treatment. I didn't know what to say to her. What kind of a world do we live in, really? What gets to me, almost more than anything, is that this woman - my friend - isn't only one of the kindest people you could ever meet, she's also one of the most appreciative. In the three years I've known her she has always just radiated appreciation for all the good things life has brought her - family, friends, education, health...and she continues to do this. Even telling me about the awful experience she's going through, watching one of her children battle this monstrous disease, she was positive - she talked about how hard they were fighting, she said al hamdullilah for everything, she asked how I was and said that she missed me. Maybe inside she is raging against the unfairness of it all, but you would never know it.


Another friend, a professional dancer, had her life turned upside down last year by the news that she had to have major, invasive surgery on her hip or else would be needing a complete hip replacement within 10 years. She is 30 and of course uses her body every day; dance is what she does for a living but, more than that, it's her passion and she's worked hard to make it the centre of her life. She's just had the surgery, after overcoming various insurance complications (she lives in the US; the healthcare system is messed up beyond belief) and is going through the slow recovery process with the grace and humour that she shows in all aspects of her life. That's not to say she isn't terrified about what she's having to face - she's told her friends how frightening it is to realise just how fragile your body is, that you only have one and that if you don't take care of it you could lose the health and mobility that you - we all - usually take for granted. She faces the risk of losing her livelihood and the passion she's devoted her life to, but she's facing it head on - honestly and with as much humour as possible when it would be so easy to curl up in defeat. Not that I expect less of her, knowing her, but I'm still so impressed.


Then there's a girl I barely know, who I met shortly before she left to go and work in Kazakhstan. Two days ago she posted something on Facebook that really moved me - about how just before leaving the UK her sister had given her a card with a copy of Rudyard Kipling's poem If written inside. 8 months later her father had read the poem aloud at her grandfather's funeral; 2 months after that it had been read aloud at her father's funeral. Now, a year later, this girl is being evacuated from Kazakhstan at very short notice, due to political problems. She's devastated at leaving a life and people she cares about because of circumstances she can't control. So she shared the poem because, she said, to her it means "I love you. Have courage. Goodbye." Here is the poem:

IF you can keep your head when all about you
Are losing theirs and blaming it on you,
If you can trust yourself when all men doubt you,
But make allowance for their doubting too;
If you can wait and not be tired by waiting,
Or being lied about, don't deal in lies,
Or being hated, don't give way to hating,
And yet don't look too good, nor talk too wise:
If you can dream - and not make dreams your master;
If you can think - and not make thoughts your aim;
If you can meet with Triumph and Disaster
And treat those two impostors just the same;
If you can bear to hear the truth you've spoken
Twisted by knaves to make a trap for fools,
Or watch the things you gave your life to, broken,
And stoop and build 'em up with worn-out tools:

If you can make one heap of all your winnings
And risk it on one turn of pitch-and-toss,
And lose, and start again at your beginnings
And never breathe a word about your loss;
If you can force your heart and nerve and sinew
To serve your turn long after they are gone,
And so hold on when there is nothing in you
Except the Will which says to them: 'Hold on!'

If you can talk with crowds and keep your virtue,
Or walk with Kings - nor lose the common touch,
if neither foes nor loving friends can hurt you,
If all men count with you, but none too much;
If you can fill the unforgiving minute
With sixty seconds' worth of distance run,
Yours is the Earth and everything that's in it,
And - which is more - you'll be a Man, my son!


Egypt - I don't even know where to begin with Egypt. Parliamentary elections are coming up: the whole process is due to start in a week and people are afraid. 3000 people went to Tahrir Square yesterday - some to protest against an announcement made by the ruling military party that they (the military) would have the power to overrule the new constitution that's due to be established (effectively retaining absolute power, as many people feared would happen); others went to give their views on how Egypt should be governed. Apparently there was a small group of Salafists (50-100) there, chanting fundamentalist religious slogans and refusing to even acknowledge Laura, a journalist, when she tried to interview them (because she is a woman).

Well today I think the different religious and political groups had left and it was the revolutionaries who were camped out in Tahrir Square. And then things got ugly. Apparently the military opened fire on them (rubber bullets I think) and used tear gas to try and get them to leave. This led to clashes, vehicles and buildings burning - all very localised but frightening because they point to the larger problems everyone is afraid of. Everything suggests these coming elections will be very difficult - even if they are free and fair in the sense that many different parties and candidates will be able to run, most of the candidates are ill-prepared for government. You can't have decades of dictatorship and then smoothly transition into a fair political system that actually works. But I think everyone knew this would be the case. What alternative was there after Mubarak stepped down? Of course Egypt's future should be determined by her people - we can all agree on that as a theory. Whether democratic elections will prove the best thing for the country, or the best for it right now - that's another question.

When I look at how easily the illiterate members of the population, the ones with low education and little political knowledge, can be manipulated by community/religious leaders and local, aspiring politicians, it makes me angry. Particularly in rural areas, clan rivalries and sectarian divisions are exploited to control people. Some people in positions of power will attempt to increase conflict between Muslims and Christians; some local religious leaders in rural communities will tell illiterate members of the population to choose a party or party member with a green mark over one with a red mark because green is the colour of Islam. Many people in these communities, much more conservative than their urban counterparts, will believe - as they are told - that voting for an unknown party member, or someone who appears to have some liberal ideas, will cause a breakdown of traditional values.

In short, a huge section of the population are potentially uninformed and though they have as much right to have their voices heard as anyone, they also deserve to know who they are voting for and why. The danger at the moment is that people could get into power for the wrong reasons, or people could stay in power through manipulating the system. And whether you think it's right or wrong for people to take to the streets, whether you think the Revolution was good or not or was prompted by good impulses or not, the country is amazing and has the potential to be even more amazing. And that is why everyone who cares about it needs to show courage right now - like the friend of mine who despairs at what he saw yesterday in Tahrir but is unwavering in the love he feels for the country. He is angry, he is disappointed - he had a lot of faith in the Revolution and what would follow and he feels let down at the moment, but throughout it all he's determined not to give up and in his own way - through talking, through voting, through his work - he's still fighting to create the future he wants for his country.


There's so much more I could say on this whole subject - it has been on my mind a lot lately. I was sent on a training course with colleagues last week to learn how to communicate better in conflict situations and the stories they told, the small acts of courage, moved me a surprising amount (I know I'm ridiculous - it's the way I am; deal with it :D). But really when you think about it, when your job is what you focus on for maybe 60-70% of your time (as I think it is for most of my colleagues), things that may seem small - challenging a superior, following a course of action you believe to be right even when everyone around you is saying it's wrong, admitting that you've made a mistake and asking for help - require enormous courage.

And I think of the people I know who have lost people very close to them - sons, brothers, mothers, girlfriends - and carried on when they must have gone through agony and it makes me speechless, that level of bravery and strength. It is amazing.


"Come to the edge."
"We can't. We're afraid."
"Come to the edge."
"We can't. We will fall!"
"Come to the edge."
And they came.
And he pushed them.
And they flew.

Guillaume Apollinaire

"Never, never, never, never give up."

Winston Churchill

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