Category Archives: News

Love more. Connect more.

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It has been a long, strange week. Some of it I expected; my schedule at work was quite packed, I knew I had a lot to do. I knew my evenings were also spoken for, and that the days would be long. In the middle of it all was the US election, and I was, like most people I think, expecting Hillary Clinton to be elected. By Wednesday I was just feeling relieved that all the campaigning, and all the unpleasantness that had gone with it, would soon be over. I was looking forward to it not being on TV every time I turned it on, and I was looking forward to not having to listen to Donald Trump anymore.

I am not American, so I was only a bystander, I had no vote, but of course an American presidential election affects us all. I am British, and you may remember we inflicted something similar on ourselves back in June, when by a relatively small margin we voted in a referendum to leave the EU. I didn’t have a vote then either, because British citizens lose the right to vote after living outside the UK for fifteen years.

Now, here I must say, the majority of my friends were horrified at the Brexit result; most people I know voted, or would have voted, remain. I do, though, have some friends who were, and continue to be, delighted at the referendum result. Likewise, the majority of Americans I know were not Trump voters, and my Facebook newsfeed has been reflecting the horror, despair and heartbreak that many of my friends are feeling. I know there are some Republicans among my Facebook friends, but they seem not to be posting  at the moment. It feels a lot like Brexit, and has given me a lot to think about.

Had I had a vote in the US election, I would have voted for Hillary Clinton. I understand that many people even in her own party found her an unattractive option, and that for a lot of Americans she is far beyond that. I know that she was a flawed candidate but I did not, and still do not understand the visceral hatred many people voiced throughout the campaign. I just don’t get it.

Donald Trump. Well. It’s hard to know what to say. He said himself, months ago, that he could stand in the middle of Fifth Avenue and shoot someone and he wouldn’t lose any votes. In the end, it seemed there was nothing that could make people not vote for him. The comments about immigrants, about Muslims, about women . . . jaw-droppingly, mind-bogglingly dreadful, and still he rolled on. I had a conversation a week ago with a friend who is a Republican, and she was focusing on Mike Pence, almost voting for him and ignoring the name right at the top of the ticket. Maybe a lot of people did.

So here we are. The world waits to see what the Trump presidency will look like. Millions of people in the US are scared about what is to come; for undocumented immigrants, for women, for LGBT people, for people living with diseases or chronic health concerns, for the planet itself. We don’t know what is going to happen. As a candidate, Mr. Trump promised or threatened many things. With a Republican House and Senate he could get a lot done.

After the Brexit vote, hate crimes increased in the UK. People inclined to hate felt liberated, it seemed, to express their hatred to whomsoever crossed their path. There was a brief flurry of petitions, half the country scrambling to find a loophole to undo what had been done. There was a lot of distress in my Facebook newsfeed then, too. I was part of it, I needed to say, I am heartbroken, I don’t know what has happened to my country, where has it gone, what have you done to it, how do we get it back? It is still raw, months later. I still don’t know how we did that to ourselves.

And yet, I do. I know there were a lot of lies during the campaign, but I also know the Leave side seemed to have far more passion and brought people out to vote who had never voted before. The Remainers didn’t seem to get their act together enough, didn’t seem to believe we could really inflict such damage on ourselves. Some of my friends campaigned, stood outside in the rain handing out leaflets, called voters to ask if and how they would be voting. But how do you talk to someone who is voting Leave because of Napoleon?

There are people in the UK who thirty years ago would have been solid Labour voters. In 1997 they must have hoped and expected that the New Labour government would be in their corner, redress the balance of almost two decades of Thatcherism, and yet, they weren’t. For the last twenty years, these working people have watched their jobs disappear, watched the free movement of people within the EU, felt left behind, and wondered, why doesn’t someone do something for us? They were easy pickings for the likes of Nigel Farage, now gleefully skipping through New York to pay homage to the president elect, Boris Johnson, Michael Gove and others who thought they would rock the boat just enough to improve their own lot.

It is an awful thing to see your country divided down the middle, distrust, hurt and anger spilling out, the country you love spatchcocked because people who got tired of not being listened to finally turned out to vote and really did make a difference. In any election, the losing side feels disappointment, but after Brexit, after this election, it’s more than that. It’s important to remember that in both cases half the country is happy with the result. But the other half is distraught.

What can be the reaction to division and hate? We have to love more. We have to connect with each other more. Hunkering down is not an answer for our broken hearts. I am not suggesting that people should try to talk across the divide about what has happened. Everything is too raw, and will be for a long time, maybe even for the next 4 years.

I have a friend in Tokyo who was, and still is, cock-a-hoop about Brexit. We have agreed to not discuss it. There is absolutely no point, because he thinks it’s brilliant and I am still convinced that we have done great damage to ourselves. Neither of us will be swayed by the other, we both believe, sincerely and passionately, that we are right. I don’t believe our friendship would survive a heated discussion about it. But we meet for lunch, we talk about other things. We connect on a human level about things we agree on. I have lunch with my friend, not a Brexiter. We connect on the things we share and it is balm for my heart.

Two memories:

(1) Quite a few years ago, I was having lunch with another friend, and I mentioned someone who was one of my few Republican friends. My lunch companion declared that he wasn’t friends with any Republicans, that it would be impossible.

(2) Also a number of years ago, a Church of England priest who was spending several months in Japan preached at church one Sunday morning. He started by describing what he had seen on his travels so far, what were well-known cultural differences between the UK and Japan, and I remember sitting there, inwardly rolling my eyes, thinking, really? Is this all you’ve got? It wasn’t. He moved from, oh, look at that, it’s a shrine, it’s a kimono, it’s sushi, to an exhortation to always seek out the ‘other’. Whatever is alien, whatever feels strange, whatever feels right outside your comfort zone, go there. You will only grow and learn by encountering new things.

There have been a lot of awful things said in the course of the election campaign; some of it was lies, some of it was hateful, but it is over. If President Trump does start to do the things he has spoken of, then there are people and rights that will need to be defended.

But there are also people, whose hearts are broken, who are feeling frightened. There are people who voted for the winning candidate, who are feeling vilified and don’t understand the anger from the other side. Apparently they didn’t hear the hateful things as hateful things and voted, I hope, for a positive reason. I suspect that many on both sides voted for the lesser evil and are feeling bruised by the whole process.

America is a great country. I take issue with plenty of things about it, but the people are great. Mr. Trump doesn’t need to make them great again, because they already are. They are welcoming and friendly in a way that British and Japanese people find beyond them. They work hard, for far less vacation than people in many other countries, in a way that other countries respect and emulate. Look at China. They have an immensely beautiful country. It’s stunningly, breathtakingly beautiful. They have big, open hearts and an eagerness to get things done.

It’s a time to guard our hearts. It’s time to put love and kindness into the world. Post your anger, disbelief and distress on Facebook, if that’s what you want to do. I see those things, briefly, and then I hide them. I am guarding my own heart. Sign petitions, if that’s what you want to do. In June I signed them too, and felt a tiny bit better. But don’t spend too much time receiving input into your heart from the media. Turn off the TV, turn off the computer. Our output is more powerful; we need to send our love out into the world. The world needs it now.

Love more. Connect more. Please.

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Life, remembered

julian shrine candlesAbout twenty-four hours ago I opened Facebook and found my newsfeed flooded with the news of Robin Williams’ death and the reactions to it. The deaths of famous people are strange events, bringing out the deepest emotions because we felt we knew them, and also, in some people, a kind of judgementalism, a kind of assumption that it’s all right to comment and speculate.

And so, this evening, I saw a post refuting another post by someone called Matt Walsh, whom I had never heard of before, but have just discovered is a blogger and talk show radio host. According to his own Facebook page, he is a ‘news personality and sayer of truths’, and since a post he wrote about Robin Williams has gone viral, it seems he is getting very shrill indeed about people reading what he wrote and interpreting it in a way that doesn’t suit him.

I have read his post, and it has made me very sad, because he clearly doesn’t understand depression, and is fortunate to have never suffered from it. He writes of having bad days and feeling down, apparently assuming that this is how depression is, but that is not depression. He states, “Robin Williams didn’t die from a disease, he died from his choice’. He goes on to write that suicide is ‘a complete, total, absolute rejection of life’. He also writes that ‘joy is the only thing that defeats depression’ and that depression is not just a chemical imbalance, it’s not just clinical, it’s spiritual. As you can probably imagine, his views have brought a hail of criticism and howling disapproval.

But as I already wrote, his views don’t have me howling disapproval at him through cyberspace, but rather I am very sad that someone who clearly has quite a voice (apparently he’s on Huffington Post) is perpetuating these misunderstandings. He’s repeating clichés and myths about mental illness, and in doing so maybe making things harder for other people suffering from depression. Ironically, in the middle of his post he does make a good point about the media coverage of Robin Williams’ suicide and how this might affect others contemplating killing themselves. This is an important point, since when there is extensive media coverage of a suicide by a famous person there is a spike in other people killing themselves. I’m glad he made that point. I’m just sorry he didn’t think that his own words might have an impact too.

So once more for the record, I was clinically depressed at university and therefore feel I can say with some authority, I know what it feels like. I saw my doctor every week, I took anti-depressants and I talked through all the things that had got me to that place. I never tried to kill myself, but I often had the ideation, the thought that it would be so good if everything would just stop. It was so wearing to wake up every single day to feel a heavy weight like a cold stone where my heart should have been. It was exhausting using up what small reserves of energy I had presenting a functioning appearance to the rest of the world. It was comforting, in a way, to know that I had that option, even though I also knew that I wasn’t going to do it.

I lived, or existed through that reality for two years, but looking back on that time I can’t remember much about it. I got through it, that’s all I can say with any confidence. I remember a doctor saying to me once that I had been taking anti-depressants for over a year and ‘that was a long time for a first depression’. I don’t think I responded at the time but know I thought, I don’t intend this to be my first depression. This is my only depression. I am going to deal with this stuff and never come back this way again. I was fortunate that the depression I suffered was a reaction to family dynamics and it could be worked through, dealt with.

But even over twenty-five years later I am still afraid of it. Not afraid of it like I was in the year or two after I recovered, but still, it casts a long shadow. Today, not every bad week, run of bad luck or season of grey, miserable weather has me fearing that the depression is coming back, but I think the echoes of what I lived through will always stay with me.

While I was in the middle of it all, my closest friend was not very helpful or supportive at all. At least, that is how I remember it, because the strongest memories are of the times when she told me to snap out of it, when she pointed out someone blind or in a wheelchair, and pronounced me more fortunate than him or her. Her comments didn’t help, didn’t snap me out of anything, but did leave me feeling a little more disappointed in myself, guilty that I was so pathetic and miserable that I was so hard to be with.

In the end, joy didn’t defeat my depression. Anti-depressants, counseling and time did that. I was lucky I had time. The joy came after the depression lifted. Some people don’t have time and don’t recover. For many people, their depression is not a reaction to the awful things other family members throw at them, but an imbalance in their brain’s chemistry. There are medicines that can help if  the right balance of drugs can be found. Some people live with that cold, dark stone where their heart should be, for years, decades.

Surely no one ever watched Robin Williams being interviewed and didn’t realise that here was a man who had some personal demons, some mental pain, however you choose to describe it. His genius came at a high price. From what I have read today he struggled for many years to find a way through.

In the end, I am reminded of what a friend wrote to me when her brother killed himself. He had lived with depression for many years, but in the end, she wrote, ‘He just couldn’t make it any more.’

Of course, suicide is a reflexive verb. Robin Williams killed himself. Many more tens of thousands will kill themselves this year. But to call it a choice, I feel, ignores or denies the reality of clinical depression. By the time someone kills themselves, I don’t believe they are looking at a range of options and thinking, I’ll choose that one. Looking at that person’s life from another perspective we may see all kinds of options, but that doesn’t mean they can.

Leaving aside the suicides connected with economic reasons, there are huge numbers of people suffering from depression, and they need support and understanding. They don’t need to be stigmatised or dismissed with clichés. They need patience, support and compassion. And sometimes, when someone completes a suicide, instead of trying to make sense of the desperate thoughts of a deeply troubled mind, instead of trying to pigeonhole what they did so it suits us, maybe all we can think is, they tried as hard as they could, but in the end, they just couldn’t make it any more.

Two lives, ended

Pray

The lives of two men ended this week. Both were lives cut short, and there is not a lot of information available about either death, but there the similarities end.

On Thursday morning, a man who had been convicted in 2008 of murdering three members of his family, was hanged at Osaka detention centre. His name was Masanori Kawasaki, he was 68, and he was the first person to be executed this year, but the ninth since Mr. Abe became Prime Minister two and a half years ago.

According to Amnesty International, there are 128 people on death row in Japan. The Justice Minister authorises executions but the person awaiting execution (the vast majority men but several women) are not told the date in advance; one morning guards will come to their cell and they will be escorted to the death chamber where they will be hanged. Until that moment they don’t know when it will be; consequently, every day could be their last. Amnesty International has criticised Japan not only for having the death penalty, but also for the secretive manner in which it is carried out.

This afternoon, another Japanese man, according to sketchy reports possibly also in his sixties, killed himself in Shinjuku. While there is little information available, it appears he climbed onto a bridge at Shinjuku station, and sat for an hour, using a microphone to speak about his opposition to the constitutional changes Mr. Abe’s government wants to make, and could make this week. When police moved in to try to climb up to him, he poured something over his head and set himself alight. The fire was extinguished but no information is available about him, though early reports said he had died.

Two Japanese men, their lives very different, their deaths news. What is the value of a life? How public should a death be? If someone murders another, is executed for their crime,  is their execution news? Can we say by their terrible, even evil act, they have forfeited the right to humane treatment? If someone climbs onto a bridge in the middle of Tokyo, uses a microphone to broadcast his views, and then self-immolates, should those pictures be on the news? Can we assume that by such a public act he expected that?

Two lives have ended, violently. This evening I feel weighed down by the news, distressed by such a horrifying, public act. Sad to live in a country that still enforces the death penalty. Trying to make sense of something that makes no sense. I had hoped that by writing this I would somehow make peace with what I have read, but several hundred words later, I am still feeling that by these two deaths we are all diminished.