“Conquer your Fear and you will conquer Death” Escaping Reality or Challenging our Belief System?

Lately I have been thinking of all the people I know back home that deliberately escape reality. By reality I mean all the practicalities of life-nowadays mostly related to the loss of money, acquisitions or social status-that went wrong and now appear to have dire consequences on our lives. Of course Life is not about money and our reality should not be about taxes and debts.

In debt ridden Greece a growing number of people, unable to control how things will turn out in their lives, appear to choose to sweep problems under the carpet. After all maybe what the Science guys say about perception based reality might be true and perhaps the problem will just disappear once you turn your attention away from it?? Or something like that. (Higgs boson bottom line interpretation by those of us who never had any idea of what particle physics is saying).

Truth is we all have different ways to cope with things. Our minds process information in different ways and we subconsciously or consciously choose our defense mechanisms. In this sense every single piece of information out there is perceived by each and every one of us in a different way. We could never go into another person’s mind and experience their perception. We can never know what they truly fear or feel in its totality even if we spend hours and hours psychoanalyzing them by listening them trying to explain. In this sense what we call our gut instinct about people can often give us information that we cannot logically justify.

The devastating financial crisis has brought radical changes as to how we see our closest family members, friends, colleagues, or our selves. It has changed the way we see society and life. It has changed the way we visualize the future, and it has altered our value and belief system. People cannot easily adapt to radical lifestyle changes. There are those who often prefer to shut down and dwell in the past or in a better place on their minds and hearts. A growing number of people around me, at the expense of others as society rushes in to remind us, would rather hold on to these illusions for a bit longer. Maybe if they let go they feel they have nowhere else to go.

There might be a feeling of sadness when you observe, but in the mind of the object/person there is probably peace. Peace after all, like fear, exists primarily in the mind. Is it real peace?? Society critically attacks. Will it be real peace when the bank comes knocking on your door and claim your house? Or when you realize that despite waking up every day at 7 and go to what you once called work you have neither income nor real work to do. Probably there is no way to escape what is happening in the country right now. And you will wake up one day feeling it. They want you to feel it after all.

No matter what happens, the bottom line will remain the same: it will never really be about the bank balance, the house or the car. What will matter most will be the family, the companionship, the love, the laugh you shared that night. It will be about the good time you had and about how good you felt. It will always be about those nice experiences that the chemicals in your brain or the energy of the place or the people created for you that moment in time. You will never be sure what it was exactly, but you will hold on dearly to it.

My conscience says deal with it with Dignity and that is how lots of people do it right now. But when it gets too upsetting, too much, too devastating, too ugly, sweep it under the carpet and refuse to be sad. Refuse to be overwhelmed by fear and defeat. Like everything else in life, these too, are part of the same illusion.

My experience with NGOs and “institutionalized” Help

In the past I have spoken a bit harshly about Ngos. I intend to keep it that way. I suspect that the last thing the human species needs right now is somebody to pick up the pieces. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t support turning a blind eye to pain, loss, or grief. Quite the opposite. I just think that the whole concept of humanity and humanitarian action can no longer be isolated in strict institutional frameworks, manipulated as a political instrument to keep things on an even keel.

Personal virtue, morals, kindness and integrity. These are principles that do not interest anyone anymore in politics or in most professions as a matter of fact. Somehow they are seen as dated principles, linked to dying religious beliefs and truth is they carry an innuendo of embarrassment as well. Yes, embarrassment, because kindness is seen as a form of weakness. Try writing in a job application Cover Letter something like “I am an honest or just person” instead of the equivalent of “I am a corporate slave”. You don’t like where this is going? Ok, let’s move on.

My experience working for a prominent Greek NGO which in this blog I call The Public Sector for obvious reasons has been an interesting one. Its rampant bureaucracy and shocking deliberate isolation had created a surreal Orwellian landscape where extremes of Kindness and Evil existed side by side, making no pretenses. At the same time there was a total absence of grey zones in which a somehow healthy, productive, professional environment can contain the beast inside of us. In there you were likely to meet the most benevolent souls, often ordered around by the ones whose personal demons had found the most fertile ground to run wild.

The good people you met in there were almost definitely good by nature, and their goodness in this restrained and isolated environment was maximized perhaps analogically to the levels of the inhumanity of others. These kind people were kind in all aspects of their lives and obviously treated their friends, spouses and colleagues with respect. Their work helping people in this sense never ended. It was not a mission, a project or a plan but essentially a way of life.

I am thinking that, in fact, this is the only way to go ahead. You simply cannot “help” people 9-5. You can certainly try, but in the long run will not get very far. And once you try to institutionalize kindness, compassion and humanity then you are more likely part of a society that has devalued humanitarian principles.

Another simple example can be drawn from my experience in first world Sweden. A few months living there and I took up a Language Volunteer role for an Ngo helping Immigrants coming from EU countries.(not necessarily EU citizens). At that time, despite my legal rights as the wife of someone who worked full time in Sweden, the bureaucracy was preventing me for months from getting a Personal Number. (The Holy Grail of Survival in Sweden).The majority of Language Volunteers had similar profiles and stories to share: they were mostly well educated multilingual South European (and not only) women who had moved in Sweden to be with someone, either that someone was a husband, a boyfriend or family in general.

They all had more or less the same legal issues that caused great frustration and strain in their lives and relationships. In fact, many of them were not much better off from the immigrants visiting the Center to get food, shelter, clothing, Internet, Communication and legal advice. However what they needed most was a piece of solid legal advice about their pending cases and the shady laws that supposedly covered their rights as EU citizens. I for example turned to the Human Rights lawyer in the Center to ask a simple routine question about how I can deal with my inexplicably pending case. Instead I received no reply. The irony was that, as volunteers, we were asked to perform a number of such phone calls to help visitors to the Center. But we could not get further support for our own cases if we did not give up our status as volunteers and instead ask support as immigrants. Instead we were strongly encouraged every week to attend Free Counseling that was offered to all volunteers. Ironically, venting about our problems for an hour every Tuesday was fully funded and guideline approved, while getting a 5 minute practical advice about how to solve them was not.

Which leads me again to where I started. Personal virtue, morals, kindness and integrity. Can you really be humanitarian by the book? Or does the sole act of helping others conflict with the way our whole system works? Education, experience, planning, funding are always very important. But they are useless when people-leaders especially- lack charisma and integrity.

I don’t object to systematic efforts. But please bring Goodness back in the field and people who genuinely want to help others.

My First Day in Beijing-The Kindness of Strangers

I spent Winter 2007 in Beijing and that was my virgin journey to Asia too. One Sunday afternoon I boarded an Air China flight from London to Beijing, half drunk and not sure what I was doing. You see, I had this brilliant idea to buy the friend who drove me to the airport a couple of drinks to thank him for the ride. He was Russian; he could take a bit of drunk driving, but it turns out I couldn’t handle the intercontinental check in intoxicated. I was ordered by the airline to remove the extra luggage weight to avoid a hefty fee and in my blurry rush ( I was going to miss my flight apparently) I misplaced my ipod, books and all survival related gadgets, only to find myself half an hour later sitting lonely and confused in a ready to take off plane for the other side of the world. Still under the spell of white wine, I started crying.

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The purpose of my trip was to improve my Mandarin language skills by taking a 3 month 7 hours per day intensive language course. Having already completed a one year Mandarin language course in London, I thought the knowledge in my Mandarin textbooks would be good enough to give me a sense of familiarity, but when I landed in Beijing 10 hours later, all jet lagged and flustered I felt like I had landed on another planet. Nothing I saw or experienced felt familiar in any way. Until then China was for me images picked up from Bruce Lee’s action movies, a combination of stereotyped China Town aesthetics with the occasional traditional architectural elements of pagodas here and there. I expected to see compact and “Europeanized” Hong Kong (which at the time I had never visited). Instead I found myself in a vast, chaotic smoggy megacity that at the time resembled an endless construction site: Highway after highway that connected eerily identical gated communities of residential towers, sprawled in a bare treeless land and keeping a very unfriendly distance from each other. The background noise night and day (and I mean all night) was that of construction drilling and sawing as new towers and gated communities sprang up.

View from my apartment, 27th floor

View from my apartment, 27th floor

As I was dropped by my airport guide at a spacious studio apartment on the 27th floor of one of these towers, dizzy and dehydrated, I had the disconcerting feeling that I had just landed in hell. I had no idea where and how to initiate my Chinese living experience as literally everything felt completely alien. For a person like me who had spent all her life in compact European cities, this was like exploring a new planet.

I remember walking outside, walking past the military dressed guards and seeing a big loitering crowd standing at the edge of the highway, watching. A young man approached me and spoke to me in Mandarin. I realized that unlike a listening exercise at my language school, his accent was hard to grasp and I could not understand what he was saying. I told him I needed to find a bank and a supermarket. He said he could drive me to both. I was so exhausted, muddled and my mouth burning with dehydration (the apartment had no water) that I went with him in his car. The man did as he said, took me to a cash point and waited until I got money and then he drove me to what it looked like a shopping mall. “The supermarket is here” he said and dropped me there. In my confusion and unspeakable relief to see a Carrefour in front of me, I forgot to ask him if he was a taxi driver and if he wanted money. He did not ask for any money though and just drove away.

Already late and nothing looks familiar

Already late and nothing looks familiar

After doing some shopping, I realized I had absolutely no idea how to get back. I did not even remember what “home” looked like. All the highways looked the same and all the gated communities were completely identical. My airport guide had provided me with a hand drawn map of where I lived. When I asked her for the exact street address, she had replied the place had no official address, just a name. It was already dark outside and I had started feeling panicky when some elderly Chinese couple approached me, “Where are you going”? They asked. I showed them the hand drawn map and they both nodded in recognition. “You are going the wrong way” they said “Your house in the other direction on your right hand side”.
I followed their advice. From the corner of my eye throughout my return home, I could see them walking on the other side of the pavement and silently keeping pace with me, making sure I got home alright.

Inside my Beijing apartment

Inside my Beijing apartment

In the next 3 cold Winter months that followed I got familiar with all the highways, bridges and underpasses of my “neighborhood”. I met lots of Beijing-ners and always made small talk with the taxi driver that drove me home. The conversation always started like that “Ni shi Meiguo ren?” (Are you American?) “Bu shi, Wo shi Xila ren” (No I am Greek). Xila ren! They replied always in astonishment. In the city of 20 million Chinese I was a rare species.

For me Beijing remained overwhelming, stripped of tradition when it came to aesthetics and architecture, but at the same time one of the most original places to experience China. I never really warmed up to its vastness, its impersonal highways and suffused with luxury, sanitized shopping malls, (Golden pillars hosting a paradise of Italian fashion, often accompanied with shocking sanitation facilities) which always contrasted with the loitering crowds and heavy smog outside. Its luxuries served however as a pleasant getaway from its harsh realities.

Tibetan restaurant Beijing

Tibetan restaurant Beijing

There was a lot to be explored, experienced and learnt. Looking back I would not change Beijing for anything. If you could scratch underneath its hard surface there was an incredible energy emanating from that megacity that was transforming, so quickly and miraculously, that its eagerness to move into the Future nurtured my mind and soul. It was inspiring. It was happening and it attracted young people from all over the world thirsty for its energy and vibe, proud to become witnesses to its transformation.