Author Archives: Mirjam van Olst

White Fragility – Why it’s so Hard for White People to Talk about Racism

As I was working on this post, I realized that I’ve read several books by black authors in the last few months. Unsurprisingly, the number has increased even more in the last three weeks. But even though I’ve read several, I’ve not written about books written by black authors, and the book that I’m talking about today is written by a white woman too. I’ve been thinking about this quite a lot. Why don’t I choose these books to write about? A lot of them are classics, they are great reads and they have taught me about other people’s experiences.

My hypothesis about why I’m not writing about these books is that I don’t feel qualified to comment on black people’s experiences and I’m scared to get it wrong. I’m afraid of being called out for getting it wrong. But not writing about books by black authors is a form of racism too. And not wanting to be called out for having racially problematic ideas is part of my White Fragility and what the book with the same title by Robin DiAngelo is about.

Our society is inherently racist. It’s in our institutions and our unconscious. Because our society is inherently racist, we are all socialized to be racists too. You can’t escape it even if you try. Yet if we’re centrists we feel that the people protecting statues, waving confederate flags, and shouting abuse at black people either online or in real life are racists. When we’re progressives we feel that people saying that all lives matter are racists. Yet if you ask the people in both of these groups if they are racist they will probably say that they aren’t. We see racism as a thing of the past. Slavery was ended a little over 150 years ago and we feel that inequality also ended back then. Being called racist triggers a strong defensive response in all of us. Even Trump claims that he is not a racist.

Most of us find it hard receiving critical feedback regardless of the topic. With racism, this feeling is even stronger. I find it hard to receive critical feedback of any kind and I would be mortified if I were called out about having said or done something that’s racially problematic. We have learned that racists are bad people. This means that we feel that a good person can’t be a racist. And surely we’re good people?! When someone informs us that something we said or did was racially problematic we get defensive, angry, or upset. We often retreat into silence and we feel anxious.
By thinking that all racists are bad people, we’re creating a false dichotomy. For most white people, racism is like murder: the concept exists, but someone has to commit it for it to happen. This limited view of such a multilayered syndrome cultivates the sinister nature of racism and by making it impossible to talk about it, it perpetuates racist phenomena rather than eradicates them. Racism isn’t black and white. Even if we’re good people with good intentions we might say or do things that hurt black people or people of color. Even black people or people of color themselves might have internalized racist ideas because that is what society has taught them.

We must get used to the idea that we all have been socialized to be various levels of racist. Not seeing the color of someone’s skin and not wanting to talk about racism also means we can’t recognize the inequality in our society.
Robin DiAngelo is a diversity coach. She works with groups of people (mostly at the request of the companies they work for) to talk about diversity, racism, and equality. In the book, she explains that as long as she’s talking about racism in a general and abstract sense, white people might get uncomfortable, but they can bear it. However, as soon as it’s pointed out to them that something that they said or did was problematic, the anger comes. There might be tears. People might walk out of the training or retreat into themselves. I can understand that response. But I can also see why that’s not a helpful reaction. If we would be able to receive feedback on our problematic racial patterns we could use it to learn and grow.

Because we have been socialized in a racism-based society, we have a racist worldview and deep racial bias. There’s no point feeling guilty about this. We didn’t choose to live in this society or for society to be based on these racist ideas. We had no way of avoiding our biases. This doesn’t alleviate us from the responsibility to work to unlearn our behaviors. We should try to identify our internalized feelings of superiority and how they are manifesting themselves. We have to be willing to get racially uncomfortable and be willing to examine the effects of our racial engagement. This includes not indulging in the anger, defensiveness, or self-pity that is often our knee-jerk reaction to a racially uncomfortable situation.
Let’s get away from the idea that there’s a good/bad binary when it comes to racism. Let’s accept that we all have a racial bias instead of seeing this claim as a deep moral blow, and let’s work to disrupt it.

I think all white people should read White Fragility.

Black Lives Matter

I wasn’t looking forward to writing this post. I didn’t want to feel the pain, anger, and frustration that I knew would be part of writing it. I could have chosen not to write it. And that is the definition of my privilege.

If I get off social media and avoid the news I can even in these extraordinary times avoid being confronted by and having to think about racism. I can only do that because of my white privilege. Several times this week I have been brought to tears by what I watched online or read on social media and in the newspaper. It’s tempting to wish things go “back to normal”. For many black people, “normal” means having to deal with prejudice, being called names, and having to be afraid of the police. For black people, racism is always there. If things go back to normal the only difference is that it will no longer be in the news.

For Europeans, it’s tempting to think that racism happens far away or that it happened long ago. Slavery around the world officially ended around 150 years ago. In some places, it’s not even that long. The Netherlands was one of the last countries in Europe to abolish slavery, after being pressured to do so by the British.
Once slavery was officially abolished not much changed, other than people not officially being someone’s property anymore. Governments felt bad for the slave owners, who had been accumulating wealth for a long time by working people to death in inhumane circumstances without paying them or even treating them like human beings. Because slave owners had suffered so much (yes, I’m being sarcastic), governments compensated them for the loss of their “property”.
Slaves, who had nothing, were in many cases forced to continue work on the plantations of their former owners while still hardly receiving any payment for their work, let alone compensation for the fact that they had been working in inhumane conditions and for free for years.
Remember, this was all only around 150 years ago.

We have to be honest with ourselves and recognize that racism is still happening everywhere. The idea that black people are worth less or deserve less has been part of our culture for centuries and it has been institutionalized too. In The Netherlands, we feel like we’re nice and progressive but I’m a lot less likely to be stopped by the police or have my tax returns reviewed than a black person is. I’m never asked where I’m from and I’ve never been refused entrance to public transport. Oh, and there are still plenty of people who feel “black Piet” is folklore and because of that can’t be racist. If you are a white person I challenge you to watch this short video (Being Black by Jane Elliott) and answer the question that Jane Elliot is asking honestly. Then ask yourself why you deserve to get treated better than most black people. It’s the skin color that you happen to be born with that earns you that privilege. It’s not an achievement. It’s pure luck. And (institutionalized) racism.

Now is the time to stand up and speak out against the injustice of racism. You might feel that you are only one person. That you won’t be able to make much of a difference. But you can help. Everyone can.

  • You could join one of the protest marches around the world. These huge marches are made up of a lot of people who are all just one person looking to make a change.
  • If you are in a COVID-19 risk group and can’t be outside in crowds at the moment or if you’re simply not the marching type, you can go onto social media and make sure you extend your filter bubble a bit by also following some black people. Listen to them and believe them when they share their experiences. Even if it’s uncomfortable. Then share their stories. Your friends are probably not all following the same people, so by sharing you’re extending people’s reach.
    If you’re not on social media you can help by calling out racism in your friends and family. Not by calling them a racist. No one has ever been convinced to change their opinion through name-calling. Have a calm conversation with them. Explain why you feel their views are problematic.
  • To be able to talk to your friends and family and to increase your understanding of the challenges black people face make sure you make an effort to educate yourself.

I have put together some resources that you can help to educate yourself. Many of these are mentioned all over social media at the moment and Google is your friend. If you don’t live in the US or the UK you might have to work a little bit harder to find local resources, especially if you want to donate.

If your thing is reading consider one or more of the following books. The first three are fiction, the last three are non-fiction.

  • I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings – Maya Angelou
  • Americanah – Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
  • To Kill a Mockingbird – Harper Lee
  • How to Argue With a Racist – Adam Rutherford
  • Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People About Race – Reni Eddo-Lodge
  • How To Be an Antiracist – Ibram X. Kendi

The last title has an important message that you might have heard more often in these last few weeks. We are at a point where not being racist isn’t enough anymore. You have to be anti-racist. Which means taking a stand and calling out racism when you see it. At the very least.

You can also watch the following films or documentaries.

  • 13th
  • The Central Park Five
  • I am Not Your Negro
  • 3 1/2 Minutes, Ten Bullets
  • And so many more that it’s easier to have a look yourself

Or if you prefer podcasts you could listen to

  • About Race with Reni Eddo-Lodge
  • Code Switch by the NPR
  • The Stoop with Hana Baba and Leila Day
  • Momentum: A Race Forward Podcast
  • Scene on Radio Season 2 – Seeing White

You can also donate to help out if you have the financial means.

Whatever you do please help make sure things don’t go back to “normal”. Let’s work together to use the current momentum to bring about lasting change. It won’t be easy or quick, we have to undo hundreds of years of cultural and institutional racism. It won’t be comfortable either. We will make mistakes and be called out for it. It will hurt. Hopefully, we’ll learn from it and do better next time.
Also realize that we are so used to our privilege that equality might feel like oppression. Continue to challenge yourself. There is no excuse for treating one group of people better than another.

Black Lives Matter

Black Lives Matter2

The Inheritance

When reading the book of a play it can be hard to get into the story. The Inheritance by Matthew Lopez doesn’t have this problem. The way the story is told is very smart. It’s understated. The topics are heavy but they are dealt with in what feels like an almost breezy way.
A group of men want to write a book and we are following along as their story takes shape. When things get rough, we pop out of the main storyline to the writers talking about the story and the characters.
The book is intense and peaceful at the same time.
The writers remain unnamed. They are young man 1 to 8 without specific backgrounds and stories. It’s the characters they create that are being brought to life.

In the end we’ll all become stories. But the same life can end up being a wildly different story depending on who tells it and what is put into focus. We naturally see the world from our own point of view. We are by definition the literal center of our own lives. Do you see yourself as the hero or the victim? Are you the star or the supporting character?

In the book Toby wants to be the hero. He wants his life to be grand and compelling. If the past or the present aren’t grand enough he will tell the story so that it fits his narrative. Eric is one of the very few people who know Toby’s real story. He loves Toby and supports him in his attempts to become a successful writer.
Eric feels that his own story is unremarkable. He is happy to let Toby take center stage and to allow him to shine.

Eric likes to stay in the background and let other people grow. It’s a pattern that repeats itself throughout his life. I’d like to argue that it’s often those who feel unremarkable who go on to do extraordinary things. They don’t do it for glory. They might not even realize that what they are doing is special. When you point out their achievements to them, they often reply with “but I only” as a way to downplay their efforts and impact.
People like Eric are good company. They bring selfless joy to others while the glamorous and extravagant mostly think about themselves.

People focused on winning and being successful might not even notice who they are hurting while trying to achieve their dreams. I don’t think they are malicious. A lot of them are driven by insecurity and a need for affirmation. They would probably benefit more from therapy than from success.
After all, when you do become successful, people you don’t even know are watching your every move. Criticizing even the tiniest (perceived) stumble to compensate for their own insecurities. It’s a vicious circle.

For Toby, success also doesn’t bring what he had hoped it would. Like many who are relentlessly chasing success, he leaves behind a path of destruction and his story fizzles out well before its time.
What I’m trying to say is pay attention to the people around you. Don’t take your friends and family (and co-workers) for granted. Also take notice of people who are just passing by. To paraphrase Tim Minchin:
“Be kind. If in doubt, double down and be kinder. Not only will it make your life better, but it is really good career advice. So just be kind. It will bite you on the ass if you’re not.”

Be kind to the Eric’s in your life. To the quiet people around you who are providing support in the background. Who have a big impact by helping others find their strength and grow. We all want to be happy and live a rewarding life. We just have very different definitions of what rewarding looks like.
Don’t harass a quiet person for being non-demonstrative. Still waters run deep. They might be making extraordinary things happen.
I, for one, hope that one day I can be as selfless and as patient as Eric Glass. He’s as beautiful as the story that brought him to life.

The Perks of Being a Wallflower

I just read The Perks of Being a Wallflower for the first time, I hadn’t seen the film either.
The book is about 15-year old Charlie, who we get to know through his letters to an anonymous friend. The target audience of the book is probably young adults and not 40-year old’s but I enjoyed reading it.
It’s very different from most books and it kept surprising me until the very end.

Charlie is a bit different from most kids at his school but I felt he was easy to empathize with. Charlie struggles to make friends and has no idea how to connect with other people, let alone fit in.
His English teacher Bill encourages him to “participate” more. And as Charlie tries to please everyone around him he does try to participate.
While he doesn’t interact with his classmates and peers much, he does become friends with a group of seniors. At times he almost comes across as well-adjusted but internally Charlie still suffers. He doesn’t talk about his problems. He turns to alcohol and drugs to take the edge of his feelings. He chooses alcohol and drugs because it means he doesn’t have to bother anyone else with his problems.

The perks of being a wallflower3

Towards the end of the book, Charlie’s friend Sam tells him to stop trying to please everyone else and to say and do what he wants and needs. To me, this was the most touching part of the book. It made me realize that it’s a fine balance to find between trying to please everyone and forgetting about your own needs and being egocentric and only seeing things from your point of view.
We see plenty of the latter around us. Characterized by a lack of empathy and sometimes (like when people are protesting for the end of lockdowns) by a lack of intelligence. We don’t hear so much about people-pleasing others to the point where they forget about themselves. It’s not as visible and it’s usually silent.

I often lean towards the pleasing side. I don’t like conflict and I have an abundance of empathy. This makes it easy to find excuses for people’s inconsiderate behavior. For long stretches of time, the approach seems to work well until the pressure of small annoyances and not standing up for myself builds up too far. At that point, it has to come out and because it has been building it doesn’t always come out in a well thought through and moderate way.
Like Charlie, I should speak up more often.

All the working from home these days creates an interesting opportunity for experimenting. Because so many variables have become fixed it’s easier to consciously tweak the ones that are still flexible.
During the first weeks of lockdown, I felt confused and shocked, like most people I think. Once I had gotten used to it I was a bit ashamed to feel excited and happy. No commute means a lot more time to do other things. Without distractions during the day I can work very efficiently. Not having any events and dinners means that my evenings are all mine to spend as I like. I felt like life was finally being lived on my introvert terms, creating a lot of mental space and freeing up oodles of energy that would normally go towards socializing and attending events and dinners.

For a couple of weeks, I’ve spent the extra energy on running (a lot of running) and practicing piano more often. This last week being at home and in almost complete control of what happens, things have gotten too flat. I only recognized this as I finished reading the book, although I had felt restless for a couple of days. Running is only physically challenging. I’m not good enough on the piano yet to set myself a significant challenge on it.
I miss being pushed out of my comfort zone occasionally. The best solution would be for me to challenge myself more. That way I can decide the type of challenge I want to set and how hard I want to push.

One challenge that I keep thinking about is “how to be a rebel and fight injustice like an introvert?”. I would like to convince people of the errors of their ways through rational arguments and respectful conversations and exchanges of ideas. It’s probably a utopia and it’s unlikely to happen, but I’ll think about it some more.
If you also have some time and energy on your hands I recommend reading The Perks of Being a Wallflower and letting it surprise you. Who knows what unexpected inspiration it might provide for you.

The Demon-Haunted World

In The Demon-Haunted World, Carl Sagan explains how science works and why skepticism and critical thinking are important. The book is probably more relevant today than it was when it was published in 1995. With the internet at the center of many of our lives and social media allowing everyone to publish and share information, it is critical that we are able to evaluate what we see, hear, and read.

With a lot of non-fiction books, I feel that they are longer than necessary. After about 70% it often feels like the author repeats themselves or like there are too many examples to illustrate a concept.
The Demon-Haunted World is the opposite. It starts a bit slow for me. That’s not surprising as the book aims to explain science and critical thinking for someone with no prior knowledge of either.

The subjects that Sagan touches on are very broad. He details the injustices of the witch trials and talks about people who think they have been abducted by aliens. The parallels that can be drawn between them are interesting.
There are also people, especially in the US, who believe that aliens live among us and that the government knows this but is covering it up. Perhaps that explains a thing or two about the “situation” in the White House today. On the other hand, if there are aliens who are smart enough to travel through galaxies I don’t see how they would let Trump happen. Or, if they couldn’t stop it I assume they have buggered off to their own worlds again. Who would stay for this car crash if they didn’t have to?

Most people who claim to remember things that didn’t happen are genuine. They believe that they were kidnapped by aliens. This is not as crazy as it sounds. Our memories are incredibly unreliable. It’s easy to make someone “remember” something that never happened. A remarkable example is the fact that Reagan during his presidency regularly told stories from his past that turned out to be scenes from films that made a strong impression on him. It’s also quite common to remember a memory from someone close to you as your own. Our minds are fascinating but unreliable.

To support our fallible brains Sagan has included a “baloney detection kit” in the book. Here is my top 5 from the kit:

  1. Look for independent confirmation of the “facts”
  2. Arguments from authority don’t carry more weight than other arguments. Arguments from experts do carry more weight but are still open to scrutiny
  3. Try not to get overly attached to your own hypothesis or opinion. Keep an open mind for new and better ideas and hypothesis (but if you open your mind too much your brain might fall out)
  4. If there’s a chain of argument, every link in the chain needs to hold up to scrutiny, not just some of them
  5. Ockham’s razor: if two hypotheses explain the data equally well choose the simplest one that introduces the least amount of new assumptions

What I like about Sagan and this book is his focus on how to communicate. By “waxing superior and contemptuous” about skepticism and science you are unlikely to convince anyone. Skepticism can come across as arrogant and heartless and it doesn’t have to be either.
We all cherish our beliefs and when someone challenges them this can feel like a personal assault. Whether your beliefs are related to aliens, witches, religion, or science doesn’t matter. Sagan asks “to temper our criticism with kindness”. To apply finesse when we share our believes and opinions. We all have different backgrounds, which means that we come to these discussions with different toolkits and baselines.

The way Sagan talks about curiosity, kindness, and communication inspires me. It makes me excited about communicating complex things in simple terms. About making people feel safe but also interested in learning and gaining knowledge.
I’m not a scientist myself. I don’t naturally ask a lot of questions. Even in a fairly simple conversation, I have to remind myself to ask questions. I’m not sure why. Part of it has to do with the need to process new information before I feel comfortable enough to voice my opinion about it. Maybe another reason is that for several years while in school the safest option was to be invisible and not draw attention to myself.

The Demon-Haunted world makes me want to be more naturally curious, but it mostly makes me long to be a writer or a journalist. I would love to try and share science, skepticism, and critical thinking in a way that allows people with all sorts of different believes to open their minds a little bit. I might figure out how and where to do this eventually. Until then I encourage you to read The Demon-Haunted World. There is something in it for everyone and Carl Sagan made communicating about science an art form.

Every one of us is, in a cosmic perspective, precious.

The Last Smile in Sunder City

Fetch Phillips is in his early thirties, but he has lived more lives than most of us will in a lifetime.
He is by no means a traditional protagonist, but author Luke Arnold did a great job creating a character with many layers. Fetch has some admitted, significant character flaws but I found him easy to empathize with. He has a knack for making the wrong decisions or perhaps is just very unlucky in the way his decisions work out. Most likely it’s a combination of both.
I started reading The Last Smile in Sunder City at the recommendation of Tim Minchin and I recommend that you read it too. I loved this book.

Fetch is a Man for Hire. He is hired by the principal of Ridgerock Academy, a cross-species school. He is asked to find the school’s history and literature teacher Edmund Albert Rye. Rye is a vampire, but in a world where all magic has disappeared vampires are old and frail. Most vampires are languishing after the coda took their powers away. Not Rye though, he has made peace with the situation and is enjoying passing on some of his knowledge by teaching at the school and tutoring kids on the side too.

When the magic disappeared the world became bleak and dark and life became harsh. The elves named the moment the coda reasoning that the world had been singing a song since the day it was born, but that it was about to come to an end.
A very fitting name, looking at the definition of coda on Wikipedia:
“In music, a coda is a passage that brings a piece to an end. Technically, it is an expanded cadence. It may be as simple as a few measures, or as complex as an entire section.”

Fetch tries to live a good life and feels much better when he’s helping people and generally being a good person. However, he slips up easily and often and it makes him feel bad. Feeling bad makes him drink and fight, which makes him feel even worse. He hasn’t had it easy. He has lived with heartbreak for most of his life and he has always felt like an outcast.
Fetch, like a lot of us, shows his best side in the face of adversity. We work better together when we are trying to overcome an evil that is bigger than ourselves. Unfortunately, as soon as a glimmer of hope appears we’re willing to kill each other for it.

A lot of The Last Smile in Sunder City feels like it was written as a metaphor for the situation that we are in today. Professor Rye writes:
“And thus, we enter this strange new world. A simpler world. It may not be as bright or as loud as the eons leading up to it, but this is the time that fate has chosen for us. Life once felt so grand and meaningful. This new world is hushed. … If there is a future, that’s how it will be determined. Not by winning wars or medals or fame, but by searching out into the darkness and, when you find it, holding up the light.”
It seems fitting, but the book could also be a metaphor for being human in general. It’s about our struggle to do the right thing and how to deal with feelings of disappointment and guilt when things don’t work out as we had hoped they would.

Fetch looks towards alcohol and books to allow him to escape into another world for a bit.
I, in turn, enjoyed following him around and experiencing a bit of life in Sunder City.
I’m happy to be back home now, but I’m looking forward to visiting Sunder City again in the future.
Luke Arnold has created an intricate world and he has written a marvelous book about it.

Fed Up – Is Emotional Labor Crushing Your Spirit?

I’d had Fed Up by Gemma Hartley on my e-reader for a while, but was hesitant to start it, as I was afraid it was another relentless read about misogyny that would crush my spirit. I eventually started reading it while on a snowboarding holiday with enough exercise and positivity around to counter any potential sadness.
While the middle section of the book could have been snappier (this is true for many non-fiction books in my opinion), the beginning of the book made me realize something about my behavior in relationships. While the book mainly talks about romantic relationships I feel that it applies to friendships and professional relationships too.

The book is about emotional labor and how women are still doing the majority of it. Emotional labor is emotion management and life management combined. Emotional labor includes remembering to send birthday cards to friends and family, remembering to get the laundry done before anyone runs out of socks and knickers, knowing what everyone’s favorite meal is and making sure all the ingredients are on the grocery list and generally noticing when something in or around the house needs cleaning, replacing or tidying. Trying to remember all these things, worrying that you might be forgetting something and making sure it all gets done can be draining. It’s an invisible and unpaid mental burden.

To be clear, emotional labor is not so much about who’s doing the work. It’s more about who remembers that it needs to get done and who worries about it. Imagine that you have agreed with your partner that they take out the bin, but you have to regularly remind them that the bin is full or that the trash will be picked up tomorrow. That reminding needs to be kind and considerate, otherwise, you risk getting into a fight. If you have to remember them more than once it’s going to be even more difficult to ask them kindly without losing patience and without making it feel to them like you’re nagging. The amount of energy that you need to invest in the asking is almost not worth it. It’s tempting to do it yourself.

While I don’t have a partner or kids this did open my eyes about my role in many relationships, both in the past and today. I’m a bit of a control freak and I like everyone to be taken care of, which can lead to me trying to think for a lot of other people. It’s not that these people can’t think for themselves, or don’t want to think for themselves. I’m so on top of things that I don’t even give them a chance.

In the book, the author is going through the steps of trying to divide the emotional labor in her household equally among her and her partner. As with every problem, the first step is realizing what’s going on. What’s causing the frustration and resentment that she is feeling? When she figures this out (and writes a widely read article in Harper’s Bazaar about it) the next step is to try and explain the problem to her partner. This is more difficult than she expects and it requires patience. The chances of convincing your partner of your point of view while shouting it at them during an argument are very close to zero. You’ll need to invest time in explaining it while both of you are calm and able to have a proper conversation. Probably more than once.

Even after she’s made her partner understand they struggle to improve balancing the emotional labor between them. Eventually, she realizes that she is the one blocking improvement. Every time her husband takes care of something he does it differently than she would have done and she criticizes him that he’s doing it wrong. Sometimes telling him off, sometimes even redoing his work. Only when she realizes that she is sabotaging his efforts things start to improve.
If you feel like you are picking up more than your fair share of emotional labor be honest with yourself. Do you give your partner, friend or colleague a fair chance? Or do you step in to ensure perfectionism (aka things getting done your way)?

The beginning of the corona-crisis for me was a good reminder of this dynamic. I tend to try to carry the weight of the world and that of the people around me on my shoulders at the best of times. Doing so during a global pandemic when everyone is having a hard time adjusting and finding a workable balance is insane and unsustainable. After having tried to think and find solutions for relatively minor problems for more than 400 people for a few days I realized I had to focus on the big picture, or I was going to hurt myself not by getting infected with corona, but by worrying about everyone’s sorrows.

I’m happy to say that after two weeks I’ve found a much better balance. Changing this dynamic was made easier by the whole world changing every few days at the same time. Patterns were being broken everywhere, so this was just one more thing that changed.
Changing the dynamics that have been built for many years in a relationship is a lot harder. Although even those might be easier to change right now while we are all scrambling to find a balance inside our homes and coming to grips with an outside world that feels alien and has changed completely in the last couple of weeks.
The world might never be the same. Can you say the same about how emotional labor in your relationships is divided?

Emotional Labor

My bubble

Sorry for the long radio silence. And now that I’m finally writing, it’s not even about a book. Feel free to skip this post if you’re here for the book reviews.

Two weekends ago, when I was supposed to write, it was the first weekend we were asked to stay home as much as possible. Even though the guidance from the government still left a lot of room to move about at that point it felt daunting. I actually started a post, but couldn’t concentrate and only wrote a single paragraph. I was trying to get my head around everything that was happening and I couldn’t.
Last weekend I just couldn’t be bothered to write, because what’s the point anyways?

I’m finally starting to find my bearing again. Let me make clear that I’m extremely lucky. I’m healthy and I live in a beautiful home, right next to a lake, so I can walk out the door and enjoy the calming influence of loudly quacking water birds. I don’t have any kids, so I don’t have to balance working and homeschooling. I don’t have a partner, so I don’t have to compete for the best place to work in the house. I have a job that allows me to work from home and I work in an industry that can continue to function even if there will, of course, be a pretty significant impact. The company I work for is healthy and it’s always very people-focused. In these challenging times, the number one priority is still our people and their well-being and it’s heartwarming and reassuring.

You might wonder what the problem is then exactly. It turns that the world-changing completely and being asked to stay home as much as possible and away from other people is discombobulating. I live in a place where disasters are usually happening far away. We don’t have earthquakes, bush fires, wars, tornados or tsunamis. As I said, I’m very lucky. I like to be in control and I’m not used to experiencing the news first hand.

It turns out that a global pandemic is pretty far outside of my span of control and it took me a while to get to grips with how that made me feel. It’s not just the virus and what it does to the world and its people. It’s also trying to stay away from other people and to an extend becoming afraid of other people. Going to the supermarket generates so much stress that it gives me a stomach ache at the moment. And I worry about my parents and about the economic impact all this has on several of my friends.

I usually work from home approximately one day per week and I love it. I try to block that day so I don’t have many meetings and it allows me to get stuff done. It’s normally the most relaxed workday of the week.
Now that I’m working from home every day it’s completely different. I have back to back meetings (calls) on most days and it’s very intense. Much more intense than a day at the office. I haven’t been able to pinpoint why exactly, but I’ve heard this from several other people too, so it’s not just me. At the end of a workday, I’m shattered at the moment.

Right, sorry, I had to get that out of my system. It’s not all bad though. Several things are helping me to stay sane and entertained.

  • I’d been thinking about getting a monitor for my “home office” since I moved in here five years ago, but so far had been putting it off. The prospect of working from home provided the final push to finally get a large monitor to use when I’m working from home. I love my upgraded “home office”.
  • I exercise at least every other day. There are no work-dinners or social gatherings, so planning has gotten pretty straight forward. It’s either going for a run or indoor rowing as the options are somewhat limited. It had been a while since I had run due to the terrible weather in February. Since we’ve mostly been locked inside the sun has come out and it makes all the difference.
  • I go out for a 30-minute lunch walk every day to clear my head. It’s wonderful (and necessary).
  • I’m spending more time playing the piano. No commute means there’s more time in the evening. I love playing the piano. I’m no good, but I love it.
  • I’ve finally become a patron of some artists that I admire. This was also something that I had wanted to do for a while, but never took the time to do. As artists need our help now more than ever this felt like a good time to finally take action.

I’m an introvert at the best of times. I like being at home and reading while drinking a lot of tea. This is a good time to be an introvert.

If you read this far, thank you for indulging me. I will try to resume normal book review service again this weekend. In the meantime, please stay healthy and take care of yourself and the people around you if you can. Be safe and be kind.

Home Office

Daring Greatly

Daring Greatly by Brené Brown is about vulnerability and connection. To be able to create a genuine connection with other people you need to show your true self. You need to dare to be vulnerable. It might feel safe to put up an armor and hide behind it, but it also means that you isolate yourself behind the shield that you put up. When we can’t connect to others we suffer. The safety we perceive behind our shield is a farce. It hurts us more than that it protects us.

When someone shares their fears it resonates, because we recognize them. We all feel similar fears and seeing them in others is comforting. It shows us that we are not alone.
But while we find other people’s vulnerability attractive and relatable, we see our own vulnerability as a weakness.

  • Vulnerability is the last thing I want you to see in me, but the first thing I look for in you.
  • Vulnerability is courage in you and inadequacy in me.
  • I’m drawn to your vulnerability but repelled by mine.

The reason we find it so hard to be vulnerable is because we are afraid of shame. Shame is the most primitive human emotions and we all have it (except when you’re a sociopath).
Shame is the fear that something we’ve done or failed to do, an ideal that we’ve not lived up to, or a goal that we’ve not accomplished makes us unworthy of connection. I’m not worthy. I’m not good enough. I’m unlovable. I don’t belong.
Shame is highly correlated with addiction, violence, aggression, depression, eating disorders, and bullying. There are no positive outcomes attached to shame. It’s a destructive emotion.

Shame is the fear of disconnection. It’s something that we attach to ourselves, not to our behavior, making it intensely painful and hard to get out of. We don’t even want to mention shame, and the more convulsive we are about avoiding it, the more power it has over us.
The most effective way to avoid shame is to stay connected. When we feel shame creeping up, instead of putting up our armor we should lower it. We should show our vulnerability despite our fears. That’s what courage looks like.

I feel that being vulnerable and avoiding shame has a lot to do with being authentic. I’ve written here about being bullied as a kid. As a result, I still often feel that people are talking about me behind my back and a fear of shame is never far away. I know intellectually that most people are way too busy with themselves to spend any brain cycles on me, but the fear of being made fun of is deeply embedded in me.

In a sort of weird twist, I’m also unapologetically me. I know what I want and I give absolutely zero fucks about what other people think about that. I prefer to spend an evening on the sofa with a book over going to a party and I’m not afraid to say it out loud. I don’t drink when going out for dinner (especially if the dinner is work-related). And when I travel I always bring a power strip. I’ve been made fun of for that many times. Yet the same people who make fun of it often make use of it.

I’m not afraid of sharing my insecurities and challenges. This is unusual in the IT consultancy world. Yet whenever I do it, especially when presenting in front of larger groups, many people tell me how much they appreciate it.
Despite being comfortable in my own skin I still find myself regularly nodding or uhuh-ing to avoid having to indicate that I don’t understand what was being said, or because I don’t agree but am afraid that my opinion is not a popular one. I try to avoid shame by hiding behind a mask and it never feels right.
The more we are able to be and share our full selves the easier it is to find connection and courage.

We don’t just have to deal with shame in our attempts to be vulnerable and connected. We live in a culture of never enough. As soon as we wake up in the morning we think “I didn’t get enough sleep”. The next thought is “I don’t have enough time”. We spend most of our waking hours hearing, explaining, complaining, or worrying about what we don’t have enough of. Before we even sit up in bed, before our feet touch the floor, we’re already inadequate, behind, lacking something.

This mind-set of scarcity lives at the very heart of our jealousies, our greed, our prejudice, and many of our arguments both with ourselves and with others. It’s hard to be vulnerable and connected when you feel like you are lacking the time and resources to do what you feel you have to do. I challenge you to be honest with yourself the next time you feel like you are being attacked by the scarcity monster. Is there really not enough or are you stressing out and pushing for more out of habit?

Get into the vulnerability arena and put your armor down. Being brave is not winning or losing, it’s showing up. Be authentic. Instead of going for the easy sarcastic snark, try saying something positive when you have a chance. Support others in their attempts to be vulnerable too. Be willing to sit with the discomfort of your own and other people’s vulnerability.
The world can be a much nicer place if we’re all brave enough to show our true selves. Let’s dare greatly.

The image has a red background and shows the title of the book, Animal Farm in black, and the name of the author, George Orwell in grey. The image also shows the profile of a pig in pink with white letters displayed on top of the pig stating "All animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than the others."

Animal Farm

I read Animal Farm by George Orwell in high school, but I must admit I didn’t remember much of it, other than the high-level premise and “all animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others”. A sentence my father used during my childhood whenever someone tried to apply double standards or argued for doing so.

The original introduction of this book, written by Orwell himself is added to the back of the edition of the book that I read. I found it very interesting to read the introduction, but it was probably a good decision to place this text after the main story. The introduction is almost as long as the entire book and I’m not sure I’d have gotten to the main story had I tried to read the introduction before the rest of the book. This qualification needs a little bit of clarification. The introduction is really long for an introduction to a book, but also, the book itself is very short, it’s only 69 pages. A lot of people probably know this, as it was this characteristic of the book that meant the book got chosen to be on many a high-school reading list.

The main story is about a farm where the animals chase the human owner, who they feel isn’t treating them well, away.
At first, the animals are very happy. They have more autonomy. Even though they still work hard, they feel like they are working for themselves and each other and morale is soaring. All the harvested crops and earnings go to the animals, so they benefit directly from their hard work.
Together the animals draft seven commandments that help the animals to govern themselves and the farm and that provide a framework that they should live by:
1. Whatever goes upon two legs is an enemy.
2. Whatever goes upon four legs, or has wings, is a friend.
3. No animal shall wear clothes.
4. No animal shall sleep in a bed.
5. No animal shall drink alcohol.
6. No animal shall kill any other animal.
7. All animals are equal.

These commandments might sound good and sensible if you’re an animal and they are. Theoretically. Unfortunately, the pigs in the story, like humans in real life, are unable to resist the temptation of power.
After a while, the pigs slowly start to take more power and allow themselves some privileges. They also slowly change the (written) commandments, but they do it by only making one small change at a time and each small change doesn’t seem bad enough to fight.
Eventually, the pigs end up being mean, hypocrite and lying dictators, living a comfortable life, while they work the other animals to death.

Orwell wrote the book in 1943 and it was published in 1945. The story reflects the events leading up to the Russian Revolution of 1917 and the Stalinist era in the Soviet Union following that. If anyone wasn’t able to recognize the story Orwell helps a bit by letting the animals address each other as “comrades”.

Even though the story was written a long time ago, it’s still relevant today, and not just in Russia. The small steps that are taken to break down democracy and that don’t appear to be worth protesting about are visible in many countries around the world. Trump has already gone through many small steps in the US. In Australia Scott Morrison’s government had journalists’ houses raided to try and find the source of an article they felt shouldn’t have been published. In the UK Boris Johnson wants to put the BBC up for sale.
Communism doesn’t have a patent on slowly destroying democracy in favor of a power-hungry dictator.

I hope we won’t let history repeat itself, but I’m afraid that we will. Decent people are just too…decent. And perhaps too scared and too comfortable. We might not start fighting back until it’s too late.
These power-hungry thugs don’t play by the rules. They break as many of them as they can and then change them to suit their needs.

I’m not any better than anyone else. I will avoid conflict if I can and lay low instead of stepping into the ring to stand up to thugs and bullies until I get angry and emotional.
This isn’t easy, but let’s try and stop the thugs before they take over the world.