A reminder of our shared humanity and life this Thanksgiving.
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Talking about evil is hard. It involves at least two paradoxes. Here’s the first. On the one hand, to denounce evil is an ethical act. It is to affirm our deepest values and to commit ourselves to preventing acts that dehumanize others. On the other hand, to denounce evil can be an unethical act. It is a way of demonizing; it is, precisely, to dehumanize another. Here’s the second paradox: On the one hand, we need to the concept of evil to philosophically and ethically distinguish acts that shock our consciences, acts that are not adequately encompassed by words like bad, wicked, or wrong. The concept of evil clarifies. On the other hand, the concept of evil confuses, prevents thinking. We imagine evil is other than human, beyond understanding, almost mystical. This lets us off the hook, lets us deny our own capacity for evil, and stops us from analyzing the very human, very common causes of it.
I have never quite known what to react in the wake of tragedy. Saying too much almost feels too opinionated, and saying too little almost feels to insincere. I remember my first encounter five years ago with a personal tragedy and death was uncontrollable laughter. Apparently my ‘coping’ mechanism then, was to try to see the humorous side of the story. Highly inappropriate. But now, over the past week, I am finding no humor that can help me cope as I watch Kenya balance a growing sadness of a nation, the anger of their citizens and the anguish of loved ones as terrorists stormed an upscale mall in Nairobi claiming over 60 lives.
As emails, phone calls, texts and social media updates came pouring in, the irony is not lost on me on how tragedies happen everyday around the world and yet, why is it that this one just seems so much more real. As my emotions slide between the continuum of “why” and “shock”, a strange version of this Hierarchy of Trauma began to emerge. As I scroll through the news for updates on Nairobi on that day, and throughout the week, it dawned on me that hundreds of people die and are affected by conflicts around the world. In Pakistan, 81 people perished in a church suicide bombing. In Nigeria, over 500 perished in terrorist related violence in the north of the country, and the on-going Syria crisis has claimed tens of thousands of lives. Countries and communities that I can’t even comprehend who and where — are suffering. Yet, why my heart aches the most for my Nairobi home and only for a fleeting moment of empathy for the news in Pakistan.
And suddenly it struck me, trauma and grief isn’t a competition or a hierarchy. We each grieve for different losses, in our own way and in time. There is no trauma that is superior to, lesser, greater, less shocking, better covered, or any other comparative phrase, than the suffering of any individual or community. All we can do, is know that even if your experience does not have a chapter in other stories of conflict and trauma, it still a part of our story as humanity as a whole.
Thinking of you.
Selected pieces that provide different perspectives on the Nairobi incident:
“The more someone identifies with a profession or an “accomplishment” such as an award, the less human he will be (in the classical sense). In virtue ethics, the only “excellence” worth attaining is that of “being human”, with all what it entails (honor, courage, service, satisfaction of public & private duties, willingness to face death, etc.); “achievements” are reductions and alienations for lower forms of life.
IN ANCIENT ROME this was a privilege reserved for the patrician class. They were able to engage in professional activities without directly identifying with them: to write books, lead armies, farm land, or transact without being a writer, general, farmer, or merchant, but “a man (*vir* rather than *homo*) who” writes, commands, farms or transacts, as a side activity.
TODAY, as humanity got much, much richer, one would have thought that everyone would have access to the privilege. Instead, I only find it in minimum wage earners who just “make a living” and feel forced to separate their identity from their profession. The higher up in the social ladder, the more people derive their identity from their profession and “achievements”. — Nassim Taleb
When I was with Acumen Fund, we would ask ourselves: How are we standing with the poor? And quite frankly, I wasn’t sure if I even really knew what that meant. For the longest time, I thought it meant putting myself into another person’s perspective, trying to see the world through their eyes and “speak up” for those who didn’t have a voice. And then I came across this posting by Nassim Taleb, who separates out identity and accomplishment and really got me reevaluating my definition. It also made me realize how hard it was, as the higher up the social ladder you are, the harder it is to distinguish between identity and accomplishment, the harder it is to relate.
Standing with the poor is about looking beyond profession. Beyond awards and accomplishments. Beyond first impressions. Standing with the poor is a reminder to oneself to separate the way you look at yourself and others around you; between their accomplishments and identity. Standing with the poor is about understanding self-worth, regardless of what situation/career/social status you are in.
And at the end of the day, it all comes back to valuing human dignity.
2012 has been my year of being in between stories. A process that involves embracing uncertainty to explore possibility, constant iteration in future plans, packing and repacking my belongings into two luggages, moving between continents and trying to make some sense out the disorientating dance of the familiar and unfamiliar.
In the beginning of the year, I left my job with the intention of beginning a new adventure. It wasn’t an easy decision. It was especially hard as I had grown to deeply respect my company and had mentors at the firm that I still treasure to this day. But there was this nagging little voice inside of me that pushed to me to leap. To be bold and pursue my interests: one that thrives in the intersection of impact investing, design thinking and change.
There is a myth of consistency in life stories. People tend to expect a familiar story, a journey that they have heard before and unsurprisingly, we impose this ‘familiar story’ on ourselves. We fail to leap because we believe that our capacity to dream is in accordance to our inherited prejudice of what we have been told/come to expect. When faced with uncertainty, people tend to intuitively, move to find a solution quickly. They tend to rush down a path, usually towards familiarity, at the expense of the insight and engagement that uncertainty can bring. It is in these situations that I am slowly realizing that our courage and faith must be addressed to the dreams we have been afraid to dream, either because they are too difficult, or because it has been too breathtaking to even comprehend how they could possibly exist within our current constraints.
My journey for 2012, has brought me out of Vancouver, to New York, to Malaysia and now to Nairobi, Kenya where I am working everyday to not only “willing to challenge the status quo, but understand the world as it is and have the audacity and moral courage to build the world that could be” — Jacqueline Novogratz.
The work of embracing uncertainty requires the discipline and wisdom to make trade-offs, the best way we can. It is about knowing when to pick up your belongings and leave. When to fight and when to concede. When to listen and when to lead. When to be generous and when to be humble. When to hold your breath and when to breathe through it. When to be adventurous and when to be grounded.
It is these trade-offs, that forces a shift from uncertainty to possibility, from reality to abstract and back again: one of the most fundamental processes by which we unlock our imaginations and open our hearts to new insights. To understand our stories is to embrace uncertainty.
With that, I bid you farewell Vancouver, see you later New York and jambo Nairobi!
I have long since desired to write about this topic to some degree, but it was only after a series of recent conversations and following the Olympics Games that called forth an unexpected wave of patriotism towards my country.
I grew up as a Malaysian, through and through. Born and raised in Sarawak, educated in Malaysia’s public school system and seen first hand my country’s political and racial stance. The older I became, the more I came to understand the indoctrination of nationalism that the country has imposed on its citizens, the more I concluded that we were made to love! From standing in the equatorial heat during assembly saluting our “Jalur Gemilang”, singing the different anthems: Negaraku and Sarawak, Ibu Pertiwiku on a daily basis to memorizing Malaysia’s geography and history everyday in our public school system. The older I grew, the more I questioned the underlying racial intolerance in our country, the more I heard my fellow compatriots scheme to “study overseas and stay there”, that if you could obtain a PR from a first world country, “go for it and don’t look back”, the more I saw a brain drain in my country’s top minds as they throw their hands up in frustration at Malaysia’s economic and political situation.
Apparently, being made to love something is a flawed strategy, and rightfully so. As my generation grew up, our understanding of the world expanded and we look back and criticize the flaws in our own country. We tell people, “I love Malaysian food, but to go back and be discriminated based on the colour of my skin and last name? Why should I subject myself to such treatment?” spoken sometimes out of disappointment, sometimes out of disdain. When I saw Dambisa Moyo speak at my university on Dead Aid and development, someone from the audience asked her whether she would ever go back to Zambia to help her country. She retorted that people often forget that every human being at the end of the day craves equality, dignity and access to basic needs. If Zambia could provide those needs for their citizens, Zambians would go back in a heartbeat. I looked around and saw my friends: South African, Iranian, Pakistani, Chinese, all nodding silently next to me. Apparently, I was not the only one who felt this way.
Now, working and learning in the social enterprise/development space, I come across many individuals who are passionate about changing the lives of others in developing countries. Some take a more economist standpoint of helping where people need it the most, other are driven by a certain cause/skillset — be it health, finance or human rights. I see others have a deep drive to help countries that they never even grew up in, and sometimes have never even set foot in that continent, let alone country. I ask myself: Why? Then, I look at Malaysia and wonder: What good is it that we are made to love a country when our hearts are filled with complaints/disdain for it? I look around again and I see my friends: who have gone back to Peru to create change in her hometown, who have dreams to advance South African films in the world and who are waiting for an opportunity to return to Kenya. Apparently, I was missing out on connecting with my birthplace and identity.
I can finally say that working in the social enterprise/development space, have meant personally for me, of understanding Malaysia better. For its decaying political and administrative structure, for the incredible courage of Bersih protestors, and for new economic programs that are aimed to improve the country. More importantly, I think I have finally understood what it means to love unconditionally, even if I was made to in the first place. To love anyways despite all of Malaysia’s flaws, because love keeps no count of wrong. It is this choice — To love, not for a tolerance of corruption, crime or racism but to love unfailingly, stubbornly, for a beauty of a nation is not in the laws or the ruling party at that time, but in the dignity and essence of every citizen who have contributed in one way or another to shape our early views of the world.
So to all my fellow compatriots and those who have yet to make the choice to love for your own country, when all is said and done, here is my challenge to you:
If not us, then who? If not now, then when? — Acumen Fund