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The Psychology of Conflict

It can be so easy to view institutions as unshakeable, fixed perspective, entities. They stand for something that is public and impersonal, something unchangeable.

But what if we looked at organisations more as the sum of their individual parts than as an official whole?

A few weeks ago I was listening to the wonderful Analysis podcast from the BBC. In the podcast they interviewed psychologists who were working with groups long in conflict.

Listen to the episode, “Will They Always Hate Us?” here

They carried out experiments to see if they could increase levels of empathy of one side in a conflict towards those on other side. They showed Palestinians fake news articles of an Israeli leader criticising his own government. After reading this news article, they found that the group had greater empathy towards Israelis. They reversed the test, and found that it had the same effect on Israelis.

By observing self criticism, the readers started to see that the unified group that they were used to thinking of a single identity was actually made up of people with many different perspectives. They began seeing people as people, not just a category.

The researchers also questioned the leaders of these conflicting groups about what it would take for them to begin discussing solutions for peace in their region, and the answers they received were fascinating.

Benjamin Netanyahu, the president of The Israeli Government said,

I have nothing to discuss with Hamas until recognise the right of the Jewish people to be here. If they’re ready to recognise that right, then anything is on the table to discuss.

Khaled Mashal, of Hamas asked researchers,

Will they ever apologise for the harm they did our people in 1948, for their dislocation and dispossession?

Many of the answers surprised researchers because they weren’t based on monetary or material restitution, but on showing recognition and respect for the other’s story.

Each side in a conflict has a different history on which their worldview leans. In order for meaningful dialogue to take place, the other side needs to recognise this alternative history.

As I listened to it, rather than hearing an institution at odds with another institution, I heard the voices of people who have been wronged and who need their pain legitimised, recognised, owned up to, so they might move forward into something constructive.

Essentially they were saying time and again something akin to “we need forgiveness.”

Too often in popular society forgiveness is seen as either something easy and insincere or too costly (the Husband forgiving his wife’s murderers the day after she’s killed). But at the core of it there’s something essential to forgiveness that frees both parties to move forward into the present. It’s something divine, the effects of which have the potential to unstick centuries of misunderstanding.

But it also takes daring. It takes leaders who won’t let pride stop them taking the first step.

(Image credit: hjl)

Dear Henning (A Tribute To Henning Mankell)

Dear Henning,

With the news of your death, today is a sad day for many of us.

We devoured your novels, whether the Wallander series, or lesser known works. We revelled in your storytelling, which despite being fictional always felt deeply honest.

We were inspired by your actions, how you consistently spoke up against injustice and tried to do things that would help. Like your theatre in Mozambique, or the memory project for victims of AIDS. You found a way to put your skills and influence to use for the benefit of the poor and voiceless.

We were delighted when you joined a group of activists on a ship headed for Palestine with the desire to break the Israeli embargo on aid.

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But there’s another, more personal reason why I’m going to miss you and your stories.

For me, you were one of my early guides into the world of Swedish culture. Not because of the factual accuracy of the stories – Ystad isn’t the victim of as many murders as your stories would have us believe – but because of the zeitgeist you captured so well. Through Kurt Wallander and his adventures, you beautifully painted the atmosphere of change that exists in modern Sweden. Such change isn’t always clearly spelled out to newcomers like myself.

In the years since World War Two, Sweden has become a haven to those fleeing war and instability in their homelands. That is set to continue. Unsurprisingly, in the face of such change, those who grew up in a very different Sweden have had some adjusting to do. Many have made these adjustments with incredible grace. They’ve chosen to personally embrace the outsider. Others have adjusted more slowly, as if waking up to a whole new world that doesn’t quite feel like their home.

Inspector Wallander guided me into that world and helped me to understand a little of what that conflict must feel like. He gave me a glimpse into how a values driven society comes to terms with its decisions, as they’re worked out in the earthy reality of day-to-day life. And he allowed me the opportunity to mourn the Sweden of my parents-in-law’s youth, a Sweden that is now just a memory.

For all of the above, I’m very grateful.

With much respect,

Jonathan

(Image credit: PalFest)

Stumbling Over My Words

Learning a new language opens a world of opportunities to experience vulnerability, especially if navigating your every day life depends on it.

Arabic writing

Just over a year ago, my wife and I relocated to Jordan in order to learn Arabic. In the future we want to work with Syrian refugees, and we know that speaking the language will open up a world of opportunities to connect with those who are most vulnerable.

We live in an area made up of refugees from different eras. There are the Palestinians who began arriving during the 1940s, the Iraqis who arrived during the 1990s and 2000s, and now the Syrians who arrived here during the last 5 years.

Everything from ordering drinking water, taking a taxi or buying vegetables depends on us finding the right combination of words, tone and pronunciation.

Each day in school, we take classes in formal Arabic grammar (Modern Standard), and the Jordanian spoken dialect (known as Ammiya).

Out of our many experiences of facing vulnerability through language learning, our reading class is the one I find the most humbling (humiliating).

In these classes we take it in turns to read out loud to a group of 8 people, while the teacher corrects mistakes and assists with pronunciation. When we’re finished reading, we summarise what we’ve just read in formal Arabic into spoken Arabic.

During the class I sit there anticipating my next turn to read. I feel tense, I mentally assess the abilities of my fellow students (comparing them with my own). The closer it gets to my turn, the more agitated I get and the less my mind focusses.

It’s exhausting.

The main source of tension during these classes comes from the fact that I really want to be good at reading.

I want to excel at the language and for others to recognise that I am good.

But the pressure to be good hinders my performance.

I so badly want to perform well that I psych myself out and end up stumbling over my words. When the teacher corrects a mistake, instead of absorbing the feedback and jumping right back into the passage, I waver and my mind jumps around the page. I start second guessing and totally lose my flow.

The problem with pretending is that with it comes the fear of being found out.

It requires maintaining a facade of competence, that requires a great deal of energy.

Learning to Let Go

So I’ve decided to work on my vulnerability issue. Instead of pretending that I’m good at reading Arabic, I’m admitting that I find it hard.

I’m accepting the fact that in order for my language to blossom, I need to take myself less seriously.

And I’m trusting that, as Brene Brown discovered in her research on the subject, vulnerability is the pathway to creativity and wholeheartedness.

By giving up worrying about what other people think of my abilities, I might just have the space to begin improving.

(Image credit: Neil Hester)

Sliding the Rolling Wet Hills: an Interview with Dougal Paterson

There are surfers who are happy to keep within the established norms of the sport, and there are those who are driven to experiment, to push the boundaries and to challenge themselves.

Dougal Paterson is a member of the latter group. He’s a big wave surfer, storyteller and photographer based in Kommetjie, a world renowned surf spot on the southern coast of Africa. I spoke with him about his journey, surfing finless, and his two paths to innovation. 

Dougal Paterson big wave

Tell us a little about yourself. How did you start surfing?

I grew up in the landlocked city of Johannesburg. When I was 16 years old I sold my grandmothers old car and ran away from home for a few weeks. The place I ran to was Jeffries Bay which is home to the world’s best right hand wave. I had dreamed of being a surfer since I was the smallest boy. It was during that time that I learned how to slide the rolling wet-hills.

And you now surf big waves?

Surfing big waves always represented to me the pinnacle of the pursuit. To me, riding smaller waves always felt like climbing in the foothills of the Alps, whilst looking at what towered above them. I dreamed of climbing the highest peaks in the far off distance.

I’ve seen your quiver of boards and know that you love to experiment with them. What have been some of your favourite experiments?

Between my wife and I, we have 25 of them. I love boards that are difficult to ride. I’ll intentionally commission a shaper to build me something eclectic that is challenging to ride. After sliding it for a few months, I’ll cut off the tail or change the fin configuration. I have this board that was made in Hawaii for a famous surfer back in ’86. It was in mint condition when I found it in a secondhand store. I couldn’t believe what I was seeing! At the time it was probably worth a few thousand dollars to a serious collector. It was something that you’d NEVER normally ride but, to cut a long story short, it’s been thoroughly ridden, snapped and fixed multiple times and now I’ve entirely re-shaped it and all the fins have been removed.

For those of us who aren’t surfers, what are fins, and how is surfing without them different from standard methods?

Surfboard finsFins on a surfboard have the same combined function as a car’s steering wheel, brakes and engine. Fins provide control, direction and forward thrust. As soon as you take the fins out of your surfboard you loose both the ability to generate speed and steer. Riding without fins has close parallels to sitting inside a shopping trolley as it finds its own line down the hill, whilst using nothing but your body weight to try and direct it. The steeper the hill or the larger the wave, the more horrifying the experience.

What inspired you to try it?

One of my highest values is authentic creativity. For me, people who take their own line will always be my greatest source of inspiration. There is a 57 year Australian surfer called Derek Hynd. 9 years ago he took the fins out of his board whilst working on a film project with a friend of his. He liked the drifting-sliding sensation so much that he never put them back in. Derek is now globally acknowledged as one of our liquid-pursuits truest innovators. More importantly however, he is easily one of the most aesthetically pleasing surfers to watch. I first saw Derek spinning and gliding at Jeffries Bay 6 years ago and over time became convinced that a part of my future was also finless.

What kind of reactions have you received from the rest of the surfing community?

Ha! They think I’m crazy, like Derek. A lot of people ask “are you trying to be like that Derek Hynd guy?” To which my answer is “yes.” After spending many hours in conversation with him, I became convinced that it would be possible to ride big waves finless too. For three nights after leaving Derek I dreamed the whole night through that I was watching him surf. On the fourth night, suddenly it was me surfing whilst he watched. At first everything was wrong and I couldn’t figure it out, but then, in an instant I felt a sensation of understanding rush through my body (I can still imagine it now). Suddenly it made sense to me. Surfing finless only worked if you surfed opposite to how you surf with fins. It was counter intuitive. I stopped trying to push against the wave like I normally would by using the fins to create resistance. Instead I began to rather flow with the wave. In a very real sense, I became a part of the wave. When I awoke I went back home and immediately hacked up the collectors piece that I mentioned earlier. I reshaped the bottom contours and removed the fins. I then proceeded to ride the board in most difficult waves that my courage would allow. It continues to be equal parts horrifying and deeply liberating.

Does creativity and experimentation play a big role in your life when you’re not in the ocean?

Dougal portraitYes. Unequivocally YES! As a misguided kid I accessed my spirituality by taking LSD and initiating adventures into the cathedrals of nature. The object for me was always to find new ways of looking at the world and communicating that with those who were on that journey with me. Now the redeemed version of that looks like someone who is constantly gathering big wave surfers together to go on wave-chasing expeditions. It looks like a husband and Dad who is relentlessly working out ways to include his family, and other families, in spiritually uplifting community environments. It sounds like I’m an amazing and inspiring guy to be around the whole time but, in reality, I can be extremely agitative and fractious in that role too. I struggle in the flatlands of life. I thrive on the adrenaline of the peaks and valleys.

And for those reading who want to initiate change, or experiment in their own field, what advice would you have? How do you motivate yourself to keep leaning into the path of creativity?

True-Innovation is a deeply personal journey. It’s impossible to access True-Innovation until you begin attaching value to your own ideas. Like I said above, we all want change but in reality change can be very fractious and painful. Sustaining change is the hardest task of all. I always assumed that for deep and lasting change to happen, you had to have a complete break down of the vehicle that wasn’t getting you where you knew you could go. However, I am beginning to understand that there is another higher way to access True-Innovation. It’s the access point that we all know is possible, if only because we wish it for our children. This access point is the door called curiosity. Be brave enough to nourish your curiosity and you will leave the world a better place.

Dougal runs regular storytelling nights in Cape Town’s Southern Peninsula. You can also find him online at dougalpaterson.com and on Instagram.  

(Image credit: Gustavo Veríssimo (fins image), all other images provided by Dougal).

Parallel Bible: An Interview with Andrew Breitenberg

Parallel Bible is an exciting new experiment that takes an ancient text and anchors it in day to day experiences through crowd-sourced images.

I spoke to co-founder Andrew Breitenberg about the app and their Kickstarter campaign to fund the first printed gospel of Mark in which all of its visual content is sourced by its readers.

HERO

Jonathan: Hi Andrew! Before we get into the deep on Parallel Bible, can you walk us through your back story? What led you up to this point?

Andrew: The path after university started in New York City and wound through Amsterdam and Cape Town and many places along the way for shorter periods. I’ve always had a passion for seeing Scripture come alive in new ways – in Amsterdam my thesis work was a redesign of the gospel of Matthew, and in Cape Town I began spray painting Bible verses in huge letters on public walls (see selahmade.com). My brother and I had always wanted to take a big adventure together which we thought would amount to a month long train ride through India or something. But when the idea for Parallel came to me, I invited him along for the ride and it’s definitely been a bigger adventure than we ever expected…

selah

Tell us about Parallel…

Parallel Bible is a Bible app for iPhone and Android phones – it’s a marriage between social media and Scripture. Think Instagram for the Bible. Create an account, follow friends, post pictures and tag them with verses. With everyone adding images to different verses, what results is a visually-rich Bible, illuminated by images and stories brought by its readers (you!). And more than this, we begin to see a Bible emerge that carries right alongside of it, stories of how it is being applied in people’s lives. A living concordance of the Bible’s work, parallel to the Scripture itself.

parallel bible iphone 6

What was the red thread running between this and your previous work?

Essentially the work has always been about being a voice for the voiceless – so advocacy of some kind – with Parallel it’s amplifying the words of the Bible itself by unveiling where they are taking root in people’s lives. It’s also about organising and ordering – in this case ordering a massive series of images according to this sacred text. And Beauty. Always Beauty.

You’ve spent time living in the Netherlands and South Africa, In what ways did these places influence the progression of this concept?

Let’s see – NL was all about ‘killing my darlings.’ By which I mean – the little ‘preciouses’ – the elements that you treat with a bias because you like them subjectively – they are only clouding the true value of a solution. For example I created a typeface for this project which I loved, but its meant for big sized headlines – not small copy on an app. Letting go of that was hard but has improved the app significantly.

As for SA – Well what can I say – Cape Town is the birth place of this app – I had a studio on the ‘high road’ in Woodstock and watching the mass of human life passing my window all day had a profound effect on me. I think my fixation on the primacy of images has come from seeing people from every part of life walk by that window – and in realising the ability of images to communicate across languages, cultures, classes and denominations.

spread 2

You talk about the format of the Bible remaining unchanged while our culture has undergone countless changes in rapid succession. Could you unpack that idea for us?

I think that the Bible apps we use today are essentially Gutenberg’s 15th century tech pasted onto a screen. We’re still looking at the Bible in terms of black text on a light background. The Bible was not always this way. For centuries it was simply spoken. You only got the Bible by listening, not reading. We feel that Parallel Bible is simply getting at what Jesus has done all along. Speaking in image-pictures. Jesus never wrote a thing down. He never said – hey go read this and you’ll have it sorted. In fact – he would sometimes tell his disciples to ‘speak not’ of what they’d seen or heard. This was about allowing the experience of the thing to simply have its moment, before letting it calcify into words. Parallel Bible is nothing new at all. We see it as a return.

Marshall McLuhan famously said “the medium is the message”. He felt that there is a message implicit not just in what is said, but the medium used to communicate it. How does this play out for PB?

I suppose I got to that in the previous question – it might be worth adding that besides screens, we are putting a social medium to work in the employ of our app as well – personal imagery, shared and commented and liked, friends followed…this new social media reflects well the idea that the Bible is to be lived  – that we are meant to look up from its words and actually DO what it’s talking about.

There’s a tendency in the social media world to curate your own life, so that it appears far better than the real thing ever could. In what ways do you address this with the PB community? How do you ensure that authenticity is valued?

Such a good question – we write about this on our website – essentially all we can do is example it and ask for it. But we’re finding that the bulk of our readers understand this intuitively. We have a disconcertingly small percentage of selfies (: and the truth is – when you’re pairing a beautiful landscape from nature with a verse – it’s just not giving the same feeling as when it’s happening purely for likes. It sounds vague – but the general experience around this imagery being posted feels quite vulnerable and real. At this stage it’s probably because there are only thousands of readers on the app – so anyone posting for volume likes is not going to get them in any case… it will be fascinating to see how things develop.

Much has been said online about the tendency of smartphones to act as a distraction from inner growth, family and long form communication. It feels like Parallel is approaching smartphones from a different angle?

YES! We keep joking that we should just make an app that shuts down your phone for 10 minutes at a time. Seriously we are into exploring the idea of slow use – in fact it seems to be the biggest obstacle thus far in our app’s adoption. People generally seem to use their apps in a matter of seconds to check, scroll, swipe and close. We’re talking about spending 5 seconds on each post – at best a minute – looking, reflecting on the passage and story, and writing comments. It’s a paradigm shift for what the screen is capable of offering. And while it’s one of our biggest obstacles, it’s also one of the greatest opportunities.

Who have been your major influencers on this journey?

Well you mention McLuhan – he’s the godfather of social media so that’s obvious. AS regards the Bible we’ve been really inspired by the mentorship of Richard Rohr, a Catholic monk who writes a lot about the shifting milieu of the Bible across time was well as the practise of silence and listening which are deeply important to Bible reading. (Also along these lines we <3 Simone Weil, Thomas Keating). Pierre Teilhard de Chardin writes about the possibilities of collective faith action which applies beautifully to a group of people doing this Bible in this way. And St. Francis – he has inspired us to walk our little path and persevere in what the Lord has called us to do with this project.

And from a design point of view, I am unapologetically Dutch. Create a system and let it play out to all its weirdest and most beautiful conclusions. Don’t arbitrarily edit anything. Have a reason rooted in your vision for any aesthetic changes made. Kill your darlings. Shoot your idea to pieces until it disintegrates or reveals the diamond.

How has the concept been received? Who have been your greatest allies so far?

The concept itself is received well and widely. Our greatest allies are people from the progressive Christian community who are most willing to think outside the box in terms of how we might introduce the Bible to the next generation. Also we have a large community of artists and creatives that have found an outlet for their desire to explore faith and visuality.

Parallel Bible bookshelf

Tell us about your Kickstarter campaign

Our Kickstarter project is to print the Gospel of Mark alongside all the imagery being submitted to it on the app. We see it as giving people a tangible example of what it is we are trying to do on the app. It will be the first community-illuminated Gospel ever made and (we hope) a book that draws people collectively to go and do the very truths that they are reading about.

Finally, what lessons have you learned in the process of creating PB that might be helpful for other people wanting to initiate change?

Patience. Perseverance. Play. Pray. Patience. (Patience.)

 

Join the Parallel Bible community here.

The Upside of ISIS

The Imam and The PastorYou know how sometimes something really horribly grotesque somehow ends up having a positive, unintended byproduct?

Like when you see someone who has faced the worst kinds of abuse find their way out the other side. And they’re not just the same person they started out being. They’re stronger. They somehow turn the utter shit-that-should-never-have-happened situation into something that gives hope to others?

I think something of a similar ilk might be happening in the sphere of East-West relationships. Let me explain…

I think that most of us agree that ISIS/ISIL/داعش (DAESH) is not a good thing.

In fact, if we took a vote, we’d be close to unanimous in saying that they seem, much of the time, to incarnate evil. They behead, kill, rape, drown, burn, shock, force convert and displace people.

It’s very hard to imagine anything good coming from them.

But I’ve noticed a strange byproduct of their unholy rampage: people who didn’t used to talk to each other are starting to.

And it’s not just that they’re talking that’s interesting. It’s what they’re talking about.

There was a time not so long ago when Christians and Muslims didn’t have very much to do with each other. Especially Evangelical Christians.

At best, Christians pretended Muslims didn’t exist. At worst, they regarded Islam with deep suspicion.

In fact, back in the 80s and early 90s, it wouldn’t have been uncommon to come across Christians who, if you got them talking about the subject, would echo the sentiment of what Franklin Graham said just last month:

“We are under attack by Muslims at home and abroad…we should stop all immigration of Muslims to the US until this threat with Islam has been settled.”

But recently the church, or at least many within it, have begun asking “if we say we are following the teachings of Jesus, and he says ‘love your neighbour’, and even ‘love your enemies’, what should we do about our Muslim neighbours?”

And, at the same time, Muslims have started asking: “if our Holy Qu’ran teaches us to love and respect Christians, how can we practically do that?”

People are setting aside centuries of confusion and misunderstanding and are working together for the sake of peace.

And the thing that has added an urgency of life-or-death to this movement is the work of ISIS.

ISIS, in all their savagery, are polarising people. Some turn to violence (in the West against Muslims, in the East against Christians, Yazidis, Shi’a), but others turn to peace.

If you’re like me, this sounds like very good news.

It puts a smile on my face when I hear about Evangelical megachurch pastors standing up to Franklin Graham because he’s not being Jesus-like towards Muslims.

Not to mention when Muslims help to rebuild burned down churches.

And when I got to visit a mosque in the UK (in a city that has spawned several well-reported ISIS members) and I see Christians and Muslims sitting side-by-side, listening to each other attentively, answering questions in the spirit of peace, I feel optimistic that ISIS’ days are numbered.

So Close

so close

Click.

I sat glued to my screen, hitting refresh, knowing that in 15 minutes time it would all be over.

The last time this happened to me was when we came to the end of our crowd funding campaign last year. We knew that the outcome of the campaign would determine our future: would we be moving to Jordan and studying Arabic after all?  

Click.

This time it was a good friend’s Kickstarter project for a new album they’ve been writing. It was to be their first in 8 years.

Click.

The way Kickstarter works is that you set a financial target, upload a video, share your plans as best you know how, then click ‘start’. Your campaign runs for a specific timeframe, during which you post updates. Friends pledge money towards your project, and you offer rewards for different amounts pledged.

If, at the end of your campaign, you have reached your financial target, you get all the money (minus Kickstarter’s %).

If you don’t reach your target, you get nothing.

Click.

My friend was trying to raise $10,000 for the recording of her album.

1 day before the campaign closed, she had $8,761.

With 2 hours to go, she had reached $8,996

At 50 seconds, she had $9,161.

Click.

And that’s the figure it stopped at.

$839 shy of her target, with $0 to show for it.

I was crushed.

How could the world be so unfair? 

Will this (unquestionably beautiful) album ever see the light of day?

And I got to thinking how often this must happen in the course of each day. People get so close but don’t quite make it across the line. And they end up with nothing to show for it. Nada.

Now I know this friend of mine well enough to know that this little setback isn’t going to stop her making music. In fact, she’ll probably take some valuable lessons from this experience and do something even better with it.

But I’m still a little pissed off with the process.

(Image credit: Tim Norris)

The Perspective of Travel

If you’re feeling stuck in the same old rut of desiring change, but not knowing how to get started, perhaps you need a change of scenery.

Movement gives us greater objectivity

I remember as a boy, pedalling up the closest, highest mountain I could find and looking down at Cardiff, the city I once called home.

As I watched the glimmering windows and faint strands of traffic, the flashing of the light at the top of the highest building, and even the shore of England in the distance, I felt liberated.

All my problems and frustrations and crises came dislodged.

I could focus on bigger things: ideas, theories, priorities and principles.

These bike rides helped me to learn what really matters to me, what makes me tick.

Somehow when our bodies start moving towards unfamiliar territory, and experiencing unfamiliar things, creativity gets unleashed.

It cultivates humility and open mindedness

When we get exposed to new people and new stories, those things shape us.

We realise that not everyone looks at the world the way we do.

Not everyone perceives our motives as purely as we do.

Some friends of ours live in a village in Zambia, situated alongside the great Zambezi, several kilometres from The Smoke That Thunders (the Zambian name for Victoria Falls).

When they first moved in, they noticed that every village had hollowed out concrete blocks that were being used as tables, benches or were just abandoned alongside the path.

On closer inspection they realised that these concrete blocks were water filtration systems. The water passes through sand, and in the process 98% of the bacteria is removed.

These filters offered a solution to the stomach aches and illnesses that the villagers caught from drinking straight from the Zambezi.

But the people already believed they knew what made them sick.

Their ancestors were unhappy with them.

The water wasn’t causing their sickness, so why would filtering it prevent it?

This taught our friends, who were working closely with the villagers, the need for slow change that is combined with transforming world views.

Instead of trying to solve the villager’s problems directly, they began by forming relationships of trust.

Through those relationships, they could offer new ways of looking at things.

Over time, the villagers themselves can initiate changes based on their new perspective.

It gives us appreciation for what we have

When I first travelled Europe, I Inter-railed with my friend Tim.

We travelled from the Czech Republic to Rome, often sleeping on trains to avoid the cost of hostels.

I would stuff my backpack into the bottom of my sleeping bag, and my passport into my pants to avoid the fate of the many travellers we’d heard about: stuck in an unfamiliar place, with no ID, no money and no way home.

I lived off bread and McDonalds milkshakes, to stretch my budget as far as it would go. And I cut the trip short in Rome because I was so homesick I felt compelled to get back to my Sister’s birthday.

(She later commented on how gaunt my face was from my meagre diet during those weeks.)

Although it was a chaotic trip, it gave me fresh perspective on myself. I realised that there was pain ahead. There would be goodbyes. I realised that I would be doing much more travelling, and because of that I’d better get used to change.

Moving gives perspective in a way that staying doesn’t.

You see your family and friends with greater fondness, your workplace with new compassion, and sights and sounds that have become mundane spring back to life.

As I prepare to leave South Africa, its beautiful people, life changing experiences, and awe-inspiring scenery, I eagerly anticipate the new perspectives that await me.

It Takes A Community To Spread An Idea

Watching Amazing Grace, you’d be forgiven for thinking that slavery in the UK was abolished singlehandedly by William Wilberforce.

It takes a community to spread an idea

Fortunately, the story isn’t quite so simple. Wilberforce wasn’t alone. He was part of a community that later became known as the ‘Clapham Sect’. They were a group of God-fearing activists who lived close to each other and rallied each other up for causes like abolition.

It’s this community that provided Wilberforce with the support he needed to last through the 18 years it took to get his Private Member’s Bill through parliament.

Had Wilberforce stood alone, he may not have persevered all those years.

The Ongoing Fight Against Slavery: Fairtrade

When I was a kid, back in the ’80s, the Fairtrade label hadn’t yet been invented. But the movement had already begun.

Depending on the congregation, after church on Sundays you’d find several old ladies peddling goods at the back. These goods were usually labeled ‘Tradecraft’, and had been produced somewhere in Africa or South America.

The items were often expensive and lower quality than you’d find in a supermarket, but the message was compelling: these goods are not produced by slaves.

Soon students got behind this movement, and injected it with extra energy. The message spread quickly from student union to student union, as this other group with time on their hands and energy to focus got behind it.

In time, the ethically produced chocolate started tasting better than the mass-market chocolate.

It turns out that if you pay a farmer a fair price, they are inclined to give you higher quality beans.

Today in the UK thinking as an ethical consumer is becoming normal. That doesn’t mean that the work is finished – there’s still a lot of unethical aspects to the consumer market. In some areas, like electronics and the car industry, we’ve barely scratched the surface. But the foundational idea that we consumers have power and can ‘vote’ with our money is firmly established.

The importance of community

If it wasn’t for communities like the Clapham Sect, Anglican grannies, or activist students, these important messages would never have spread. Their message wouldn’t be any less important, but they would never have made a difference in the world.

Some call these communities Tribes, others Hives. Whatever you call them, we need them to spread ideas effectively and to catalyse the kind of change that we want to see in the world.

Change Makers Avoid Insulation

If you want to stay alive to the world, it’s important to avoid becoming segregated from the needs around you. Wholeheartedly embracing a life of change means opening your eyes to the pain of the world and letting it shape you.

Homeless Afghan Refugees by Zoriah
Image by Zoriah

That’s one of the reasons travelling can be so good. It helps us to break out of our normal habits of who we usually talk to and where we usually go. Surrounded by a world we don’t recognise, we do things that are outside of our ‘comfort zones’ and we feel great because of it.

A recent study showed that the 20% most wealthy Americans give away an average of 1.3% of their income, while the poorest 20% give away 3.2%.

What is it that makes the wealthy so stingy?

According to the researchers, it has to do with being insulated from need:

“when both groups were exposed to a sympathy-eliciting video on child poverty, the compassion of the wealthier group began to rise, and the groups’ willingness to help others became almost identical…insulation from people in need may dampen the charitable impulse.”

This is an important lesson for us wannabe Change Makers.

If we want to be the kind of people who cause change, we must expose ourselves to need and pain. Once we know people who are suffering, we’re more inclined to identify their needs, and to make decisions about what we should do about them.

I live in South Africa, a place that has turned segregation into an art form. Back in the days of Apartheid, cities were designed to keep the different racial groups separated and to make civic areas predominantly white. A recent article in The Guardian describes Cape Town’s original planning strategy:

“Cape Town was conceived with a white-only centre, surrounded by contained settlements for the black and coloured labour forces to the east, each hemmed in by highways and rail lines, rivers and valleys, and separated from the affluent white suburbs by protective buffer zones of scrubland”

Boys during Apartheid
Image by UN Photo

Although this segregation is no longer vested in the law, the infrastructures remain the same. Black people live in black settlements, mixed race people in mixed race settlements, and white people in areas of prime real estate inhabited mainly by whites.

It’s rare for white people to have relationships of equality (real friendships) with people of other races. The black people they encounter are gardeners or domestic workers, cashiers or waste collectors. They are relationships with an unequal balance of power, in which the black person is subservient to the white person.

This setup fosters insulation, and works against the progress of change. The design of the city encourages and enables the rich to turn a blind eye to the day-to-day realities of the poor. They don’t see their pain, and therefore don’t feel motivated to do anything about it.

Of course South Africa is just an extreme example of a natural habit of the human condition. We push those on the margin out of sight, and those with power and riches to centre stage. We naturally choose the path of least resistance, where we won’t be inconvenienced by someone asking us for change, or expressing their pain.

We close our eyes and hope that someone ‘higher up’ will do something about it, forgetting that those ‘higher up’ are elected as our representatives and will only focus on things they believe matter to us.

Do you find yourself insulated from the needs around you?

Is there a small step you could take to connect more with the world’s pain?