When Fear and Hatred Dictate Democracy

To My Fellow Americans,

Today has been a very intense day, and half of America is left angry and stunned. I was one of those people, but then I chose not to be.

What made me make this decision was when I was watching Stephen Colbert and I was struck by something I found very sad. He reported that half of the country’s Democrats are afraid of Republicans, and half of the country’s Republicans are afraid of Democrats. People are afraid of others who disagree, literally scared of them. (I don’t have a source for the study, but my Twitter and FB feeds would provide empirical evidence to back that up).

It didn’t used to be that way, I don’t think. I think the angry rightists and leftists were often made up of people like my grandfather who was worried about ‘the commies’ until the day he died in 2012, missing out on the news that we are are now actually worried about ‘the A-rabs.’ The angry leftists were often comprised of young students who didn’t understand the way the world worked (me included). These were people who were out of touch and under-educated/experienced, but overly obstinate and opinionated.

At least I think that is the case, but now, now the US is filled with angry people who don’t seem to be able to evaluate, analyse, and think critically about consequences (on both sides). For the Democrats the consequences of this have resulted in the impossibility for others to have dissenting viewpoints. Why could we not elect a socialist like Bernie Sanders? Answer: because everyone is afraid, and we don’t vote for what we really believe, we vote based on tactics (AKA who can beat whom in an election). For the right, this has resulted in people taking a risk due to fear. The risk has resulted in the election of someone with absolutely no experience and no knowledge of economics, political science, or history (three things greatly needed to run a major world power).

So here we are, going along with things and letting our emotions be played. Not learning the pros and cons of free trade so we can weigh in with a legitimate argument, not understanding the tangible and intangible costs and benefits of social services.

Ultimately, this is what a representative democracy should be and that is what our Forefathers had in mind, and on paper it sounds like a super idea: Elect the most qualified individuals that represent my wants and needs and I will go on contributing to society and we will all be cool. Well, that path has been DERAILED, and this is due to fear mongering.

We are too afraid to let third or fourth parties have a voice, because we are so afraid of losing. We won’t compromise with other parties, because they are scary and out to get us. (The right is going to ban abortion for everyone, and the left is going to make it possible for us to achieve the American dream!)  At the same time, we are electing people that don’t represent us, and then, even worse, we stop taking part in democracy.

Democracy is not just voting every four years (or maybe 2 if we are lucky). Taking part in democracy includes petitioning and protesting along the way. It involves voting in local elections for things like education reform. It is about educating yourself on what is the best for you, but not just you, how you sit in society and the world around you. It is about calling or emailing your local representatives and telling them what you want. Instead, we just let the politicians take care of things, so we don’t have to think. We let the parties go in any direction and don’t get involved except for once in four years.

So what do we do now?

First, I think we need to stop being afraid. Instead of telling the other side they are racist and xenophobic, we might want to make our case rationally, opening a dialogue. Sure, people might be racist and xenophobic (ok, some definitely are), but we need to ask people why they are and what they are afraid of. Do white families in the middle of America fear migrants because they are a real threat? Perhaps their past experiences, including the recent Great Recession, and lack of experience with mixed groups have made them afraid of change? I am not saying we need to be making excuses for behaviour, and some cannot be reasoned with, but I believe people are not inherently evil, but more than likely are just afraid.

Second, hands down, we need to focus on increasing funding for education, because it seems to keep people from being so bullied by fear. I am not just talking about getting the degrees, I am talking about investing in QUALITY EDUCATION, which allows people to critically think. We need to start taking part in democracy to help us achieve this. I do not care which side you are on, people who can critically think will not be bullied by fear and will learn to compromise, and more will be achieved.

Third, we need to start taking part in democracy, like really taking part, not just pretending by showing up every 1st Tuesday after the 1st Monday in November every four years.

One positive thing to note, for better or worse, this campaign has opened a dialogue about racism and sexism that seemed to have been mostly closed since the 1970s. We need to seize the opportunity to engage with this dialogue and make lasting change that betters our society as a whole.

Most importantly today, before you begin Tweeting that Trump is not your president (as many did in 2012 when Obama was elected), ask yourself this, ‘Am I being driven by logic or my emotions?’ While you are at it, ask yourself why this happened and has it been of any consequence of your previous (lack of) political participation.

And finally ask yourself if this is the world you want to live in. If not, do something. Take part in this great, big, crazy, scary democracy and be heard, the opportunities are there, seize them.

So let’s do this, people. No time to lose!

Yours Sincerely,

Dr. Michaelle Tauson

Last Night I Dreamt I was a Refugee

Last night I dreamt I was a refugee.

I was offered an opportunity by a stranger, “leave with us or stay here and die. If you go with us, you may also die, but you may also make it to safety and have a future. If you stay here, there is no future. And if you die, at least you die trying to survive, here you are a victim.”

Making the decision was the hardest part. They said I could never come back if I got on the boat, they said there was no way back home. There was not even enough time to say goodbye; if I did not make it safely to shore, my family would never know what had become of me.

I was in love in my dream, and I knew I could never see my lover again, and it filled me with agony and distress. So I asked myself, is it better to die soon, being able to see my family and my love each day for the time we had left? If I stay I would die, or I would watch them die or both. I would have no future where I was.

The other option was try to live a full life, but I would always miss my family and wonder if they were alive, hurt, sick or maybe doing fine.

I decided to go, somehow I felt that I owed it to my family to stay alive, I knew they would want me to have a future, even if I was leaving them behind to face such danger and hardships. I had an opportunity and I had to take it.

We stepped into a small raft and pushed off out to the sea, the journey was terrifying and perilous, but we made it. In my dream I arrived to a land where everything was different and I didn’t know how to live, or act or be. It was scary, and I was terrified. Soon after, I had gotten word that my family was killed and that everyone I knew was dead. The indescribable pain that followed made me believe that maybe I had died too.

Last night I dreamt I was a refugee and it was a nightmare.

Refugee rights advocate/caseworker
Doctoral researcher on refugees and human wellbeing.

The Best of 2014

We started this blog in May 2014 when Michaelle was living in Bangkok, Rachel was living in San Fransisco, and Jennie in Rwanda. Now eight months later, Michaelle is in Brighton, Jennie moved to Tanzania and Rachel is keeping us represented in Bangkok (the place we all met).

To celebrate the fantastic year of 2014, we thought we’d do a joint Christmas post looking back on the highlights of year, what we’ve experienced and learnt.

We always hope that by sharing our experiences we are creating a space where people, especially people away from their families and homes of origin, can find some reassurance, comfort, empathy, or just some amusement. We hope you have been enjoying our random posts this year and will keep up with us in 2015, we promise to get into loads of trouble, maybe even jump out of an airplane again.

Without further ado, The Best of 2014!

The most valuable thing I learnt

Michaelle: It was the year of learning, but I guess the number one thing I learned is that life has a way of working itself out; the answer presents itself eventually to all perceived problems. This year I am going to try to keep that in mind instead of worrying so much!

Jennie: It was without doubt the best year of my life for new learnings, but the most valuable thing I learnt must be that it’s never exclusively a bad thing to find yourself in a difficult situation. With some determination and courage, hardships can open up doors to fantastic new opportunities and possibilities.

Rachel: I’ve lived in three countries this year – Australia, the United States and Thailand. This experience exposed me to three very different cultures, very different communities of people and the very different values and beliefs of individuals living very different lives. What I’ve learnt is that our interests (and our obsessions) are not a given; we weren’t born with them, we were born into them – they are largely shaped by the environments in which we live. This is not surprising, but what is surprising is that despite the circumstantial (and therefore, arbitrary) shaping of our own values and beliefs, we cling to them with conviction, so much so that we often cannot identify with contradictory or differing perspectives. Many of us are willing to openly persecute, vilify or denigrate others to defend our own perspectives. Of course, civilized disagreement is good – it can lead to healthy debate, the readjustment of our thinking and ultimately, the advancement of human consciousness. My point is that we are pretty bad at adjusting our perspectives and even more simply, at respecting different ones. In 2014, I’ve witnessed the “great human disconnect” (which is arguably made worse communication technologies and social media platforms that seem to fortify communities of shared values). The most valuable thing I’ve learnt then is that at least on a personal level, I’ve really got to work on my listening skills.

2014’s Most Unexpected

Michaelle: I never would have expected to gain a brand new family. In 2014 I was so welcomed into the Palestinian-Syrian refugee community in Bangkok  and  I never could have expected so much love from a group of people. Also, after having faced a war in Syria and innumerable hardships in Bangkok, you could never imagine how much love they still have to give. They make me believe in the good in the world and I am proud and inspired by their strength.

Finding family everywhere

Finding family everywhere

Jennie: Everything about 2014 was unexpected. I started it off rather miserable, having recently split with my fiancé, more or less unemployed and temporarily living with my parents in a snowy and dark Sweden. I remember watching the fireworks on my own on New Year’s Eve – my parents at a party and my guests already home with their two small children. The future seemed a tad gloomy.

In the midst of it all, I had this nagging gut feeling telling me that I needed to go back to Rwanda for a volunteer opportunity. I didn’t have much money and no real plan B, but went anyway. Now, a year later, I’m looking back on 2014 and seeing some of the best times of my life. I have made a ridiculous amount of new friends, many which I’ll keep for life, and I’ve landed a dream job in Tanzania.

This New Year’s Eve, I spent in Dar es Salaam cooking up a storm with three (2014 new) good friends. I couldn’t be happier.

Jennie nye 2013

NYE 2013, not quite the party we had this year.

Rachel: Late one Monday night, I was lost in Los Gatos, California, with Terry Hershner. There was almost no charge left on his electric motorcycle – our only mode of transportation on a public holiday in this small isolated city. Cold, hungry, grumpy, lost, we stumbled across the only bar in town showing any sign of life – a group of beautiful, middle-aged women enjoying the remnants of a lavish meal. The restaurant had closed, but out of kindness, these women invited us to join their table and before we knew it, we were the centre of their attention, eating their leftovers, drinking their wine and sharing stories of our journeys across California on Terry’s electric motorcycle. This was the night I met Durga, an Indian, cricket playing venture capitalist with a gapingly open heart and open mind. After we’d finished eating, she invited us back to her house and almost 24 hours later, several Indian meals later, we were still there, sharing stories, exchanging beliefs and how we each hoped to impact the world. It was the most unexpected encounter of my life to date and it’s a day I’ll never forget. I think of Durga often and how wonderful it is to live so openly and without judgment to the strangers around us.

I spent too much time worrying/thinking about…

Michaelle: Men. They take up entirely too much time. On top of that, I have the worst taste in men. If I were the statue of liberty my sign would read “Give me your passive aggressive, your emotionally unavailable, your masses of idiots”. I have no general solution on the topic, however.

Jennie: Contract extensions. Job applications. Written tests for jobs. Job interviews. Those stupid things I said in job interviews. Hearing back from job interviews. Whether or not I would get job A, B or C and move to X, Y or Z. Whether or not I would die unemployed and penniless of exhaustion.

Rachel: I want to help create educational resources for kids. At some point in the process of creating these resources, I started to question my own motivation  – was I doing this because I believed in the cause, or because I wanted to prove myself and my own capabilities? I had definitely taken a fairly significant stand in moving away from the UN system to go it on my own. But was this about ego or conviction? Once the idea entered my head, I found it hard to erase and I could not easily separate these two driving forces. In the end, worrying about this has held me back from doing something important. As Mark Twain famously penned, “Twenty years from now you will be more disappointed by the things you didn’t do than by the ones you did do. So throw off the bowlines. Sail away from the safe harbor. Catch the trade winds in your sails. Explore. Dream. Discover.” There is no point stalling. In 2015, it’s time to start creating.

I particularly remember this one happy moment…

Michaelle: I was getting into bed one night in Bangkok in the flat I shared with a wonderful woman named Erin. I yelled goodnight to her through my open door into the neighbouring kitchen. She responds with, “Did you just say I love you?”

“Haha, no,” I said, “but I do!” And we started saying I love you before bed each night. It sounds ridiculous, I know, but it always felt like a real home there, and when you are so far from your roots, it is all you need.

Jennie: 2014 was the year of road trips. I think it was in September, three good friends and I travelled up to Musanze and Burera in Rwanda. We found some stunning spots with views over lakes, mountains and volcanoes. We took silly photos of ourselves surveying the lands and came up with inside jokes we’re still laughing about. We ate home-made pasta at a small Italian restaurant, drank tequila shots and played semi-drunken “would you rather”. Having recently gotten a new job, I knew I’d soon have to leave beautiful Rwanda and these friends behind. Rather than feeling sad, it made me appreciate the time we had together so much more.

jennie tanzania

Rachel: I was in Barcelona on the Feast Day of St Joan, the start of Summer and the longest day of the year for the Spaniards. It was also my final day in Spain after a three week holiday. I remember reflecting on my state of mind and I realized that I could not remember feeling happier than I had over those past few months and especially those past few weeks holidaying in Spain. My happiness was tied to the beautiful company, the weather, the tastes and smells of Spain and then also the perfect dosage of alone time for necessary contemplation and appreciation. As I wrote then: “It’s late and I’m sitting beside an 85 year old women in a wheelchair who is drinking wine and laughing her head off. I don’t understand a word she says. Sometimes I fear that I’ve reached peak happiness. Watching her tonight, and with all that lies ahead, I doubt that could be true. So with firecrackers all around, salud to you Espana, for reminding me that happiness is always right here right now and that life – for it’s a jagged edges – is beautiful.”

Three people I would like to thank and why

Michaelle: There are too many. Can I group them into threes?

1.Fouad, Shouaq, Ibrahim for helping me with my PhD and becoming my family.

2. Dave Green and Erin Bodnar for emotionally supporting me through a super tough year.

3. Jennie and Rachel for always, always listening.

There are too many more people to thank and I am so grateful for all of them.

Jennie: I will only mention two: Michaelle and Rachel. Although I could easily write a 10 page essay about why, I will settle with them just being there, every step of the journey, always. Crying with me, laughing with me, telling me off, giving me advice and letting me do the same for them.

Rachel: Aside from Jennie and Michaelle, you have become like sisters to me, here’s mine:

Terry. In 2014, I spent two months with the wonderful Terry Hershner, helping promote the film Kick Gas and also learning a lot more about electric vehicle technology from one of the greatest EV enthusiasts in the world. Intellectually, Terry is far superior to me – I could not pretend to keep pace with his brilliant mind. Nonetheless, we have a beautiful connection and he has a beautiful heart. For all that he hopes to achieve in pushing electric vehicle technology and for all his crazy ideas, I admire Terry immensely. My life is richer simply for having met him.

Azin. Michaelle and I were playing tinder one night in Bangkok when Azin popped up as a match. She grabbed my phone and starting texting him. We met Azin that night and while he was only passing through the city and looking for friends to meet, for us, this was anything but a momentary passing. Since we met in July, I’ve come to regard Azin as one of the greatest listeners I’ve ever known. He’s also one of the most driven and most ambitious. For the something within that drives his entrepreneurial spirit, Azin has inspired in me a greater confidence in my own capability.

Ibrahim. If my year has been wild and carefree, Ibrahim’s has been the complete opposite. Some people have real problems and I am not one of them. But some of those that do have the inner resilience to not only overcome real challenges in their personal lives, but to pull the rest of us along with them, empowering us and inspiring us too. Ibrahim doesn’t judge a soul and in his humility and openness, he inspires me to be a better person. I don’t believe it’s coincidence that he and I have crossed paths in this life. Ibrahim has taught me a lot about the real challenges of so many in this world and about human connection.

Rachel and Terry on their many adventures

Rachel on one of her many adventures

2014 described with three words

Michaelle: Challenging. Eye-opening. Over (thankfully).

Jennie: Metamorphosis. Friendship. Adventure.

Rachel: Painful. Exhilarating. Joyous.

Michaelle's 2014 summarized here.

In Summary: Michaelle’s 2014

What I’m looking forward to in 2015

Michaelle: Finishing my PhD, writing a book, the conflict ending in Syria. I also hope to just go with it a bit more this year, I am on the right path, this much I am certain, I just need to stay on it and enjoy the ride.

Jennie: Seeing my parents again after more than a year and taking them on an epic holiday through East Africa: gorillas, safaris, craters, beaches, mountains and lakes. Showing them where I’ve lived and where I’m living, watching them also fall in love with these stunning places. It’s long overdue.

And while 2014 was a year of personal growth, transformation and change, I think 2015 will “institutionalise” these changes, slow things down and make the ride a bit more comfortable. Yet not any less fun!

Rachel: In 2014, I existed like a feather in the wind, floating by observing the lives of those around me, and occasionally getting sucked into them. I’ll be 30 in 2015 and I consider that an age of marked maturity and a time to transition from the role of passive student to proactive instigator. I’m feeling wiser for my wild and carefree 2014 and I think I needed this year off to reevaluate my values. Floating through so many very different communities in so many different countries has been critical to this. Ultimately it’s strengthened the convictions I’ve always held and with a stronger sense of self, I’m excited to see what I’m capable of creating.

Why are you so unhappy? The Paradox of Choice

PoC3A few months prior, when I was trying to make what I thought at the time was a tough decision, a good friend of mine introduced me to the theory of the Paradox of Choice (you may have heard of this before; if you haven’t, please do have a listen- it is pretty spot on). As an economist I am very familiar with this idea. The theory is akin to that of opportunity cost; when you choose one thing, you are giving up another. Basically, you can’t have it all.

The feelings that result from giving up option A over option B can be rather dissatisfying. I can go to the movies with Rachel, but that means I choose to not have that coffee with Jennie. The result is sadness, frustration, and a general ‘grass is always greener’ sentiment, especially if my perception of my outing was unfavourable (AKA the movie sucked or Rachel would not share the popcorn – she never does). When a decision is more difficult the opportunity cost is higher, and the feelings of frustration and loss can be more dramatic.

PoC6We are faced with a million decisions a day, and it can be overwhelming. Some scholars are blaming this phenomenon for the general discontent and sort of neurotic behaviour of the individuals of our generation; bottom line, we have too many choices. We make so many decisions every single day, and irrelevant of our life situation, most decisions seem life altering. Even if they are, are they really that important? Do we really have THAT much choice, or do things just sort of work out?

PoC4I feel that many of my friends spend their days wondering if they made the right decisions, if they are currently making the right decisions. I ran into a friend at yoga who had decided to pick up and move to Australia. I asked her if she was excited and she said she wasn’t sleeping, thinking about whether or not it was the right thing to do; she was worried it was not going to work out. I have heard many of my friends complaining, complaints that would make anyone cringe if they heard them in the company of disadvantaged individuals. They are deciding if they should work or get a PhD, if they should live on this continent or that, or if they should take this great job or that great job.

PoC5Earlier this year I was dating a guy who was ready to jump feet first into a serious relationship. I was apprehensive and this was causing major strife between us. I ended the relationship, then got back with him, then ended it, then got back with him. I was a mess. I could not make a decision, did I want to try to make a time consuming long distance relationship work with a great, albeit intense guy? Or did I want to have my freedom and focus on my PhD? At the end of the day, the entire thing came to a screeching halt in what, in retrospect, is probably the most comical ending of all time: enraged by my refusal to strip for him on Skype, he called me selfish and ended whatever the heck was going on between us. Clearly this was not ever going to be the relationship for me, and my gut told me to end it, but then I was so scared that I had made the wrong decision, that I went back. I did this twice, even though, ultimately, the outcome would have been the exact same.

At the end of the day, everything we choose leaves us feeling like we are giving up so much, missing out on everything we could have had, leaving us resentful and unsatisfied.

We need to knock this off, and this is how I suggest we do that – Remember the following:

1)      Listen to your instinct. I know, I know, we are supposed to be highly evolved creatures who think everything through and make rational decisions. Listening to our rational mind is what separates us from the animals, right? Sure, but that does not mean your gut is lying to you. My rational mind almost got me stuck in a relationship that was so very wrong for me!

2)      Sometimes decisions don’t matter, at all. You can’t know what would have happened if you had taken choice A instead of choice B. If you take that job in city X versus city Y, you will never ever know who you would have met in city Y, and you will never ever be able to compare. Maybe you would have gotten hit by a bus upon stepping out of the airport.

3)      Take your decision and make it work. In American English we say “make a decision” in most of the rest of the world they say  “take a decision.” I prefer the latter. Taking a decision means taking responsibility and ownership of your decisions. You could be happy in so many different cities, with so many different people, doing so many different things. If you only like one person and only like to eat one thing and only like to do one thing, then maybe I am wrong, but I doubt it. So take your decision, own it, be it, do it. Be happy you are where you are, be grateful you have had the experiences you have had because they make you the person you are, and quit your bitching, you are fine.

St. Vincent – Digital Witness

St. Vincent is an American born musician who is absolutely oozing with talent. Her highly complex, yet perfectly arranged music is something you should be spending a lot of time with.

This track, digital witness, pokes a bit of fun at our desire to make public our every waking experience. (Clearly we are guilty over here, we have a blog!)