Today, plastic is in the news nearly as much as President Trump. More individuals, institutions and countries than ever before are waging war against this new enemy. Whether we are now boycotting all packaging and disposables, drinking out of reusable bottles, or just saying no to straws, there is a definite sense of collective effort in reducing our careless reliance on plastic. The sheer amount of waste humanity can - and needn’t - produce has finally started to weigh heavily on us. And we are no longer only concerned with treating the visible symptoms - cleaning up beaches and filling up our recycling bins once a week. The conversation has shifted to why we need, or don’t need, plastic in the first place.
Today is International Women’s Day, and I love that there is now so much to collectively celebrate as well as champion. We’ve come such a long way in such a short time. Certainly it is easy to notice both the glaring and subtle inequalities that persist in the opportunities afforded to men and women, and in their representation (or lack thereof) across all aspects of culture. But the immense progress made in the advancement of women as equal and potent protagonists in the building of society, over the last century particularly, is nothing short of astounding. One aspect that resonates with me particularly is the rise of the voice of the mother. In what can be seen in historical terms as occurring with breathtaking swiftness, she has emerged from almost total obscurity to claim her rightful, powerful place in humanity’s great evolution.
‘Black Friday’ - a relatively recent American phenomenon that immediately follows Thanksgiving - has now unapologetically spilled over into many other countries in the Western world. Even here in Malta, a traditional Mediterranean island, there are special opening hours and discounts (plus huge transport disruptions) on this day. And of course in the world of online shopping, anyone can partake of Black Friday's offers - curiously, quietly, greedily. It’s a day that celebrates and feasts on mass consumerism, and which countless businesses feel compelled to participate in - even when they operate outside the cultural context of Thanksgiving. This year, the date is also ironically shared with ‘Buy Nothing Day’ - which, as it sounds, promotes the exact opposite values and behaviours to ‘Black Friday’. The discourse around all of this is conflicting: hype and excitement mixed with resistance and disdain. There are lots of opinions, and lots of counter-initiatives too. Upon reading about some of them, it struck me that this is a wonderful opportunity to think more about ethical buying and small businesses. It is also a chance to cultivate more consciousness and conversation on the force of consumerism. But all the attention surrounding ‘Black Friday’ and ‘Buy Nothing Day’ can also act as veils to perhaps a more important issue - materialism itself.
We read and hear a lot about ‘busyness’ these days. People say - and feel - that they are busy all the time, and it is treated and accepted as a symptom of the age. The more we talk about it, tinged with a mixture of pride and apology, the more busyness becomes a kind of cultural narrative. It’s undeniable that life is very full for most people in today’s (at least Western) society. There are an intricate array of demands on our time due to the cost of living, raising families while maintaining jobs, less localised activity and therefore more travel, interacting with people across time and space almost constantly, and somehow trying to carve out windows for other interests, therapies and recreation too. Some individuals are also engaged in service-oriented activities that aim to help various populations, be it local or international. All of this is a far cry from life several decades ago, when everything was a lot more limited - in terms of where we could go, who we could communicate with, and what we could participate in. We knew less about the world, its problems, opportunities and needs; we simply had fewer options and less information to process.
I realised, after my friends started having children, that our conversations were different. They had all the zeal of intention from before - to share, to discuss, to analyse - but somehow they didn’t seem to bloom in the same way. I’m not referring to the content, but more to the lifespan and completion of a conversation. After my own daughter began to move and demand a little more of my attention than nursing or gurgling as I chatted away, I began to understand. Interruptions from little ones are sometimes sweet and lispy like the first patterings of rain at a picnic, and sometimes boisterous and unsettling like a thunderclap. But they are all a little frustrating because they interrupt the flow of something else which, at that moment, holds your focus more. Of course, my friends and I all accepted that it was simply more difficult now to have meaningful or prolonged conversations when the children were there. We began to ‘postpone’ them to evening phone calls and visits, when we were often tired but longing for some stretches of listening and talking in adult proportions. This is no revelation to anyone with young children, or to anyone trying to have a conversation with someone with young children. It’s fine, it’s a phase, and even a privilege. The revelation to me was that this pattern of interruption was possibly the most exhausting thing about motherhood.
I had already decided to write on this subject when I sat down in a cafe and saw something that pained my heart. A woman in her early forties drank her coffee at a small table, fidgeted, twiddled her hair compulsively, and looked so very agitated. Every now and then she would pick up her phone or press a single button so that the screen would light up and tell her something, or nothing. She was physically in the cafe, but so intensely internalised in her condition that she could have been anywhere. As I reflected on ‘isolation’, I realised that our society is now harbouring so many expressions of this that it is hard to even identify them. We are long passed the familiar example of an elderly person sitting at home in loneliness - although this is in no way deserves less urgent attention. But isolation, in all its forms, is impressing itself on all of us every day. Individuals can now venture out of their home into a public space, and essentially remain veiled and separate from their environment, like puppets in a show, heedless of the set change behind them. They notice little, and are noticed little. Of course, sometimes we leave our homes and feel alive and conscious of it all - the weather, the sky, the sounds, the people passing at that moment, but even then the experience is so easily very solitary. At other times, we can rush from thing to thing out of habit and necessity, and rarely engage with present reality at all - we are thinking about what’s happened or projecting to what hasn’t. Perhaps worst of all is when we desire to interact with others but somehow feel so stifled by convention and our culture of isolation, that it is difficult or even dangerous in our minds to do so. As the roads fill with cars, and the malls with shoppers, and the beaches with bathers, we all become more and more alone, and less and less confident to connect.
Celebrations are underway in every part of the world in response to the 200th anniversary of the birth of Bahá’u’lláh, the Founder of the Baha’i Faith. Countless local and national celebrations, embracing every culture and segment of society, are inspired by a desire to unite and contribute to the betterment of the world. This is the message of Bahá’u’lláh, who declared that today ‘is the Day in which God’s most excellent favours have been poured out upon men, the Day in which His most mighty grace hath been infused into all created things. It is incumbent upon all the peoples of the world to reconcile their differences, and, with perfect unity and peace, abide beneath the shadow of the Tree of His care and loving-kindness.’
The age-old quest for good health and vitality presses on. It has enlisted many over the years, but today is more visible and alluring than ever before thanks in no small part to mainstream and social media where the exchange of image-rich information is overwhelming. This ‘wellbeing’ quest has become an industry - marketed, consumed, and ever-renewed - and has ironically created unhealthy patterns of addiction that feed on discontent and guilt in the process. But isn’t it reasonable, amongst all the craze, to simply want to be well, to be fit, to be energetic? Doesn’t it make sense to adjust our habits in the light of research, to eat better, to exercise our bodies, and to prolong our lifespan?
As we move closer together on this contracting globe, as we encounter difference more and more, and open our eyes, ears, taste buds and hearts to other cultures, I feel that the way we care about others truly deserves some attention. Acts of targeted violence unfold before our eyes in a disturbingly rhythmic, predictable pattern; and the reaction is similar. Shock, outrage, sadness and despair are voiced alike by the media and our friends. And then? Mostly, everybody forgets. It is almost becoming a habit. For a few days - a few weeks at most - all our attention is turned to the latest horror and we break into a ritualistic - albeit sincere - outcry of solidarity. But is this model of engaging with the state of our world actually very helpful?