Making a connection in difficult times

This morning I woke up to a flurry of whatsapp messages from my cousins in the UK.

The messages drew from our respective memories of making child-hood visits to our grandparent’s house, down in Ramsgate, Kent.

What felt, for my brother and me back then in the early to mid 1980’s, like a life-time spent in the back seat of our parent’s car (playing ‘I-spy’, stopping at service stations, before – at last – pitching up alongside the seafront, and knocking on the pale green back-door, awaiting our Grandad’s inevitable greeting of “not today, thank-you”) was brought back to life in the moments of recall described in my cousins’ whatsapp chatter.

The instant recall and sentiments that popped up in these messages was palpable. Our Nan’s signature offerings (cherry cakes, iced fingers, Dandelion and Burdoock fizzy drinks, apple and blackberry pies) alongside our grandparent’s familiar household ornaments (a glass-topped table displaying our school photos, KP salted peanuts in a bowl, and a walnut cracker proudly stood between a family of wooden elephants) and then the excitable excursions we all took in between being served up huge quantities of food (down to the games arcade, “moving the flags on the putting green” and throwing little parachuted plastic soldiers off the white cliff tops).

The picture painted was so very satisfying and instant. I sensed we’d all happily opened our hearts to it, and to being back there again.

me and matt
Me, Mum and my brother, Matt, in our Grandparents’ garden in Ramsgate, circa 1980.

Amid so much turmoil right now, these moments are sacred and unifying.

When markets recover and normality is restored, regardless of how shaped it will be from these recent times, there is a sense (shared by some commentators) that our ambitions and values, and sense of civic responsibilities, might have been enhanced in a positive way. That we will, perhaps, think more about each other, and less about our own desires.

Part of the anxieties surrounding these present and future scenarios could well be the ‘not knowing’. The lack of control we have in the current moment. The diminishing returns being presented to those of us unaccustomed to such a reality.

Already, in the international development sector (the core realm from where my definitelymaybe posts typically begin their journey) much is being written about the fact that, for years now, we’ve designed development programmes for marginalised communities around the world that ultimately try to build people’s capacities to be resilient in the face of crisis. How to best absorb, adapt and transform when “shocks” occur.

The related concepts and tools published about resiliency are multiple.

The learning cycles that unfold in typical social development programming have never been easy to fully articulate, nor, ironically, to learn from. I imagine, in current times, powerful lessons will be captured about resiliency, from countries around the world who are themselves locking down right now, freezing their economic development, and moving into unprecedented waters.

The reasons that programme learning cycles might not be up to scratch are many. There can, for example, often be no clear learning strategy made early on in the design of a programme, which then undermines learning at a later date. There are awkward funding processes, too, which mean organisations aren’t always readily resourced to invest in their partnerships, and in their learning, because they are under pressure to chase down the next grant.

I think there also exist fundamental divides between the different stakeholders engaged in social programming. Namely, and crudely, those designing and implementing and then those on the “receiving end”. Whilst there are a plethora of human-centred design frameworks growing in number (where the emphasis on design is led by “end-user”) too often organisations are not localising their solutions.

We devise a micro-loan product, for example, without properly testing the assumption that micro-loans are needed or desired. A training course might provide women with new skills and the confidence to earn better income, without involving their husbands in the process, and considering the consequences of the dis-empowerment which this new dynamic might cause the men.

Right now, one of the outcomes of Covid-19 is that some people are turning more attention “inwards”, to their families and friends – looking for answers, for reassurances, for distraction, for compassion and empathy, for something light-hearted, something human.

These acts of unity and solidarity are, in many ways, the same acts playing out everyday, and across every local community, acts born out of survival and respect, given freely and with humility. From the street-vendors I pass here in Saigon, to the farmers harvesting rice in the fields outside the city, and the young woman working in a garment factory and sending home her earnings.

There is a unifying chemistry binding people here in Vietnam who are, one day at a time, hustling to make a living, coping, ready for things to change one way or the other, determined to keep moving forward.

Theirs is as wide spanning a connection, in a country of 96 million, as can be made. A rich network of knowledge and intuition, of grit and resilience.

Have we, perhaps, missed the simplicity of answering some of the world’s weightiest development challenges by trying to invent solutions too complicated, with processes and systems too politically charged, when the actual answers are staring us in the face?

What does sustainable development look like beyond the horizon of this current pandemic, and in light of what can be learnt from it, I wonder?

That is to be seen.

However, it feels our biggest chance to learn from one another – on so many levels – and to put that learning into practice in the future, could come from these inward facing instincts and, indeed, in this very moment of our time.

nan and grandad
My Grandparents, Ron and Lilian, with my Mum and her brother, Brian. Early 1970s.

 

You only go round once

obama
The table where Obama and Bourdain shared a beer and some Vietnamese bun cha

“If I’m an advocate for anything, it’s to move. As far as you can, as much as you can. Across the ocean, or simply across the river. The extent to which you can walk in someone else’s shoes or at least eat their food, it’s a plus for everybody. Open your mind, get up off the couch, move.”

Anthony Bourdain’s words, infectiously honest and, this weekend, hours after he took his own life on Friday, painted all over the internet, a jubilant hat-tip to an affable and engaging character.

It was after a work colleague and her husband (in their home in Dhaka) introduced me to the delights of the cocktail Negroni, that I then stumbled across Bourdain’s youtube advice on how to make one, and I became hooked (both to the drink and to the man).

Bourdain was, in his words, “still dunking French fries at the age of 44” scraping together a livelihood, before the publication of his seminal essay Don’t Eat Before Reading This in The New Yorker, in April 1999, guaranteeing him instant, and ultimately global, popularity.

What I like about his quote above, on the merits of “moving”, is the simplicity of the sentiment, rooted in the instincts Bourdain curated over years of moving around the world himself.

He’d be the first to recognize that not everyone has the luxury of covering as many contexts as he has, but I like that he’s relentlessly stuck to the same message about what he has learned in being constantly on the move. And I think it’s a great message.

Vietnam was one of his more cherished places to visit, too. When Issy and me ever visit Hoi An, we always eat banh mi from the shop – named Phuong’s – made popular by Bourdain, after he sampled one of their banh mis and declared it a “symphony in a sandwich“.

The table in Hanoi, at which he and Barack Obama famously shared bun cha just two years ago, has now been enshrined in a glass cabinet, so proud were the owners of being chosen to host them. And, if you watch some of Bourdain’s documentaries about travelling around the United States, it tends to be a spicy bowl of Vietnamese pho noodles that he goes in search of, on a morning where the hangover is particularly smarting.

In the video above, Bourdain’s unbridled joy at returning to Vietnam and eating street-food turns him into “a giddy, silly foolish man, beyond caring”.

With trademark sign off to his viewers to get out and sample food like this for yourself, his straight-laced take on the everyday importance of community, empathy, humour, and compassion resonated clearly with the millions of people who avidly followed his pursuits from country to country.

**********

It was Milan Kundera, the Czech-born writer who explains in his novel, The Unbearable Lightness of Being, about compassion as having several meanings, depending upon the language origin.

From the Latin, the meaning is “with suffering” whereas, for other variants, the word infers more of the act of “feeling”.

Kundera goes on to state that compassion, taking the Latin derivative, means “we cannot look on coolly as others suffer; or, we sympathize with those who suffer.” For the non-Latin version, “to have compassion (co-feeling) means not only to be able to live with the other’s misfortune but also to feel with him any emotion – joy, anxiety, happiness, pain.”

What Kundera concludes for this second definition of compassion, as a form of feeling, is that it “therefore signifies the maximal capacity of affective imagination, the art of emotional telepathy. In the hierarchy of sentiments, then, it is supreme.”

In Kundera’s novel, his protagonist, Tomas, struggles with a compassion he feels for Tereza (which she “has infected” in him) and it occurs to him that “there is nothing heavier than compassion…not even one’s own pain weighs so heavy as the pain one feels with someone, for someone, a pain intensified by the imagination and prolonged by a hundred echoes”.

In this regard, compassion doesn’t seem like something which would be easy to sustain. In its purest form, it could eventually drive too many emotions round and round your consciousness and your being, that you’d be rendered trapped.

Perhaps a corollary exists here with the compassion that, I think, partly underscores Bourdain’s “open your mind” call to action.

As he moves from one culinary and cultural indulgence to the next, he consistently tells his viewers to use travel and food to gain a different perspective and appreciation of what the world is all about. By extension, he is inviting others into a dynamic whereby they could be susceptible to compassionate feelings for others.

I’m fairly sure that Bourdain’s expectations in doing this weren’t so others would embrace their compassionate inner selves and take on the suffering or the feelings of all those people they meet along the way. However, whilst he knows his shows are entertaining first and foremost, I also feel he does hope to inspire some strain of compassion by sharing his own experiences.

To me, there is some middle ground here. Your movements, your curiosities, your exposure to new things, your ability to actively listen and learn, all of these things leave an indelible mark on who you are. Sometimes this can hurt and other times it produces unfettered joy. Whether it creates compassion specifically in the way that Milan Kundera has analysed the form, or whether a different lens is gifted you through which to view the world, is perhaps less important.

Anthony Bourdain seemed to enjoy living in the present moment – “you only go round once” he exclaims, after his second bite of the Hoi An banh mi. He carried with him an authentic and hearty joie de vivre and a charmingly blunt and down-to-earth swagger, which made his worldly ebullience mesmerizing.

That Bourdain lived a life where roguish enquiry, experimentation, connection and celebration were cornerstones, the darker periods of time to which he was susceptible may also have been mutually reinforcing components to his character.

Of his sudden suicide, more will be revealed. I only hope, as Kundera’s character Tomas felt it “weighing heavy, and prolonged by a hundred echoes”, that Bourdain’s propensity to feel compassion didn’t take hold in such a way, time and again, that its indelible mark was just too much to bear.

ab
Anthony Bourdain eating in Vietnam. Photo credit: http://www.eater.com