Wednesday, 31 August 2011

Self mastery in the face of whatever?

So I was blagging about Epictetus the last time I contributed to this blog. I'm not exactly a scholar of the ancient Greek philosophers, but I once saw this quote by Epictetus which has stuck in my head since: "No man is free who is not master of himself."

Every once in a while I stop and ask: am I a free man? Am I a master of myself, especially while I'm dependent on state benefits and not earning money? Surely, there are times when adversity hits us hard and we may need friends, family or a social safety net to support us for a while. Then there are vulnerable people who need all the help they can get. This makes for a compassionate society.

The wisdom and views of Epictetus fascinate me and give me a benchmark against which to check myself from time to time. And some of his quotes put a bit of steel in my backbone!

You see, ole Epictetus was an ancient Greek philosopher who belonged to the Stoic school. The Stoics believed in cultivating inner strength, in the face of adversity. To Epictetus and the Greek stoics, external events are determined by fate and are thus beyond our control, but we can accept whatever happens calmly and dispassionately. Individuals can reflect on what happens to them and around them, and control their actions and lives through rigorous self-discipline. Suffering comes from trying to control what is uncontrollable, or from neglecting what is within our power.

Epictetus started life as a slave. As a youth he found a passion for philosophy, studied under a Stoic master and eventually became a teacher of philosophy himself. Thus a lot of his teachings were derived from the school of hard knocks. He taught that: “People are disturbed, not by things, but by the principles and notions which they form concerning things. Death, for instance, is not terrible … the terror consists in our notion of death that it is terrible.”

Training, self-discipline, practice, acquiring wisdom … these are the tools that the Stoics suggested for acquiring self-mastery. I think we need a good dose of that in modern times as in ancient times. Some things don’t change.

Of course, the real test in life comes down to how one behaves in the face of real challenges. For example, in the recent looting and rioting in London and other parts of the country, there were people who went out to rightfully protest against what they saw as an injustice, some went out to loot and pillage, some went to watch the looting, and some people to clean up afterwards. Epictetus would have had a stern word with those who thought they could use the excuse of anger or dispossession as excuse or reason to loot and wreak havoc in their own communities.

As I'm writing this blog now, I'm having an interesting challenge with the benefits system. My Job Centre sent me a 13-week work experience program which I went through with diligence and even got A* from my advisers. Even though it didn't lead to a job right away, the program has given me invaluable experience and put me on a road of going back to work – for which I'm most appreciative.

But next came the surprise: instead of transitioning me back to benefits, I got multiple letters telling me my JSA had been stopped and that my housing benefit had been suspended. Now I had to go through the whole rigmarole of re-applications even though my situation was perfectly known by the Benefits Office. Why put people through this excruciating process? Did some bureaucrat deliberately formulate the rules to cause the maximum inconvenience and discomfort to benefit claimants – in the hope that some of them will fall out of the system? When I spoke to Housing Benefit staff, I was told: "Oh we get this all the time. It may take a couple of weeks for your re-application to be sorted". Even with a good dose of Epictetus, one needs more than a strong stomach on these occasions to maintain one’s cool.

But there you go: who said life is a cake walk. I'm told that we grow by the stuff that challenge us, not the fun stuff. I do agree with Epictetus when he says: "The essence of philosophy is that a man should so live that his happiness shall depend as little as possible on external things." Other than that, they or circumstances and have got you by the neck!

By Ready Ready, guest contributor

Tuesday, 30 August 2011

So what's it like when you do get a job?

(No it's not me) I was watching the late night news, Bank Holiday Monday on the BBC, and there was one item on the local bulletin which really stood out. It was only a snippet, but it really struck a chord with me.

There was a short piece about a mother from East Ham who had just landed herself a job. This in itself isn't news, but this woman's reaction was, she was so clearly overjoyed. The job was at the new Westfield shopping centre in Stratford, east London.They have built a new shopping centre in Stratford right next door to the Olympic Park. This shopping centre will employ 10 000 people, as and when it's fully up and running. (I did send off CVs to several retail chains, but not a word back.) Anyway this woman had got herself a job in the staff canteen at John Lewis.

I don't know this woman, she seemed just like your average mother of teenagers. It was a delight to see her reaction that to most of us would seem like fairly mundane news. Her delight was something I entirely understood. It wasn't the job of her dreams but it was A JOB. She'd been out of work for three years and even her son had known she was depressed. Let's face it - teenage boys are not the most sensitive.

When she was interviewed this woman, Tina, told of her reaction when she received the letter with the news. The first thing she did was to pass the letter to her son to get him to read it back to her and to tell her what it said, and then she got him to read it to her again, and again just to check.

So Tina's first reaction was one of disbelief. To me this is completely understandable: you wonder if you'll ever work again, you make so many phone calls, you send out so many CVs ... on the phone the usual reaction is; "sorry the post has gone," or "sorry you haven't got the experience we're looking for". As for CVs, you very rarely get any acknowledgement that you have shown any interest.

So all I have to say is well done to this woman Tina and thank you for brightening up my week end.

Monday, 22 August 2011

Crime and Punishment

So the UK has another of those moral panics it does so well. This time it's all about feral hoodies with absent fathers and unbridled lawlessness that's been sweeping the nation. Yep, that's right I'm talking about the rioting and the looting again. For my earlier thoughts see London's burning.

On Monday 22 August, the Metropolitan Police said they thought that 30 000 people had been involved in the recent troubles. 3296 offences have been reported, including 162 arson offences, 48 cases of serious wounding and 80 cases of assault with injury. So far there have been 1875 arrests and 1070 people have been charged.

Now I'm not for a moment suggesting these people shouldn't get punished for their wrongdoing. But is the response of the judiciary proportionate? David Cameron approves, last week he said; "they have decided to send a tough message and it's very good that the courts feel able to do that." So many people are getting remanded in custody, and so many people are being jailed for what seem fairly trivial offences. And whose benefit are we doing this for? To teach people a lesson? Or are we just doing this to make the British public feel better? It costs 40 thousand pounds a year to keep a male prisoner inside. On top of which the prisons have never been so full and they're well nigh fit to burst.

Another thing which I'm having trouble getting my head around is the notion that people who are convicted should lose their benefits and even lose their right to public housing! This is just bonkers. Nothing has been decided for sure yet but the idea seems immensely popular, especially with the general public to the extent that an on-line petition in favour, is gathering pace and has reached the numbers required to enable MPs to table it for debate it in the House. MPs reconvene sometime in early October. That's another thing I don't understand, I thought we did away with the idea of mob rule years ago? This idea that anyone with a bee in their bonnet can start an e-petition and persuade the government to debate it doesn't strike me as an extension of democracy, it smacks of a charter for all manner of odd-balls, extremists and assorted loonies to get their voices more widely heard.

I think most of us would agree that those who took part in the rioting and looting were people who live out their lives at the edges of society. Many unemployed, young, poor people took part in these disturbances. The Education Maintenance Allowance has gone, the Future Jobs Fund which had helped fund 100 000 jobs for young people since its introduction in 2009 went in March this year. Pretty much every social commentator you listen to or read will tell you that life for the majority of young people is grim right now and not about to get better anytime soon. If you want to a hear things from a young persons perspective please read YH World.

To think about taking away benefits and even housing from people who live on the periphery of society strikes me as utter madness. Then what happens? The people who are affected by these proposals, their quality of life will suffer, they will be further marginalised, they will undoubtably go on to commit further crime, their sense of social exclusion will intensify, it's a recipe for disaster.

Michael White of the Guardian (perhaps I'm showing my colours there) wrote in a blog of his last week: "It's the latest manifestation of an old problem. We all want to punish the seriously bad guys, but sometimes it's easier to make an example of the idiots."

Wednesday, 17 August 2011

This is my world

  1. Single bed

  2. Sink

  3. Chair - like you would get at a kitchen counter

  4. Kitchen counter ( there is a kitchen cupboard on the wall above this)

  5. Wardrobe

  6. Bookshelf

This is my world, this is where I am when I am in. The room is 15 foot 10 inches long and 5 foot 10 inches wide. If I stand next to the bed and stretch out my arms I can touch both walls. I have lived here for six years and one month. This is where I eat, sleep, listen to the radio, watch TV and read. If I eat when I am here, I have a big tray which I rest on the bed. If I want to watch the telly I get it out of the bottom of the wardrobe and put that on the bed too.

I don't regard this place as my home - it's just where I live.

Tuesday, 9 August 2011

London's burning

I had the chance yesterday evening to witness one of these street riots live (a ten minute walk away). There were two police helicopters in the air, and the whole neighbourhood was talking of nothing else.

The air of excitement was palpable. I shrugged my middle-aged shoulders and thought well, I'll see it better on the telly, and trudged off to where I live.

So what on earth is happening? "It's just criminality" is the quote so frequently trotted out. Well murder is just criminality for crying out loud. It's a phrase that means anything you want it to mean, but is guaranteed to garner popular headlines and popular support from an outraged if mystified public. This doesn't constitute informed opinion. For further thoughts on this, read Penny Red's blog.

Yesterday I had next to no sympathy for what these people were up to on account of the fact that they didn't seem to know what they wanted and were robbing phone shops and, for instance, Footlocker. I felt that in Tottenham last Saturday they had hijacked a grieving family's protest.

These people don't need a manifesto and, clearly, to take to the streets in such numbers and wreak havoc in the way that they have been, requires motivation a little stronger than the desire for a new Blackberry.

The Metropolitan Police have described the events of Monday as "the worst disorder in current memory". Condemnation is easy to muster. It is thirty years since we've seen riots on the streets anything like this (yes I do remember) and they were just not on this scale.

I'm old school enough to have marched in support of the miners. I've stood and shouted outside the House of Commons in support of, or against, one cause or another. Years ago I was part of a group who occupied the headquarters of the old National Graphical Association overnight in protest at Mrs Thatcher's attempt to abolish it. (The NGA was an old print union.)

But isn't this almost a new form of civil unrest? This is some kind of political statement. It might not seem like it and most of those taking part would be hard pushed to define precisely what it was. Partly, they are doing it because they can.