Monday, 24 November 2014

A Reason for Being

Meaning, purpose, reason, truth, or rather the lack of a concrete answer to all of the above, has often been a struggle for me. An irregular nagging hidden at the back of the mind at the best of times, a deep all-encompassing depression at the worst.

I remember the trigger for the first of these depressions with great clarity: First year university, living away from home for the first time, the height of that post-adolescent, newly-found freedom. Non-stop excitement and entertainment: parties, drinking, new faces, novel experiences, self-discovery, not a care in the world. Flying high and free. Young and alive.

In the midst of this positivity came sad news. An ex-housemate had died. Hit by a train. This was upsetting for sure, but like most negativity at the time brushed off pretty quickly – he'd only lived with us for a few days and had never been very sociable. Seems callous and offhand now, but we were distracted by our infinite ever-expanding horizons, our invincibility. Death was sad, sure, but something that happened to other people.

Lying in bed a couple of nights after receiving the news, a cold realisation descended. There was nothing that really separated the two of us – him and I – we were both meant to be young and invincible. No reason for it be him instead of me. In fact, inevitable that my turn would come. I was, in reality, fragile and insignificant, a tiny temporary life-form in an infinite, uninterested and uncaring universe. What was the point?

Understandably I felt a little low. A feeling that eventually developed into a crushing depression. Depression isn't just being a little blue. It suffocates from the inside. A dark heavy fog on the mind, a barrier against the outside world. You forget how it feels to have any other mood, can't understand how other people manage to maintain their charade of happiness. This detachment and despair is all that exists and there seems to be no way out. You want to forget and go back to the way things were before, but you can't.

In short, it isn't very nice.

A jolly way to start a blog, right? Well, I just wanted to get down as low as possible before bringing things back up. Yay! If there's even a chink of light way down there then that's quite something. And I believe there is. All that's required is a shift in outlook, a realisation that all this negativity and pointlessness, this lack of meaning, is of your own creation. Given the choice of two distinct possibilities, two explanations for something, my natural inclination would always be to err towards the most negative. However, these weren't negative 'facts', it was my own negative appraisal of neutral information. A change of mindset was required. Much easier said than done, and even more difficult to maintain, but most definitely true.

Why do I feel the need to write about this? Because I think people shy away from these things too much. We all think about the big questions, but it's almost taboo to talk about such matters publicly. It's better to maintain a fa├žade of disinterest, a raise of the eyebrows, retorting “Well that's a bit deep”. As if deep thought is a bad thing. “Sorry, I shall try to be more shallow”. Musing over these mysteries is what makes us human. We should feel more confident sharing these thoughts and theories with the wider world. So I'm going to embrace that and attempt to find some positive meaning (through the handy medium of bullet-points). This is what works for me currently. It won't ring true for everyone, perhaps not even for me in a few years time, and many people will disagree completely. But as the first point accepts, that's exactly the way things should be:

  • First off, there can never really be a universally accepted meaning of life due to the nature of free thought and human consciousness. People are free to think what they like and this is a good thing. This doesn't mean there is no meaning. On the contrary, it is hugely liberating as you get to create your own.
  • For me, the clearest 'Meaning of Life' is to find happiness, because once you do that nothing else really matters.
  • Your own search for happiness must not imped the happiness of others. In fact, helping other people find happiness is of equal importance to finding your own. If someone else is happy, their whole world is happy.
  • In essence, other people can often provide this path to happiness. We can all help each other.
  • Happiness is attainable to all, it may just take some work.
  • Happiness doesn't need to be constant – short glimpses, milliseconds of clarity like that instantaneous epiphanous spark on receiving a smile from a stranger, are just as important.
  • Happiness and love are synonymous.
  • Love is the key and a force for Good. When you love fully, as when you are truly happy, nothing else matters.
  • The present moment is all that can be experienced, therefore all that really exists. Embrace it, spread love and happiness within it. Don't worry too much about the past or future. Both have their place, but not NOW.
  • Live in the moment but plan for the future. Not only your own future, but for those who will follow you. They too deserve to enjoy their moments when they come.
  • Embrace the mystery, the wonder of now, the unknown. Enjoy the moment while preserving the future.
  • While catastrophising about the fate of the species/planet/universe is pointless because the future is unknowable, we should do whatever we can to ensure that future generations are safe and able to enjoy the planet as we do. The people of tomorrow are just as important as the people of today.
  • All humans, past present and future, are born equal and deserve the same chances. This can only be achieved by acting, thinking and living in a collectivist sustainable manner, rather than individualist, selfish and short term.
  • Everything in nature is how it should be, and we are responsible for preserving that.
  • Our tiniest actions can have huge effects. Smile at someone today, put them in a good mood, and this will be shared an infinite number of times into the future. You never know the long-term outcomes of your actions. As such, we have an obligation to be mindful of how we behave and to do so from a place of love and happiness.
  • Regardless on your thoughts on death, the inevitability of it doesn't render all that's gone before null and void. Everything you say, do and teach will continue to have an effect long after you're gone.
  • While you can still have an influence on the world and make positive changes within it (no matter how small) this is a great responsibility. Seize and cherish it.
  • Spread hope, not fear.

That'll do for now. 

In summary: Be nice.

-

Tuesday, 4 November 2014

Why we need to decriminalise drugs.

Last weeks coverage of various MPs speaking out on outdated and robotic UK drug policy (http://www.bbc.com/news/uk-politics-29821698) led me to write a long Facebook comment. I've decided to adapt this piece into a short blog. Why? Because I have some time on my hands and I'm just about egotistical enough to think people will read my ill-informed thoughts.


What is it that policy-makers are scared of and what prevents them from following actual evidence with regards to UK drug policy? Knee-jerk, nonsensical tabloid reactions. Response like 'lock them up and throw away the key', 'throw them off a cliff', 'bring back hanging' are habitually spouted by those who can't be bothered to actually look beneath the surface of the problem. Do these responses actually solve anything, are they really addressing the cause, or just the symptoms?

(As a side-note, those expressing such sweeping opinions should really be more wary when using the word 'They' – 'they should be locked up', 'they should be thrown off a cliff'. Who are 'they'? If this is generally referring to 'drug users', chances are it's referring to a lot of family and friends too.)

It's obvious that a blanket illegality approach to drugs doesn't work. Drug use is increasing, not decreasing. The illicit 'naughtiness' of illegal substances make them even more desirable to youngsters. People are still buying and using drugs, and currently have to do so through illegal channels. Which is where the real violence and crime comes in: Domestic gangs that sell drugs in the UK and, even more so, their suppliers in places like Latin America – where drug cartels have incredible power and cause unbelievable pain and suffering to the local population. Their running battles with law enforcement just cause more violence and death.

This is a global problem, that needs to be tackled as such. The fact that drugs are currently illegal in the UK leads directly to these cartels receiving millions of dollars each year, making them even more powerful but also influential and pandered to by corrupt officials (a UN report in 2013 estimated the global illicit drug market to be worth $320 billion. That's three-hundred-and-twenty-BILLION dollars – see extra reading sources below). If you decriminalise and control domestic drug production and the UK market, you cut off funding into the horrifically violent international illegal market. The only way to stop this vicious cycle. The 'War on Drugs' has failed.

The arbitrary labelling of substances as 'legal' and 'illegal' in the UK right now is also absurd. Why are alcohol and cigarettes legal but marijuana and MDMA not? Are alcohol and tobacco less harmful, or do they actually kill millions of people a year (tobacco is estimated to cause 6 million deaths worldwide annually, likely to rise above 8 million by 2030, and alcohol contributes a further 2.5 million worldwide each year – see extra reading sources below). And it's not just long term damage. Imagine three parties: One where all attendees are on alcohol, another all on marijuana, another all on MDMA. Guess which gathering will have the most violent and dangerous guests by the end of the night?

Even the horror stories about young people suddenly dying from ecstasy use – a 'bad' pill cut with who knows what other additional substances. In a decriminalised environment, where drugs are officially tested and controlled you would greatly reduce these dangers . Decriminalising drugs may even reduce their use – removing the taboo attraction that interests a lot of rebellious young people in the first place. Would you decide to try crack cocaine just because it's no longer illegal?

Legalising also doesn't mean selling heroin in Tesco. It means allowing those already addicted to the drug the ability to avoid dangerous pushers and pimps and instead move into a safe environment where they can also receive help and treatment for their problem. Prescription drugs are legal, but this doesn't mean you can just randomly pick them up off the street.

There are definitely risks associated with decriminalisation, but even more definite is the fact that the current approach doesn't work. It is time to step back and sensibly appraise a serious problem, a sentiment echoed by a number of current MPs and a cause for hope that rationality not fear will dictate future policy.

Sources/extra reading:
The drug problem in the Americas 2013 report - http://www.cicad.oas.org/drogas/elinforme/informeDrogas2013/laEconomicaNarcotrafico_ENG.pdf
Ash smoking statistics 2013 report - http://ash.org.uk/files/documents/ASH_107.pdf
Alcohol related deaths 2014 report - http://www.ons.gov.uk/ons/rel/subnational-health4/alcohol-related-deaths-in-the-united-kingdom/2012/sty-alcohol-releated-deaths.html
Original BBC article - http://www.bbc.com/news/uk-politics-29821698