Observations, Thoughts and Reflections on 21st Century Life

Category: Education

A Sense of Un-Belonging


Singapore 1966

Am I to be forever on the outside looking in? It has become a place – a feeling – so familiar, that I now fear the very thing I seek.  I carry it with me and yet it doesn’t have form, this nebulous  thing;  I cannot grasp it, and yet I can feel it’s elusiveness.  I have looked for it in my home, work, relationships and among my things.  I have few items from my family home –  they should evoke a warmth of feeling, a welcome symbol of my belonging somewhere but I find none, only a physical ache for something lost – no for something I’m yet to experience: an ongoing penance for daring to be here at all.  It’s not my destiny, it is and always has been my reality, the outsider as one country became another and I learned to count the number of schools in different languages.  Letters sent to best friends who’d formed new allegiances before the postmark had dried.

For a moment, I felt I belonged to something or someone, I wasn’t sure.  It was a feeling unfamiliar despite my one score year and ten. It was only later with divorce papers in hand that I realised I hadn’t belonged at all, I’d wanted it so much that I believed for a while only to discover I’d found something different, an identity that didn’t even begin to fill the void.  I’m trapped in this waiting game, on the outside while everyone else is within, strangely similar to my childhood punishment of being left out in the hallway while the rest of the family were in the sitting room with the door firmly closed.

And so I find myself on the outer edge of others’ comfort zones, kept in some kind of friendly exile as they perceive my differences.  Or perhaps it is I who perceive them, me that does not know how to fit in.  The roots of belonging are established in childhood and strengthen as we mature.  If for some reason this fails to happen, I have come to accept, at least for me, that it will never do so.  A sapling starved of essential nourishment, continuously uprooted and replanted in new territory every few years will struggle to thrive,  it’s energy channelled into mere survival, unable to blossom or reach it’s full potential as a mature tree.  It will never have the stability of it’s contemporaries, it’s roots exhausted by constant disturbance have little strength to weather the next storm.

Unlike the tree, I can choose my environment and find shelter from stormy weather and in the calm of my simple life I can thrive and flourish, untethered by my un-belonging, abiding by society’s rules but unbound by it’s conventions. There is a freedom to this existence from which I can emerge at my choosing.  In this existence I can create my own place unrestrained by outside expectation and dictates.  I’ve ceased to seek this thing called belonging – the need, the void is still there but I have learned to carry it not as a burden but like a warm coat.  There is now a comfort in not belonging, a familiarity I would miss.  I can finally embrace being on the outside looking in, not in judgement but with a welcome sense of reflective clarity that is borne by detachment as a gift.  These are the desired nutrients for the flourishing of creativity and unfettered freedom to blossom.


Acrylic on Canvas 2014 Rebecca Pells

Quantum Leap – the Connection between Darwinism and Climate Change


The above image is of a sculpture called Quantum Leap which sits on the banks of the River Severn in my home town of Shrewsbury, UK.  It was installed in 2009 to mark the bi-centenuary of Charles Darwin who was born here and educated at Shrewsbury School. It represents the great move – or leap –  forward that Darwin’s work made in our understanding of ourselves and the natural world.

Below is my own photograph taken yesterday in which the sculpture appears to be diving into the swirling flood waters of the swollen river following weeks of rain-fuelled storms.  I took the picture from the terrace cafe which hugs the side of the Theatre Severn on the opposite bank – what you cannot see are the flood barriers erected some weeks ago to assist the exhausted river to keep within it’s banks and heave it’s watery burden downstream.


It was with a wry smile that on the first bright sunny day for weeks I attended the annual Darwin Lecture at the theatre given by Joe Cain, Professor of History and Philosophy of Biology at University College London.  His subject was ‘The Scopes Monkey Trial of 1925 – Reality or Fiction’.  John Scopes was put on trial for teaching evolution in an American secondary school in Tennessee and it marked a pivotal moment in the conflict between religion and science.  However, the main point of the trial was to test the law and in so doing, raise the profile of the creation-evolution controversy.  “It was” Cain said  “essentially a story of denial which became a story about people”  –  the charismatic heads of both legal teams, politicians and even celebrities jumped on the band-wagon.  The event was exploited by these people who used it to build interest in and also to create agitation about the issue, to suit and further their own individual aims.  In so doing positions became deeply entrenched as each person added a layer to the argument creating an ever greater divide and making agreement appear impossible.  The scientists were asking the fundamentalists to have faith not in God’s creation but in scientific fact.  It was indeed a quantum leap and it didn’t happen overnight.

The debate around climate change seems to be playing out in a similar way, although there has yet to be the circus of a high profile trial!  The ‘layers’ are piling up – the politicians are certainly in the main arena (if only they’d been in it some ten or twenty years ago) vying to highlight differences between their own stance and that of their counterparts.  Celebrities falling over themselves to identify with one camp or another, scientists divided by those who believe we are causing global warming and those who think it’s a natural occurrence.  In the 1920’s skepticism was understandable as science and technology was generally associated with bad things such as the new weaponry used in the Great War.  Today, despite our familiarity with and dependence on science and despite the growing volume of evidence pointing directly to climatic change, still we demand some final piece of irrefutable evidence.

What will convince us to take action, what are we waiting for?  To arrive at some nebulous horizon of climatic horrors, at which point we will blame scientists for not providing a solution?  It is unlikely there will be one great catastrophic event that announces the arrival of climate change – it is already here, revealing itself incrementally, in fits and starts but with increasing persistence.  Professor Cain concluded his lecture with a reminder that even today there are countries which deny Darwin’s theories and in which evolution is not widely taught.  Pakistan is one such country – it’s also a land which in recent years has suffered serious flooding far greater than anything we have yet to experience.

There seems no reason for us to deny climate change other than a perception that to acknowledge it will involve the end of life as we know it.  Just as with the creation-evolution wrangle, believing in one does not mean you have to totally reject the other.  You can practice a religious faith and ascribe to evolutionary theory.  The two are not incompatible.  Evolution has shown that nature never stands still, it adapts to it’s surroundings to ensure survival.   Now it’s our turn, we don’t have to renounce modern life in it’s entirety but we do need to adapt to our changing environment just as our ancestors did.  We have the intelligence and the science and the advantage of global communication.  Is it such a quantum leap to find the wisdom to apply these in unison?

Knowledge, Intelligence and Wisdom

Two weeks ago the New Birmingham Library was officially opened by Malala Yousafzai.  It struck me that this 16 year old girl, thrust into the limelight following her fight for education in her homeland of Pakistan, already displays the hallmarks of wisdom.  Having visited the library last week, I cannot deny that it is a wonderful facility, crammed with information gathered, written and published through previous generations and which can now be accessed in any number of traditional and technical ways.

As time goes by and our understanding of the world expands, new discoveries are made and life becomes increasingly complex, so does the amount of knowledge recorded, shared and passed onto our children.  Each generation has to start at the beginning to learn the basics and despite increasing years spent in formal education, most of us can only hope to ever reach the lower echelons of the pyramid of knowledge. Our way of handling this overwhelming amount of information is to specialize and become experts in one tiny sphere and as such our outlook on life is forever skewed by our lens of choice.  When faced with challenges beyond that field of vision we believe it is not our problem, that someone else will have the knowledge to fix it and we relinquish any sense of personal responsibility.

How we record and share copious amounts of knowledge is one thing,  but for me the moot point is whether our propensity to spend greater amounts of time in formal education is producing the collective wisdom required to tackle the global challenges of 21st century life. Just 80 years ago in the so called western countries it was the norm to leave school at 14; today many are studying well into their twenties and yet the evidence that this has produced an equivalent increase in wisdom is not obvious. If we look at those individuals whose actions have had positive benefits for large numbers of people – Mahatma Ghandi, Martin Luther King, Nelson Mandela – they are few and far between, perhaps one or two per generation.  None of them benefited from extended formal education and yet arguably they displayed a wisdom most of us are in awe of.  Can such wisdom be taught in a classroom or is it something which is innate in a few individuals and which given the opportunity, will propel that person to act for the greater good?  Do they perhaps view the world through a wide angle lens rather than one which has narrowed it’s focus?  In trying to increase our knowledge with unprecedented amounts of information are we actually overloading our minds and cluttering our ability for clear and wise thinking?

In an era which has for the first time in history enabled us to be acutely aware of global issues, does the forum and delivery of knowledge and the nurturing of intelligence require a different approach?  The encouragement of modern individualism seems at odds with the challenges which need addressing in the 21st century.  In Malala maybe we are witnessing one such wise individual but it seems we are far from knowing how to harness, share and encourage a collective wisdom.

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