Thursday, July 8

life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness

While talking to a friend lately the conversation got to the subject of imagination: how we let it wonder, how we can control it, and my mind just couldn't help not thinking: do we control our imagination, do other things control it, or are we controlled by it. 

To me, as someone who studied a bit of consciousness for her intro to neuro class, this sounded a lot like the problem of free will: how much free will do we really have? Most of us assume that free will is a fundamental characteristic that us humans exhibit, and we have control on our thoughts and decisions. And there are arguments pro and against and choosing a definite stand on the problem, to me, really is about going to extremes in argumentation. 

But from this idea, I went into another one, pretty close: are we responsible for our own well-being and happiness, or is it all dictated by circumstances?

I mean we do have very little control on our body - and in this I include the brain. I don't want to get too technical or sciency, but our life, feelings and thoughts, are all born in the brain and controlled by it, and the brain is just a wiring of cells. We don't really have control on physical pain, we don't have control on feeling tired. Yes, sometimes we can snap out of tiredness, but that's probably because of something external that makes our brain conclude is more important to stay awake - like "if I don't finish this paper I'm going to fail." Many times we also don't have control on our thoughts - we see something, it triggers a memory, which triggers another one, which triggers a thought, then perhaps a question and so on... All programmed based on our previous experiences and our basic needs. We don't have control on something happening (be it another person's action or a natural phenomenon or a bad grade) and that upsetting us or making us angry. And that happens because whatever the happening, it doesn't fit our expectations - the way circuits in the brain were wired and active at that time. 

So this is all about how we don't really have much control... But I would say sometimes we do. And those times may not be as often, since most of the time we need to make fast decisions (like should I stretch my hands to catch the ball hitting my head? yes!) However, since they are more scarce, they are probably more valuable. Like when you snap out of you domino thought trail - you realize that you were into that, but you should probably be thinking of something else. And while it's still your brain influenced by something outside or by some memory that snaps you out of your thought trail I feel like there is a choice involved there: you can go back to your work, for instance, or you could keep thinking of random stuff. 

In the same fashion, when it comes to another person: many times people don't act/react in the way we expect them to. And they couldn't, just because they have their own brain and their own environment that their influenced by. So it is possible that if I think: "oh, i miss my friend" and think of all the lovely times we hanged out and how much fun that was and "let me give him/her a call", all I'd get back is "yeah, i'm on the bus with my friends. we're having a blast and i'll call you some other time." This would be pretty disappointing, but very fair. But it was my choice to call my friend! Yes, I was influenced by my thoughts at the time, but I could have pulled together more memories and knowledge and realize that my friend could have been sleeping or on the bus or jst not in the mood to talk. So I could have send him/her and email or just done something else, but I chose to call. This could have also turned out very nice: like my friend being happy that I called and had a lovely conversation, which we wouldn't have had over email.

So at the end of the day we do need to take small "risks" every time we do something. But for certain some things we can control. Especially when it comes to being "safe". You can choose not to hurt yourself by making that phone call. You can choose not to hurt yourself by climbing on the roof. You might miss some excitement and fun, but at least you're safe. We can choose whom to spend time with and we do choose our friends. Of course, you can't be friends with someone who doesn't want to be friends with you, but you can choose to be, or not to be friends with someone who does want. 

At the end of all this rambling, I say little control is still control: we are responsible for ourselves and our own happiness. The biggest responsibility we have is towards ourselves, and we can't evade it. I mean we can, but it's not like it would do us any good. 

Saturday, April 24

Congo: Act Now!

The past week ended a series of talks and events dedicated to raising awareness regarding the situation in the Democratic Republic of Congo.

What is happening in DR Congo is mind-blowing and many people would not believe that this can happen in the 21st century. But it is happening, and the fact that it is so hard to believe is very much due to the lack of awareness and media coverage. When one does hear something about Congo, it is likely that it is:

5.4 million people died since the beginning of the conflict (this figure is probably around 7 million now, since the first statistic is from 2007 )or
worst place in the world to be a woman or a girl or
the worst humanitarian crisis in the world

All these are true, but there is actually a lot more to be told about the conflict in Congo. While I learned a lot from the awesome speakers that came on campus, I actually had to go and get more background myself in order to better understand what is happening. I think I should mention that, although I have an idea, a full-length course is probably needed in order to get a full grasp of all the players and interests involved in the Congo conflict.

The DR Congo is a country very rich in minerals, which, because of its underdevelopment, made it very prone to exploitation. Mineral exploitation started under Belgian colonialism, continued after their independence, and is still going on today. Unfortunately, the illegal exploitation of minerals on the black market has not lead only to corruption. There have always been many conflicts of interests that spurred and used violence as means of intimidation and gaining control.
The most recent conflict (the one which is still going on) started around 1994 when the Rwandan war/genocide ended. At that time, Hutu rebels operating under the name FDLR: Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda, fled from Rwanda into neighboring Eastern Congo to escape arrest and prosecution. Since then, they have been terrorizing the local population in Eastern Congo. They kill and mutilate, and use rape and sexual violence in order to dehumanize the locals and gain control over them. In this context they create, it becomes easy for them to both obtain money from the people, as well to control the minerals market.
Using this tactic, the FDLR have successfully terrorized Eastern Congo for 15 years now.

So, let me go on about what I learned from the people who came to talk.

Laura Heaton is a young woman who is currently editor and writer for the Enough blog, as part of the Enough Project. Before this, she did various field consultancy work in Rwanda and Eastern Congo. I thought it was great that such a young person was so knowledgeable and so actively involved in this issue. Laura talked mostly about conflict minerals and what Enough is doing. As I mentioned, the minerals exploited are a big part of the reason for the conflict. More to it, however, we are all contributing to these conflict as end consumers of electronic devices. Four metals coming from Congo: Gold, Tungsten, Tin, and Tantalum are used in cellphones, laptops and other such electric devices. Since the minerals are exported multiple times to many countries before they are put into the final products, their exact source is hard to trace and the electronics companies don't really bother to do it. So, whenever we're buying a new phone, we're all buying a piece of fuel to the bloody Congo conflict. What the Enough Project is trying to do through their program Raise Hope for Congo, is to stop the use of such conflict minerals, by advocating the banning of imports into the US under any form.
For a very short and sweet video explaining this, go here.

Dr. Lee Ann De Reus, professor at PennState Altoona, is an activist-scholar, who actually worked with women at the Panzi Hospital in Bukavu, Congo for her research project. The Panzi Hospital is one of the few places in Congo that successfully treats women survivors of sexual violence and they have perfected techniques for the surgical repair of fistulas (talk about need teaches you!). Dr. De Reus interviewed 30 women, all survivors of sexual violence and shared with us some of her findings.
Women and girls of any age are raped, usually gang raped and raped with various objects that cause many internal injuries, the worst being fistula and death. Women are raped in their homes, in front of their children, families and neighbors. They are raped in the fields where they work. They are taken as slaves in the rebels' settlements and kept there. Some manage to run, some are killed, some just die due to injuries or diseases. However, despite all the horror they have to go through, the women see themselves as survivors, rather than victims. They say that they have the power to get over whatever happened to them and badly want to return to their lives as much as possible. Many suffer from the stigma of their societies and many cannot go back to working the fields due to their injuries. Most of them, though, talked of hope and forgiveness. Everybody in the audience, including Dr. De Reus, thought that it was outrageous that 29/30 women said that they were willing to forgive their attackers and let them be judged by God. They just wanted peace and they wanted the conflict to be over. I also found it very surprising that the women did not quite know what was actually going on in terms of why the conflict was happening and why they were raped.
All of the women, however, said that they shared their story with Dr. De Reus so that she passes it on and tells the world about what is happening...

Finally, Lisa Shannon came and talked to us. She is a young activist who founded Run for Congo Women and basically completely changed her life to dedicate it to the cause of Congo women. She has an impressive story about how she started from scratch and just went on and on despite all the obstacles. She started off by training long to do a 30 mile run, at the end of which she raised $28,000. Despite this being a pretty big success, it did not all come easy to her. She did runs with 1 persons and had no support when she went to Congo the first time by herself. At Lafayette, she spoke to a group of 10-15 people who showed up on a Friday afternoon. We thought it was lame, but she was pleased. She, as well as the other speakers, insisted that they would talk to anyone, no matter how many or how few. She emphasized repeatedly that the secret of her success was exactly that she did wait for other people to follow. She moved on by herself and people started following her more and more. First she ran alone, than with one person, now with hundreds. First she went to Congo alone, with no backing, now she is supported by Women for Women International and Enough.

I think Lisa Shannon, as well as Laura Heaton, Lee Ann De Reus and many other activists, are great references for anyone, but especially for two groups of people. First, those who say: "One can't really do anything to actually matter"... well, obviously you can! Second, for those that start all enthusiastic and then, for some reasons, just get caught into various things and lost grip. I'm in no place to criticize everyone, but I encountered plenty of such people.

Conclusion: People in Eastern Congo need help and this conflict needs to end. Unfortunately, the Congolese can't do it by themselves, but we can help! And please do help! Be a responsible consumer. Donate any amount if you can! Support a Congolese woman! And just speak! Let others know about what is going on!

Wednesday, April 7

Lafayette values DIVERSITY... Really?! Seriously?! Think again!

This week is Extravaganza 2010 week at Lafayette - a weeklong annual festival celebrating world cultures and diversity... For this occasion, the campus was again decorated with flags representing the different countries that students on campus come from.

Again, like every year since my freshman year, flags were stolen (or taken down, if you feel that's too harsh of a word) from the poles on the Quad. On Tuesday night, three flags were completely gone, while one was ripped off. Of course, if you go by tomorrow, you will probably not see any flag missing, as the college was very helpful in offering to replace them...
To repeat, the stealing of flags from the Quad has been happening for several years, yet the only response from the College is to replace the missing flags, buy new ones, and now employ Bear Security to guard them at night... Oh, and they also decided that from next year no flags will be put on the Quad any more...
Wait, is this the same college that praises about educating the students in the spirit of diversity - respect and appreciation for cultures and other such stuff ?! The college that has more than one office and 5-10 student organizations dealing with diversity?!

Ever since I came to Lafayette different people took care to let me know how valued my presence is, as an international student, and how much value everybody here puts on diversity. Of course, the point being that just by being here I increase diversity. However, most people's reaction when I tell them where I am from is "Cool!" Then, some try to figure out where Romania is, and then some want to know "So... how is Romania?". But that's where it stops most of the time. As an international student, you kind of remain an exhibit of diversity for many people.

One of my flatmates in London was once reading a booklet called "Stuff White People Like" and one entry was "talking about diversity". I thought that was true back then too, but now it just struck me as so obvious!
Diversity, as it appears, is just a measure of how many international students there are on campus, how many types of ethnic cuisine you tried, where you went to study abroad and how many surrounding countries you visited, and perhaps how many talks about international issues you attend.

ps:I was tempted to write a poem about this at first... but while I'm sure that would totally solve the problem, I decided plain words would express my point better.

Thursday, April 1

Linked IN!

Yeey, I'm finally Linked In. I feel very professional now, so wanted to put this out there.

And because I'm going all into professionalism, I also have a website: Now who would have believed this?! Well certainly not me a couple of years back, but, as it turns out, I did change my mind about networking and blogging.

So... unleash technology!

Btw, did I mention that I am in a Topeka state of mind?! Thank you Google for this awesomely random April Fools' uhmm... statement :)