11 October 2010

I Dream About Flying

And the answer that you're seeking
For the question that you found
Drives you further to confusion
As you lose your sense of ground

So don't forget to breathe
Don't forget to breathe
Your whole life is here
No eleventh hour reprieve
So don't forget to breathe

- Alexi Murdoch, Breathe

Life consists of realities and possibilities. Reality, the events that actually transpire at any given moment, is undeniable and largely uncontrollable. Of course, we have some measure of control over our own actions, decisions, and whereabouts. But, for the most part, what happens to us and around us is out of our hands. Reality, the here and now, is the result of a chain of decisions made by ourselves and others, influenced by earlier occurrences. We have no idea how our present decisions will effect our futures. I know that every single person experiences at least one occasion in his or her life where a decision that they make has an unexpected impact further down the line. I know that I have, with consequences that I am only just moving beyond. It would be very easy to blame myself for the decisions that resulted in this event. But this summer has shown me that it was not my fault. One cannot predict what the future holds for them. And I strongly believe that everything happens for a reason.

Closely related to realities are possibilities. These can be promising or threatening. Promising possibilities I like to consider to be opportunities. Opportunities for the future are exciting; they hold promise of things that may bring a better reality than the one we are experiencing at present. For example, earning my master's degree in IR may bring opportunities for jobs that I wouldn't have been able to get otherwise. It may bring more money. The opportunity to travel. On the other hand, it also has more threatening possibilities. These I refer to as the 'what ifs'.

The 'what ifs' are situations that are inherently dangerous/threatening/negative and have the potential of occurring. Of course, like opportunities, they may or may not actually transpire. I recently read an article by Stevyn Gibson for my Open Source Intelligence module entitled "In the Eye of the Perfect Storm: Re-Imagining, Reforming and Refocusing Intelligence for Risk, Globalisation and Changing Societal Expectation." While the bulk of the article is in reference to the future of the intelligence community, Gibson makes a worthwhile point when he states that our society has become risk-oriented. The majority of our institutions, both governmental and societal, are concerned with risk-management -- the desire to mitigate future risk. According to Gibson, risk has a dual nature, which means that "the perception of a risk may not necessarily equate to the reality of that risk" (27). He further goes on to say that our society's perceptions of certain risks (terrorism, nuclear proliferation, etc.) have become so inflated that we forget that the likelihood of such events actually occurring is relatively small. In fact, the odds of a Westerner (therefore broadening the range a bit beyond simply 'Americans') dying in a terrorist attack is 1 in 3 million each year. (Source = http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424052748703481004574646963713065116.html). Perspective = readjusted.

The 'what ifs' associated with my master's degree are not as benign as some may assume. Earning my master's degree in IR implies that I will pursue a career in international relations, a career that, by definition, involves a certain amount of traveling internationally. Not all of this travel will be to 'friendly' countries. Furthermore, if I narrow my focus onto intelligence and counter-terrorism, as currently seems to be the direction that I am headed, the likelihood of my traveling to such countries is increased dramatically. 'What if' if I am sent to an active combat area? 'What if' I am in a so-called friendly country when an attack occurs? 'What if' I decide to work for our government and the building that I am is attacked? All are 'what ifs' that could occur and are entirely unpredictable. No one could have predicted the attack on the Pentagon that occurred on September 11, 2001. In fact, I bet that if you had asked Pentagon employees (or Americans in general) who had the likelier chance of being attacked, themselves or a US military base abroad, they would have answered the latter.

My point is that there is no way of predicting the 'what ifs'. We can anticipate the possibilities, but cannot actually say whether or not they will occur. This leaves us with a choice to make: we can either live in fear of the 'what ifs' and avoid activities, people, locations that have the potential of danger, or we can live our lives conscious of the threat but not altering our plans just because something might happen. Having experienced my fair share of dangerous situations (some might even argue that I've experienced more than my fair share of danger), this is a choice that I face each and every single day. Do I stay inside because of the ten thousand dangers that could harm me on the streets of London? After all, I have a 1 in 2 million chance of dying from falling out bed, 1 in 600 chance of dying as a pedestrian, 1 in 85 chance of dying in a car accident, and 1 in 7 chance of dying from cancer. These odds are frightening enough to make anyone agoraphobic.

and you don't need strength to be strong
time to believe in what you know

- Alexi Murdoch, Shine

Or do I accept these odds and the fact that, yes, this may be my last day on earth, but go out and live my life all the same? Some days, I will confess, it feels all too easy to do the former. It would be all too easy to let these 'what ifs' overwhelm me and keep me inside in the safety of my bed. The world outside is frightening. People can be nasty, rude, and violent. I've witnessed firsthand some of the brutality that one human can do to another. And yet...almost every single day for the past twenty-two years (and, more significantly, in the past one year and five months), I have pushed these 'what ifs' aside and stepped out to face the day. If these dangerous possibilities are going to occur, there is nothing that I can do about it. Of course, I am sensible in where I go and what I do. I avoid dark alleys. I associate with reputable characters. I stay away from illegal activities.

But the major 'what ifs', the ones that, to date, have caused my father to say 'you can't go' to all of the countries that I wish to travel to in the next year, those 'what ifs'? There is absolutely nothing that I can do to prevent them if they are going to occur. Of course they frighten me. When the US Department of State issued a heightened threat alert for Americans in the UK a few weeks ago, I will admit that I was on heightened alert. (Of course this could have something to do with the veritable flood of verbal and emailed warnings that I received from various family members.) Walking across the Millennium Bridge that day, I remember viewing everyone with suspicion as they passed, feeling as if I could literally see the threat of the 'what if' of a terrorist attack in the air around me. (It was also a particularly foggy day, so this may have contributed to the feeling.) After a few hours of nervousness, however, I came back to my senses. I was miserable feeling as if a bomb was about to go off around every corner.

The point is to be aware of the threat, not let it inhibit your everyday actions. And yes, I am aware that there is a threat to my life each time I open the door of my room. But I refuse to let this dictate my life. I will not live my entire life in fear of what may happen. I will not let these 'possibilities' dictate the activities that I wish to do, the countries in which I wish to vacation. I only get one life to live. I would like to hope that it will be a long one, but if this is not in the cards for me, so be it. I take measures to preserve my life for as long as possible. I exercise daily, abstain from all drugs, severely limit my alcohol intake, and maintain a strict diet. I work hard, but make sure to engage in stress-relieving activities that are enjoyable for me. (Although this has been somewhat limited as of late due to my achilles tendonitis). I am not reckless in my behavior. Since I do not know my particular expiration date, I can only continue on each day, living my life to its fullest. I hope to run a marathon within the next twelve months. Why? Because it is an activity that I wish to do, an experience that I wish to have. I want to travel to Burkina Faso to see my cousin Kenneth, to Israel to see the sites of the Holy Land, to Bahrain, to Lebanon, to Morocco, to Bosnia and Herzegovina, to Croatia. Yes, they have track records of being dangerous locations. But then again...so does New York City. So does London. In fact, the UK is the most violent nation in the entire European Nation. (Source: http://www.ias.org.uk/resources/publications/alcoholalert/alert200701/al200701_p14.html). So what I am saying is that while I recognize the concern for my safety that is expressed by my family and the reasons why they might wish to place limitations on the countries that I travel to, their fears are relatively ungrounded. Fear of 'what ifs' means that I am not safe anywhere. But why live in fear when you can go out and really live?

Of course, I could always fall back on to my contingency plan to be a horse farmer and tour coach driver on the Isle of Mull. A waste of an expensive undergraduate and postgraduate education, but probably much safer in the long-term.

These are legitimate concerns raised by my travel abroad. The purpose of this blog is to document my experiences whilst abroad, including thoughts and concerns. I aim to uphold the truth. Either I write what is on my mind, all of it, even if it is not exactly the 'cheery' things that suits popular consumption, or I write nothing at all. I will not lie. To lie is to ruin what I have worked so hard for, to fail to live up to the standards that I have set for myself. So, unfortunately, I will not be deleting this post, even if asked.

Still, to set your minds at ease, Mom and Dad: I will not travel to the Middle East in 2010/11. I will not travel to Morocco or Armenia. My travel to Burkina Faso is uncertain. If there is active widespread conflict in the country at my time of proposed travel, I will not go. Otherwise...I only get one life. I need to make the most of it while I can.

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