Putin threatens the world with nuclear weapons as he marches West, while European leaders dither and take away his toys.
When I was around eight years old my little brother and I met a group of boys on a beach in Northern Ireland. My father had rented a cottage on the coast so that we could spend summer holidays away from the troubles and unrest across the country and he would spend the weekends with us while he worked in Belfast.
The boys that we met were all brothers, there were five of them who lived in the house next door to our little cottage. We all hit it off as often happens with young children without any prejudices or hang ups, just a bunch of boys skimming stones and having running races on the open beach. One of the brothers was my age and another the same age as my own little brother so there was a real feeling of meeting a new group of friends.
On the second day of our holidays it was raining, it is Northern Ireland after all. One of the boys came over to our cottage and asked if my brother and I would like to spend the day at their place and my mother, being happy to get rid of us for a few hours sent us on our merry way. We ended up in their garage, a big double space that had been converted into a workshop with every tool you can imagine, it was a paradise for a small boy, an endless room of possibilities.
The older boys were very kind and I clearly recall being a bit embarrassed to ask what things were and how they worked. But the older boys never got irritated or laughed, they just explained and showed us what these tools did and what they were for. Then out of nowhere one of the boys asked me if we were Catholic or Protestant.
Every Sunday my father dragged us to church, unwillingly. We went to Sunday school while my Dad went to the 'big room' with the rest of the adults. I learnt all about the twelve disciples and how to live a good life, even how to write using cursive calligraphy (this was a big moment for me). I knew we were Christians but nothing more.
My father had worked all over the world, largely in developing countries like India, Thailand and the Middle East (this was in the 1970's). Many of the contacts he made in these far-off lands came to visit him for various projects and my brother and I were lucky enough to meet these interesting men at dinners with my father at our home. I knew about the Jewish, Islamic, Hindu and Buddhist religions and of course Christianity. I was by no means a religious scholar at the age of eight but I knew that different people around the world believed in different things. I was also taught that no one is right or wrong by what they believe or say and that we are all imperfect.
Nonetheless, I had no idea whether we were Catholic or Protestant. I had obviously heard of these terms and knew that there was an issue, given the constant barrage of bad news and tension all around us. My parents had tried to exclude us completely from all that was happening around us. So with a fifty-fifty chance I said, "we're Catholic." It sounded like a nice smooth word to me whereas 'Protestant' sounded harsh.
Everything changed instantly in that garage. The atmosphere went from brotherly encouragement and learning to a cold wall of brothers looking at each other and deciding to lock the garage door. The older boys started to become aggressive, pushing my brother and I into a corner and telling us that we'd have to fight our way out. My brother was ignorant to the threat so I said that I would fight them all if they would let my brother go. I actually think that I was more scared of what would happen to me if my Dad found out that I had not looked after him. They let him go and I figured that I had about one fight to get through before he would have gotten back to the cottage to let my Mum know that I was being beaten up in the house next door.
I remember the fear vividly, even 42 years later and my Mum never came. Luckily I still had my teeth in place by the time the boy's mother popped in to see what we all wanted for lunch and saw what was going on. She took me home and left me at the front gate, avoiding my mother, either through the embarrassment of her own son's behaviour or because she thought that we were Catholic. I'll never know which.
I knocked on the door tears rolling down my face to see my little brother busy building a motorway for his toy cars. He had apparently forgotten to mention that his brother was not visiting with the neighbours but was being held captive. We laugh now, well he does, but he was the most innocent child I have ever met so I hold no grudges... mostly.
When my Mum asked what had happened, while arming herself for a war, I asked the same question, am I Catholic or Protestant? I still remember my Mum's face, her own immediate shock and tears and how she grabbed me and held me so tightly while constantly apologising. My father came to the cottage after work that night and they told us that we are Protestant, not Catholic. My Dad explained the 'troubles' as best he could and that he had been trying to protect us from the stupidity of many of our fellow countrymen and that we are not really different, just that some people think we are.
It was the first moment in my life that I felt really confused. So Catholic people also believe in Jesus and God and the Holy Spirit. They also go to church on Sundays, do not worship idols and love little children. So what are they fighting about and why does being Protestant or Catholic have anything to do with all of that? Of course I now know that the religious labels we use do not separate us and that imperfect people interrupt religious texts to fit their own means and actions. The writings in the religious texts are often ambiguous enough to be used out of context and completely contrary to the original authors' intended message. They were also written thousands of years ago.
The book of Job in the Christian Bible describes the ocean as having a retaining wall. The world has been described as flat and squared and even hanging off pillars in numerous religious texts. Humans, even with all their faults, do learn though, constantly. We have learnt that not all religious text can be taken literally and that science can on occasion explain the incredible phenomenon described in the religions of the world, previously unexplainable to the people of the time who would have credited these happenings to the super-natural. We hang on to the lessons that make the world a better place to live and even embody these beliefs into our legal frameworks, across the world. We also choose to ignore the xenophobic ethnic cleansing actions found in almost all ancient religions and have learnt that physical wellbeing is not really witchcraft.
We now generally value human life and I am often amazed by the incredibly kind actions of those who spend their whole lives trying to help others less fortunate than themselves. There is of course the argument that humans are inherently good inside and that our laws and way of life are within us. The same argument is used to debunk the world's religions, as all religions have a history of racism, xenophobia and extreme paranoia. Millions have died and suffered unthinkable pain in the name of religion. The power of religion over state is now an almost archaic idea in most of the world, although this idea is still prevalent in developing countries. The church is still held in high regard in highly developed nations but the truth now trumps unexplainable phenomenon, as we have begun to understand the physical world through science. These nations are run with a civilised set of legal frameworks, generally designed to protect the vulnerable, promote unity, deliver opportunity and treat all individuals as equals, irrespective of their religious beliefs.
While this is nowhere close to perfect, it is a far cry from burning someone at the stake for not getting the black plague due to suspicions of witchcraft. The world is a better place because we understand that without knowledge, imperfect men and women make ill-informed decisions based on paranoia and a need to explain the unexplainable. That we constantly strive to be better is apparent everywhere and our understanding of each other is constantly evolving. Yet our governments and powerful institutions are often run by those with no interest in serving others or making the world a better place. The people we allow to run the world have managed to interrupt and disrupt what we have all signed up to, in order to meet their own narcissistic goals.
Unfortunately, we celebrate those who have conquered others, are individually wealthy and create nothing of legacy or real value to the people who come after us. We lust after the newest consumable pair of trainers, or smartphone or designer bag and have become almost immune to the suffering of others involved in getting us these 'things'. However, we are now aware that transparency is important and companies are soon to be held to account for their actions. The consumer is slowly beginning to accept that we have to operate differently and the investment community is throwing its formidable weight behind the rise of the ESG (environmental, social, governance) business function. I hope that the businesses of my grandchildren and great grandchildren will make a positive impact on the world and its peoples, much more so than the single-minded focus of business today.
This brings us to Ukraine. As the millions of good, imperfect people try their best to be part of a collaborative world, Vladimir Putin has decided that ancient text gives him the right to invade another country. The leadership in West has decided that taking away his toys through sanctions is the best way to cease this activity and that these sanctions should only be enforced if he takes one more step. This is a man who has been occupying a neighbouring country, claiming it as his own for the past eight years, while the rest of the world has just ignored it. The same man directly involved in the Brexit mess, placing another unhinged lunatic in the White House in Trump, poisoning a father and daughter in a foreign country using globally banned chemical weapons, on top of the occupation of a sovereign country. Emboldened by chaotic Western leadership he has decided that he wants a bit more and has now begun to kill civilians in a foreign country as his army marches forward.
As a child I often recall thinking that the woes of my world are brought on by the decisions of evil men. That when I grew up we would ignore the faults of our forefathers and that there would be no more wars or 'troubles'. Why did I think this? Because my mother and father visited the family next door to our cottage to explain the misunderstanding. They told me that they had sorted it all out and sure enough the following day the boys from next door were lined up outside our cottage door to apologise. I even spent the remainder of the holiday trying to get some answers from them as to why they beat me up because they thought I went to a different church. Of course, they could not understand it either and they were acting on the disbelief that Catholics and Protestants are somehow a threat to one other just by their very existence. It's a childish and immature thought that is perpetrated by conceited and evil men.
The actions of Putin have saddened me and I imagine have saddened many people around the world. But they have not saddened me as much as the reaction by the West to initially do nothing for eight years and now to impose sanctions after the invasion has begun. This is nothing but weakness in the face of a challenge, an inability to act based on collective ignorance. Western leaders have happily lined their pockets as the world economies grew while conveniently ignoring the invasion of Crimea and Georgia, the proven interference with democratic processes in the UK and the USA resulting in Brexit and Trump, and the mafia- style money laundering activities of oligarchs stealing the wealth of the Russian people, owning half of London being a by-product.
The inactions of incompetency have led us to the doorstep of war, not because of Putin but because our supposedly powerful Western leaders who have done nothing until it is too late. Putin has done what he wanted on the global stage, while shaking hands with the leaders of the free world and sipping vodka. He has outwitted the overfed intellectual so-called leaders of the West, more interested in their own personal successes than those they serve. He has questioned the very validity of democracy. The written word of international law has being ignored by all concerned and now that the reality of their inaction is knocking on their door, they wake up to do as little as seemingly possible.
I think that the majority of people in Europe were elated to see the end of the cold war, to see the walls come down and for people of the Eastern and Western European countries to welcome each other into their respective lands. The fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 was a moment I will never forget, watching humanity reach out to each other as they tore holes and scaled a pathetic cluster of bricks with nothing but happiness on their faces. One of my best friends is Russian, his amazing wife is Ukrainian, they are two of the kindest, smartest people I have ever met. The reason that these wonderful people are in my life is because of strong leadership and strong decisions made by imperfect men and women.
Children are often unwittingly drawn into the imperfect decisions of the their forefathers, to bear the weight of their mistakes and live with their resulting actions throughout their own lives. A lot of the people currently running the world are a generation in front of me but many of my generation are stepping up to shoulder the huge responsibility of running a nation. My childish hope of a world that all just got along and learnt from one and other is not a reality. Perhaps I should have just learnt from the beating that people act on myths, paranoia and misunderstanding and not on facts.
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