Tuesday, 18 August 2020

Institutional Incompetence

Institutions and organisations have a little trick when they screw up. They like to deny responsibility, blame literally everyone they can think of but themselves and then wait. Wait for enough time to pass for everyone to forget about what happened or to lose energy fighting them. They know they have enough power to do that and experience tells them it often works. People move on or give up because what else can they do, they are one person and this massive institution is, well, massive. And it happens again and again and again. Personally, it happened when I was at Cambridge and it's happening right now with the Bar Standards [sic] Board ("BSB"). 

The pandemic has thrown the world out of sync. That is undeniable. No one at the BSB, obviously, is to blame for the pandemic and the government regulations that followed. However, we will always be judged on how we respond to difficult situations. That's when we show our true colours, the principles we really hold dear and will stand up for. Our response when things go wrong will always be the true test of our character. So when uncertainty was all the rage back in March, the BSB had an opportunity to act decisively and proactively in response. They chose to stick their heads in the sand and hope for the best, somehow under the naive impression the pandemic would be over by August and we'd all be returning to mass gatherings in exam halls. Forget that we had our last classes for these exams in February. Forget that many of us were self-isolating or shielding because of our own health concerns or those of relatives. Forget how stressful this entire situation has been for young people. We were asked to put our lives on hold until at least August, if not beyond, rearrange summer plans (and I'm not talking about holidays, I'm talking about jobs that many students need to survive week to week) and attempt to sit down and revise without any idea what was going to happen. The BSB's response was, well, non-existent. It was not a good start. 

It only got worse from there. It soon became clear to even the BSB that the exams would not be in a traditional exam hall setting and that provisions for their online delivery would have to be made. Eventually, it was confirmed the exams would take place via Pearson Vue's 'OnVue' online proctoring system. The BSB described it as follows:

OnVUE uses a combination of artificial intelligence and live monitoring to ensure the exam is robustly guarded, deploying sophisticated security features such as face-matching technology, ID verification, session monitoring, browser lockdown and recordings.

Such robust security measures provide assurance to students (both past and present), the profession, and the public who will rely on the services provided by these future barristers, that the 2020 cohort of BPTC graduates will have been assessed to as high a standard as those in previous years as they will have taken the exams that they were intended to take in a secure environment. The revised arrangements are fully supported and endorsed by the BPTC providers. 

Further explanation of the system was forthcoming. The system would detect noises and had the power to terminate the examination if it felt those noises warranted it. You could not leave your seat or look away from the screen. Immediately, the concerns were obvious to everyone except the BSB. What about those who do not live alone? Those with reasonable adjustments? Health conditions? Those who need and are entitled to rest breaks? Going to the toilet? The problems were numerous and apparent to anyone who thought about it for more than 5 seconds, which begs the question exactly how long did the BSB think about it before deciding this was all necessary in the name of their much-vaunted but remarkably vague "rigour". Anyway, don't worry, because there was another option: anyone could book into a test centre where reasonable adjustments could be accommodated. 

Except, no you couldn't. Some locations did not have test centres. Some people lived too far away from their nearest centre for it to be a viable option. Others had reasonable adjustments but were shielding and/or isolating because of vulnerable relatives and could not (or understandably did not want to) go out in the middle of a deadly pandemic. Others did not have reasonable adjustments but are normal human beings who need to go to the toilet more regularly than once every 3-4 hours. Others did not have good/reliable wifi or could not ask roommates to just leave their flats or parents working from home to just not work from home. Others had the wrong laptops or had the right laptops that then became the wrong laptops. Others had reasonable adjustments and booked test centre slots only for those slots to be cancelled without warning. Others had reasonable adjustments but couldn't book test centre slots to accommodate those reasonable adjustments. Others still had reasonable adjustments but could only book test centre slots very early in the morning or very far away directly contrary to their reasonable adjustment. Others, like me, did not have reasonable adjustments because we ignore them because part of our condition means we feel like a burden and do not always stand up for what we deserve and decided not to book test centre slots because our peers with 'actual' reasonable adjustments need the slots more. The problems go on, and on, and on. Others actually had to forgo their reasonable adjustments. 

What had begun as a poorly thought out attempt to ensure 'rigour', transcended into a farce. And the problems escalated from there. Despite being told about all of this. Despite students forgoing legally guaranteed reasonable adjustments. The irony of a legal regulator forcing us to forgo those adjustments we are legally entitled to, believe me, is not lost on us. Despite the BSB apparent "commitment" to access to the Bar being clearly a principle that it was willing to ignore. It does not care about access to the Bar. It does not care about disabled students, or any students. It does not care about our concerns. It has treated us with utter contempt. It is quite clear that the BSB does not care. If anything has caused the public to lose trust and confidence in our profession it is the regulator acting in such a disgraceful, potentially unlawful manner. Despite the fact that students repeatedly highlighted concerns the exams went ahead. 

Except, no, they didn't. Not for many of us who sat in front of a blank screen only for it to be terminated because of technical issues. This was despite the fact we had religiously done system tests before our exams to ensure the system would work. The rest of us: spent hours waiting to be let into exams with locked screens and no explanation; navigated stifling conditions in test centres; weren't allowed water even if it was part of a reasonable adjustment in the middle of a heatwave; faced a choice between dehydration and needing the toilet; had proctors who were rude to us; had proctors who hung up on us when we called about issues; couldn't reschedule exams if they were terminated; peed on-screen whilst being recorded and maintaining eye contact with the camera despite following the BSB advice to "just pee before the exam"; took exams with bags, bottles and buckets of piss next to us; were lied to about available slots for rescheduling exams; all took different exams making moderation impossible. I, and my cohort, have littered twitter with our experiences. They have to be read to be believed, experienced to be truly understood. 

And now the BSB roll out their statistics about "successful" completion of the exams, using the most elastic definition of "successful" I have ever encountered. An exam is not completed "successfully" if you spent the last two hours of it severely dehydrated but scared that if you drank anything you'd have to go to the toilet and terminate. An exam is not completed "successfully" if you sat around for hours agonising over whether you would be given the test paper, receiving it when your nerves are shot and you've been uncomfortable sat at your desk for most of the day waiting. An exam is not completed "successfully" if you were forced to pee in a bucket and sit with that bucket of pee next to you. An exam is not completed "successfully" if you experienced technical difficulties that cut your time in half/deleted your answers/forced you to repeatedly restart the programme and any other myriad of issues we faced. An exam is not completed "successfully" if your reasonable adjustments were denied to you. The list goes on. This is another little trick institutions use. Statistics. Look, 89% of students completed their exams, or whatever the stat might be. Well, as Benjamin Disraeli tells us, there are three kinds of lies. Lies, damned lies and statistics. The BSB should know better than to roll out meaningless stats that ignore the real picture, but they do so to knowingly mislead and deceive the public. It's an utter disgrace.

At the end of it all, two things stick out like red thumbs. Ignoring all the disregard for disabled students and non-disabled students, ignoring the inhumane requirements and the potential breaches of human rights. Ignoring it all. First, if we wanted to cheat, we could have done. The photos we had to take of our rooms had blind spots. It is impossible to remotely invigilate an exam and it is truly concerning that our future regulator went to such lengths to try and ensure the integrity of the exams when their efforts could have been defeated by a tactically positioned piece of paper. It is laughable that they pursued this course of conduct instead of accepting that the solution was open-book exams. Let's not forget that as practitioners we will never be tested on our memory of various codes and regulations, but instead our understanding of them and the ease with which we can locate what we need within the practitioners' texts and/or online. Second, and most frustratingly, this is a profession where integrity and honesty is one of the required virtues. We've passed numerous hurdles to prove that we possess those virtues, that we can be trusted to be unleashed on the public. We've secured at least a first degree. We've secured membership of an inn and the obtained the necessary character references that go with that. Many of us have secured scholarships granted, in part, because we have demonstrated our integrity and suitability for the profession. In short, we are becoming barristers because we have integrity and should have been trusted to act with integrity when taking these exams. Instead, we have been treated as if we were bound to cheat and could not be trusted and the only way to ensure we did not do so was to be recorded, forced to pee on camera and forgo our reasonable adjustments. What sort of message does that send to the public? 

This was all done to maintain "rigour" and 

Such robust security measures provide assurance to students (both past and present), the profession, and the public who will rely on the services provided by these future barristers, that the 2020 cohort of BPTC graduates will have been assessed to as high a standard as those in previous years as they will have taken the exams that they were intended to take in a secure environment.

I've checked and students, the profession and the public did not need these reassurances. In fact, by insisting on these conditions students, the profession and the public are outraged at our inhumane and potentially unlawful treatment. Students, the profession and the public are not reassured by the fact that I am willing to pee in a bag on camera to take an exam. Students, the profession and the public are not reassured by the fact our regulator forced us to forgo our reasonable adjustments. Students, the profession and the public are not reassured by the utterly disgraceful way this has been handled. And, after all this, what has the BSB's response been? Apologise? Act with integrity and admit it got things wrong? Try and put it right? No. It has doubled down because those in charge lack integrity. Those in charge have abandoned their principles and demonstrated incompetence and an inability to respond to difficult circumstances. With respect, it's not good enough. The test, as I stated above, is how you respond to difficult circumstances because life is not easy. It's a test the BSB have failed on numerous occasions. It's a test, by contrast, my cohort has passed with flying colours. We've struggled through a pandemic to revise for and take exams, both the BSB assessments and those organised by our providers. We've ignored anxiety and stress. We've forgone our reasonable adjustments and tried our very best to complete these exams. We've spent our own money calling PearsonVue and the BSB to try and organise rescheduled exams. We've taken exams damp with our own piss. We've had panic attacks and carried on. We've stared at blank screens for hours to try and take these exams. We've navigated technical issues that were not our fault. We've continued to revise through this all despite not knowing if our exam will even happen. We've done everything within our power to try and take these exams to the best of our abilities despite the BSB trying to make conditions as difficult as possible and making it worse every single time they open their mouths to make an ill-advised, ignorant statement. We've come together on twitter to support our peers struggling. We've written open letters and coordinated responses. We've spoken up. And we've done all this whilst still attempting to revise for and take these damned exams.

The BSB have not apologised. They have buried their heads in the sand in the hope we will just go away, forget about the fact we were forced to revise for exams under immense stress and anxiety, forced to forgo lawfully guaranteed and required reasonable adjustments, forced to piss in bags and buckets. Because that's what institutions do. What the BSB, however, did not count on is that I, and my cohort, are entering this profession because we care deeply about justice and human rights and we've overcome seemingly insurmountable barriers before. We are a resilient bunch because becoming a barrister demands resilience. We won't allow those who are disabled to be at a disadvantaged by ignorance and incompetence on behalf of our future regulator because becoming a barrister demands a belief in equality. We won't allow our future regulator to treat us with contempt because becoming a barrister demands a desire to stand up for our principles. We won't give up because becoming a barrister demands fighting for justice and against injustice wherever it rears its ugly head. We never expected to be fighting our future regulator for basic human rights, but we are where we are.

The BSB have started a battle they cannot win, against students motivated by a desire for justice. They will not be allowed to get away with this one. 

Update: This post was updated on 19/08/2020 to include paragraph 10 beginning "And now, the BSB..."

Sunday, 19 July 2020

I like quiet

I like to be quiet. Many people would not necessarily have guessed that, because I'm 'loud-presenting'. In fact, I can be quite loud. I've never liked it about myself. But being loud always seemed to be easier than being quiet, because if you're loud the worst that people will think is that you're a bit obnoxious. And I can handle that because maybe I am a bit obnoxious. But if you're quiet, people worry that something's wrong because that's what being quiet means, right? It means something is wrong and then they won't leave you alone because they think something is wrong. Because you're quiet. And the one thing I like less than being loud is people thinking that I'm quiet and that, therefore, something is wrong. So maybe I don't like being quiet, I like being left alone and sometimes it feels like the only way to be left alone is to be the centre of attention. Hiding in plain sight, I suppose.

I saw a tweet recently trying to put a positive spin on lockdown and coronavirus. It asked what were those things from lockdown we would want to keep. I quite like the fact that people don't really touch me now. Walking is also fun. But mainly, not being expected to go anywhere or see anyone. Because I like to be quiet. I like to stay at home and read and write blog posts and scroll through Twitter. I like knowing that no one is judging me for that or worrying, "...because you seem quiet, is everything okay, you're not normally like this," except I am because that's me and it's just impossible to be quiet in a world that's so fucking loud. All the time. So I am loud because I have to be, not because I want to be but you think it's just who I am and then when I get so tired of pretending to be loud to fit in and I just shush for a bit. Because I just want to be quiet but it's not quiet if everyone is sort of worried about you, that's lots of noise and I don't like noise. I like quiet. Maybe it's because inside my head is loud enough. Maybe it's easier. Less performative. Just simpler. To be quiet. Don't have to worry about saying the wrong thing in the wrong way at the wrong time.

When I lost my voice, I was quiet all the time. Obviously. And yes, it was humiliating trying to order coffee with a note on my phone. Thanks for asking. But it was also great because no one expected anything from me. I could just sit. And be quiet. No one worried that I was sad or upset or that anything was wrong. Ironically, of course, because this big thing was wrong, I couldn't fucking speak. But no one worried, because they knew that and therefore didn't have to ask what was wrong, so they just let me be quiet.  And I liked it. No one worried. I could just be. I didn't have to do anything. Which made more sense to me, I think, because, after all, we are human beings. Not human doings. Sometimes we just need to be. Quiet, yes, but also just be. And I think it's okay. It's hard, but it's okay. To be quiet.

I don't really know the point of this post. I guess it doesn't matter. Sometimes being quiet is a sign something is wrong. Sometimes, often, usually, most of the time it isn't. It's just being quiet.

Monday, 8 June 2020

Three men walk in a desert

Yesterday's Daf (Shabbat 92b) ended with  a new Mishna1 which stated:

  מַתְנִי׳ הַמּוֹצִיא כִּכָּר לִרְשׁוּת הָרַבִּים — חַיָּיב. הוֹצִיאוּהוּ שְׁנַיִם — פְּטוּרִין. לֹא יָכוֹל אֶחָד לְהוֹצִיאוֹ וְהוֹצִיאוּהוּ שְׁנַיִם — חַיָּיבִין. וְרַבִּי שִׁמְעוֹן פּוֹטֵר.

  MISHNA: One who carries a large mass out to the public domain on Shabbat is liable. If two carried it out together, they are exempt because neither performed a complete prohibited labor. However, if one person is unable to carry it out alone, and therefore two people carried it out, they are liable. And Rabbi Shimon deems them exempt even in that case.

 The context is carrying an object on Shabbat, which is prohibited in Jewish Law, but it got me thinking about a common philosophical problem in criminal law:

 Consider a man, Bob, in a desert. Two people, John and Smith, want to kill Bob. John decides to poison Bob's water supply and Smith pokes a hole in his water bottle so the water trickles out. John and Smith have acted without knowing the other had also attempted to sabotage Bob's water bottle. Bob is both drinking poisoned water and then runs out of water. Eventually, he dies. It is impossible to determine which of the poisoning or dehydration was the cause of death. For the sake of argument, he drank just enough of the poisoned water to poison himself but also ran out of water such that dehydration killed him at exactly the same time that the poison took effect. It is also accepted that had either John or Smith acted alone, Bob would have died of the poisoning or dehydration alone at the same time as he died in the present scenario. Either act was sufficient to kill Bob. However, in deciding what was Bob's cause of death, it is impossible to say either the poisoning or the dehydration killed him because Bob would have died either way.

 The question is: Has either committed murder? The problem exists because, in English law at least, to be convicted of a murder you must be shown to have caused a person's death. If the person would have died without your intervention (and I mean in a temporally relevant way, obviously we are all going to die), then you are not guilty of murder. For example, if I shoot at a man who actually dies of a completely unrelated sudden heart attack that kills him instantly and, crucially, before my shooting caused a (for the sake of argument, definitely fatal) bullet wound, I have not committed murder. I may have committed attempted murder but simply put, I was not the cause of the man's death and therefore cannot be guilty of murder. So, if we cannot say whether the poisoning or the dehydration caused the death, who murdered Bob?

 Perhaps our Mishna can provide an answer. I should, before I continue, point out that I am taking this Mishna and Gemara completely in isolation. I am sure that the Rabbis have a specific opinion on and answer to precisely this sort of case. I look forward to reading it, if only because I can be almost certain that it will be far more complicated, complex, sophisticated and ultimately interesting than the extrapolation I have drawn here to answer the question, but nonetheless, let's go back to our Mishna. We learnt that if two people carried out a mass on Shabbat, they are exempt but if one person is unable to carry it out alone, and therefore two carried it out, they are liable.

The Gemara exapnds:

  זֶה יָכוֹל וְזֶה יָכוֹל — רַבִּי מֵאִיר מְחַיֵּיב, וְרַבִּי יְהוּדָה וְרַבִּי שִׁמְעוֹן פּוֹטְרִים. זֶה אֵינוֹ יָכוֹל וְזֶה אֵינוֹ יָכוֹל — רַבִּי יְהוּדָה וְרַבִּי מֵאִיר מְחַיְּיבִים וְרַבִּי שִׁמְעוֹן פּוֹטֵר. זֶה יָכוֹל וְזֶה אֵינוֹ יָכוֹל — דִּבְרֵי הַכֹּל חַיָּיב.

With regard to an action performed by two people, when this person is capable of performing it alone,and that person is capable of performing it alone, Rabbi Meir deems them liable, and Rabbi Yehuda and Rabbi Shimon deem them exempt. If both this person is incapable and that person is incapable of performing the action alone, and therefore they performed it together, Rabbi Yehuda and Rabbi Meir deem them liable, and Rabbi Shimon deems them exempt. If this person is capable, and that person is incapable, and they performed it together, everyone agrees that he is liable.

To apply this reasoning to our case, we need to ask: What are we dealing with here? (Dad Yomi fans will appreciate, or shake their head at, my play on Gemaric phrases) Given the terms outlined above, it is clearly a case where each person is capable of performing it alone - if Bob's water bottle had only been poisoned or had there only been a hole in his bottle, he still would have died. Thus John and Smith could have performed the action of murdering Bob alone. In such a case, Rabbi Meir deems them both liable, and Rabbi Yehuda and Rabbi Shimon deem them exempt. And why?

It is based on a line from Leviticus where, in the context of committing a sin, the Torah uses the word "בַּעֲשֹׂתָהּ" which means "by performing it". "By performing it" is interpreted to mean:

 הָעוֹשֶׂה אֶת כּוּלָּהּ וְלֹא הָעוֹשֶׂה מִקְצָתָהּ. 

One who performs a transgression in its entirety is liable, and not one who performs only part of it.

The reason Rabbi Meir, who accepts this understanding of the verse, believes where two people are capable of performing the action alone but perform the action together they are liable is based on his interpretation of what the verse is applying to, and is not entirely helpful for answering the question of who murdered Bob. So we have an answer, sort of. What's perhaps most interesting, however, is the Rabbi's acceptance that "by performing it" comes to exclude performing only part of a transgression. To a lesser or greater degree, therefore, this means that you are only liable for those transgressions you complete in full.

This is most interesting when you consider the Gemara's application of it to cases where one is capable and the other incapable:

 אָמַר מָר: זֶה יָכוֹל וְזֶה אֵינוֹ יָכוֹל — דִּבְרֵי הַכֹּל חַיָּיב. הֵי מִנַּיְיהוּ מִיחַיַּיב? אָמַר רַב חִסְדָּא: זֶה שֶׁיָּכוֹל, דְּאִי זֶה שֶׁאֵינוֹ יָכוֹל — מַאי קָא עָבֵיד! אֲמַר לֵיהּ רַב הַמְנוּנָא: דְּקָא מְסַיַּיע בַּהֲדֵיהּ! אֲמַר לֵיהּ: מְסַיֵּיעַ אֵין בּוֹ מַמָּשׁ

 We learned earlier that the Master said: In a case where this person is capable, and this person is incapable, and they performed it together, everyone agrees that he is liable. The Gemara seeks to clarify: Which of them is liable? Rav Ḥisda said: The one who is capable of performing the act alone is liable, as if it was the one who is incapable of performing the act alone that was liable, what is he doing that would render him liable? His efforts are inadequate to perform the task. Rav Hamnuna said to Rav Ḥisda: He is doing quite a bit, as he is assisting him. He said to him: The assistance provided by one who assists another to perform a task that the other could have performed himself is insubstantial.

The Gemara goes on to delineate numerous examples where assistance is deemed insubstantial, in a bid to demonstrate this point. Can assistance provided by one who could not have performed the action themselves to one who could have performed it themselves, really be considered 'insubstantial'? If I'm physically incapable of boring a hole in a water bottle but I am so determined that Bob is murdered that I give my power drill which I give to Smith, am I really exempt because Smith owns his own power drill and can bore the hole? These are not points the Gemara is making, but I think they are worth pondering.

1 For those of you who are wondering what I am going on about: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Daf_Yomi and https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mishnah

Tuesday, 26 May 2020

And Solskjaer has won it

Today is May 26th. To a United fan, even one too young to remember the season itself such as myself, that date will forever be etched on our minds as the date Solskjaer won it with virtually the last kick of the final. The game sums up everything that fans love about sport. The rollercoaster that following your favourite team can involve. Drama. Emotion. Coming back from the brink of disaster. Winning. One of the absences I have felt most keenly during lockdown is that of football, both its absence from my TV screen and the absence of travelling to watch it in person. I don't miss the two and a half hour train journey to Manchester or being cramped in an overstuffed tram whilst other fans drunkenly chant sexist songs all around me. But, and forgive me for being cliché about it, that feeling I get when Old Trafford comes into view and when I step out into the stadium and see the pitch makes it all worth it.

That season, 1998/99, was the starting point for me. I often ask my Dad whether I watched any of the games, was I a fan during that season. He can't remember. But I was addicted to watching the 'Treble' video in the years that followed. I learnt the commentary off by heart and walked around reciting it, over and over again. I recreated the goals, alone, in my garden (quite hard to do but five-year-olds have a way of imagining these things). I watched the video again. And again. And again. The worst punishment was being banned from watching the United game that weekend. I used to try and sneak downstairs and peak into the TV room when my Mum (it was always my Mum) was otherwise engaged. I remember running into my parents' room the morning after a midweek game to ask my Dad what the score had been. I remember when I was old enough to watch the first half when a game was on in the evening. Dancing around our kitchen when we beat Chelsea on penalties in 2008. All I wanted to do when I was younger was go to Old Trafford. To watch United. Just once would suffice. I do not remember when I found out my dream was coming true. But I remember that the journey was over eight hours because of traffic, my Dad nearly gave up and turned around to go home and all that stopped him was how excited he knew I was. He couldn't do that to me. I remember we played Spurs. I remember standing on my seat to see Ruud Van Nistelrooy score the only goal of the game. I remember David Beckham taking a throw-in directly in front of me. I remember loving every single second.

Nearly 20 years on from my first game, I've been a season ticket holder for the majority of that time. I've been incredibly lucky to have been to Old Trafford more times than that little kid who thought 'Sheringham' was called 'Cheerio' (I still have no idea where that came from) could ever have imagined. I have seen United legends such as Keane, Scholes, Giggs, Ronaldo and Rooney live. Great footballers such as Messi and more recently Mbappé. I was there when we beat Arsenal 8-2, and when we lost to City 6-1. I've seen us win trophies with late goals and wonder strikes. I've also seen us struggle. I've watched United in the freezing cold lose to a club from Romania that no one had ever heard of. I've shivered through a game in Ukraine barely watching because all I wanted to do was focus on staying warm. I would not trade a second of it for anything. There's just something about sport. About football. About United.

So yes, its absence is felt keenly. I am excited for when it is safe for fans to return. Football is not a matter of life or death and no, it is not more important than that, Mr Shankley. But it is important. Going to games is a shared experience that rivals any other. I have daydreams about my children coming with me. About going abroad for a game, like I have done with my Dad, and witnessing a great spectacle (beating PSG 3-1 with a last-minute penalty springs effortlessly to mind). There really is nothing quite like it. And May 26th 1999 will forever be the date that started my love affair with football. I didn't watch the game live. But I didn't have to. Not to understand what sport meant, what sport could do. We'll be back soon, arguing about VAR and offsides. Hoping that our rivals don't win any trophies. Winding our friends up when their team loses.

Until then, I'll just watch the moment United won the Treble on repeat.

Sunday, 24 May 2020

It's okay.

I don't know who needs to hear this but:

It's okay to stay inside when it's sunny and warm outside.

It's okay to eat lunch food at breakfast time.

It's okay to procrastinate.

It's okay to fail and have to try again.

It's okay to find that really popular book boring.

It's okay to okay to eat a slice of cheese and a tomato separately when you can't be bothered to make a sandwich.

It's okay to just be. And not do.

I don't know who needs to hear this but believe me, you're probably doing alright and certainly better than you think.

Monday, 11 May 2020

Tisha b'Av and lighting the sky

"Even, after all this time, the Sun never says to the Earth 'you owe me'. Look at what happens with a love like that. It lights the whole sky."

I have a fondness for quotations. I have a particular fondness for this one. I'm not sure why. Maybe it's the imagery of a lit sky, powered only by love that speaks to the romantic in me. Maybe it's the idea of a special kind of love, love that gives without question, without any expectations, without any demands, without any requests. Without wanting anything back in return. Keep that thought in mind.

Tisha B'av is the end of three weeks of mourning in the Jewish calendar. Those three weeks begins with the Fast of Tammuz when we mourn we mourn the breaching of Jerusalem's walls and the destruction of the Temple, culminating in Tisha b'Av, the ninth of Av, a fast day commemorating a number of tragedies and, specifically, the destruction of both Temples. We are taught the reason the Temples were destroyed, the reason such a tragedy befell the Jewish people is שִׂנְאַת חִנָּם - baseless hatred. The Gemara at Yoma 9b is clear. After discussing three reasons the First Temple was destroyed, the Gemara asks:

"מפני מה חרב מפני שהיתה בו שנאת חנם"

"...why was the Second Temple destroyed? It was destroyed due to the fact that there was wanton hatred during that period." (Sefaria translates it here as 'wanton hatred', but that is the same as baseless hatred for our purposes).

The Gemara goes on to ask:

"ובמקדש ראשון לא הוה ביה שנאת חנם"

"The Gemara asks: And in the First Temple era was there really no baseless hatred?" (here, for some reason, Sefaria does translate it as 'baseless hatred')

The conclusion is that even those who were apparently close had a hatred for each other. So far, so simple. The Jewish people were hateful and both Temples were destroyed due to this grave sin. What's the point of this blog, already based on a tenuous connection and starting with a bizarre quotation?

Well, Rabbis and scholars have long debated what exactly baseless hatred is and provided a number of messages and thoughts on Tisha B'Av. I would like to share two. One that is a fairly common interpretation and one that I think is my own, though the more learnèd amongst my readership are free to correct me.

The months of the Jewish calendar, originally, were merely numbered - with the month of Nissan being the first month, representing the importance of the exodus from Egypt. Post-Babylonian exile, they were given names. Many have provided links between those names and the month itself and what happens in those months. For example, Shevat is believed to an ancient Akkadian word that is related to the word lashing and refers to 'lashings' of rain. This is, plausibly, a connection to the rain that would typically fall in the month of Shevat, a month also known in the Jewish calendar as the so-called New Year of the Trees. Rain, famously, quite important for trees. Tammuz, the month where the three weeks of mourning the destruction of the Temples begins is, either ironically or meaningfully, the name of an idol. This is possibly an allusion to and a reminder of the fact one of the reasons given in Yoma 9b for the destruction of the First Temple was idol worship. Rashi has a simpler idea, Tammuz is related to the Aramaic word for heat, Tammuz is also a summer month, normally hot. Nissan, aptly known as the month of miracles, is plausibly so-named for the numerous miracles that occurred, including the Exodus from Egypt. You get the picture. So what of Av?

Av means Father. Many sources explain the connection as a reminder that even when we, the Jewish people, sin, Hashem, our G_D, remains there, like a parent. G_D may punish us for our sins, but nonetheless, G_D remains our parent. The name of the month, therefore, serves as a reminder that no matter what we do, no matter how badly we sin and no matter how severe a punishment we deserve for that sin (and the destruction of the Temple is a high punishment, indeed), G_D remains, always, there. Just like any parent.

I have, however, a different interpretation. One that relates back to the quotation I am particularly fond of above. We are taught, as I have said, that the Temples were destroyed due to our baseless hatred. Perhaps, then, Av is not a reminder that Hashem is like a Father or Mother in that Hashem is always there. Instead, it is a reminder of what we need to do, as Jews, to bring the Temple back. Parental love is, often and normally, unconditional. You might even call it 'baseless love' if you were looking for a meaningful connection to tie this whole post together. The name of the month then is a constant and unfailing reminder to love without question, without any expectations, without any demands, without any requests. Without wanting anything back in return. Just like a parent. Perhaps that is what we need to do, as Jews, as people, to ensure the rebuilding of the Temple. It was destroyed because of baseless hatred. The path, I believe, to our redemption and its rebuilding must be paved with baseless love, the love that never, even after all this time, would say 'you owe me'. A love that lights the whole sky.

יְהִי רָצוֹן מִלְּפָנֶֽיךָ, ה' אֱלֹהֵֽינוּ וֵֽאלֹהֵי אֲבוֹתֵֽינוּ, שֶׁתִּבְנֶה בֵּית הַמִּקְדָשׁ בִּמְהֵרָה בְיָמֵֽינוּ

This post was edited on 29th July 2020, removing references to the Omer which are no longer relevant.

Sunday, 5 April 2020

Quarantine and mental health

It's been a long time coming (well, approximately two weeks or so), but I have finally decided to break my 'I am not going to write about mental health during the coronavirus crisis' rule. I've been worn down by the lack of structure, the lack of going outside. I'm as sorry as you are, believe me. I cannot imagine I have anything to say that you won't read somewhere else so save yourself the time...and well, carry on, as you have literally nothing better to do. So, for what it is worth, my two-cents.

Go outside

Obviously, stay away from other people. Only actually exercise. Walking counts. But please don't start sunbathing in little groups with a BBQ and a Bluetooth speaker and then tell the police I said you could do it. But do go outside. It's good for you. The air is good for you. The sunlight is good for you. Trust the British weather to suddenly go really quite nice the moment we have to stay inside. It's wonderfully ironic and given our love of irony, I am sure we can all appreciate it. Outside, whilst walking 2m away from anyone not in our household for at least 30 minutes per day.

I cannot stress this one enough. I know people keep going on about it, but it really can change your mood. It'll also help with temperature regulation, give your muscles something to do that isn't changing the channel or scrolling through Instagram, and there are LOADS of dogs around. You shouldn't go and pet them because #socialdistancing, but you can look at them and they're normally really happy and cute. If you have a dog at home, take it outside so other people can look at him or her. Your dog also needs to walk, but if you have a dog you knew that already.

Go easy on yourself

Twitter is helpfully full of accounts telling us that Shakespeare wrote King Lear whilst in quarantine, Isaac Newton began to come up with his theory of gravity and so on. This is not helpful. We are in the middle of a pandemic. It is okay not to be productive. If you have ideas and things you want to accomplish or write (look at me, I'm writing a whole blogpost. In the lockdowns of the future, I hope to be an example to many) or read, go for it. I really want to learn Ancient Greek. I've not started yet, but I keep saying I will. If you fancy picking up drawing or learning to code then great. If not, or you lack motivation or whatever, then that's really okay too. It does not matter if whenever this is all over you are the same basically mediocre person with no new skills or talents. Don't beat yourself up. Just look after yourself, try and eat three meals a day and keep yourself entertained. It does not need to be groundbreaking or revolutionary. Developing a new skill or writing a novel (or the next King Lear, of course) is a great way to pass the time but then again so are series 1-5 of Mad Men, 1-10 of Friends and 1-6 of Brooklyn 99, which are all on Netflix right now. Sitting in your room for a few hours and watching TV or rereading your favourite books or doodling or whatever it is that you do that you probably think is not productive is perfectly acceptable. 

This is not the time to convince yourself that if you haven't read Plato's complete works, written 32 new plays, learnt French and Russian and run a marathon in your back garden by the time this is over, you've somehow wasted this time and are a bad person. 

Find structure where you can

Most of us have nothing to do. Or nothing pressing to do. Things can be put off, we aren't in work or study and there's just a lot of empty space on our calendars. Having said all that, there are still things we must do. We need to eat. We need to wake up. We need to go outside (see above). We also need social contact (video chat, please). So eat three meals a day at vaguely the same times. Go outside around the same time. If you enjoy reading, set aside time for it and if you can, try and stick to it. Organise video chats and skype calls. Talk on the phone with your grandparents if they are still alive at the same time (they'll appreciate the consistency and contact, as well). If you can say, right, I am going to wake up at 9am or 8am or 6am every day and eat breakfast 30 minutes later, lunch at 1pm, walk at 4pm, phone grandma at 6pm and so on, it'll help your day so much. It won't feel so much like a black-nothingness. There will be things to look forward to. And if there are things to look forward to, you'll be more motivated to do them and keep doing them. And add more things to do. 

Eat properly

This is good advice generally, but even more so now. Try try try and try again to eat regularly and properly. Good meals will help. If you can cook, cook for yourself. It will fill time. If you can't cook, now is a good time to learn (though, no pressure, see above) but still, try and eat properly and regularly. Fresh fruit and vegetables. Etc. 

Treat yourself

Finally, treat yourself. This is a bloody hard time for everyone. We are stuck inside. We don't know when it is going to end. We can't see our loved ones, we can't hug our grandparents and many of us have family and friends working tirelessly for the NHS and other key services, and we're worried about them. We deserve a treat. Regularly. Because, if we are complying with the guidance, and going outside only when we need to and social distancing when we do, then we are doing our bit. And our bit is hard. Yes, it's not hard like working for the NHS is hard. Or being a police officer trying to understand the new regulations. But it is still hard, and it will take its toll. So loads of treats are necessary. Anything you like. Enjoy it. Believe me, you deserve it.

Things will get better. People will stop dying and soon we will go outside again and have BBQs and all talk about that time we had to stay inside for weeks without any sign of it improving. We will get married and have parties and move into new homes and make new memories with family and friends. We will see our grandparents again and hug them and love them in close proximity rather than from afar. Friends will be in our rooms physically, rather than as images on a screen. We can go on dates and to restaurants and, yes, shock-horror, we will be able to go back to work and study. And we will all be so grateful for it. But for now, it's difficult and the light at the end of the tunnel is at best very faint. We will get there, we just need to keep going. So look after yourselves, treat yourselves, smile and be happy. We can do this.

Monday, 24 February 2020

Would you stop complaining?

Universities are really really really really bad at mental health. Like really unbelievably bad. They just have no idea, hiding behind their inflexible rules and procedures as they ignore the fact that they are dealing with real people and individual circumstances. Writing things like “we have to apply the rules fairly and equally” displaying a maddening ignorance of indirect discrimination and disgraceful lack of basic common sense. Confusing ‘there’s nothing we can do’ with ‘there’s nothing we want to do’, claiming they mean the former when really they mean the latter because they cannot be bothered to get it right; they cannot be bothered to accept that people are different and therefore need individualised solutions that take into account personal circumstances. That would mean actually thinking what is the best solution in this case and that requires effort. That requires actually bloody caring about the students they teach when really they care about their research and that’s about it. It is alarming how badly wrong they get it, how well-meaning, apparently and supposedly intelligent people, simply do not understand how things they say will be interpreted.

Starting with the brute bureaucracy. The 8 million different departments dealing with seemingly the same topic that never communicate because that would be too easy; that would be too simple; that would make too much damn sense; because otherwise how would universities force students to navigate an impossibly complicated system to ensure that they can never actually ask for counselling or mental health support or disability assistance because not even G_D knows who the hell they should contact. And then when you have contacted someone and sorted out, say, counselling, you’re entitled to four sessions because everyone in the entire world knows that you’re cured after four hours of talking about your childhood and why would anyone need more time, that’s just absurd. And then, you need a letter from your therapist saying you saw him or her but that letter needs to be current if you need to rely on it in an extenuating circumstances claim but how can it be current if you’re only allowed four sessions and they were 6 months ago but you’re anxious now and your family member died now and that’s why you need extra time on your assignment but the letter is 6 months old so it doesn’t count anymore and even though it says you’re not better because you may never be better because what does better even mean, it won’t help you now. So your claim is rejected or a decision is deferred until you can submit more evidence, more evidence that you literally cannot obtain because you are not allowed to see the counsellor again and you've been on the NHS waiting list since you were born. So you email again and there’s nothing they can do or want to do. So you’re screwed basically but it’s okay because every else is screwed or they would be screwed if they were like you or the same as you but they aren’t but anyway shut up and stop complaining. Complaining, because that’s what it is. And then it turns out that you should have contacted the mental health department not the counselling department because they deal with this type of mental health but you never knew this when you applied because you didn’t realise there were two departments because why would there be? And it turns out that they have a 6-month waiting list but that’s too late because you need the help now or well actually last year when you first contacted the wrong department who didn’t tell you to contact the right department, so what’s the point now anyway? But you email anyway knowing it’s pointless and fruitless, hoping for the best and hoping to be proved wrong because you don’t want to feel abandoned and irrelevant and if only people stopped making you feel that way it would be better.

And rules are blindly followed because rules are fair, right? Because if there’s a rule, it exists for a reason and it promotes fairness because then everyone is treated equally so there’s certainty across cases and that’s fair. Except it isn’t fair. Because rules don’t take into account circumstances and this is the criticism of Kant, right, because he’d have you tell the axe murderer where your children are, because never lie, except maybe sometimes, only sometimes, lying is a good thing to do and we should lie because axe murderers do exist. But rules are certain and certainty is fair a lot of the time but not always because some people have individual circumstances like they literally can’t get into a building without wheelchair access and obviously the fact the class has to be in that building is the same for everyone but only one person loses out, and even though there’s a rule, maybe you need to change the rules or soften the edges because people who need a wheelchair need to be able to get into buildings where their classes are. Or, if class had to be on a Friday afternoon and everyone had to attend the rule is fair and equally applied but it’s the religious Jew that misses all those classes so maybe the rule could be changed. But no, because another jew who is less religious will go to those classes so why won’t you, you’re both Jews but only you have an issue so really why should we change the rules, you should be more like this other Jew who has no issues because that’s how it works, you check Jew on a form and you’re all the same and have the same needs so the rules are fair because this Jew can come to class. So stop complaining, because your classes are important too and yes you have a religion but you also have class and this other Jew has religion and he or she is okay. So the rule might be fair and it might be equally applied and everyone might subscribe to the same rules but they can still discriminate against individuals and you need to be aware of that and mental health is no different because sometimes you’re fine and sometimes you have a panic attack and can’t move so you don’t move and other times you can’t speak so you don't speak. So you can’t go to class or don’t want to but you try your best because the rules say that everyone has to go to class, and that’s fine, except sometimes you just can’t and it’s not the same as that other person with mental health problems because maybe they can go to class but that doesn’t mean they don’t have an issue and it doesn’t mean that you don’t either. It means the rules need to be different, to take those circumstances into account so that everyone is catered for and yes that’s hard and expensive and difficult and time-consuming but people are killing themselves because they feel alone, people are hurting themselves because they feel no one understands. And I don’t think it’s true, I think people do understand and you’re never alone but I’ve felt alone and I’ve felt misunderstood and like no one cares so I know how it feels and I empathise and I sympathise and more needs to be done. 

And then there are the emails you receive. The ‘stop looking for special treatment’ that just means ‘stop complaining’ and the ‘we’ve been very supportive’ which means ‘stop complaining’ and the ‘there’s nothing we can do’ which means ‘stop complaining’ and the ‘this is wasting time and energy’ which means ‘stop complaining.’ So you do. You stop complaining because it’s true, you do want special treatment. But that’s only because you need it because the words jump around on the page when you sit for too long or your grandmother just died and you know what you’re really really damn upset and don’t want to deal with that essay right now because life goes on and is more important than Descartes’ views on mind-body dualism. And you stop, because they did give you that extension last time and you think maybe you’re just being ungrateful forgetting that you had to jump through 23 million hoops just to get that extension and it arrived three weeks late so it was meaningless anyway. And then you think maybe there is nothing they can do, forgetting there’s always something they can do, they just don’t want to do it because that means actually paying attention and helping you and that takes time and effort. And, well, yes it is taking time and energy so you stop, forgetting it takes more time and energy to deal with their system at every turn, the system that doesn’t see a human and doesn’t see a person but a nuisance with fingers that can type. So you go away, quietly, hoping that no one will trample on you and that it’ll be okay but it won’t be because that’s not how life works, you need to speak up but you’re tired and your voice hurts and you’re sick of fighting because it’s really not getting anywhere because they don’t care and they don’t listen. And they keep sending emails that you misunderstand because they’ve made no effort to understand you and emails that make you feel worse and make you feel more anxious because no one stops for a minute to remember that they’re dealing with a real person, not a computer, but a person with feelings and emotions. Maybe we should phrase this a bit more nicely. Because it’s not their fault. No one ever thinks that. And that’s the problem.

And then there's the ignorance. There's the ignorance that says mental health works like physical health, that a broken mind looks like a broken arm and takes a few weeks to heal and being able to use your mind is evidence that it's no longer broken anymore. Except, it doesn't. Sometimes you can't move or breathe or think and sometimes you can and mental health is not physical health, it's different and looks different and works differently but, obviously, if you submitted a piece of work it means you're fine and that piece of work is fine. Right? Well, no. It's not the same, it's different and needs different systems and different fixes. There's the ignorance that you are complaining and, more crucially, you want to be complaining, that you're just obviously a difficult person who enjoys being difficult. So you crawl back under the bed and cuddle yourself, rocking gently as you cry and wonder maybe it is just you, maybe it's your fault, maybe you should be easier if only you could be easier things would be better. And you want to be easier, you wish you could be easier because despite everything, despite the lack of empathy and the lack of sympathy, despite being made to feel like an inconvenience and a nuisance, you can still empathise with them. You blame yourself because you know how difficult it is to deal with mental health because you've been struggling for 20+ years and you haven't figured it out so how could they figure it out, you don't even know what you want so how should they know? So you try and let them off, blame yourself because obviously it's your fault, everything is your fault...except, it's not your fault and you need to stop blaming yourself but that requires other people to stop blaming you as well. But the institutions won't stop. They keep blaming you, stop complaining, stop asking for better treatment, go away. It just makes it worse, and worse, and worse.

it’s an easy fix. Listen. Empathise. Stop hiding behind rules, they invariably ignore circumstances and treat people unfairly. They invariably assume all cases can be treated alike. Employ more staff. Care more about students and less about research. This isn’t rocket science. And even if it were, universities are full of people that understand rocket science. So they should know better. And they should do better.

Saturday, 1 February 2020

Feeling

Have you ever tried to kill yourself? Wondered how you’d do it? Crossed the street without looking, hoping and wishing and just wanting something, anything to hit you instead of life which keeps hitting you over and over and over again? Viewed every knife in your kitchen as a vehicle for sweet release from the pain, the difficulty, the sheer weight of everything crushing down on you? Looked at your wrists, the veins, thought about how much it would hurt and how long before it would stop hurting and how long but then didn’t matter because it hurts now, right now, and you’ve not done anything yet, you’re just looking at the knife and thinking about it but you've not done anything but yet it hurts, why does it hurt? And if it already hurts what’s a little more pain for just a little bit of time and then no pain surely no pain is good? What difference would it make? Maybe none but maybe all the difference in the world because there’s pain and there’s no pain and then there’s the complete absence of pain because there’s no feeling left. Have you ever tried to convince yourself that people would care or sometimes that they wouldn’t and that’s reason enough to do it but how would you know is there any way of knowing because sometimes that’s all that stops you that you don’t know if people would care and you need them to care because otherwise what was the point but would they and you wouldn’t know if they did because how would you know but if you cling on if you accept the pain and work through the pain they’ll show you that they care and then you won’t want to anymore because they’ll care but they don’t or they won’t or they haven’t? Thought about it but not done anything because that would be a cry for help and you don’t want to make a sound or have them notice, you just want to be quiet and be silent and for no one to notice you because then you can pretend you’re not breaking into a million small pieces because if they don’t notice then it isn’t happening and if you cry out then it’s real and you have to face it so you stay still and quiet and silent and motionless and you don’t do anything because somehow that seems easier and less real. So you don’t do it but every single time you go through all of that thinking and wondering and temptation and nearly doing it and nothing changes and it just gets worse and worse and worse and worse because you can't cry out because that would be too loud but you can't do nothing because it's too loud in your head. And you don’t know what’s really stopped you so far but you hope that it keeps stopping you because you don’t want to, you don’t want to end it you don’t want everything to stop because how would you feel but then you remember you feel pain and sad and it hurts and you don’t know if you want to feel at all because maybe that's better but how would you know but surely it is better. So you go back again and you start all over again and you go through it all again and reach the same point where you’re grateful you haven’t but also would but can’t but you don’t so you still feel and you don’t know if that’s a good thing but at least you’re here to ask the question because that’s something right? Right? And you really do not know but you're tired and too tired to keep doing this in your brain and sometimes it takes up entire days and weeks and you are still going and nothing has changed but you don't do anything because somehow that's easier than doing something.

Have you ever sat down and thought about it? Wondered who would find you? What they’d do? Realised you just feel too much and if only you could feel less but you don’t know what that means and you don’t know how to make yourself feel less because that’s not possible right because you can’t stop feeling that’s what it means to be human so maybe you decide you don’t want to be human anymore no one asked you right you just were born and then had to feel things and be human and grow up and do things and you wish you didn’t or couldn’t or wouldn’t but it doesn’t go away and you keep feeling things and you just don’t want to feel anymore so you think about it because you do not know much about it but you know you won’t feel. But then you remember you just want to feel less and you don’t know how to feel less maybe there’s a way of doing it a little bit and not completely so you just feel a tiny bit less instead of not at all because you want to feel something just not the bad things not the bad feelings or the hard ones or the ones that make you cry out silently to yourself because you still can’t tell anyone because you can’t bring yourself to do it and somehow that’s keeping you alive because death is too loud it’s too messy it’s too much and too noisy so you don’t, you just stay quiet and alive because that's easier. You just want to feel less. How can you feel less? What does it involve? Is there a switch or a button you can press like on a remote to make feeling less intense and less a lot and less there. Not the off switch that’s too much you still want something just less of it like a volume button that you can control and if you wanted to feel more that would be an option but right now you feel too much and it’s too loud but for some reason it’s only keeping you up late at night wondering where the volume button has gone and no one else seems to notice or know because you’re quiet but the volume in your mind is on so high that it’s deafening you from the inside out. Maybe a mute button where everything still works and carries on but it’s quiet and less distracting and just there in the background so you can turn it back up when it’s more interesting or fun or just plain less sad and hard. 

Have you ever tried to kill yourself? Because I have and it didn’t work because I’m writing this and yes it was some time ago now and yes I’m glad I didn’t and yes I was sad at the time and wished I was capable and yes I’m still alive and feeling but I tried. And I failed and somehow that was worse because living is difficult and messy and hard and noisy and loud and dying should be easy but I couldn’t even manage that. So I had no choice but to carry on even though I didn’t know if I wanted to, I just had to because I couldn’t kill myself because I was so useless or maybe because I didn’t want to and then I felt better because maybe I wanted to live and even if I didn’t feel like it my body or my brain or my mind or my subconscious or all of them wanted to live and didn’t let me die and then I realised it would be okay because I was alive. I was sad but alive and as long as you’re alive there’s hope and a chance and something that can be done and a way forwards into feeling less because after all, that was all I wanted just feel a little less but still feel. So as long as I was still alive things can change no matter how much I felt they can’t they can because that’s life and feeling and being alive so maybe it’s okay. So I clung onto that thing that kept me alive and I still don’t know what did but it doesn’t matter because I’m still here and I’m so grateful I’m still here because I can feel and now I feel less sad and just less. I still feel and sometimes it’s too much but I’m still here and I’m better at feeling less and I promise you you can feel less and I promise you that you can do it because you can control feeling less and you don’t need to take control by dying or hurting yourself because you can take control by feeling less and maybe you can’t take control by hurting yourself because I couldn’t but eventually I felt less and felt better. Just a bit better but better and it’s working and helping. 

I’m still here and I still feel and I’m glad I do.