Making Sense Of Irony (Chapter 15)

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Mariko Kuribayashi jumping for joy with Jui PijaDa at the Global Launch on the Sydney Harbour BridgeMy plans for this epic quest were disrupted but not shelved. The humiliating experience of not having the ability to pay for an airplane ticket was an obstacle to allowing this stunt to occur. Putting that into perspective, it was definitely a #firstworldproblem.

First World Problems are interesting to observe. Don’t get me wrong: problems are problems. No one likes the frustration of not being able to achieve what they want. The difference is that First Workd Problems are defined by some (trivial) thing that we want instead of something (lifesaving) that we need. Fresh water, sanitation, medicine should be basic human rights, but instead are completely out of the reach or things that billions of people cannot easily access. Those things are real problems.

On one level, whether I was able to fly around the world and conduct a running stunt was going to make zero impact on child impact. Being able to conduct the running stunt in 2010 as I had intended without any hitch would have had feel good value for all involved and provided the added benefit of a smug self-satisfying glow for being part of an something that seemed to make a difference. But would it really have made a difference?

There is a fine line between being the damning critic and offering constructive advice. Similarly, there is a fine line between encouraging the pursuit of an idea which gives the permission to fail and an uncritical overly-idealistic embrace of fantasy. To navigate our efforts effectively we need to be grounded in what really matters a consequence of trying something. In this case, even though the stakes were high for the lives of millions of people as a result of child mortality, really understanding this impact in the context of our own lives was almost incomprehensible. Statistics are so easy to play with when talking about extreme poverty. The reality is so atrociously horrid and complex that our comfortable First World lives are hard to penetrate with the truth.

I continued to seek the support from those I knew on email through my own homespun crowdfunding campaign on PayPal. Gradually, I was inching towards the possibility of actually commencing this journey towards the end of 2010. I was aiming for a beginning that was orientated around the United Nations General  Assembly which convened in New York at the end of September and bounded by the G20 Summit which was to be held in Seoul commencing in mid-November 2010.

I was reading more and more about issues relating to extreme poverty and child mortality, but my obsession was in making the running stunt work. This was an early signal of Backswing. Distraction from what is really important is often the most evident expression of Backswing in an institutional setting. We have all seen this before when the reason for being gets sidelined in preference to the activity which gives everyone identity. It is a great expression of irony.

There is a conversation that unfolded during the time I was undertaking the 10 City Bridge Run which questioned the efficacy of ‘slactivism’, including asking whether initiatives like the ‘Ice-Bucket Challenge’ were actually making any positive difference. Critics of slactivism had a point, but also seemed to be motivated from envy because of a purist view that wanted everything to be strictly about the issue on their terms, and couldn’t stomach some people having outrageous success in attracting attention through seemingly superficial social media campaigns. We are never going to know the impact of someone’s intervention. No one knows for sure what will be of no consequence. Neither can we see the new ideas and inspiration that grows from people trying something different.

On face value, I should have rightly killed off the 9 City Bridge Run idea before I commenced in San Francisco back in 2009. I would have financially been far better off for never having started. But as clumsy and often pathetic my efforts were during the 10 City Bridge Run, it has been an education for me and brought me to this point. I am now in a position to work through a radical approach towards collaboration with others to make something meaningful come alive.

As my confidence that I might pull this off the running stunt was waning because of an inability to raise the necessary funding to commence, supporters and friends seemed to be getting right behind the idea with an increasing sense of expectation and enthusiasm. I felt conflicted about how to manage this dissonance because of what I knew might be achievable. I knew I didn’t want to curb anyone’s enthusiasm, but neither did I want to make false claims for something I was unable to deliver.

I had planned a launch event which involved inviting friends to run across the Sydney Harbour Bridge together. Given that I was planning to run 10 sub-marathons each of 24 km, I thought that if I was able to gather a small group to run 2.4 km together that it would help to demonstrate the human bridge metaphor which I believed underpinned the whole initiative. What I was hinting at was that if it took one person to run the distance of 24 km on their own, this same distance could be covered in a shorter amount of time with far less effort if 100 people together each ran 240 metres. The cumulative distance was the same and we could more expediently arrive at the same or a better outcome when we worked together. Human bridges came in many different forms.

I made plans for friends who wanted to attend to meet at the Royal Botanic Gardens in Sydney, from where we would run across the Sydney Harbour Bridge to Milsons Point on the opposite side of the harbour from the Sydney Opera House. There was a wonderful sense of enthusiasm at that event. I was really encouraged by the excitement which people brought with them. No one cared about how fast or slow they were, but they were celebrating their participation.

Again, this showed an inability in my mind to see the opportunity which was presented to me. I was fixated by the running of 24 km, meanwhile my awareness of the involvement of others and even the tackling of child survival moved further and further out of my view. The irony was that all the while I was talking about human bridges I was missing the most obvious human bridge that my friends were building right before my eyes which also had me included.

At the conclusion of the run across the Sydney Harbour Bridge, we sat in a cafe in Milsons Point and celebrated by eating breakfast together. We took some great photos thanks to our good friend Nancy who helped out with the camera. During breakfast, my good friend Fleur was part of a conversation with the rest of the group. Fleur has a special insight for understanding people, and asked me if I could articulate my personal narrative. It was a very good question, and I don’t think I fully satisfied her question. We workshopped this for a short while, but with the care of a good friend she left this unanswered question with me as something to seriously think about in more detail.

Irony comes in many forms. I’m sure you have noticed this before with examples like the obsession with getting a gala fundraising dinner exactly right for an initiative that seeks to overcome hunger in such a way that the issue of hunger among those most in need is overlooked. More relevant to what I was seeking to achieve was the gathering of world leaders and their entourages who year in and year out would attend the United Nations General Assembly in New York, flying business class and staying in five star hotels so that they could discuss extreme poverty while eating gourmet food from some of the best kitchens on earth. In my case, the irony was my pursuit of a narrative to address child mortality, but not spending enough time to understand my own motivation for doing this in the first instance. Teasing out irony is important. A refusal to examine it is a worrying denial of something that might be wrong.

This was also around the time I launched the website I wrote about in the last chapters, and Nancy also helped me to do this on WordPress. She is a bundle of enthusiasm about everything in life, and we were enjoying the process together. Shortly after going live with the website and letting people know it existed, I received my first comment which came from my mother. It was a typical ‘Mum’ comment, gushing with pride in her son. Nancy was delighted, and thought it was a lovely gesture in the context of building human bridges. I agreed that it was too, but was also a little embarrassed that this was fast becoming a very personal journey. If we are serious about wanting to make change happen, we have to be open to sharing more of ourselves with others than we might be comfortable with. A human bridge must have strong foundations, and that always begins with our willingness to connect with others.

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