I suspect I’m not alone in thinking that 2016 has been a pretty appalling year. Political discourse no longer exists, how terrifying. Instead we have political statements, pronouncements, slogans backed up with nothing and people are so fed up of everything – the austerity, the poverty, the destruction of communities, the way people have been blamed for their own demise, of seeing others living the high life, behaving terribly and getting away with it and years of being told ‘if only you have x, life will be better’ – that it’s hardly surprising that people want change, but the direction we’re heading in feels disturbing. I have spent the past few days wondering if this is how people felt before the war, as they watched the world change slowly and then faster and faster and if they felt, or believed, that things would recover, that it was nothing really to worry about, not able to see how everything would fall so spectacularly apart in just a few short but destructive years. Knowledge is no longer respected, knowledge which, to me, is the only thing worth having (provided it is used for decent purposes and, most importantly, shared) because knowledge is what allows us to undertake nuanced thinking. Little did I realise that nuance is dead too, or perhaps just sleeping. One can hope. I find myself considered the ‘metropolitan elite’ despite living in relatively rural areas my whole life, living in the North-west, having been brought up by a Dad who was a blue-collar worker (electrician) and a Mum who was a Mum, a cleaner, a sandwich maker, a machinist, the person who dishes out change and checks the machines at an amusement arcade or whatever paid a little and she could fit around the job of parenting which she did, thanklessly, 24/7. The only person in my family who went to university was my brother. But still, I believe in peace and I value my European citizenship and I believe in choosing the hard path of compromise rather than the easy one of rejection, and so I am an ‘elite’. Who knew? If only I could go back to my child self and choose ignorance…but no, of course that is not a choice I would ever advocate. And I’m not sure anyone ever really chooses ignorance either. People choose for a range of reasons, but we only hear the voices of those who have the platform to be heard.
The fact is that I’ve become complacent. I’m no ‘elite’ but neither am I beyond approbation. We can all, always, do better. After the recent news which doesn’t need to be mentioned here, like many people I felt despondent and confused. And this whole year has been a year of despondency and confusion. I’m fed up of feeling beaten down, and I’m fed up of complaining. It occurred to me that what the world needs now is a bit of loving kindness, people reaching across the gap to appreciate instead of denigrating each other. We need to reinvigorate dialogue. The way it’s been working doesn’t actually work. We’re all at fault here, myself included. It is easy to make pronouncements and condescend or insult other people based on their choices, but what we need more than anything else right now is understanding. And it needs to start with me. I can’t expect anyone to understand me if I’m not willing to understand others. This has always been the value, to me, of reading and movies, but it occurs to me that the very nature of those mediums means we only hear one type of story – the ‘elite’ story. Most writers, particularly now, have been to university. You have to be able to write a ‘certain way’ to get published. Does this mean that there’s a massive trench of experience we simply don’t read about? I think it’s possible, and I think this is why books like Sventlana Alexievitch’s Chernobyl Prayer and Life As We Have Known It compiled by Margaret Llewelyn Davies are so powerful, because they give voice to those whose stories might otherwise be lost. Perhaps there is work to do after all. Maybe we’re only hearing one story, and those whose stories are hidden have had to shout really loudly in order to be heard. It’s always the shouters that are blamed: women who decry rape culture, people of colour who decry racism – the level of abuse hurled at these people always disturbs me and it’s unacceptable. They all suffer for trying to be heard, for trying to make people understand their position, and it’s wrong. Maybe we need to change that dynamic, for the benefit of everyone.
Complaining is another issue. We all complain, every organisation I know has a complaints department but how many have a compliments department? Anyone who uses social media will recognise how much those platforms are overwhelmed by trolling and abuse and how many of the posts are ones which complain or express negative sentiment. I am as guilty of this too (though not the trolling or abuse, I try not to lash out at people on social media). Comments sections on newspapers’ websites are to be avoided at all costs. We have become a generation of angry whiners, and frankly I’ve become one too. Even this blog entry is a long moan, but perhaps it will be the last one. Or that’s my intent, anyway. It occurred to me as I stepped off the train, out into the Northern whipping rain, that I would be quick to complain if the train was late but when it’s broadly on time every day what do I do? Nothing, that’s what. The people running my train service know only too well what the response will be when something goes wrong, but when it goes right it’s an expectation. But imagine how powerful it could be to thank people for their kindness, for their diligence and good service as a matter of course. Kindness, in my experience, rubs off. People who have been kind to me, I am more willing to be kind to. If people are kind to me, it reminds me to be kind to others. If anger is self-generating, maybe kindness is too. And politeness and recognition of peoples’ good qualities as well as their flaws. When I thought about it, I thought particularly about my train service. The staff at my local station are exemplary, they are efficient and friendly. When the ticket machine isn’t working they go to extra lengths to make sure that everyone gets their ticket before the train arrives. If it’s quiet, they have a chat, taking an interest in the customer. When I think of thankless service, I think of them. They are blamed if the train is late and blamed when the don’t have information. So maybe they need a little acknowledgement, and I can do that. And just thinking about thanking them made me feel good; I thought about all the nice things I could write and it made me feel better about life just acknowledging the ways in which other people make my life easier. It’s a little step to thank them, but an important one.
I decided I needed to make some changes. I need to make those changes to benefit myself, but also to benefit others. I need to think differently, I need to live with greater kindness and empathy. Instead of being angry about things, I need to try to understand them. And I need to commit to it to. So I’m committing to it. I will listen more, I will share more, I will see the good in people and recognise it and I will share that recognition. It’s a short manifesto, but I think it will help me be a better person in the world.