With the recent news that Christmas has all but been cancelled, I find myself feeling the ache of millions of people’s disappointment. For so many, this is a joyfully anticipated time of year. I’m thinking of the stacks of thoughtfully chosen gifts, wrapped and ready… now abandoned. Of fridges and store cupboards swollen with traditional delicacies, all approaching sell-by dates. Of patient children and adults adapting their excited plans to visit grandparents and relatives to instead spend another day at home.
This whole Covid-19 year has been one of dashed hopes and cancellations, but also of unexpected gains and joys. This winter’s repeated semi-lockdowns and the deadlocks of Brexit negotiations have tested us all further, even wobbling the initial sun- and spring-filled optimism of those who believed we would collectively shift values and become better human beings. For others, the tragedy of life-changing losses and trauma were there from the beginning. And for so many others still, life is existentially terrifying.
I feel for everybody. For months I have talked, while pointing to the bottom half of my torso, of conscious or unconscious base layers of anxiety, sadness, fear and uncertainty forming the foundations of our days. Even if we are far from any front lines, they rumble on in the background like the constant hum of fridges of which we only become aware once they stop. It makes me wonder how this year will affect people long-term… in what ways it will take its toll. It will be healthy to listen and talk honestly to each other about how we feel.
But back to Christmas – not my favourite time of year I have to admit. Because as joyful as it is for some, as miserable it is for others! Christmas has an uncanny way of enhancing and exacerbating all the glitches in one’s life, all the things that are ‘wrong’ or missing. Whether it’s the separation from or loss of a loved one; whether it’s sickness, loneliness, homelessness, poverty… the list is long… all are strangely amplified by the oft-stressful and largely commercial insistence on excess and jollity.
Which is why I really hope that this year, many people will find it easier to access that quiet place of inner peace and happiness that is not reliant on outer conditions; that place where ‘all is well,’ as the saying that has kept me sane since March goes; that place where we simply love and feel loved. So, at great risk of sounding like a Christmas Day sermon, I’d like to suggest that this year presents us with an opportunity. One where rather than focusing on the tinsel and turkey that we may or may not now have, we focus on the essence of that all-too familiar scene that started this whole loved or hated festival off in the first place: that of a stable, a star, a newborn baby and lots of straw. Surely, whether you are religious or not, it deserves at least a nod?
Ok, so this blog is sounding like a sermon. But just maybe the stable could represent gratitude that we have shelter and warmth (if we indeed do).
Maybe the star could inspire the sense that something much, much bigger than us exists.
Maybe the newborn baby could fill us with love, tenderness and kindness to the planet, each other and ourselves.
And maybe the straw could remind us that we are simply lucky to have whatever and whoever we do have. Oh no, I feel an ‘Amen’ coming…
Things have to change… surely no-one could disagree with that? For Covid has neatly lined up in plain sight all that is unsustainable, unjust and disproportionately vulnerable in our society. The question is: How? Who can we rely on to bring about change? I have already gone through a list of potential candidates to lead the way – the prime minister, politicians, councils, charities, schools – but they are all tied up in complicated knots of agendas, quotas, targets, financial restraints, guidelines… the list is long. So I have been asking myself, what I personally can do. But aside from the things I already do, I haven’t come up with much that doesn’t involve getting angry or overwhelmed to little effect.
It’s quite easy to become despondent isn’t it? In spite of my initial high-octane optimism that this pandemic was a global wake-up call of such volume that nobody could sleep through it, I have to admit to succumbing to little bouts of chocolate- and mid-week-rosé-fuelled Can’t-be-arsed Syndrome myself. Because as lockdown eases, it has become increasingly clear that some of those in positions of power haven’t woken-up. It’s sort of not in their interest to. So that leaves us to bring about the changes. You, me, him, her, them. And I think I have finally identified two places we could start. One is in the past, the other in the present.
In order to move into a new future with lightness, vision and energy, we need to face and reconsider our past. History is intrinsically linked to identity – who we are and how we got here – and is broadly made up of heroes, victims and villains. Of course it’s natural to want to see your ancestors and nation as heroic. And if they can’t be heroes, then victim. The move to villain, on the other hand, is huge, hard and largely unprecedented. But people need a healthy balance of their country’s strengths and weaknesses and that requires shining the spotlight of awareness and truth into the dark, painful and uncomfortable corners of our history. Not just for deep moral reasons, but because unresolved trauma, injustice or wrongdoing refuse to rest. Instead they remain potent disruptors, passing from generation to generation in search of resolution.
We have just witnessed how the footfall of the recent Black Lives Matter protests rattled the buried crimes of our colonial past until they erupted through the pavements, toppling outdated values from their pedestals in order to draw attention to the costly price of British imperialism. Counter protests claiming the removal of statues is to ‘destroy history and heritage’ don’t wash, for statues don’t uphold history, just the values of the time; the events and people we want to remember. Like carefully selected snapshots of a nation’s best side, they are not the whole picture.
Whatever you think of protest, it has time and again been the vital precursor to change. It was, after all, the student demonstrations of 1968 that demanded Germany finally pull its reluctant head out of the sandy silence to face the atrocities of its past and seek atonement. The current protests are also a demand for a more honest appraisal of who we are, not just as a nation but as individuals whose values and actions have been unconsciously shaped by the deeds, and misdeeds, of those who went before us.
So, we each have a real choice here. We can either keep repeating the familiar stories of past glory, riches and world power while watching on as our present falls into widening abysses of social injustice, inequality and environmental destruction. Or we can pull out the roots of these fissures and start to lay more solid and fertile foundations for a better future for the younger generations.
The second starting point comes from a lesson I used to teach prisoners in my mural painting classes, one that I myself now need to relearn: that regardless of what is going on around you, there is always personal choice.
Creativity is all about choices. No rights or wrongs, just a series of decisions. It’s a process in which successes and strengths are built upon, while mistakes and weaknesses are learnt from, transformed and integrated. The prisoners experienced how each person becomes a co-creator working toward a common goal, the details of which emerged along the way. Initially they couldn’t apply this freedom of choice to their daily prison lives. ‘Choice?’ they’d say. ‘What choice? We can’t be with loved ones, we can’t go to the pub, we can’t even have a shower when we choose!’ True, I’d agree before suggesting that they did maintain a freedom of choice when it came to how to respond to each given moment, person or situation. Would they smile, curse or punch? Put the pencil back in the materials cupboard, or nick it? Over time, they witnessed how their choices began to change their world, and then other worlds they touched. A ripple effect of change…
Of course this wisdom is not mine. It was the basis of the teachings of Viktor Frankl, the Austrian neurologist, psychiatrist and creator of logotherapy who claimed: “Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms – to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.”
He should know. He survived Auschwitz and various other camps by discovering what he believed was the primary purpose in life: the quest for meaning. In the early days of psychology and psychotherapy, there was an assumption that we exist in order to reach a certain level of pleasure, power or success. Sigmund Freud’s ‘pleasure principle,’ claimed that the central motivator in human life was to gain as much gratification of our fundamental needs and urges as possible. His disciple, Alfred Adler, substituted ‘pleasure’ with ‘power’ as the prime driver of human striving. His theory believed that all of us are born with an innate feeling of inferiority, which we try to overcome by striving for superiority through power, influence and money. For Frankl, on the other hand, all these goals were actually symptoms that a person had failed to find meaning; a meaningful goal, task or person. Meaning fills the void that so often fuels the unhealthy and destructive drives for personal power and pleasure. Covid and lockdown nudged many of us into searches for meaning, now it’s our choice whether we pursue it.
I have experienced deep meaning and reward in facing and redeeming the uncomfortable aspects of my German national and familial heritage. In tiny and larger ways, the process changed me as I uncovered unconscious drivers; it changed members of my family and it continues to change people who attend my talks… That’s why I can’t encourage people enough to look at their own history and lineage, warts and all, before the people who can tell you about them disappear. If we can heal our past and make good choices in our present, maybe, just maybe, we will succeed in steering our masked and fragile society to a future that is fairer, kinder and more sustainable for all.
In Victor Frankl’s words: Live as if you were living a second time, and as though you had acted wrongly the first time.
Friday 8thMay 2020 will be the 75thAnniversary of the end of the Second World War in Europe. It was the day when millions of people took to the streets and pubs to celebrate. For those who can remember that time in 1945, the emotions will be particularly poignant. Victory over the German enemy finally brought the promise of peace. That is indeed worthy of celebration. But what should we be doing three quarters of a century on?
On Saturday 2nd May, I was due to be in Belluno on the edge of the Dolomites standing together with a group of total strangers from America and Italy. We had connected on Facebook and had hatched a plan to meet in the area where seventy-five years previously our fathers’, or grandfathers’, paths had crossed, first in war and then in peace. My sister, mother and my two octogenarian German aunts were coming too.
For me, it had all started fifteen years ago with the discovery of a photograph. I had googled my German grandfather’s name for the first time and the small black and white image that appeared on the screen instantly commanded my full attention. Until then, I had only known my grandfather as a framed photo on my mother’s writing desk. Just a face slightly obscured by the peak of a General’s hat with an iron cross hanging like a choker from a collared neck. He hadn’t moved in forty years. Now he was suddenly standing in front of me, wrapped in a belted, three-quarter length coat trimmed with a double row of perfectly aligned shiny buttons.
His face is instantly recognisable, his eyes still partially hidden as he talks to two men in baggier uniforms. He looks relaxed, upright. There’s even an air of authority in the way one of the seventy-a-day cigarettes I had often heard about rests between the fingers of his right hand. Reading the caption below the photo, I learn that it is 2nd May, 1945. The soldier on the left is an American Colonel, CO of the 337thInfantry, the other a translator. They are negotiating the handover of German troops and armaments. This is the day of Germany’s unconditional capitulation to the Allies. The moment my grandfather’s war ended and his time as a prisoner began. His experiences in the years that followed as a POW to the British would shape his family’s inner, and outer, worlds.
After years spent disentangling the family roots from the blood-soaked mud of conflict and Germany’s post-war silence, my relatives and I would be travelling to meet the sons of the American 337th Division and the granddaughter of the Colonel in the photograph. They had warmly welcomed me into their group. This 75thanniversary, supported by the Councillor of Culture in Belluno, had little to do with victory or defeat, winners or losers, goodies or baddies. It was about reconciliation. About growing friendships and understanding in the soil of broken grief and lingering pride or devastation. It promised to be a very special occasion… we will try again next year.
I can feel I am slightly bracing myself for what will happen on 8thMay. How will Britain mark this historic occasion? Energetic flag-waving aside, will it be much the same as our annual Remembrance Days in November and D-Days in June? Tony Hall, Director General of the BBC says their coverage “will bring households together to remember the past, pay tribute to the Second World War generation, and honour the heroes both then and now.” So yes, judging by that and the day’s schedule, it probably will.
Starting with a two-minute silence at 11am, a series of sing-alongs, prayers and encounters with veterans will follow, all interwoven with the familiar black and white footage. Then comes an evening of singers and actors performing well-loved songs, poetry and stories until 9pm when the Queen’s pre-recorded message will be broadcasted to close the day. Those who have got this far will probably feel slightly mushy (and possibly quite drunk). Filled with genuine gratitude to those who served, they will feel proud to be British, to be on the side of the victors and the heroic defenders of our freedoms… And that is all fine. Of course it is. But it’s not enough anymore.
History used to be a matter of consolation or pride, now it is more a matter of warning and learning. As it shifts over time, black and white narratives of good and bad, victory and defeat, perpetrators, victims and heroes no longer hold. The story becomes more nuanced, the divisions more blurred, the lessons more universal. Simply remembering has become empty. Yet as Susan Neiman explains in her excellent book, Learning from the Germans, “We are not hardwired for nuance. Learning to live with ambivalence and to recognise nuance may be the hardest part of growing up.” No country can fully celebrate the triumphs of its history while ignoring the darker moments. So we cannot, nor should we be allowed to rest in our national self-image as the incontestable good guys. Seventy-five years ago, yes, but not today.
Neil Macgregor, former director of the British Museum and now of the Humboldt Forum in Berlin notes: “What is very remarkable about German history as a whole is that the Germans use their history to think about the future, where the British tend to use their history to comfort themselves.”
Maybe 75 years on is the right time for us to stop merely re-playing the gore, glory and gratitude of the Second World War and to start reaching beyond our own borders to include the histories and destinies of foreign populations, such as Russia, Poland, China – even Germany, who lost infinitely more and triumphed daily in tinier, but no less important ways. With a general consensus among historians about what happened and why, we can then shift our emphasis onto becoming fully aware that no country is immune from falling into the same abyss as Germany. Its descent happened gradually in full view. Like a frog being slowly brought to boil in a saucepan, most people didn’t notice.
Covid-19 has ushered in a rash of startlingly rapid changes to our laws and freedoms. We are forcibly and necessarily being shaken out of complacency and into the realisation that civilisation as we know it is both fragile and reversible. So more urgently than ever, our World War anniversaries need to be reminders of this and opportunities for learning and growth to inspire collective vigilance against darker forces and a genuine sense of unity across borders.
Let’s see what happens on Friday. If I wave anything, it won’t be a flag for Victory but a white flower for on-going Peace.
As I write this blog, I am holding in my thoughts and heart all who are suffering, grieving, lonely, lost, anxious, frightened, helping, serving, or dying and all the infinite shades of individual human experience that fall between.
Like for some, but unlike for so many more, my rural little Covid world of the past 5 weeks has been a haven of sun-filled peace. Such is the stillness that you can almost hear buds bursting into bouquets of blooms as Spring rustles through the land like a breeze. Woods carpeted in white and blue have become cathedrals for choirs of birds filling the daily Sunday silence with song. Time is no longer measured by clock hands and calendars, but by the gradual emptying of a fridge shelf or the clapping hands on the pavements that announce another week has passed.
As if from another world, packages of numbers wrapped in the language of war drip-drip-drip-feed death, tragedy, fear and devastation into our days rippling the peace like a faulty tap. Are we at war with Covid-19? Is our sole purpose in the face of a cruel enemy that is attacking all we have come to know and value as “normal,” to defeat it? War requires strategies to target and vanquish an adversary through killing. But, as Angela Merkel said in her address to the nation on 18thMarch, the Covid-19 pandemic is a war without a human enemy.
I find it interesting and heart-warming that 99-year old Captain Tom Moore, an army veteran who fought in the world’s largest war, has become Britain’s inspiration and symbol for how to face the Coronavirus. In total contrast, both to armed conflict situations of war and the language used by several governments, he is not fighting to kill off something. By completing lengths of his back garden, he is walking to help our dedicated services save lives.
I have to confess that there are moments when I almost dread the day Covid-19 is “sent packing,” as Boris Johnson blustered before the virus robbed him of his usual air, and things return to ‘normal’. Of course I want a rapid end to the huge and relentless suffering of so many. But I don’t want us to go “back to normal.” I don’t want the war metaphors to continue but now with triumphant declarations of victory. For Covid-19 has not just been a vile enemy and bringer of death and misery. It has also been a huge teacher, a creator of peace, a unifier of communities, a friend to nature, a highlighter of the fissures in our society and a persistent pointer to the most vulnerable, the most needed and the most brave. Covid-19 is a killer, yes, but as anyone who has been close to the death of a loved one will attest to, it is also guiding us to our hearts.
Many people have said it much better than I can, either in this or my last blog. In my opinion, one of the most insightful and erudite writings on the subject is the essay The Coronation by Charles Eisenstein. In it he says: Covid-19 is showing us that when humanity is united in common cause, phenomenally rapid change is possible. None of the world’s problems are technically difficult to solve; they originate in human disagreement. In coherency, humanity’s creative powers are boundless… Covid demonstrates the power of our collective will when we agree on what is important.
I feel deeply and passionately that there is a much bigger picture to the close-up snapshots we are getting from around the world. We are standing before a phenomenal chance for change. A unique opportunity to not go back to the “normal,” which was neither just, nor sustainable, nor even working for the majority of the global population. As Charles Eisenstein asks: For years normality has been stretched nearly to its breaking point, a rope pulled tighter and tighter… Now that the rope has snapped, do we tie its ends back together, or shall we undo its dangling braids still further, to see what we might weave from them?
The Indian author, Arundhati Roy, says much the same in THE WAY AHEAD:
The writing has been on the wall for a long time. I sincerely hope Covid-19 will make it impossible for these ways of thinking to be brushed aside and ignored as the domain of dippy-hippies, whacko scientists, alternative dropouts, idealists, artists or activists. I pray that during this prolonged pause enough of us can shift our values and priorities fully into the camp of those we are currently embracing, not just as individuals but also as a nation. As I have frustratingly learned from decades of campaigning for prison reform, the political impetus to change will only come from widespread public insistence and/or inspired and wise leadership. I don’t yet know what exactly I, what we as individuals, can do and I welcome all suggestions. But maybe a good starting point is to follow New Zealand’s Prime Minister, Jacinda Ardern’s encouragement to “Be strong, be kind.”
Covid-19’s march across the world and into our daily lives scares, astonishes and negatively impacts me like everyone. I can’t comment on the daily shape-shiftings of scientific, economic and political strategies, for I know nothing about any of them. But as a visual artist largely working from the right side of my brain, I am used to stepping back to see the bigger picture and my eyes are trained to blur out details and see things in terms of shapes, colours and gestures. A quick way to experience this shift away from the logical thought of our left brain is to squint your eyes and look through your eyelashes. Or take a painting or photo and turn it upside down. Both methods filter out what we ‘know’ enabling us to see familiar things differently. Objects of importance might fade. A shadow, a colour, a form might stand out.
When I look in this way at what is happening around us, I of course see the total upheaval and devastation for so many. But I can also see something that gives me glimmers of hope where before I had none. For within the language of tragedy and loss – of lives, jobs, holidays and everything we consider ‘normal’ – are calls to pay attention to areas of society we normally neglect. Maybe you too can see that there is a bigger, more subtle picture as well as a huge opportunity behind the obvious reasons we are universally being told to ‘stop’?
Not all the symbols I see fit of course, and some people will dismiss them as coincidental. But what if this pandemic is actually a natural and inevitable effect of what decades of human behaviour have caused? Covid-19 primarily attacks the lungs and airways, leaving people starved of oxygen. If trees are the lungs of our planet producing the vital oxygen we need to live, haven’t decades of excessive, shortsighted, polluting and disposable lifestyles had the same impact on the world as that of heavy smoking on a person?
As in cases of disease in the microcosm of any individual’s life, a massive pause button has been pressed grinding the cogs of contemporary life to a halt and forcing us to rest, reflect on and reconsider our lifestyle choices. In the constant pursuit of economic ‘growth’, we have been travelling at high speed down a cul-de-sac. What we are experiencing now is the slamming on of brakes and screeching to a halt before we hit the wall. We knew it was there but we did not listen or act. We now have to do both.
Suddenly priorities have shifted into reverse and our full attention is turned to the protection of the elderly, the vulnerable, those on zero-hour contracts, single-parent families, nurses and medical staff. Suddenly the ‘invisible’ refuse collectors, hospital cleaners, shelf stackers and ambulance drivers become the vital heroes that will keep the last cogs of a groaning infrastructure moving. Suddenly the idea of locking people into tiny cells for up to 23 hours appears unacceptably inhumane and reducing the overcrowding of prisons becomes an obvious first step.
Forced self-isolation will give many people a taste of the extreme solitude many people face each day, from those bereaved, unemployed or sick to artists and writers. It highlights the danger of ‘home’ for children of violent parents or domestically abused women. And as food shelves are stripped by panicked stock-piling, one has to think of those who can only afford to live from one day to the next and will be faced with empty shelves.
While the language of the media is understandably dramatic and war references temptingly apposite, they are not necessarily helpful. We are not at war with anyone. Like war, this situation will probably bring out the best and worst ends of the spectrum of human nature. Unlike war, and yet like nothing we have faced previously, we are all in this together. All united in our shared desire to continue being able to breathe.
Seeing the world’s beautiful cities and bays emptied of tourists, traffic and cruise ships, the skies emptied of planes is eerie (and economically catastrophic for many), but all this could inspire us to change our habits from endless consumption and movement to a greater appreciation of stillness, each other and simply being alive. So, while we are being collectively advised and forced to change our habits and embrace new priorities, why don’t we collectively work on changing them for good… in both senses of the word?
Keep well and safe, everybody. Spring is coming regardless.
Oh yes, and some really good news, which was going to be the theme of this month’s blog… I have signed a contract with Penguin Transworld to publish my book! I have a considerable amount of work still to do on it but will keep you posted.