Looking for kindness
Yesterday (Saturday 12 November) the Daily Mail’s front page headline declared that a woman had been ‘demonised’ by Tesco, after she was refused free parking for buying baby formula. All aboard the outrage wagon! Plenty of room for all! Baby formula mum has the right to be miffed. She even has the right to go to the newspaper about it. But demonised? Front page?
I use this example as a stand-in for last week’s US election result. I feel wholly unqualified and lacking in eloquence to write about that particular shit show directly. But reaction to the result, to Brexit and Tesco's 'demonic' behaviour have all got me wondering about my responsibility in our current blame and shame culture. And wondering what can I do about it.
Allow me another example. This one closer to home. The other day, my husband was proved - after two weeks of arguing with [nameless] TV provider - correct about a fault with our TV box. My immediate reaction was 'do you want me to go on Twitter and stick it to them?'
Wow. Don't get me wrong, this company has demonstrated a shocking lack of customer service on more than one occasion and I would like very much if it did something about it. But, really? Going on Twitter was my first port of call? That's not about trying to make a difference. That's me shouting in a smugly-smug fashion 'look at us, we were right, you were wrong, you bastards.'
Oh the irony that I'm doing it here, anyway. Social media can do amazing things - the Stop Funding Hate campaign is a current case in point - and it can bring together communities that wouldn't ordinarily be able to talk to each other. But for every incredible conversation I watch unfold about our shared humanity, I see two that seek to drive a wedge through that commonality. It is depressing that something so powerful, so creative, is so abused that our justice system has to invent new ways of prosecuting people for being momumental arses.
As I try to understand my responsibility and figure out what I can do about it, I spend more and more time thinking about the Latin root of the word compassion - from compati ‘suffer with’.
It’s the ‘with’ that’s been bothering me.
Compassion isn’t just about looking on at an event or person, feeling pity and then flicking TV channels to find something more cheery; it’s about truly understanding someone else’s pain or suffering, about moving out of your bubble for a moment and into someone else’s. More importantly, it’s about then asking ‘what can I do to help?’. That doesn’t mean pretending you know what it’s like to be a minority when you’ve never been one. It doesn’t have to mean grand gestures. But it does means – to me anyway – seeing our commonality and our differences and embracing all of it. Because it’s not about them and us, or her versus him. Yes, we come in all shapes and sizes. But, in the end, it’s just us. You with me.
Instead of sifting through the multitude of reasons why the election did not go the way many of us wanted it to, perhaps we should ask why almost half the American population chose not to vote at all. Sure, it could be voter apathy – God knows we’d all had enough by the end – but the Greek root of apathy is 'without emotion, feeling, suffering’. I do not believe that that so many Americans stayed away because they lacked emotion. My guess is that they simply didn’t believe that their vote would do any good. It’s just a guess. But if I’m right, then that’s not apathy, that’s despair, from the Latin de- 'without' + sperare 'to hope'.
In order to have compassion – to find the with – we need to start listening to each other, rather than shouting over each other. Last week, The Atlantic spoke to the editor of Poetry magazine Don Share to find out why he thought Americans were turning to poetry in the wake of Trump’s victory. It’s worth a read of the whole interview, but he finishes by saying:
“What poetry does is it puts us in touch with people who are different from ourselves…It’s a way of listening. When you’re reading a poem, you’re listening to what someone else is thinking and feeling and saying. It’s not a debate, where somebody punches back at it. You have to think before you speak. You have to think before you write. You have to think while you’re reading. And poetry keeps the intensity and the passion of a point of view, but in a forum where people aren’t hurting each other. It says, “Here’s what it’s like from my point of view.” All you have to do is listen to the poet.
“And, in that, you don’t have to be anything other than what you are. The poem is a catalyst where you’re bringing two different kinds of people together. And at its best, when it works, there’s a kind of spark, and everyone comes away illuminated by what the spark has ignited.”
All art – not just poetry – gives us the opportunity to feel that moment of ‘withness’. Go and look at Picasso’s Spanish Civil War painting Guernica and tell me I’m wrong. I am lucky enough to have never experienced total war, to have never lived in fear of a bomb landing on my head while I sleep. But a painting like Guernica gives me a glimpse of what that might feel like. For a brief moment, I am ‘with’ the people of Guernica. In 50 years’ time, I wonder what the art of Syria will look like? No doubt it's being created as I write. Perhaps that is a place for me to start? To seek out art that helps me listen and learn more about the world in which I participate.
I feel like my generation has actually got a bit lost in all of this. After Brexit there was a lot of ranting about how the baby boomers ruined it for the millennials, which, of course, is a reductive argument to a much more complex issue. But this is my world, too, and I intend to spend as much time on it as possible. In which case, I have a responsibility. I may fret about the future and I am definitely raging at the sight of two white, over-privileged men gurning in a gold lift. I feel helpless in the face of the multiple xenophobic, sexist, homophobic storms that rage through certain parts of the press and social media.
Some days this feels like a planet of 7 billion individuals, rather than a collective species with universal experience. Some days it feels like compassion is hopeless. But, as we move forward into this new world order, I know that I have a responsibility to listen, to come closer and to find ways in which I can demonstrate more compassion. I refuse to let that feeling of hopelessness overwhelm me, even on the days when I want to barricade myself in and watch cat videos. I have a responsibility to myself, my family and to my fellow man/woman to find my 'with'ness.
There has been a lot of excellent writing this week from people trying to make sense of the mess we are in, but if you only read one (other) thing, please take a look at my friend Sinéad’s blog Finding Home for a perspective on what it means to be an immigrant this week.