It is strange now to think that we once called 2016 callous for stealing David Bowie and Victoria Wood from us.
Looking back, it becomes apparent that the year stole so much more than that, with the killing of Jo Cox, the fall-out of the Brexit vote, the mowing down of 86 people on a warm Nice night, mass drownings in the Mediterranean, protracted conflict in Syria and Yemen, drought and hunger across the Horn of Africa.
Many of us watched with mouths hanging open as the year closed with the election of a former reality TV host to the White House, the rise of an emboldened far right and a spike in hate crime, division, and distrust.
Destabilising forces are at play, including a sustained and cynical undermining of the free press. While fictitious news is disseminated on an industrial scale, powerful people choose to describe genuine reporting as ‘fake’. It’s staggering to think that ‘MSM’ – mainstream media – is now a pejorative term.
Meanwhile, we find ourselves retreating into bubbles – intentionally or not.
Algorithms construct echo chambers for us on social media that we narrow further as we unfriend or mute those whose views we don’t share.
Ads and suggestions for the next thing we should watch or listen to or buy are minutely tailored to our online profile. When profit is the only driver this can leave people exposed and vulnerable. An MIT Technology Review article in May this year reported evidence of Facebook’s use of sensitive user data to target particular ads at teenagers experiencing feelings of worthlessness.
Our moorings are creaking as the connections between us weaken and our reference points blur. Divided and dazed, it becomes hard to see the way forward.
But it’s worth drawing strength from the fact that many before us have lived through dark days and found their way through them.
John Woolman was a Quaker tradesman in slave-owning colonial America. His sensitivity to what he called ‘the operations of Divine Love’ led him to become an advocate for the abolition of slavery and a refusal to benefit from consumer goods produced by slave labour and unjust trade practices.
In November 1758 he stayed in the home of Thomas Woodward after speaking at a Quaker meeting. When he learned that the household servants were slaves his response was neither to openly confront his host, nor to turn a blind eye.
Instead, during the night he rose and wrote a note to his hosts explaining why he could not accept their hospitality, went to the slaves’ quarters to pay them for their service, and made his way out into the night.
In the morning, the note was found and, deaf to his wife’s objections, Thomas Woodward set every slave free.
There’s a star in the constellation Ursa Minor called Polaris – also known as the lodestar or north star – which remains in a fixed position throughout the night. For centuries it has given travellers the means by which to navigate in the darkness.
John Woolman had found his north star. In days when people openly traded in humans, it gave him courage and conviction when it was only too easy to compromise or be passively complicit.
Actions like Woolman’s that are kind and bold and good – and have the power to reverse vicious circles – are vital in these fragile, volatile days.
They’re evident in the open-hearted responses of the people of Manchester and London who opened their homes to those affected by the recent attacks, drove them home, worked round the clock to give medical care. In the actions of those who took the time to lift a girl in a wheelchair to safety as people fled from the Manchester Arena, and in the man who pledged to return to the restaurant he was eating in on the night of the London Bridge attack to pay his bill and tip those who served him. Under fire they knew what they held dear.
But, away from the headlines, we make a thousand tiny decisions each day that mould and define the world we live in. How do we find and stay true to our north star in the face of fear and fragmentation?
Here are five ideas that come to mind:
1. Lift your head up. You can’t see the way with your head down. Leave your phone behind and go somewhere you can see for a long way. Intersperse noise and busyness and 24/7 media consumption with the ancient rhythms of rest, reflection, and refuge in the world’s wildness to reclaim a sense of perspective.
2. Actively seek what’s true. Hunt it out in the midst of all that is distracting, shifting, immediately appealing or absorbing. When you find it, let it shape your choices, words, and actions.
3. Be willing to go against the flow, against the grain. Ask questions. Don’t operate on autopilot. We need intentionally to check our reference points against the constancy of our north star to make sure we’re not being blown off course by the influences around us.
4. Defuse. Woolman chose not to shame his hosts but to convict them. In Nazi-occupied Czechoslovakia, Jewish prisoners were forced to work in arms factories manufacturing bombs to be used against the Allies. Elmer Bendiner, the navigator of a B-17 bomber, tells the story of his bewildered gratitude at emerging unharmed from an attack by German anti-aircraft guns in which shells pierced his plane’s gas tanks but failed to explode. When the shells were sent for defusing they were found to have no charge. Eleven were empty; one contained a carefully-rolled piece of paper with a message in Czech that read, ‘This is all we can do for you now.’
5. Break out of your bubble by joining in and reaching out. Find places and events that you wouldn’t normally go to, where people are different from you. Support what other people are doing, like The Great Get-Together on 16-18 June inspired by Jo Cox’s belief that ‘We are far more united and have far more in common than that which divides us.’ Lend your presence and your support. Build bridges not walls.
Darkness is disorientating but light is always more powerful. Martin Luther King said ‘The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice’. Let’s keep our eyes fixed on it.