As we go into another year I want to propose, instead of resolutions, some affirmations.
Or rather, re-affirmations. One of the things that has struck me most since March 2020 is how some fundamental aspects of human life have gone out of fashion. I’m talking about company and community, art and nature – the song and dance of life – that have been put aside under The Great Forgetting. Depending on where you are, these sorts of things have been prohibited to a greater and lesser extent, for shorter or longer periods, for reasons that make more or less sense, sometimes with the suggestion that in future they can be replaced by online versions.
Non-essential. Dispensable. Better-Put-Off-Until-Next-Year. Or-The-Year-After. In the public and political discourse of the past two years, much of the art and the beauty, the physicality and the spirit of life has been devalued (or e-valued, as my spellcheck points out), and found to be superfluous.
The justification for this has travelled along the tramlines of an established debate in political theory which puts the matter in terms of individual rights versus the collective good. But I think this opposition misses the point – these are things we all need and, when those needs are denied, society as a whole suffers. A less politicised debate would have been receptive to thinking in terms of social freedom and fundamental human needs. But that’s probably a subject for another Bafflement Essay.
What seems more pressing as we head into another year is a reminder that we are embodied, finite creatures who are part of the natural world. As emotional, social beings, our lives are made meaningful by activity, connection and creativity – things which lie beyond our basic needs for food, shelter and physical safety. Older societies knew this intuitively. But the modern West is in danger of jettisoning the meaning-making side of human life in favour of a society organised around safety, technology and control.
So at this time of new beginnings, I’d like to suggest some candidates for re-affirmation. I’m not sure what to call them – are they ‘needs’ or ‘rights’? Perhaps ‘life rights’ is a good starting phrase. The accompanying explanations are very much a personal take which draw on my own experience: feel free to share your own in the comments below.
The Right to Company
Gathering is as old as humanity itself. Ancient humans sat around the fire and as civilisation developed, the need to be with others persisted. I am put in mind of the powerful depictions of the Anglo-Saxon hall seen from the darkness outside, a beacon of light and conviviality, in the Old English poetry I read at university. And I know all too well the overwhelming relief of the solitary walker or lost driver at seeing the lights of an approaching village or town. Other humans! It’s a need so deeply rooted that it’s impossible to separate the psychological from the biological.
The need for human company, how often, and what form it takes, varies hugely from person to person, and at different times within the life of the same person. But it is not something that we can do without, nor is it wise to construct a society which gives the state the power to take it away. There is a reason why solitary confinement is one of the worst punishments humans can inflict on one other.
The exception is the hermit. I’ve long been fascinated by religious solitaries and have interviewed a few. But the point about eremetic isolation is that it’s voluntary, undertaken for specific, spiritual reasons, and supported by a wider community in the form of a religious institution. And because of the power of even self-imposed isolation to cause distress, those doing short spiritual retreats get regular check-ups to see that they are coping alone.
In 2022, I reaffirm humans’ fundamental need to be in the company of others.
The Right to Nature
In Britain’s first-ever lockdown, I lost the right to be in nature. I say ‘to be’ because, while I love walking, it’s long been my habit to spend time just sitting outside, preferably on the ground under a tree. I’ve never felt the need to explain it, but I know it’s something shared by many nature-lovers, a kind of communion that falls somewhere between nature-watching – birds will come close if you’re still for a while – and a kind of spiritual practice.
My watershed moment came in April 2020 when I was sitting in the near-empty park at the end of my street, hundreds of yards away from another human being. I looked up from writing my journal to see two police officers energetically crossing the playing field to tell me that I was not permitted to ‘be’ outside.
The police were enforcing new rules which granted a population confined to their homes permission to leave the house for daily exercise only. The exercise rule was interpreted in a mechanistic, almost militaristic way as involving continuous movement, a stipulation that made it difficult for the elderly, the disabled, the convalescent and the parents of small children to benefit from fresh air and sunlight in a way that was comfortable for them. Worse, it seemed that this approach had considerable public support. The Facebook group of my local community, a London suburb rich in green space, was alive with the condemnation of people outdoors. Runners were a particular focus, as were teenagers kicking a ball about. Sunbathers had it particularly bad. One community activist asked whether people needed to go outside at all.
While a calmer atmosphere prevailed in Lisbon, it was strange to see a similar approach adopted under a second lockdown in Portugal in early 2021. Few flats here have outside space, and there are many elderly folk with mobility problems. So it was sad to see benches swathed in red-and-white plastic tape to stop people sitting down.
Given the amount of knowledge we have about the benefits of being in nature, I find this attempt to cut humans off from the natural world utterly baffling. Our animal selves know instinctively about the healing power of nature – hence that internal pull to go outside, look at the sky, breathe in the air, sit in the sun. I suspect that the ease with which we’ve been prepared to give up being-in-nature is has a lot to do with our current state of confused disconnection.
As a modern human, I reaffirm my need-right to spend time in nature.
The Right to Art
I don’t find it hard to understand why large-scale gatherings were put on hold while the world got to grips with a new infectious disease. But over the past eighteen months, I have often wondered why art and culture seems to have been deemed dispensable during this crisis, with nightclubs – which are, after all, tribal gatherings with music – and theatres often being the first to close and the last to re-open, while sporting and other events have gone ahead.
Choirs have been a particular focus of anxiety due to the belief that singing projects respiratory emissions further than speech. But attempts to pin down the science of the risk posed have met with limited success – see here and here. At one point, the Welsh government issued advice that tenors posed a greater risk than the singers of other parts; it was subsequently revealed that it had inadvertently posted ‘information’ intended as a spoof. One of my stand-out memories of the strange world of 2020 is being reprimanded for singing to myself by an old man in a supermarket. I’m a keen amateur singer and was using this time-honoured way of dealing with a stressful environment – in this case, the repeated Covid messaging being broadcast in the store.
I’ve wondered more than once whether this antipathy to creative expression is driven by a new form of puritanism. Conservative societies and authorities have often been hostile to music or at least tried to control it, to turn it to their own purposes. (The Taliban are trying to ban music AGAIN …) What is about music that attracts the will-to-control? Perhaps it’s something to do with its unrivalled power to express and elicit emotion and the truths that can’t be captured by dogma, ideology or social morality.
I liked that earlier this year activists in Lisbon put on a series of open-air concerts under the banner ‘the right to art’. Such gatherings were not allowed at the time but, because these were billed as protests, they had to go ahead. Musicians sang and played and people danced while the police looked on.
In modern rights discourse, the right to cultural expression tends to be tied to the worthy aspiration of validating ethnic cultures. But I think we need to get back to body-mind-spirit basics, and re-affirm the universal right of humans to the creativity of life.
In 2022, I reaffirm my right to art.
The Right to Difference
I really don’t know how to phrase this one. The right to different ways of being? The right to my own experience? Until March 2020, the principles underlying these phrases – individuality, freedom of belief and freedom of speech, the right to equal treatment, including for minorities – were almost universally accepted as integral to the way we lived in the West. Or so I thought. But since then, those who feel or see differently from the majority have repeatedly suffered condemnation, shaming and, in the latter part of 2021, exclusion and persecution.
The fact of human diversity and distinctiveness has been put in many ways. The philosopher Hannah Arendt called it ‘plurality’; the storyteller Michael Meade talks about the ‘irreplaceability’ of a person being so fundamental that when s/he dies, those who knew them feels that a part of the world has gone for ever.
Modern attachment theory can help us understand why, as humans, we react in very different ways to the same conditions. Depending on our ‘attachment style’ – whether our prime fear is being overwhelmed by a stronger power or being abandoned and left to die, both real possibilities for human infants in earlier times – one person may fear annihilation by a disease, another by isolation. A healthy thirty-year-old I know fears he will die from Covid if he goes out, so he stays home to feel safe. By contrast, I only feel ‘safe’ in a functioning society with the agency to meet my needs. We fear different things.
We need to re-recognise the fact that human beings experience life in different ways.
In the spring of 2020, I started looking for resources that would help me to make sense of a world-going-mad. Initially there was very little – just a few wise words on from the odd psychologist or esoteric thinker on YouTube, warning that anxiety about Covid might be worse than the disease itself.
But gradually, more watchers-of-the-times realised that the current crisis was about something more wider than public health. I found videos, podcasts and interviews that spoke to my sense of what was going on and going wrong and furnished me with the articulations and explanations that I was seeking. Some suggest the paths by which we might to start to go right again. You can find a short selection below.
Storyteller and mythologist Michael Meade offers a mix of teaching, story and song in his videos and podcasts. This recent video on Gratitude which features the story of the mud people, the stick people and the corn people is as good a place to start as any.
Psychology professor Mattias Desmet has been increasingly in demand for his ability to explain how so many can be brought to believe so much on the basis of so little. This interview with Aubrey Marcus is one of the best.
This conversation between Julie Ponese, a Canadian professor sacked for practising medical ethics and multi-disciplinary academic David Haskell, explores how we in Western society got here. Particularly illuminating is their identification of the cultural habit of reducing the complexities of a person to a single identity and how that’s paved the way for a new kind of persecution.
The Pandemic is a Prism is a series of conversations with a diverse range of original thinkers about the significance of the current crisis from a mythopoetic perspective.
This short video, drawing on the wisdom of dissidents such as Solzhenitsyn, is an inspiring introduction to the construction of a parallel society as a counter to oppression and the building of a better world.
May you flourish in all your humanity in 2022!