Time To Take Stock

Just about every day I seriously consider coming off social media. I vaguely envy those who’ve managed to make the break. I’m beginning to think there’s a stigma attached to even trying to do this. Why is it so difficult? There are of course all sorts of valid reasons for staying with it and, to be honest, the fear of isolation and loneliness is one of them, but I also realise that being caught up with facebook and twitter, neither increases or diminishes that particular state of mind, or perhaps it does both. Therein lies the confusion many of us experience in regard to social media.

The illusion of freedom that social media bestows makes us all vulnerable – and hence hurtable. We may feel impregnable, behind a computer screen alone against the world, but there is no telling who is out there, or how they will read us, what tender vulnerability we will touch on, wittingly or unwittingly, and how they will reciprocate, when we have taken one too many risks with a tweet or a post, and left ourselves momentarily exposed.

So the media, and social media especially, is encouraging a kind of ghetto mentality, one with which people can identify by being part of a group which will keep them safe, or at least provide support and refuge when what is said or half said hits them where they are most vulnerable. But we are all vulnerable to being hit, or excluded from the group, one way or another. We are all on the defensive. As a result of this none of us is truly free.

As I ponder whether or not to come off social media, I also have to ask myself what this fundamentally defensive attitude of mind does to us as a society. What kind of society are we becoming? Are we truly free? Embodied in the idea of freedom is that of liberality, which also means generosity, generosity of spirit. There is a growing antipathy towards these two ‘graces’ which are often cynically conflated and written off as ‘liberal elitism’.  Bearing in mind that November is the month of remembrance, it is worth recalling the sacrifices made in recent history by two generations in the name of this very freedom, this liberality, this generosity of spirit.  

How do our notions of being a free society sit with theirs? Perhaps it was easier for them to think of themselves as a free society, one which was about belonging together in freedom of spirit, because they had a visible common enemy to defeat. We have many enemies, but they are not visible in the same way as those of our grandparents and great grandparents. Our enemies thrive on isolationism, on the sovereign power of the individual. Without a visible common enemy they translate into nationalism, identity politics and the cult of celebrity leadership.

As a result of this we allow ourselves to be identified with the kind of people who embody our fantasies. We want stardom, because it is the opposite of vulnerability and of wisdom. It makes few demands on our intelligence or sense of right and wrong. It evokes a certain kind of impregnability, often pertaining to an imagined past. But in reality it speaks of rootlessness and of a people which seems to have lost all sense of purpose, because it has lost sight of its own history. It does not seem to be rooted in anything that gives meaning or shape to its life, still less to its future as one of a wider global society.

The celebrity leader appeals to the rootless because, like any other celebrity, he has no time for anyone or anything other than himself and his immediate short-term objectives. Stay focused on him and on his fantasies and all will be well. Celebrity leaders seem to be largely male, perhaps because the male leader, when he is intoxicated by power, plays to our fantasies, and feeds on our complacency, as he persuades us that his objectives are all that we could possibly need or want.

The celebrity leader succeeds through lies and duplicity because we have given up on the real meaning of freedom, on the kind of liberality which allows us to believe in our capacity for right judgment and goodness. We have given up on ourselves. More importantly, the celebrity leader succeeds, and will succeed again, because we, as a society, have little sense of belonging to the wider sociality which makes up the planet we inhabit, and of the responsibilities we bear to it. We have also given up on the infinite source of goodness itself. Perhaps it is time to take stock of these things and turn back before it is too late.

Where Shall Wisdom Be Found?


tynaLoHHXVh_imageRight now, I’m re-watching The Bletchley Circle. I was initially drawn to it because I thought it would take me back to the original World War II Bletchley story, about a group of singularly gifted women who intercepted and decoded vital enemy information and thereby saved countless numbers of lives. The relatively new drama, which was originally released in 2012, is set in 1952. It picks up on the only possible common denominator with the wartime story; that solving problems, and possibly saving the world, is so much more straightforward when you work together and when you only have one enemy to deal with at a time.

Or perhaps that is an oversimplification of what foiling the enemy in wartime really entails. Most of us have not known armed conflict at home, but it seems we are no nearer to solving the problems that divide us as nations and as societies than we were over 70 years ago.

For one thing, if we start from the premise that there is a common enemy, the enemy appears in so many guises that it is hard to name. Whatever it is, it sets us against each other, fomenting distrust and hatred in subtle and various ways. Sometimes, the enemy takes the form of a question which might determine a nation’s future, like Brexit. At other times, it embeds itself in the issue itself, so that the question becomes a vehicle for distrust and hatred. What you believe about Europe defines you in the minds of those who think differently, as a potential threat, a latent enemy. It can also hide unpalatable truths about how we think of our fellow human beings, whichever side of the question you come down on.

Twitter, and other instantaneous forms of pseudo-communication, foment this kind of distrust. A thread may begin as an invitation to exchange ideas, and even to find common cause, but this is seldom where it ultimately leads. Too often it degenerates into a platform for verbal abuse. Twitter is not for the faint hearted, but neither does it afford much help to those who are simply seeking the common good, including perhaps, a solution to the problem of climate change.

But, working on the assumption that most people feel that the risk to the planet posed by human-induced climate change is having a detrimental effect on the common good, social media becomes the primary motivator for change in this crucial area of concern. It is not that we all agree on how, whether, or when the slide to extinction needs to be reversed. It is simply that we seem to be of one mind about the need for it to happen. Could this signal the return of Wisdom?

Wisdom, if not outdated, is certainly misunderstood. It is usually coupled with a rather pedestrian idea of common sense.  But common sense makes no sense at all if it is not held in a deeper place of commonality, apart from humanity’s proclivity for auto-destruction. In other words, apart from what used to be called sin. We should have learned by now that we, as a species, are incapable of halting our own relatively imminent destruction (within the next century, if not much sooner), not to mention the destruction of countless thousands of other species with whom we share this planet and for whom we are accountable before Wisdom, the ultimate Good that embodies all other good, through Whom and in Whom all things were ‘made’, and here I refer to the beginning of the gospel of St. John.

The idea that we are accountable to a good which embodies all that has ever been good from ‘before the beginning’ puts a different slant on how we might confront together the enemy that threatens us. It is as much an existential enemy as it is a physical one. Being accountable to Wisdom, to the One ‘through whom all things were made’, means that we share in that life force. You could say that the life force of Wisdom is at one with all that is good and true about human beings, so that human nature is essentially good. This is what the mediaeval spiritual writer, Julian of Norwich taught for times which were as turbulent, in their own way, as ours.

If Julian was right about how Wisdom conceives of human beings, then the cardinal sin of our times is one of despair about the human condition, despairing in our will and capacity to the good. On the whole, despair comes in the shabbiest forms of disguise. Cynicism, apathy and procrastination, when it comes to the need for change in the way we feed ourselves and go about our daily lives, are perhaps the most common to all of us. It is not that difficult to stop using cling film, for example, or to insist that supermarkets only use bio-degradable bags for loose vegetables. It is also often possible to walk to wherever we need to get to by allowing sufficient extra time.

Overcrowded days and over busy schedules are significant, if indirect, contributing factors to global warming. And this takes us to the heart of the problem, or enemy, that we face. The enemy is nihilism, destructive purposelessness brought about by not having the will or the time to simply be at one with Wisdom, the source of Life itself.