Jonathan Dodd’s latest column. Guest opinion articles do not necessarily reflect the views of the publication. Ed
It’s true that time passes quicker when you’re happy. This last week has whizzed by. That’s because I’m really enjoying my work. And, of course, if you’ve had periods where you really haven’t enjoyed your job, the times that are good become twice as good because they’re so much better.
This is something we tend to forget. For instance, because we have the NHS we tend to feel irritated with people who get sick, or who don’t have access to a similar free-at-the-point-of-service healthcare system. That doesn’t mean our NHS is perfect – far from it, in fact. But while striving to keep it as good as possible, we shouldn’t lose sight of how marvellous it still is.
Involved in a war that affected all of us
Similarly, we haven’t had a war for over 70 years. I know we were rushed into Iraq and Afghanistan, and before that there were unfortunate forays into Suez and other far-away places, and there was the Malvinas expedition, but I mean we haven’t been involved in a war that affected all of us for all that time.
We’re currently losing the last people who were even alive at the start of World War I, let alone old enough to have noticed. If you were born in 1939, you’re 77 or 78 now. If you were called up in 1945, you’re 89 or 90. We’ve had peace for three generations. That’s probably longer than any previous period in History.
We’re bombarded by vivid images of troubles
As a result, we have no experience of what being in the middle of a war is like. And we need to use our imagination and our humanity in order to put ourselves in the place of anyone who is there now. And what that must be like. It’s very easy to close our ears and eyes to problems in other parts of the world and people who aren’t like us.
In previous generations we didn’t have modern-day communications, so we probably didn’t even know about what was happening over there, or maybe not until it was all over. Now we’re bombarded by vivid images of troubles assailing people everywhere, and we become immune to whatever suffering we’re seeing. So when those people arrive at our doorsteps begging for safety and peace and quiet we shrug and turn away.
All our technological brilliance is failing us
So in many respects all our technological brilliance is failing us. Or we’re failing it. What’s the point of being informed about everything if there’s nothing you can do or you become overwhelmed with the sheer volume of it all? I remember when chugging was at its height, when hordes of dayglow-wearing young zealots would assail you on the streets trying to convince you to sign direct debit forms for innumerable charities.
The problem for me was not just their clamouring, but the thought of all those charities being really deserving, and the need to stop myself from paying out most of my monthly salary in an effort to be fair to all of them. I assuaged my guilty conscience eventually by picking one charity and giving a regular amount to that. But it doesn’t stop me thinking it’s not enough, and seeing all the other good causes waving at me in my peripheral vision.
The small change of living in something like paradise
We live in a time and place that’s blessed compared to most times and places elsewhere and elsewhen. I’ve got used to death rates for diseases falling, and the levels of health and longevity rising, and better communications and freedoms undreamed of. But I never lost that sense of being born lucky and having it so much better than so many others. OK, there’s more obesity, and a bit of violence after hours on Saturday nights, and most TV channels are rubbish. I can live with that.
For me, this is just the small change of living in something like paradise. There’s a darker downside that I don’t like, which has been dormant for decades, but is gathering strength again lately. I’m referring to the immense power of forgetfulness here. If you look at your life as a sort of balance, you can put a lot of things on the positive things on the good side, and the not-so-good things on the other. That’s obvious. But ideas of good and bad aren’t fixed.
Until your scales topple over under the weight of bad things
Let’s say you remember that we have a very good health service. You’re likely to put the NHS in the good side. But if you forget that, and remember only that you had to wait for an appointment once, you might be tempted to put the NHS on the bad side. And you can do that with a lot of things that we take for granted which don’t work as well as we’d like them to, until your scales topple over under the weight of bad things.
I’m very aware that I could easily come to quite a different conclusion to someone else when weighing the value and usefulness of things I encounter in my life. I can see that it would be possible to see some of those things that I’d fight to keep as being terrible and no good. I can also see that there are things I have no time for that could be seen to be fantastic too. So I allow them to be good even though they don’t interest me.
Fair, and reasonable, and civilised, and respectful
In this way I try to put myself in the place of other people and see things from their point of view. I think that’s fair, and reasonable, and civilised, and respectful. My problem is that it’s easier for most of us to remember those things when there’s some sort of threat out there, or at least the possibility of a threat. We humans have a bad tendency to see less far and close down the extents of our lives and concerns until we become small and petty in ourselves.
Much has been made of events in the world lately. There are many countries that seem to be giving up on the principles embedded in their constitutions or aspirations. I agree that most countries have behaved less well than they should have, and still do, but they have been held to account and kept in check by a fundamental decency, even though it’s been a constant struggle to gain and retain the freedoms that we all love and take for granted as soon as we have them.
A balance between the good and the bad in the world
In the past there have been people of conscience rising to lead nations, as well as corrupt individuals whose sole aim was to gain and keep power. In general they have maintained a balance between the good and the bad in the world. I fear that we’re tipping into a period where the balance is sliding the wrong way.
Some say that history is filled with the human race’s inability to learn from the mistakes of the past, that we are destined to repeat the same errors all over again, and again. Perhaps that’s true. Someone said that ‘the price of liberty is eternal vigilance’, and we forget that quickly enough. It’s much easier to sit down, pat yourself on the back, and become self-congratulatory before closing your eyes and refusing to consider that your work isn’t actually done.
Otherwise it will fall around your ears one day
There is no end to the work of keeping things balanced. Buying a house isn’t the end of the story. Things go wrong, repairs have to be made, spring cleaning and repainting have to be done every year, otherwise it will fall around your ears one day. We clean our teeth every day, because we know we have to look after them. How much more important are our values and our freedoms and our principles?
And who am I to talk? I have a rant every now and again, and I feel guilty a lot, which is pointless unless guilt encourages you to do something useful or helpful. It’s easy to do nothing, it’s very easy to turn your face from problems, and it’s super-easy to deny there’s anything wrong apart from whichever group of people you decide to point at and blame.
Perhaps it’s all inevitable, and just too much hard work
Doing nothing is easy. There are people waiting in the shadows to take advantage of that, and to take power, and to take those things that you hold dear and rip them up. Countries are often described by historians as ‘sleepwalking towards disaster’. Perhaps they deserve it, perhaps it’s some other country’s turn to take over the reins. Perhaps it’s just natural selection. I don’t know. Perhaps it’s all inevitable, and just too much hard work.
I do know that I’m not going to go gentle into that good night. I will burn and rave at close of day. Even if you don’t.
If you have been, thank you for reading this. And thank you to Dylan Thomas, who, I’m sure, would have given me permission to mangle his great poem.
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