Why are we so keen to denigrate ourselves?

Why are we so keen to denigrate ourselves?

Who would have known that the numbers of Covid-19 cases in our country are as high as they are because we test far more than other countries?  I didn’t, until my son happened to mention it to me.  Try to look up those statistics and there are very few journalists who have bothered to cover the subject.  Hence, we have this dreadful opinion of ourselves, without putting the statistics in context. 

It seems that we test 3,322,548 per million population where France only tested 1,485,720 and Italy only 1,222,052 per million of population, with Germany only testing 776,198, as of July 14, 2021.  The WHO stated at the beginning of the pandemic that countries should test, test, test.  We were a little slow in starting but now, of course, the criticism is that we are testing too much.  The app pings but it seems that provided you test yourself daily and have a negative result then, you do not have to isolate, so testing is key to keeping the population safe.

Similarly, we do have a high incidence of Covid-19 (partly for the reason that we test more) but actually Cyprus and Gibraltar have more incidences than we do and the Netherlands and Spain are not far behind.  And, according to www.statista.com France has actually been the worst affected country in Europe during this pandemic outbreak, with 5,770,021 confirmed cases.

Our death rate per 100,000 is actually less than Italy’s (UK 191 per 100,000, Italy 211 per 100,000 as of 20 June 2021 quoted by John Hopkins University).  But who would know it?  I have never heard these figures quoted regularly, if at all, on the news programmes I listen to.  Perhaps I listen to the wrong stations?!

The trouble with this lazy reporting, and the lack of will to put numbers into context, is that it leaves our population, and particularly our population of young people, believing that this country is dross and that does neither them nor the country any good.  Sure, we have not got great leaders at the moment but that’s no reason to propagate negative narratives about us as a people.  It serves no purpose other than to demoralise, and a demoralised population tends to give up or, worse, follow some charismatic leader who promises to get us out of the problem.  We don’t have one at the moment but with the culture of identity politics and cancellation, we need to beware if someone emerges to make such promises.  From such beginnings totalitarianism can result.

A young teenager, Alex Wilkie, on Radio 4 last week asked that people do not refer to her generation as “the lost generation” as a result of the Covid-19 impact on their education.  Labels such as these do nothing to inspire such teenagers to fight for improvement, to innovate and create new enterprises, to work hard because they believe there are still opportunities to succeed, despite the pandemic.  To believe in themselves.  For self-belief is crucial to success in any field.

The pandemic has been a shock to the young, I believe.  Their lives had, even if they didn’t know it, been relatively unchallenging compared to some other generations and other geographical regions.  This is their major challenge and it could result in them feeling ‘poor me’ or victimised.   But, as the stoics would say, ‘no tree becomes deep-rooted and sturdy unless strong winds blow against it’.  This pandemic is the equivalent of a strong wind for our younger population and the concept is that within those storms their roots grow stronger and a tree with firm roots is less likely to blow away.  This type of challenge and change can be good for developing resilience in the long term.  So let’s not catastrophise the situation.  Just look around the world to see many others who are suffering more, with no welfare state, no democracy, no fresh water flowing from a tap, and be grateful.

I can’t imagine what it must be like to be referred to as a ‘disadvantaged child’ or ‘disadvantaged family’.  Those kind of labels can limit expectations.  They hardly help to make a child or family feel good about themselves.  Those who berate this country for a lack of social mobility are simply reinforcing such inequalities when they stick labels on that can impact a child’s self-image.

Then the media all rounded on the UK as racist after the appalling racist tweets posted after the Euro 2020 penalties.  These were dreadful but a few ghastly people exist in any population of this globe and a minority of people does not make up a whole population.  It turned out from a Guardian report that only 44 of the 585,000 tweets received in the first day or so were racist, and Reuters also reported that the majority, possibly 70%, of racist tweets were generated from outside this country, possibly from a Russian bot.  This was mentioned on the radio after a few days but not before we had all had the chance to feel thoroughly ashamed of ourselves, in believing we were all slung into the same racist barrel as a few of the more unsavoury people who live in our country.

Of course, none of this means we should be complacent.  Of course, we need to do whatever we can to protect people in the pandemic.  Of course, more needs to be done for social mobility and to ensure that racism in whatever form is stamped out and that we come together as a more united population.

And this is my point.  To emphasize our weaknesses, potentially without facts being checked, does not help us get out of the mess we are in after Covid.  To emphasize our divisions, as seems to be the trend at the moment, does not help us all to pull together to feel that this country, and the people within it, are worth fighting for, building businesses for, creating wealth for, creating opportunities.

I have travelled extensively in my career and also for leisure.  We have so much to be grateful for in this country.  I know that racism exists in every country in one form or another and one can experience it as a white person in a majority black country.  I know that xenophobia, poverty, inequality also exist in other countries.  It doesn’t make it right but let’s get things in perspective.  There is no need to believe we are the best of the best but let’s not rush to assume, either, that we are the worst of the worst.

Of course we have to review, analyse and adapt new approaches but when people are endlessly criticised and told they are no good and that everything around them is hopeless, then why would they bother?  We must give our young people, and in fact our middle-aged people too, for their lives can be very tough, hope.  Without hope nothing is achieved.

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Tonight I miss abroad…

On this summer night I listen to the songs of Brazil, Portugal, France and Italy and I miss abroad.  The scents, the tastes, the scenes, the cultures, the difference.  That is what matters.  When we travel elsewhere, we learn something about life, about humanity.  And mostly we learn that we are so similar.  We love, we hate, we feel jealousy and empathy, and try to do the best we can.  It’s the human condition.

It’s exciting, sometimes, to feel an outsider.  Working in Nigeria, the Middle East, or Hong Kong,  I had so much to learn about how others respond to information.  How they communicate and bond, or not.

I had an apartment in Nice for many years and I would sit on the balcony in the evenings and look at the moon and recognise that we all look at the same sky, stars and moon.  We are all in awe of these simple aspects of nature, wherever we are.  I would watch the planes come into Nice airport, or traverse the skies over France, and think of the people able to travel across miles of the earth to see family, visit friends, or do business, and I always felt that, despite the potential environmental threat, it was a positive and exotic experience to travel.  It brings us together. The view of a plane in the night sky from earth makes it look romantic.  Of course, the reality of being sat in one of these cigar-shaped machines is actually pretty mundane.  Until you get there…

And then you arrive.  In Dubai, or Egypt, in Nashville or Sydney.  And the different temperature hits you.  Dubai is like being in a fan oven.   Phoenix, Arizona too.  The excitement of landing in a strange place, getting a taxi across town, seeing the different sights, talking to the taxi-driver about their experiences, talking to anyone one meets in business or as a tourist.  Discovering.  Discovering those differences of life, how they live in comparison to how we live.  No one way is ‘right’.

Tonight, stuck in London, I miss it all.  Lisbon, Beirut, Havana, Kerala, Moscow, Luxor, Zimbabwe, and more.  The gentle Portugual of my birth, where my sister and I had planned a sentimental journey this year back to the places we remembered as children.  I hope we can make that next year.

Remembering running training courses in the Middle East and Africa, knowing and respecting the fact that I must conform to their norms.  And loving the differences, noticing them, and hoping I was doing ok to be myself and yet shaping myself enough to their ways. 

And my dear friend Sima, who sadly died last year, used to say that I was a different Helen when I lived in Nice.  A free spirit, someone new to the Helen she knew in London.  I don’t know who that was exactly, and I wonder if you can connect with that feeling of being someone slightly different, slightly more free, able to let go of the old British ways, of the expectations of class or family, and try out different ways of being when you are abroad?  I know my father was at his most relaxed, my mother always said, when he was abroad.  My brother and sister have both lived away for more years than I have and I know that the three of us, maybe because of our early years in Portugal, thrive on being somewhere different.

Yet, speaking for myself, I also love England.  The countryside and what this country offers.  Maybe it’s because we are an island nation that we yearn for other spaces and places.  But it pains me when so much of what we read and listen to is constantly seeking to criticise everything we do in this country.  Which is not, after all, so bad.  I know I would prefer to be supervised by our police officers, however flawed, than most others in the world, that I am happy with our inevitably flawed democracy rather than any kind of dictatorship.  After all, only 32% or so of the French bothered to turn up at their first local elections.  For a political nation celebrating democracy, that is weird, if not dangerous.

But Macron and Merkel are determined to play their political games and stop us Brits from travelling, despite the fact that it deeply hurts those in their own countries who depend on tourism.  I read today that the reason that our rates of Covid look so high is that we test far more – as much as 10 times as much – as Germany, and more than France or other European nations.  So, of course it looks as if we are doing badly.  And we count the Covid deaths of all those who die ‘with Covid’ rather than ‘of Covid’, so they could have been hit by a bus or died of a cancer they already had, but would still be recorded as a Covid death.  Statistics have to be studied hard and in detail, as Tim Harford explains frequently, if they are to be understood accurately.

But tonight, I miss the different sounds and the words of a strange language in my ear, the scents of a different country and its people, the way people dress, the fruits sold in the markets, the blossom on their trees and plants.  So please, dear leaders, stop making politics the reason why we are stopped from travelling.  Science ok, politics, no. People have close family abroad that they haven’t seen for months.  And family is what matters in life.  When you are in need, it is family who count.  So, Boris, Angela and Emmanuel, recognise that the rate of vaccination in the UK is exceptionally high, get your act together, all of you, to get life back to normal and persuade your people to get vaccinated so the world is a safer place again, and we can mingle and learn from one another.  I so hope we can do this again soon.

In the meantime, thank heaven, I can dream.   Do you?

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Is anyone squeaky clean enough to be placed on a statue?

Have you ever made a mistake?  Done something crass or embarrassing that makes you want to curl up in a ball now?  Said or done something hurtful?  Supported or donated to some cause that you now realize was not what it seemed to be?

Most of us have.  And surely this is the way we all learn – by making mistakes.  Watch a baby learn to walk and it makes mistakes over and over again until it gets it right.  A plane is constantly correcting itself as it ploughs its way through the clouds.  We need to continually review and correct ourselves as we plough our way through life, surely, don’t we?

But in today’s judgmental world none of us are allowed to make mistakes, so how can we possibly learn?  None of us are allowed to have said anything crass or potentially offensive to a soul all the days of our life or we shall be cancelled or pilloried, and even lose our livelihood at the behest of some anonymous Twitter mob.  In fact, the fickle finger of social media will point in our direction until we are fully shamed and humiliated and prostrating ourselves on the floor in penance, even if we were only a kid and knew no better.

My generation would surely never be able to serve in parliament, get published, or support the arts if people understood those awful rhymes we used to chant in the playground, not knowing any better.  We would be sent to the equivalent of the Russian gulag for writing books that were shaped by the perspectives and cultural views of the day.

Because, surely, we do learn, generation by generation, to treat one another more humanely and equally and we do this learning through reviewing our behaviour and vowing not to do the same thing again.  After all, we don’t put people on the rack these days or guillotine them in the village square.  We do have legal acts to support equality and fair treatment.

But the tendency today of sending people to the equivalent of the naughty step, even if they were very young when they made their error, and without any legal process, means that people may be so nervous about speaking up that they stay silent; so nervous that they may get something wrong that they don’t try something new; or so nervous about doing something they feel is right that they take no action, for fear of standing up to the crowd.

I wanted, in the 1960s, to be a member of the Communist Party. My parents were horrified.  At that time I was too young but it seemed a utopian movement that could bring equality to all.  It was only later, through events, discovery and learning, that I realized that it was certainly not all it was cracked up to be, that there was cruelty, torture, repression, dictatorship and a very real lack of equality.  I learnt this over time.  I didn’t know it at an earlier age.

Why we live in such a puritanical time I really don’t understand.  We have had witch-hunts before in history, certainly, and recently too, in dictatorships.  We see it today in China and Russia, where journalists who contradict the government are imprisoned.  Perhaps here it is because we have more time than our forefathers to look around us and point fingers at others.  It makes us feel so good to believe that we are on the side of the angels and aha, you over there, you have said something nasty or done something wrong, or your great-great-grandfather did, and so you will suffer.

If you look at the corporate sponsors of the arts and of charities, it is inevitable that at some stage that organisation will have made a bad call, supported a client who turned out to be a fraud or worse.  So, should we now stop accepting any corporate sponsorships in case way back in their records we might find that they put money into tobacco, DDT, petrol or some other investment that we now know was not good for humankind (and yet had seemed so at the time)?

It’s a slippery slope, isn’t it?  It’s challenging enough to put yourself forward for high office, whether in government or organisations, these days.  Every single thing you do has to be squeaky clean even if those who are asking the questions may not be so squeaky clean or knowledgeable themselves.  The armchair judges spit their vitriol down Twitter or whatever and have some extraordinarily high bar that we are all supposed to reach, even if they are not quite so judgmental about themselves.

Politicians have been lambasted for smoking pot at university but more-or-less everyone smokes pot at uni and then gives it up when they go into the world of work.  We have all broken someone’s heart or misbehaved at some stage and regretted it later but, at the same time, known that really it wouldn’t have worked out if we had stayed in the situation.  We must be allowed to make mistakes. 

Time, surely, to accept that everyone will have done something they may be ashamed of when they think about it at some later stage of their lives and that this is the natural way of the human condition.  Trial and error.  Obviously if we break the law then the law will judge us and we shall pay the correct penance and should then be allowed to clean the slate, on the assumption that we have learnt our lesson.  But if we break the law again, we shall be punished again.

I am not convinced that being forced to grovel by an anonymous group of Twitter followers who shelter their own life record behind an anonymous username is at all healthy.  It can just build up resentment and could well lead to people trying either to be perfect (impossible as no such person exists) or to lie and blag.  It could certainly result in a society where people are frightened to speak up or do anything that might be regarded in a negative light by all those invisible judges who could send them to the equivalent of the Gulag and deprive them of income and reputation.

We don’t want to live in a world like that here in the UK do we?  Can’t we accept that youth is for living, for trying new things and getting them wrong, and also that we never fully grow up to be some perfect mature adult who gets everything right (something children often imagine happens when we become grownup) because in fact we make mistakes, learn and adjust our behaviour every day of our lives until the day we die.  And when we stop trying new things, stop making mistakes, we stop learning and become stale.  And if we reach that point we have very little to contribute.

When Gandhi and Churchill are toppled and defaced, despite freeing millions, what human will ever be perfect or squeaky clean enough to satisfy the current arbiters of who should hold office, play sport, give to charity, support the arts, or be placed on a statue?  I can’t think of one. 

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What happened to Stoicism?

Stoicism teaches the development of self-control and fortitude as a means of overcoming destructive emotions; the philosophy holds that becoming a clear and unbiased thinker allows one to understand the universal reason

Much has been written about therapy recently in the light of Prince Harry’s pronouncements about the Royal Family, his childhood and the ‘total neglect’ he received.  He has talked of feeling ‘completely helpless’.  This has made me wonder what kind of therapy he has been receiving over the last few years if he still uses phrases such as ‘total neglect’ when anyone can see that this is, to most of us, an exaggerated description of his life.  Was he fed, clothed, did he have a home, toys, parents, siblings, grandparents, nannies?  Yes.  To me the phrase total neglect is better applied to, say, the Romanian orphans.

I am surprised that no therapist has challenged his use of words such as ‘total’ or ‘completely’ because the aim of therapy is generally to provide a client with insight into how they are upsetting themselves, alongside potentially identifying how others may or may not have upset them.  When clients use words such as ‘never, always, everyone, nothing, no-one’, these are recognised as generalisations and are challenged…”was there one time when someone gave you attention?  Can you think of one person who supported you?” etc so that distortions and over-generalisations are picked out, challenged and placed into a more contextualised reality.

I am not saying that one cannot have an unhappy childhood if one is a Prince growing up in a Palace.  Of course one can.  And it seems he did, much of it due to the terrible tragedy of losing his mother so young, so suddenly and traumatically.  Therapy can’t take away a sad event.  It can only help the client find ways of managing life despite whatever events have occurred in their lives.  And that is what good therapy does.

There seems to be a general tendency for people to focus on narratives that ramp up the negative rather than balancing negative experiences with more positive ones.  Listening to reports, one would imagine we are living in the most terrible times ever – and that is outside Covid.  That there has never been a worse time for minority groups such as BAME or LGBTQ, although if you look through history we are living in the least persecuted era that has ever existed, with equality and diversity laws to protect rights and a far greater awareness of acceptance and tolerance than existed in previous generations. 

In order to be content, it really does help to check out the language one is using, to step back and analyse whether the narratives one is expressing are accurate.  The brain gets into default modes and loops of habitual thinking and so if one feeds it all the negative aspects of one’s life, or life in general, that is what it will seek out.  But it may not be the truth.  It is an interpretation of the truth, one person’s perception of truth, as seen through the potentially distorted lens through which that person is observing themselves, their life, others, and the world.

Many people create rules that they feel others should abide by – as to the kind of parenting they ‘should, ought or must’ receive, or ‘should have’ received.  As to the kind of way family, friends, colleagues or bosses ‘should’ treat them.  But it helps to check whether these rules, demands or expectations are reasonable, fair, and logical.  Whether the person is giving as much as they are expecting to receive.  Whether they are accepting that, just as they are fallible, so are others, and they deserve compassion and forgiveness. 

I hear more of judgement than I hear of forgiveness these days, whether in Prince Harry’s conversations, or in the demands of students, say, in universities who say they don’t feel safe listening to a lecture, or reading a book, so rather than choosing not to read the book or attend the lecture, the university cancels the speaker or author, often at a real financial and reputational cost.  This surely does not help those young people develop the resilience they will need to manage this world.  It seems absurd that such groups say they support diversity and yet when exposed to diverse opinions suddenly demand that others are silenced.  What an upside down world it is.

I have had therapy myself and found it extremely helpful but it seems to me that there is some kind of therapy out there at the moment that is doing the opposite to what I believe therapy is about.  It seems to be undermining people’s resilience rather than reinforcing it.  It appears that people have the distorted belief these days that the world should be the way they want it to be or otherwise they become a victim.  This is not the kind of therapy I have been exposed to, nor the CBT/REBT approaches I was trained in.

In my view good therapy helps you to understand the events of your life but then to consider what may have been impacting the people who hurt you, what era and generation they grew up within, what the norms were in those times, how you could have responded differently and then to find ways to build resilience to manage life more effectively in the future. 

There should never be an expectation that life will always be the way you want it to be, or that other people should act the way you want them to.  Because they won’t.  Life will be tough and full of challenges.  Tragedies will happen. Other people will have different opinions to your own.  And so we need to help people build the stoicism to manage these ups and downs.  To recognise any distorted perceptions and realise that ‘your truth’ is not necessarily another person’s truth.  This doesn’t mean you don’t feel or acknowledge emotions.  It means you feel them and then check out that they aren’t blinding you to reason or fact, nor disempowering you.

There is a gap between an event and our response to that event. It is the response that shapes our ability to cope or not.  A useful phrase can be “I would rather x didn’t happen but I can manage it if it does” or “I would prefer y not to do that but I can manage it if they do”.

Prince Harry has had some very tough moments in his life.  As have many other people.  He came through grief and difficult patches, served in Afghanistan, and created the Invictus Games, for which he is much admired and respected.  He has had the support of his family, even if it has not been given in precisely the way he would have preferred.  He also has the affection of many people in the UK and beyond.  Contextualising situations helps us all to recognise what has gone well, alongside what has gone badly, so that we feel strong and capable of managing life.

As Jean-Claude Chalmet wrote in The Times, 22.5.21, “good therapy is never about blaming others.  It’s about developing understanding, compassion and a sense of self and responsibility, as well as understanding the consequences of our actions.  It’s a maturing process that helps us to become the best version of ourselves.  Therapy should help us to become more compassionate…hurt isn’t a way to deal with hurt, understanding is.”

In my view vengeance and blame divide us. Developing resilience, understanding, compassion and forgiveness, plus recognising that everyone is fallible, bonds us all within the human condition.

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Human Rights require Human Responsibilities

In the last year I have been horrified by the amount of litter that has been left in the street and in beautiful parks such as Kew Gardens, near us.  Nappies, bottles, masks, picnic debris, all just left on the grass with seemingly no effort to clear it up. No thought for others.  It has made me think again, as I have thought for some time, that we would benefit from bringing in an Act of Human Responsibilities.  For with rights must surely come responsibilities.  Yet I don’t hear this message either from government or from teachers here in the UK.  Perhaps you do?

I heard about the concept of Human Responsibilities on the radio a few weeks ago when an Asian doctor was talking about the difference in how the West has managed lockdowns (or not) and how it was enforced in Asia.  He pointed out that the demand for personal freedom and liberty could impinge on the greater good of the community and that the West were backward in their thinking about this.  He said that those in Asia accepted the need for the greater good more readily than we do.  I am sure he is right.

Speaking personally, I am certainly not ready to accept the degree of authoritarian rule that we have witnessed in lockdowns in the Far East where the army were out on the street with guns to ensure compliance.  However, I do question whether there couldn’t be a happy balance between our perhaps sometimes selfish insistence on individual freedoms and actually being forced to comply with a gun at our head.  This with a view to maintaining reasonable individual freedom at the same time as taking action that is considerate to others.  Am I expecting too much?

Covid-19 has been a test of how authoritarian a democratic government can become in an emergency such as a pandemic.  Inevitably a population tends to accept curfews and limitations on their freedom in wartime but this was a war against an invisible enemy and although most people abided by the rules, some kicked at the traces and continued to party.  So how does one influence those who behave in this way without bringing in the military?  In an era of climate change, of cancellations, and of sexual harassment in schools, this is particularly pertinent.  There are standards of individual behaviour that can have a truly negative outcome for others.

It struck me that the Asian doctor had an important point in questioning whether the gift of an Act of Human Rights should not always be accompanied by a Declaration of the Duties and Responsibilities by those who benefit from those Rights.  And I wondered why, as he mentioned, this suggestion had not been acted upon before.

So, I did some research and found that the State of Victoria, New South Wales, Australia in 2006 and the South African Government in 2008, had, indeed, applied a Bill of Human Responsibilities, where, in South Africa, the Minister of Basic Education, Angie Motshekga, had launched the Bill of Responsibilities Campaign on 23 March 2011.  And the latter, in particular, makes excellent reading.

In the light of cancel culture and of bullying and harassment in schools, the following clauses stood out to me as helpful messages for young people in particular, in that it is basically saying:

If I have the right to human dignity then I have the responsibility to treat others with reverence, respect and dignity, be kind, compassionate… speak courteously.

If I have the right to life then I have the responsibility not to endanger the lives of others by carrying dangerous weapons, acting recklessly or disobeying our rules and laws.  I have a responsibility to live a healthy life, by exercising, eating correctly… not abusing alcohol or taking drugs…

If I have a right to freedom and security then I have the responsibility not to hurt, bully or intimidate others…

If I have the right to freedom of religion, belief and opinion then I have the responsibility to allow others to choose and practice the religion of their choice and to hold their own beliefs and opinions, without fear or prejudice.  To respect the beliefs and opinions of others and their right to express these, even when we may strongly disagree with these beliefs and opinions ourselves…

If I have the right to equality then I have the responsibility to treat every person equally and fairly and not discriminate unfairly against anyone on the basis of race, gender, religion, national, ethnic or social origin, disability, culture, language, status or appearance.  It continues here to say that “as a diverse nation … equality does not mean uniformity or that we are all the same …but calls on all of us to build a common sense of belonging and national pride, celebrating the very diversity which makes us who we are…calling on us to extend our friendship and warmth to all nations and all the peoples of the world in our endeavour to build a better world.”

There is more but I found these snippets inspiring and wondered why we didn’t focus more on values, ethics and behaviours in our education system, for these are both human rights and human responsibilities and can benefit a whole society.  It just takes a little more thought and action. I know that this discussion does take place in leadership training in organisations.

For, surely, what we are talking here is about building character.  This concept seems to have been lost, somewhat, in education while the league tables of academic achievement took precedence to behaviour.  But one can be very clever and not be wise.  Indeed, one can be very clever and actually be evil, so the teaching of values through debate and discussion are truly worthwhile subjects for school children.  This is particularly relevant, now, when we know that black children still feel discriminated against, and when some boys in schools seem to be treating girls in a thoroughly bullying and disrespectful way.

To continue this theme, I wondered also whether the concept of the Four Agreements, as identified by Miguel Ruiz, would not also be worth considering:

  1. Be impeccable with your word (a good one for politicians, perhaps?) What we say determines the person we are, how others see us and how we see ourselves.
  2. Don’t take anything personally (a good one for those who too easily take offence, perhaps?)  Ruiz suggests that those who are easily offended believe they are at the centre of everything. 
  3. Don’t make assumptions (a good one for those who think in binary terms, perhaps?) Gain truth, facts and clarity, as without these misunderstandings are inevitable.
  4. Always do your best (a good one for us all, perhaps?) 

Being reminded of ‘wise action’ encourages us to behave better.  The anonymity of social media, the introduction of human rights, together with the liberalisation of social norms (since I was a child) can lead us on a downward slope of “me me me” and would it not be good now to have a Bill of Responsibilities to encourage a little more “us us us”?  It might even help clear up the litter problem.

“Discuss,” as Professor Richard Dawkins (now cancelled) would say…

https://www.gov.za/about-government/government-programmes/bill-responsibilities#

The Four Agreements by Miguel Ruiz

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How has debate become so toxic?

I find it extraordinary that in a country where education, and higher education, reaches a larger proportion of the population than it did in my childhood, the tenor of debate and conversation has become so debased and divisive.  Instead of raising the quality of discussion, we have ended up with people picking up a headline or soundbite from news, newspaper or social media and acting as if they know everything about it, when in fact it turns out that people have seldom read the whole article, let alone the report, book, or listened to the debate to which they are referring.

This happens often and, most recently, in relation to the report on race by Dr Tony Sewell and his team.  Commentators are comparing him to Ku Klux Klan, to Nazis and to slave owners.   As the report is written almost entirely by people of colour, if white commentators were to say this we would, most certainly, be called racist.  But these commentators are not all white and Trevor Phillips, writing in Monday’s Times, regrets that more white voices have not joined the fray.  Well, here I go and people may say I have no right to comment but I believe, perhaps mistakenly, that I live in a country where free speech is valued.  Also I have lived in the UK since 1954 and in London since 1968 so I have seen a lot of changes with my own eyes.

The furore began even before the full report was published.  The viciousness of the pushback has been vitriolic and, in my view, abhorrent.  Especially as even those who have been interviewed on the radio have admitted that they have only read ‘parts’ of it and, as others have articulated, that the report is far more nuanced than critical comments would suggest.  As the report itself argues “too much of public debate is ill-informed or uninformed”*.  That doesn’t stop people blasting off their emotional opinions.

What I genuinely don’t understand is why people of all ethnic backgrounds can’t give credit where credit is due?  Sure, there is much more to be done on racism and, contrary to what one hears, the report states this several times over [e.g. ”Outright racism still exists in the UK.”*].  However, the problem is that people seem to assume that if one praises the steps that have been taken, then one is at the same time suggesting no more needs to be done.  This is illogical.  It isn’t what the report says.  But it is a tendency that the statistician Hans Rosling in his book Factfulness termed the ‘negativity instinct’**.

Rosling related that when he quoted statistics demonstrating that progress in some field had been achieved, his audience would assume that he was saying that everything was fine, when he was saying no such thing.  The principle he asserted, which I totally agree with, is that if people wrongly believe that nothing is improving, they may conclude that nothing will work and lose confidence in the project.  If this is the case, they can lose hope in progress and give up the effort, which helps no one.  Hope is essential.  Measuring progress not only gives us hope but can also identify next steps.

The voices criticising the report seem not to want to acknowledge that progress has been made.  Perhaps they hold vested interests in the status quo of the racism debate?  Perhaps they are the more radical BLM supporters who actually want to end capitalism, dismantle the police and other institutions?  But, as the report states, this kind of “over-pessimistic narrative” could be in danger of “alienating the decent centre ground, a centre ground which is occupied by people of all races and ethnicities”*.

I don’t know.  All I know is that the UK is a very different place to the country I grew up in during the 1950s and we need to acknowledge that progress AND, at the same time, identify what we can all do to improve things further for all those who live in this country.  “Bias, bigotry and unfairness based on race may be receding but they still have the power to deny opportunity … if we are to build trust in institutions and organisations, we must be willing to investigate evidence of racism and be prepared, as a society, to root it out.”*  For this to happen we all need to work together, in collaboration and cooperation, not division.  It benefits us all.

Since the 1960s we have seen the Equal Opportunities Act, we have diversity policies in organisations, we have interpreters in the NHS, legal and social systems to help those who cannot speak English.  Children in schools now celebrate Eid, Diwali, Ramadan and other ceremonies, not just Christian ones.  In fact, there is such sensitivity around this that the nativity play itself has been in danger of being cancelled.  A friend of mine was the only black Jamaican girl in her class at school in 1964.  If anything, those statistics have reversed in certain areas. 

Is there more to be done?  Of course.  But for those of us who have seen these changes, please can we recognise progress where it has been made?  No business would survive if it never gave honest feedback about what needs to be improved.  Equally, it is essential to give feedback about what has been done well.  Identifying best practice enables an organisation to support behaviours and actions that build successful models of progress.

I am a woman, so I represent roughly 50% of the population yet we are still also being discriminated against but I would never deny the progress that has been made in my lifetime to the position of women.  Is there more to be done?  Of course.  But women are far less ‘institutionally’ discriminated against than they were when I was young but there is still work to be done, especially, it seems from recent reports, among the young and their peer groups.  And in this there are responsibilities on all sides to adapt and work towards a better world.

So, on race, I can see that the way history is taught needs to be balanced, but not skewed.  I don’t personally understand how it is helpful for young black children to have all the history of slavery kicked up in their faces now?  How does it make them feel about themselves?  How does it help them to feel a part of our now very diverse community in the UK, many of whom have also suffered terribly?  It seems to me that having this brutal history revived could well undermine their confidence rather than help them to feel they have as equal and empowered a voice as others in their classes or universities.

Why not point out to them also all the many role models who have made it into senior positions in our society rather than rub their noses into what isn’t going well, or what happened 200 years ago?  We have, if I can use the acronym one more time before, hopefully, it is ditched, BAME mayors, MPs, the Chancellor of the Exchequer, Cabinet ministers, celebrities, lawyers, barristers, musicians, television presenters, senior doctors and consultants, senior managers and leaders within both the public and private sector, specialists on that bastion of Britishness, the Antiques Roadshow.  Don’t let’s forget this progress.  Don’t let’s dismiss it.  It means something

If we are all silenced, cancelled or whatever you like to call it, because should we dare to speak up we are subjected to rape threats, murder threats, ludicrous associations with evil people, accusations of sins we may not personally have committed, then all debate is over and we are in a dictatorship of the unelected, just because they shout louder and say the most extraordinarily insulting things.

I don’t believe this helps the cause of those who have come to our country and wish to live here with the open and equal opportunities that we continue to attempt to create.  I believe it helps us all if we acknowledge the progress that has been taken and then agree between us, in a creative and consensual way, the steps that need to be taken to gain further improvements.

Racism is, or has been, a human response to difference.  It happens everywhere and it swings both ways.  Most agree that there is less discrimination than there was, and many enjoy rich relationships with people from different backgrounds.  There has to be a will for change and integration from all parties.  If people are criticised by their own community when they attempt to integrate, for example in joining the police force, then this has to be openly discussed in order to find alternative approaches.

I don’t believe any marriage would survive if both parties kept pointing fingers at the wrongs that had been done between them in the past.  There are many and complex details behind the headlines and soundbites and we need to understand them in order to find better solutions to what holds people back, whatever their background.  We need to recognise people for their character and contribution rather than the colour of their skin.

Let’s build on progress, not enflame a war of division.

*quotes from the Commission on Race and Ethnic Disparities, The Report, April 2021

**Factfulness, Hans Rosling, Sceptre, 2018

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Released from lockdown – how does that feel?

We’re about to be let loose.  Or just a little anyway, step by hopeful step.  It seems extraordinary that we have been under near house arrest for a year now, unable to see family and friends, to work, mix and do the normal human and sociable things we do.  It is going to take a bit of getting used to, I suspect.

Several people I know have said they will find it frightening to go out and about again, to travel by tube or bus, let alone by plane.  They can’t imagine being inside in a room with other people for a dinner, party or festivity.  That feels a bit sad to me and I was happy to hear Sir Richard Sykes, Chair of the Royal Institution, on the radio this morning encouraging us not to be ‘cripplingly cautious’ but to embrace the fact that in the UK we have had a fantastic vaccination programme and, in addition to that, he suggests that many more people will actually have, asymptomatically, had Covid-19 than are statistically recorded, so will have some kind of immunity.

But of course we have to be watchful and I think many of us have become near hermits, unused to making the social effort to entertain others.  I look back on the sort of dinner parties I used to host in the 1980s and 90s and wonder how on earth I did it.  The thought of cooking for others again is both exciting but a tad daunting!

I have been reminding myself of how we do, eventually, persuade ourselves to come out of dangerous situations and accept that all of life has an element of risk. And, it seems, we shall have to adapt to accepting that coronavirus may well be a continued risk for us all going forward.

For me, in my lifetime, I can remember the IRA bombs of the 1970s and how I would occasionally leave a tube train at the next station if I heard an Irish voice in the carriage.  Nonetheless I remember taking my darling niece up to see Father Christmas at Selfridges because we all agreed that we should not be forced to limit our lives out of fear.  Both she and I treasure that memory.

The same, of course, happened after 9/11, and 7/7 – different voices but the same impact.  I would leave the train.  And be nervous, in the 80s, of hijack, then in the Noughties I would fear people putting bombs in shoes or bottles.  More recently we have had the Islamic knife attacks.  We have had SARS and Ebola scares. All these events make people nervous for a while and then gradually life returns to normal.

When I fell down the stairs one morning at South Kensington station (stupidly carrying my laptop case so that the strap dangled and caught in my shoe) it took me quite a while to feel safe on stairs.  Even now I am far more careful to hold onto the handrail.  But I certainly do go downstairs as I couldn’t live a normal life without having ‘faced my fear and done it anyway’, as the book by Susan Jeffers advocates.

But what happens is that gradually we do start to venture out again and with each adventure, when we return safe, we build our resilience and sense of comfort. 

As Sir Richard Sykes said this morning, children need to get back to education, students to universities, people back to work.  The young need to frolic and pair-bond, the elderly need to see their children and grandchildren, and, eventually we hope, hug and be hugged.

So grasp the nettle and let us all work together to bring back some kind of normality.  We need to get back to work, or poverty will rise worldwide exponentially.  We need to create, have ideas, start new businesses or put our all into whatever business or enterprise we are involved in.  We shall soon need to embrace teamworking and being back in an office – people can’t possibly be as efficient if they are permanently working from home, nor can junior staff or apprentices learn a thing about work unless they watch those who are experienced carrying out their tasks.

But I hope there will remain more flexibility of choice at work, with some homeworking enabled within some time spent with colleagues and clients. 

I think we would all fester if we stayed at home forever, not mixing with others on a face-to-face basis, listening to their views and perspectives, enjoying a good debate or conversation over a glass of wine or cup of tea.  It’s what life is made of.  And for entrepreneurs in particular.  Take the Industrial Revolution, without sharing their ideas in coffee shops and clubs, the inventors may not have had the stimulation to advance our lives in the way they did. 

And what does staying isolated do to our immune systems in the long run?  Surely we need to mix with others to build up immunity to the everyday bugs, small children particularly?

We shall have to remind ourselves to put our glad rags on, finally get our hair cut, coloured, styled, and wear something smart.  We might rather enjoy it in the end but it will probably feel a little weird at first.  I can’t remember the last time I wore high heels and I shall no doubt wobble around on them to start with but at 5’2 I am usually very happy to have that little ‘lift’.

The process of which I write is known, in psychological terms, as ‘exposure theory’, eg the more we do something we are nervous of the more we adapt to the situation, proving to ourselves that we can survive despite discomfort.  Gradually, through repetition, we become at ease with the challenge.  People apply this theory, one might just call it common sense, to a fear of spiders, or flying, to giving presentations, or to social anxiety, so we can apply it to coming out of Covid-19 lockdown too.

I wonder how you are feeling, yourself?  Excited or a little nervous?  What is the first thing you would really love to do?  Is there one thing that will remind you that the world is returning to some kind of new normal?

Of course we can’t be certain that the journey out of lockdown will not be without its setbacks. We shall have to keep alert to ripples or waves of Covid return. But, if as many people as possible get vaccinated in the UK then we could be set fair for life returning to normal. But this is back to a future where coronavirus is likely to be one of the additional risks we have to face in our daily lives, like flu, cancer, or car accidents.

Personally, as the vaccination programme progresses, I think every government in the world could well be saying to its population “your country needs you” to come out of isolation, wear a mask, don’t breathe unnecessarily on others, but come out, work hard, create, spend money, go to the pub, go to the theatre, stay in hotels, eat out at restaurants, buy new clothes and get our economy, and life, going again. What we do in our own country ripples out to the whole world. 

So live, love and be merry. Step by hopeful step.

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International Women’s Day 2021 and its ramifications

What an extraordinary week we have just experienced for women.  Firstly, the Duchess of Sussex’s bombshell interview, secondly, the arrest of a police officer charged with the murder of Sarah Everard, thirdly, the celebration of International Women’s Day and fourthly, this weekend, Mother’s Day.  Sadly, the two former events highlighted the continued victim narrative and experience of women but the third, a celebration of how far we have come in my own lifetime but how far we still need to go.

The fact is that women still feel wary when they go out at night.  There is a continued threat of harassment or assault.  This means that around 50% of the world’s population feels under threat from the opposite sex in how they go about their daily lives.  What an extraordinary thought that is.  Certainly, there are parts of the world where a woman is not allowed to go out in the daytime even, or without a chaperone.  In one way or another, many women have their freedoms curtailed.

This has been the case for centuries and we still have much to alter to reach a time where women truly have equal status in this world with men.  But it is really only in my lifetime that women – and that is more often women in developed countries – are able to work, to take the pill, to get control of their lives, to be able to divorce without shame or without losing access to their children, to own property and get credit or a mortgage in their own right.  For previous centuries it was not considered necessary nor attractive to educate women.  My own mother, when she went to university in the 1930s, was accused of becoming ‘a blue stocking’ for demonstrating her intelligence.  And she was not alone.  Even today some men can be threatened by an intelligent woman, or a woman with a career or salary perceived to be more successful than theirs, so women may be encouraged to hide their light under a bushel.

Reading the French philosopher, Michael de Montaigne, this morning in his essay on Social Intercourse, he talks of women as potentially benefiting from poetry as “it is a frivolous, subtle art, all disguise and chatter and pleasure and show, like they are.”  It struck me, reading this, that it is only in today’s world that women can have the potential to be fully themselves rather than the toys of men as they had to be in previous times such as his, and inevitably this continues to turn the tables on the old ways of relating.  As Caroline Criado Perez suggests in her brilliant book Invisible Women, it is not always the intention of men to forget the needs of women: it simply doesn’t enter their heads to consider what those needs might be, whether designing bullet-proof vests for female police officers or technology for health apps.  So, not necessarily a conspiracy against women; simply a blind spot.

Why can’t we rub along together happily as equals but different, I wonder?  Is it the hormones?  Certainly, the physical differences between men and women give men the advantage out on the streets.  But it is more than this.  It is the legacy, I believe, of all these years of women having to be subordinate to men because they simply couldn’t look after themselves without a husband or a brother.  Without work they could not survive, without contraception they were constantly pregnant or busy with many children.  Even the wealthy could not avoid this – Queen Victoria apparently did not enjoy being pregnant but nonetheless ended up with 9 children.  And she had plenty of staff to help with those – imagine what that was like for a woman living in poverty.

Even once we started to be able to control the number of children we had, and to be able to work and even rise to be Prime Minister or CEO, we had to fight for equal pay and this fight continues, particularly during this Covid pandemic.  It makes me sad to think of Sarah Everard, a successful and delightful young woman from all accounts, having her life taken just for the simple act of walking home.  It makes me sad that Meghan Markle should have felt such a victim of circumstances when she could have been such a role model of success for all to see had she been able to manage the situation in which she had placed herself.  We women have to keep reflecting, observing, analysing, adapting and asserting ourselves so as to move out of a sense of victimhood.

And we have to change and collaborate, for sure.  I have personally run Leadership for Women, Management for Women and Assertiveness for Women courses in business, alongside coaching many bright women managers who nonetheless often were the subject of some discrimination and crude comments and jokes.  This needs to become a zero-tolerance fact.  Sure, don’t crush humour and banter, which are often the spark of life, but not if those are to the detriment of another human being.  I suggested many times to the organisations in which I worked that it would be helpful to work with men to help them adjust and adapt their behaviours in this new world but could not sell this idea to the still mainly male senior managers.

Boys and young men could benefit from considering what kind of men they want to be in a world where women do have equal status.  The kind of treatment women receive in schools and universities where their photographs are graded by boys or men in terms of their attractiveness must stop and must be harshly punished by the authorities of the school or university.  It is totally unacceptable and only perpetuates the feeling that it’s only a woman’s looks that matter.

Fortunately, the kind of tragedy that struck Sarah Everard is unusual but the newspapers are still far too full of stories of women being murdered or attacked.  It is, to me, an extraordinary feature of men that they have to hit a woman or abuse her rather than just leave her.  Laura Bates’ book Everyday Sexism demonstrated, as do many experiences reported in the papers, that everyday discrimination continues.  The endless television and film crime dramas of women being attacked doesn’t help.

I end on a more positive note, however, that the Oxford Dictionary has been persuaded to change its definition of ‘woman’, now describing words such as “piece”, “bint”, “baggage”, and “bitch” as only ‘derogatory or dated’ terms.  However, much of the definition still has subordinate connotations of women. 

Words matter, actions matter, the ability to enjoy our freedoms matter.  But don’t let us, as women, be victims, nor turn men into persecutors.  The majority of men are considerate, so one murder does not make all men evil by any stretch of the imagination.  Let’s try to collaborate and cooperate as human beings in this world, to create an environment where everyone can walk the street safely.  I am sure we want this for ourselves, our parents, friends, partners, siblings, children and grandchildren.  Working within schools, universities, workplaces and families to change the macho culture and laddism that still exists so that everyone regards one another with respect has the potential to create a better and safer world for us all.

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Have I passed my sell-by date? Rethinking gender…

“Do you identify as a woman?” I was asked last week, by the 119 Vaccine Appointment hotline service.”  I was somewhat taken aback by this question and replied “I am a woman”. 

Did that question feel ok?  Not really.  I felt old, out of sync, out-dated, out-moded, maybe past my sell-by date.  But “oh” I thought “this is the new norm, so I had better get used to it.”

But must I?  I feel fine with my chromosomes and I feel happy in my skin as a woman.  Telling someone I identify as a woman doesn’t speak for how I feel about myself as a woman, a woman who was once a girl, a daughter, a wife, who is now a mother, grandmother, sister, partner.

Of course, the roles of men and women have changed enormously from my birth in 1950 when women were still unable to work, own property.  They would have found it socially unacceptable to say they were lesbian, let alone trans-gender.  But then, also, the science was not available in those days to enable any change of sex.  And, shockingly, homosexuality was still illegal.

So no doubt it is time to discuss, once again, the roles of men and women.  There has been a furore over the Etonian master, Will Knowland’s, Youtube video Knowland Knows.  He was sacked because he refused the disciplinary demand to take the video down but the video itself, which I have watched, whilst very provocative, did seem to be quite timely in the questions it was posing – eg what kind of man do you young boys want to be when you grow up?

In case you have not read about this case, Knowland created the video as part of a series of class debates on topical subjects intended to encourage critical thinking.  It was to be followed by a debate created by a female colleague, exploring the topic from another perspective.  But that was not to be, as Knowland’s approach was deemed anti-feminist, so the video was not shown.  The debate was not had.

Speaking for myself I never had any discussion at school or as a young adult to explore what it might mean to be a woman, or what sort of woman I might consider trying to be, or to emulate.  There were few female role models when I left school in 1967.  Now, of course, girls have plenty of women to look to, and it seems to me that a class debate to help girls determine the qualities they admire or abhor would help them shape their decisions.  It is, after all, a far more complex world than it was when I started out in life.  Today there are, I think, more opportunities and yet, perhaps, more threats.  Or is that just how it looks from my 70-year-old perspective?

Is it not a good and wise thing to help young men reflect on masculinity?  To stop and think about what it is to be a man in today’s world?  Much is made of ‘toxic’ masculinity but we should not forget the fact that men can also be just, gentle, protective, chivalrous, respectful of our equality.  For men can be all things, as women can be all things, and likewise the LGBTQ community, for we are all unique and multi-faceted.

There is still much that is being remoulded in relationships.  In my parents’ generation the majority of women were housewives.  In my generation many of us worked ‘until’ we got married or had children.  Some of us, myself included, then carved out a career for ourselves later but the idea of a ‘career’ was still fairly new to us.  Today’s women are definitely plotting a career path though are often knocked sideways or backwards when they take maternity leave and, according to reports during covid, are often bearing the brunt of balancing home-schooling with work.

But younger men and women certainly appear to share the chores and childcare in a far more equal way, though this can still be an uphill struggle in some relationships.

I think what concerns me in all this, and particularly in the kind of question about identity that I was asked, is that there has been little discussion on the changing role of men, women and the LGBTQ community in the general population.  We read a great deal about it in the press and are the recipients of this new language and the rights that are being given by governments here and across the world but have you personally been asked your thoughts on the matter?  I haven’t, and would like to be but am aware that anyone who has an innocent, or intelligent, question on the subject is often shamed into silence on the presupposition that any doubt or question indicates that the person is a bigot or transphobe, where maybe they are perfectly open to change but would, quite simply, like to be asked.

I suspect others will have opinions that are worth listening to and I worry that the actions being taken are being influenced by a few strong lobby groups but not by the general public.  Could it not be that some people, if asked, might come up with some really innovative ideas about how we all live together and flourish in a world where I might, or might not, choose to ‘identify’ as a woman?

If laws are being changed to allow someone to identify as a man without any kind of medical consultation or diagnosis, as they are now in several parts of the world, then presumably I should be able to enter any one of the male bastions of privilege by simply telling the receptionist I am a man?  

But what I fear more is that many more young girls, especially those growing up in cultures where women are regarded as second-class citizens, will opt to become male because there are more privileges open to them if they do.  And then what?  The Chinese one-child policy did not have happy outcomes.  When we mess with science, nature, biology we can skew the natural world and the result can be too many males, which presents many problems. 

I am delighted that minds are more open today and that those who felt outsiders no longer need to do so.  I would just like to understand more about who is making the decisions that will be shaping our new norms, and to feel that we had greater opportunity to participate in the debate that will shape the lives of our grandchildren.  We are talking about complex and sensitive areas.  People are getting their heads around these new perspectives and may not, like me, know what they truly feel about it yet.  But they deserve a voice and should be able to ask questions without being silenced.

We all benefit from helping all individuals within our society to prosper but within this change I would still prefer to say “I am a woman” rather than “I identify as a woman”.  I am interested in how others feel about this.  I am sure it would be a lively discussion! 

But maybe, as I say, I am out of date, and feeling, as every older generation has tended to, somehow out of step with what is being shaped by the younger generation.  Quite probably.

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Endings and Beginnings

Planet earth with some clouds. America’s view.

A momentous day.  The day President Trump left office and Joe Biden was inaugurated as 46th President of the United States.

“Don’t tell me things can’t change” Biden said.  And they are going to need to, in the U.S. and the rest of the world.  And things do change and have changed.  In my lifetime, some things beyond recognition.

It has been a year of endings for many people across the world, in death through Covid and other conditions.  I have lost two wonderful and dear friends of some thirty plus years to cancer in the last six months.  This signifies the end of long and valued friendships.  It also signifies the beginning of the end of expectations of future times together for us, but particularly for their loving partners who have to now change and adapt to life without them.  And this is being mirrored within families and couples throughout the world.

Biden talked of boldness and it is boldness that is required as one steps into a new beginning.  It is boldness that we in the UK shall need to rebuild businesses, relationships, partnerships within our borders and beyond.  And personally, I do not doubt that we have the energy and grit to do this if we set our minds to it and don’t listen to too much pessimism or negativity.

I felt moved as I watched the inauguration.  I love America and have visited many different states over the years.  It is a beautiful diverse country of stunning landscapes and we have always been welcomed by warmth and hospitality wherever we went.  It is a huge land mass to be ruled under one President and in the last week or two it has stood at the top of a precipice that looked almost like potential civil war.  It struggles with its history of racism, of civil war, of how much or little to get involved in the business of other nations across the world.

But I would rather a strong America to be the main economic power in the world than I would China, with its lack of human rights.  Sure, America gets much wrong, and has done, and has some history also of lawlessness, white supremacy and gun-toting groups.  Nonetheless at its core it keeps pressing for democracy and liberty, and we all need to clean up our acts to ensure that democracy is not tainted by corrupt practices.  Here as much as anywhere.

Beginnings require a significant shift in personal identity.  Who was I, who am I now, who shall I become?  This is as true of nations as it is of individuals.  I have wished with all my heart that this kind of questioning could have been asked of us all here in recent months so that we could embrace some sense of who we want to be in the world in the future.  Leaving the EU has been another ending and yet is also a beginning and we need to remember this.  We can, surely, unite enough to work towards the rebuilding of our sense of self-respect, a sense of recognition that we can be a force for good in the world, the whole world and not just a part of it, and that this activity doesn’t just reside in government but requires a contribution from each of us to push through the struggles of Covid, Brexit, economic uncertainty and recession and come out the other side with a sense that we have done our best.

Unity doesn’t mean we all have to agree with one another.  That would be both boring and unproductive.  It would be unlikely to lead to any kind of creativity or innovation.  But unity can mean being humble enough to know that one doesn’t have all the answers, so can listen to other ideas and accept that one might learn from them, and vice versa.

Speaking the truth, even if it doesn’t get the result one wants, helps formulate a new identity within a new beginning.  It’s too easy to shelter behind a fib, hide away from speaking one’s truth or expressing one’s needs.  I encourage you to consider how this manifests in your own life.  Are you telling those you love how you feel?  How you might feel lonely?  How you need a helping hand, emotional or practical, to get through this pandemic?  And are you watching out for others who may also be struggling?

We have experienced our own struggles here in the UK and we have watched the struggles of the US over the last four years and particularly in the last four weeks.  Life is a struggle and it is full of endings and beginnings.  So perhaps now is a good time for us to think about what that means for us in the next year or two. 

For me, personally, this year is the year for me to try to write my novel, and so I have to restructure my life to give me time to plan, reflect, write and edit.  It means a new beginning for me, as writing non-fiction, as my previous books have been, is very different from writing a novel and I haven’t a clue whether I am writing rubbish or something worth reading.  And so I need to think of myself in a new light, as someone who could write a novel, accepting that it will be extremely hard work and a struggle, and will require me to develop new aspects of myself.  And not lose sight, in the midst of that, that I have it in me to finish.  And all this requires that I adjust my sense of self, my identity, in this new beginning.

I wish Biden the best of luck with the enormous challenge that he faces.  I hope we can mirror some of the aspirations he expressed in his inauguration speech, to come together in honesty, ditch the lies, stop the manipulation of facts and work together to pull through the difficulties that face the world at the moment.

And for those of you facing new beginnings in your own lives I wish you also the boldness to step up to the challenge and to take care of yourself in the process.

Wouldn’t it be lovely if, at the end of 2021, we could look back on the year and see it as a time of transformation and feel that we did our best to turn our lives, and the lives of others, around for the better.  Hopeless optimist?  Or possible dream …?

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