“Start doing the things you think should be done.
Start being what you think society should become.
Do you believe in free speech? Then speak freely.
Do you believe in the truth? Then tell it.
Do you believe in an open society?
Then act in the open.
Do you then believe in a decent and humane society?
Then behave decently and humanely.“
Adam Michnik, Polish historian, affiliated with the Solidarność Movement
Simples, as the meerkat on the tele says. A friend of mine who was a teacher and then trained to be a vicar told me, over a pint, that human beings have eye disease. That we don’t see each other right, because if we did there wouldn’t be any misunderstanding. We’d have appreciation, awareness and our full attention on the miracle in front of us. We’d have trust, connection and belonging. I keep forgetting that I’ve forgotten that most times. It was over a pint after all, and pub talk is unreliable; we are all unreliable narrators of our own stories.
On Friday afternoons I teach at London Metropolitan University to first-year students on the principles and practice of community work. I find it useful to have a side hustle because over the years I’ve been through enough redundancies, precautionary notices of redundancy and people trying to get me fired. I love community work and I love teaching, so it is all good.
Friday afternoons my students tell me how pessimistic they are about the future. I worked it out a long time ago that the trick was for me to do less talking and ask them the questions and get them to do the talking instead. They tell me things are getting worse. They ask me if I think community work changes anything. They ask me what I’ve got to say about that. I don’t rush to give an answer…
When people believe they have nothing and are losing whatever hope they may have had, this is a very creative moment. How many times have I spoken to people in Thames View and Riverside who have told me it is a waste of time, there is nothing to be done, they won’t listen, they never do, they are just in it for themselves and so on? To agree would be another nail in the coffin. I don’t agree. I don’t rush to give an answer….
I like it when a conversation deepens. We change the world one conversation at a time. By unmasking reality. Asking questions. Why this? Why that? What happens if we do this? Speaking a true word. Generating new possibilities. I say this to say, action is always done based on prior reflection. We can’t not be in relationship with each other and with our world. We can’t not reflect on what is going on inside us and around us. What we believe and perceive becomes our reality and our destiny. How we see things becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy – hence the comment about eye disease and not seeing each other right I guess.
Archbishop Romero of El Salvador was assassinated for saying this sort of thing. He believed in accompaniment and spoke out against injustice. Accompaniment is journeying with people, not trying to fix them. It is about leadership from the bottom up. If we walk with each other rather than run on ahead, that dismantles oppression.
Darren McGarvey, the Scottish rapper and author, has asked the question, ‘if all the best people are in all the top jobs why is Britain such a f****** bin fire?’ His answer is because of an empathy gap – what he calls the social distance between us, referring to both the pandemic and classism. We don’t walk alongside each other, we don’t share our lives, we don’t listen with all of our senses.
I don’t want to tell anyone they are wrong for feeling what they are feeling. And I also don’t want to empower negativity in any of its many forms. I know, as surely we all must, that nothing comes from nothing. That if you don’t act you will be acted upon. It is very human to emote and be drawn to bouts of optimism or pessimism. Listen to enough daily news and it is hard not to be triggered by trama, the drama of trauma. But I think optimism and pessimism are two sides of the same coin – they are in a co-dependent relationship. How about some pragmatism – do what is in front of you. Just be it and do it. And if you fall short, then we are all in good company, that is no failure. Respect to Adam Michnik, whose words I started with.