A woman got onto the train the other day and sat down opposite me. She was fifty-ish, tanned and smartly dressed. She had come from the airport and was breathless. We chatted and I learned that she had been to Spain for a family gathering, organised by her brother who lived out there. It had been a lavish affair, she told me.
At one point, as the train pulled along the Fife coast, she proudly pointed out her daughter’s house, with picture windows and wooden decking and a fine view across the Forth. Her own house, a few miles further on, was even closer to the water and had even better views, she said.
I couldn’t quite place her accent. She was Glaswegian, she explained, but her English mother had forbidden her to speak Scots as a child. ‘So I spoke like this at school’ she went on, falling into broad Sauchiehall Street, ‘and like this at home’ reverting to the more neutral accent that had confused me. I expect that for her part she assumed I was English, since that’s how I sound.
It happened that the Scottish Labour leader, Kezia Dugdale, was sitting two tables along from us with an aide. She must have just come from the Scottish Parliament where that very afternoon she had spoken against the so-called ‘rape clause’ in the changes to the legislation relating to child tax credits. I had already watched a clip of her speech, which she had given with great passion. Although I am not a Labour supporter, I had taken the opportunity to congratulate her as she passed.
We reached Kirkcaldy and as my new companion rose to get out, I drew her attention to who was sitting behind her. She snorted and muttered ‘not impressed’, then added, ‘now if it was Ruth [Davidson, Scottish Conservative leader] …’ and gave me a complicit smile. I thought no more about it till later when it struck me that what I had been doing was seeking a reaction, and on the basis of our conversation had got the very one I expected, my prejudices confirmed. I had looked for division and found it and had no one but myself to blame.
We hear ad nauseam today about how divided we have become, be it Trump or Clinton, Leave or Remain, Macron or Le Pen, Tory or Labour, Scotland or the Union, and so on. And I wonder, can it be otherwise when there seems in each case to be so much at stake? People divide (and collide) over the things that really matter to them and that has always been necessary for progress. I’m no physicist but I know that at the atomic level when miniscule things whizz about bumping into one another, energy is released and change occurs.
But if division is an inevitable part of the process of change, how do we live with it? I know I’m bad at it. I grew up in a house where reasoned debate was pretty much unknown and disagreement tended to take the form of needling, with occasional explosions into vicious argument. I become far too personally invested in things. Yet it seems that some attempt to understand one another has never been so pressing.
I believe, for example, that Scotland should be free to run its own affairs like every other nation on earth, and that in doing so it would stand the best chance of becoming the small, peaceful, prosperous, socially just European country I believe it could be. Yet I know that others feel just as strongly that this would be to tear up something of great value and to leave safe haven for a voyage into the unknown in a fragile craft at a time when the seas have seldom been more turbulent.
So how do we talk to one another? How do we survive emotionally in an age where almost everything we read or watch seems designed to amplify our differences? Somehow we have to get out of our fortresses and listen to each other. We have to walk onto the battlefield like monks in all humility and try to understand one another.
Empathy’s the only possible starting point. We must be having conversations about our feelings, at least to begin with, rather than the reasoned arguments with which we batter one another. At least that’s how it seems. Or am I talking nonsense? Please tell me. It seems so hard right now.
I think if we start with feelings, it is even more highly charged and battering actually. At least we with reasoned argument, we may agree, disagree or agree to disagree, but it stays reasoned, one hopes. Perhaps the answer is to realise ‘we’ (not necessarily you and me, but those on opposite sides of an argument, I mean) shall always disagree and that can be uncomfortable, but we can survive it? We have no other choice. It helps to try not to take it personally, however difficult that can be!
Have a look on you tube for Heineken short video called worlds apart! Yes, it’s an ad but handled much more sensibly than the recent Pepsi and McDonald’s social conscious blunders! Then next time on the train offer to buy your new friend a beer!
Yes, a shared beer is often the answer! But also, in that film people are working together on a shared activity that involves a mutual exchange – of information, effort etc. They’re not trying to persuade each other of anything. They are just learning to be alongside each other, in the same way that Jamie and his train friend were able to simply be with each other and pass their time together. That’s a good starting point. Let’s be more convivial!
I think as we approach yet another election, we’re all feeling raw and anxious about the future. Empathy, compassion, stepping into each other’s shoes ; all of these are possible when we can take a step back from the passion of the debating chamber. But with so much at stake, it’s well-nigh impossible for anyone with a heart to be coolly reasonable. The combination of the unbearable smugness of those who envisage that they have the upper hand, with the possibility of losing our stake in writing our own future as a small indy nation-state not to mention the threat from the narcissist abroad makes me not the best person to ask about anything. I have no answers.
I believe with my whole heart that we must start from a place of compassion. I recently completed a course offered by the university where I work called “Renewing Compassion.” We learned a fairly simple meditation technique that started with feeling positive, warm, loving thoughts toward someone easy to love (a parent, child, spouse), then we aimed those thoughts toward ourselves, toward an acquaintance, toward a difficult person, and finally toward all beings.(“May you be happy. May you be free from suffering. May you be filled with peace and joy.”) When the difficult, hateful, sociopathic person is the target, it is very hard to sent those thoughts forward with any real sincerity, but it’s a start. And even though the anger and resentment will return toward that person, we can practice once again to send our thoughts of compassion to them. This is a way to change ourselves in a way–probably the only way–that has the power to change the world.
I loved this line from the post: “We have to walk onto the battlefield like monks in all humility and try to understand one another.” We do. But we can’t insist that anyone else walk to meet us. We can only show up on the battlefield ourselves, day after day, in all humility and with the knowledge that every living being deserves to be happy and free from suffering.
You’re not talking nonsense, Jamie (as if!), but we are living through a revolution without really understanding that we are. The internet has opened up a Pandora’s box of hateful, ignorant and spiteful ‘debate’ that reveals just how divided the human race is.
Before the internet, most of us would take a newspaper that accorded most closely with our own view of the world, and (being in Britain) the BBC presented a largely balanced view of the world, so that all seemed reasonable and we could bask in the delusion of all humans being decent at heart.
We know different now, and we see the work that is needed to be done. But we don’t know where to start.
For myself, I’m an eternal optimist and, being naturally argumentative, I quite enjoy finding people to disagree with, or to disabuse of their illusions. It leads nowhere, but it keeps the blood pumping.
Meanwhile, if I need an oasis of calm, I can always look forward to your blog. I think it’s impressive at our age that we still care. There’s a lot to be said for caring what happens.
I find the answer in one of your previous blog posts where you talk about commensality – or sharing a table. I quote your wisdom: “…one of the simplest but most profound acts of hospitality. And in sharing food, drink and ideas with others one shares oneself. It’s a simultaneous giving and receiving of the most connecting kind.” While there may be those who will chose not to give or share, or only on their terms, there are many more who will open their doors and hearts. Just look at the reactions of most people in Manchester this week.
Ah- good example of a train conversation- interesting to consider if you both had sat down with Kezia Dugdale and you had been curious with both these women, where that conversation might have gone either in the moment or later in the brain mulling over what had happened and what had been said.