It’s been a chaotic few days here with forecasts of economic meltdown, friends accusing one another of bigoted racism, met on occasion with a scoffing arrogance we have come to expect from some of our more odious politicians. There have been lies and counter lies and it all feels like a bit of a mess. Then England tumbled out of the Euro 2016 football finals with a performance as abject as its possible to remember. Teams, companies, organisations, governments, maybe we invest them with more influence than they really have. Maybe they don’t know how to make a positive difference after all.
Last weekend I was driving through the beautiful Kent countryside on a warm and sunny morning on my way to spend the day talking about grief and loss. I remember being amazed during my training some years ago to hear so many of my fellow students express little interest in working with the bereaved. Loss is surely at the core of so much of our sadness, and the feeling of loss comes from much more than death. There is a palpable feeling of loss in my country right now. Loss of certainty, loss of the predictable and, ironically, a loss of identity in the aftermath of a vote which supposedly emphasised the reverse. It is when we feel painful loss most acutely that we are in need of connection, but true connection can never be provided by an organisation, only by another individual.
Throughout history the most remarkable stories are built around the actions of single people and not groups of people. It is not governments or armies that are remembered in times of great triumph it is Winston Churchill, Joan of Arc or Catherine The Great. It is not corporate businesses that are lauded for their vision and creative spark it is Henry Ford, Steve Jobs or Sheryl Sandberg. It might be that organisations, teams or governments provide a framework for greatness but is always individuals that truly make a difference.
So often our discomfort and dismay at being unable to assemble the parts of us we need in the order that we need them is something which feels as if it is out of our own control. We wait longingly for someone to step in and help out and, when they don’t, we continue to suffer. But is doesn’t have to be like this, ever. The control that we have over our own response to situations is much more powerful than we can imagine. We never need be beaten down just because macro developments outside of our control suggests that we must be, because the real power is with individuals, with you and me.
It’s the same in our own lives. So much angst and discomfort comes from feeling helpless, looking outside ourselves for some sense of comfort and reassurance but it is rarely available. When life takes a difficult turn, when we experience the loss of something or someone important, when we are tempted into self destruction we are turing our back on the power we always have readily available at our fingertips.
Back in the seminar on grief and loss we discuss a question that almost always comes up when someone is experiencing the new shiny blade of bereavement. “How long will I feel like this?” It is a cry for help and of despair in the same moment. A realisation that control has been wrested away but an urgent need to know how to get it back. It’s rarely good enough to respond without a framework, without any sense of light at the end of the interminably long and dark tunnel, but there isn’t really an accurate answer. In the end it is the difference we are prepared to make to our own life which dictates the time we will spend in the gloom. A willingness to not only look at the pain but to bathe in it, fill a bowl with it and pour it across our own tired body is, counter intuitively, the fastest way to something more comfortable. So the answer to the impossible question is that it depends on how much responsibility we are willing to take for our own discomfort, because that in turn will influence how quickly we are able to see that we have more control than we thought.
When my compatriots voted to leave the European Union last week it triggered an outpouring of grief and anger which I can’t ever remember witnessing from the result of a political event. In many ways it is heartening to see such engagement in an area of life which is often met with apathy, but it all got nasty. When we are down in the detail of something which has happened and which we don’t want we have a tendency to move in the direction opposite from that which is most helpful. We seem instinctively to feel huge powerlessness by losing ourselves in a collective consciousness rather than stepping outside and acknowledging our own individual power.
Even the most dramatic political event does not prevent us from being compassionate or tolerant regardless of what others choose. We are never made “less than” because someone makes a decision about our future which we oppose and which may or may not have direct consequences on our freedom or affluence. If we are willing to abdicate responsibility for providing ourselves with opportunities or the ability to give selflessly to those who have no knowledge of us we are acting foolishly and unnecessarily. It is OK to acknowledge that a particular turn of events might make life more challenging but it does not make it smaller with less joy and beauty available within it.
I have heard my clients with different ears this week, setting their stories against a raging fury at that which is going on far away from our own influence, after we exerted our influence and expressed a collective preference at the ballot box. I have been reminded that whatever happens elsewhere, pain is pain, it is unique and it is personal, and the humanity we are able to show to others is never in the hands of politicians, business leaders or anyone else. Humanity is by definition what it is to be us, and those with political, commercial and social influence can do and say what they like, but they won’t ever be able to take away from any of us the compassion, empathy and understanding which we hold precious and dear to our own hearts. Remembering that is how we make a difference, and making a difference is not only a defining purpose of our lives but it is far easier than we sometimes realise.