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Emotions, empathy and what it means for us now.

I wrote last week about the nine things I’d noticed at the start of this crisis, but I’ve carried on watching. And I’ve since observed

  • That emotions really are the blind spot in public policy and in the way in which we talk about things. In all the words that have been expended so far about the impact of this crisis, I have not seen much attention paid to the fact that we’re all experiencing grief: grief for hopes and plans dashed, for security taken away and for some, the terrible lasting grief of bereavement.
  • And we’re all terrified: scared about what the future holds, anxious at a time of such uncertainty, frightened for those we love. And we’re angry – angry at a government that has failed in its basic job of protecting us, furious at those who we see as exploiting the situation, raging at forces we cannot control. And at times of grief, terror and anger we cannot always be rational, we are all easily triggered, so the language we and others use really matters.
  • And because language matters so much I’ve also noticed that Zoom and Skype calls, social media tweets and blogs and conversations that don’t acknowledge the pain we are feeling are dangerous places. When I hear people talk blithely about the great opportunity this is to shape our economy, or who seem to exult in ever last bit of tragic or terrifying news, I retreat in horror. I notice the armchair epidemiologists who spread fear or rush to darken any glimmer of light. I fear the Cassandras who spread gloom and despair as our predicament continues.
  • And I know that trust in these dark and difficult time, is the most precious currency. The most fundamental contract the people have with the state has been broken. We expect the government, whatever that government is, to keep us safe, and while we know that many of our fellow citizens were long ago abandoned by a state that failed them in this fundamental duty, this time we have all been betrayed at some level. We need to trust the science even while we know that science can be flawed. We need to trust the NHS even though we know its grossly underfunded and can make mistakes. We need to trust people making decisions on our behalf, and that’s really hard when so many of them have let us down so badly.

None of this sounds at all ‘strategic’, but I believe that it is. Because we are learning three fundamental lessons

  • That we need to be kind and thoughtful and intentional in the way we talk- and behave – and that is neither easy nor straightforward. But as I argued in  Kindness, emotions and human relationships will be vital in public policymaking. Indeed, the really disruptive approach is to be kind in a world which favours cool rationality,
  • That anger, like revenge, should be a dish best eaten cold. We have seen the underfunding and the vilification of our public services, and our public servants, we have watched the undervaluing of the work done by carers. Now at the time of crisis, we can witness appalling behaviour by some employers, observe the machinations of profiteers and speculators, and see the disarray in our political leaderships. We should neither forgive, nor forget. But let’s not waste precious energy right now, and risk fuelling more despair and anguish when it is already abundant.
  • And that while we plan for a better tomorrow, and we must, we need to do so in a way that recognises this is so much more important than ‘a political opportunity’, so much more profound than an attempt to simply repeat what we have always said before. We need to recognise that we are observing and learning things that challenge our most precious preconceptions.
  • Real social comfort, real solidarity and therefore real change, comes from people and the relationships they have with each other. And that anything at all that devalues or undermines those precious relationships diminishes us all, and threatens our chances of getting though this sad and frightening time.
1 reply
  1. Simon Sharkey
    Simon Sharkey says:

    Thank you for this post Julia. I was doing a bit of research in to the economic recovery group and was delighted to be directed to your website as a result. I believe empathy and intention will be the counterweight to economic rationality and be absolutely essential elements to be embedded in to our shaping of the new paradigm. We are already seeing the power of empathetic protest, it has already permeated voting intentions and government committee agendas. We are seeing and viscerally experiencing empathetic journeys and encounters, online, at home, in local community settings, and global causes. The momentum of and access to these new narratives is already shaping our future intentions. For example, the intention to educate our children has shifted into new hybrid forms that transcends curriculum and is not bound by the walls of school buildings. The intention to care for our elders and most vulnerable in community has shifted to hybrid forms (informed by older values) of home and collective care and responsibility- food parcels, homeless and drug care schemes. The intention to change how we view “otherness” has shifted to elicit revivified causes-the most prominent cause being anti racism, but underneath our society is shifting in empathetic understanding of oppression and systematic prejudice towards all marginalised communities. Our intentions for a multitude of actions in civil society are shifting dramatically from the feeling of being dis-empowered to one of active engagement and sovereignty over our own place in community . The glorious thing about all of this, is the “Shift” is shaping through creativity. Creativity, or “applied Imagination” are at the heart of many changes in behavior and collective coalescing around needs and desires. Self driven initiatives addressing local, national and international social and economic needs, transcend and move faster than the mechanisms of government and NGO’s. Formal and informal networks and alliances abound and are galvanising around the shaping of a new paradigm. I am involved in some of these networks and would love to have a conversation with you to share some of the thinking and action that is percolating as a result of many national and international conversations I have been having.

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