If I hear one more leader talk about recovery (without mentioning emotions) I shall scream….
We are going through a period of collective trauma. We’re all facing loss and the attendant grief. For many it is the sadness of mourning someone who has died before their time, felled either by Covid or by illness not treated because of the pandemic. That grief is overwhelming, and we know this week that the shocking toll of 100,000 deaths means 100,000 grieving families. The repetition of that figure does not make it any easier to tolerate, or envisage. 60,000 civilians died in the UK in the Second world War over 6 years, and their loss casts a long shadow. 100,000 people have died in under a year, and we need to mourn every one of them. We need to recognise that individual funerals are in no way sufficient recognition of that level of distress and loss.
But there are other losses too. The children who are spending a precious year, or more, without the companionship of their friends. The young people feeling trapped at a time of their lives when so much should be available to them. The loneliness of people missing human contact. The sadness of people separated for so long. The intolerable circumstances facing people for whom an instruction to ‘stay at home’ is a sentence of violence and abuse. The loss of opportunity, of plans, of future prospects. The loss of jobs, of home, of future. The loss of adventure, and pleasure and contact. A world of loss and grief.
But there are other emotions abroad too. The terror caused by the pandemic. The fear we all feel at hearing the dreadful news. The anxiety caused by communication that, whether carefully and thoughtfully crafted or not, is intended to evoke fear, because fear is an entirely appropriate response to a virus that is both readily transmitted and very serious.
And there is anger. Anger that this has happened, that we haven’t been protected by those charged with keeping us safe. Anger with those we see breaking the rules.
And of course, in the UK there is shame. Shame that in a country as rich and influential as this one, that we simply did not have the resilience, the leadership or the capacity to protect people in this most terrible time. we can admire our leaders and applaud our ‘key workers’, we can thank the NHS and all of this we should do. But we also feel shame that it has come to this. That so many of our citizens have suffered so much. And the dreadful certainty that all of this pain and loss is experienced most by those who already lacked security, money and recognition, is deeply shaming. The fact that being poor, and being black, made the impact so very much worse is deeply shaming, whatever your politics.
No wonder we’re so exhausted and bad-tempered. Grief, loss, fear, anger and shame are powerful and exhausting emotions. The whole population feels them. And just as we know that to recover from natural disaster requires more than just rebuilding, so too coming out of this terrible period will need something different.
It does not need guilt and blaming of people. It does not need further division. But it does need a focus. If recovery is simply expressed as the creation of jobs, (desperately needed), the building of houses, (and how well we now understand the importance of home), and some sort of ‘return to normality, we will miss the point.
Recovery demands that we acknowledge the trauma that has been experienced. That we mourn properly, and publicly and must support those who have lost so terribly. It means that we need to think about our sense of identity, our shared priorities. It means we need to be actively engaged in making the difficult decisions about the shape and priorities of the new world. We need jointly to make shared and credible decisions about protection, and long-term public health. We need to plan and develop new approaches so that we never face this trauma again. But if we do that without recognising the grief, the fear, the anger and the shame, we are effectively telling a country facing post-traumatic stress to ‘pull themselves together’. And I think we all know where that ends. Because there are dark places where emotions are understood and fostered. Places where anger is fuelled, and grief distorted. Places where terror multiplies. Places where people are blamed and difference is exploited. Places where emotions are manipulated. If we ignore these emotions, this shared trauma, we are storing up trouble for the future. And that threat is existential.
We have artistic and cultural skills in abundance. We have heritage and sport and fellowship. We need an explosion of celebration and expression, and that needs theatre, music, story tellers. That will need money, but we have the organisations and networks in every part of the country. We have the talent and ingenuity to devise truly creative ways of celebrating. We know about the mediation of difficult decisions, we know how to build trust and help people to re connect. All over the country there are groups and organisations that have held us together through these very dark days. It is those people who can help us to design and think through the challenges ahead. We know about the power and strengths of communities. We have sacred and beautiful places, and people who are able to inspire, and to soothe. We can create places where people can share and support. We can find ways that people can express their feelings. We can do all these things and we can come through this stronger, and more fit for our increasingly uncertain future.
All of that requires supported, energised civil society in the arts, and community leadership, in the development of young people’s networks. It requires the deliberative democracy which we know so much about.
It cannot be business as usual. Our recovery can’t simply try to revive what there was before. We can’t just create jobs, and build new roads, and encourage more big shops to return to our desolate high streets. If we ignore these emotions, this shared trauma, we are storing up trouble for the future. And our current approach to civil society – watching charities forced to shed staff, theatres with no capacity to re-open, artists and creative people forced to abandon their art, community groups spread so very thin, we risk walking into a very dark place indeed.
We have done it before. Marc Stears in his lovely new book tells us that after the horrors of two world wars, the UK recovered because of the extraordinary power of everyday life. Robert Putnam in his new book reminds us that it is civil society that allowed the USA to recover in the same challenging time. But doing it this time demands an approach that recognises trauma, and consciously helps us all jointly to rebuild. Snapping our fingers and hoping for the life we had before is simply magical thinking. And deeply dangerous magical thinking at that.