According to reliable sources libraries these days (especially in the UK) have fewer books and more computers - computers that are increasingly used to research ancestry. It seems that in a volatile world the pursuit of ancestors, or of nostalgia, is consoling for many of us. I can only agree. I found myself last month researching my uncle, killed in action in 1944. Not much existed on-line, although I did turn up a picture of his grave. The thing is I could presumably have contacted the widow of his son, or someone from the family. I know they're alive. Unfortunately I don't know their names or where they are. My father didn't really keep up with them. What might this tell us? Perhaps that in earlier times ancestry (for those of us who aren't aristocrats) was something that didn't matter much. People had a pretty good idea of who they were and of their culture. They knew they had relatives scattered around and didn't worry about that much. Today we are more neurotic -more desperate to know who we are because the media tells us so often who we ought to emulate, but forgets to ask us to value who we actually are.
Character - it's an old concept, and one that we often get confused about. Character is not your past, nor is it your promises about the future. Character can be boiled down to this; how do you treat Time? Are you always late? Does that offend people? If you're always late you'll generate different opportunities for yourself than if you are, say, always early. And from those opportunities come choices. Those choices will shape what becomes your character. How you decide to live with Time effects what you decide. Do you waste time? That will create opportunities, too, but they may not be much fun. Do you come to snap decisions? That can be good, but it can also lead to prejudice and stereotyping - and so on. Time is character.
Today (November 20th) The New York Times suggested that the rest of the world is waiting, in this post election period, anxiously for the US to "get its act together". Ah, the myths we tell ourselves. I spent the first 30 years of my life in England (mostly) and I have to say that many people in Europe even then felt that the US never actually had its act together at all. That impression has remained, as far as I can tell, ever since. In the US we tend to think of ourselves in slightly grandiose terms - that we're somehow looked up to by every one. Envied for our wealth - yes; Envied for our power - yes; Looked up to - not always.... I can recall American tourists in Europe thoughtfully wearing Canadian flags on their clothes for exactly that reason. They wanted to be treated as people, not as "Americans". The Trump era is one we'll all have to work hard in - trying to make sure our country is kept relatively stable and intact. Let's do that. Let's work hard -- and then we'll see that we will indeed be looked up to.
A number of people have expressed fear and sadness to me about the election results, and asked for help processing what happened. While I'm always happy to offer my counseling services to those who need them I can also offer you some practical advice for something you can do right now, for free. If you can, take a walk somewhere with trees. There's no need to talk to anyone, just walk. Then make yourself a snack of some kind. Something small and easy to prepare -- an English muffin with your favorite jam, and perhaps a cup of tea of coffee. Sit and eat and drink slowly. Again, there's no need to talk or to text. Be quiet with your grief and disappointment. Then, if you can, do something to tidy up your immediate space. Put papers away; empty the dishwasher; do laundry. Whatever is close and easy. If you're at the office you can tidy your desk. You may have to do this once or twice a day for a couple of days. Gradually you will send your Unconscious a powerful message -- that you are taking care of yourself and that the struggle is not over. You will get through this. Because you absolutely will get through this. And when you emerge you'll be ready to take on any struggles you need to.
Treadmills are wonderful - you get on, you exercise, and then you get off. That last part is important. You have to get off when you've done your workout. Staying put is not a great idea. The same thing is true for those mental treadmills we find ourselves on. Sure, stay on - for a while. Use the time to work out whatever it is you have to work out as much as you can manage for that day. Then get off. What cripples us is staying on the same thought, day after day, working hard and never getting any further with it because we've become habituated to the mill, rather than using it for what we need it for. Watch out for those mental treadmills.
I often get inspired by my students. Today I heard from Krista, via Facebook, that she's training to run a marathon. Not too unusual, you may say. Krista has learned how to rock climb, become a civil rights lawyer, and generally done a whole lot of inspiring things. And now the marathon. There's just one more thing you need to know about Krista - she lost the lower part of one leg to childhood cancer. A strong woman who will not be kept back by anything -- that's inspiring.
Today is the 950th anniversary of the Battle of Hastings. I don't usually like to commemorate events of slaughter, so you'll have to bear with me on this. When the invading William The Conqueror defeated the Saxons in 1066 he imposed Norman-French rule on every citizen in his new realm; new language, new laws, new officials, new systems of government at every possible level. It was the most complete power take-over the country had ever known, and the last time the British Isles was successfully invaded. It was, to be plain, brutal. What happened was that over the next few centuries the local cultures began to push back, slowly. English eventually became the language of rulers and ruled alike. Powerbrokers and peasants could actually communicate once again. A new country arose from the bloodbath. It wasn't a miraculous rebirth; it was painful and hard and often it must have felt counterproductive much of the time. Yet gradually the people curtailed the power of the gentry and moved towards something that might look a bit more like democracy. So today I'd like to recognize the battle, but also to show gratitude to those uncounted generations who pushed back against tyranny, inch by inch. To paraphrase Gandhi: remember, whatever you do may seem inconsequential, but it is important that you keep doing it.
Trump's success has confounded many analysts, but I think it's worth stating the obvious: Trump's appeal exists because he expresses his unfiltered Shadow self. As many of you know, the Shadow Self is all those parts of the psyche that never got resolved. And so it's chock full of free-floating hate, fear, anxiety, and phobias of all kinds. If an individual never takes a good long look at this Shadow Self, and never comes to terms with it, it has a tendency to take over later in life. Think mid-life crisis and you'll see the stereotype of balding men chasing much younger women and buying sports cars, etc etc. Left to its own devices this version of the self becomes desperate and destructive. It seeks to blame others for almost everything. This part of himself is what Trump has clearly never confronted. Because of that failure he appeals to those people who have never done this personal work, either. And that appears to be a pretty large crowd. Don't vote for the Shadow or its representative. It's like voting for a dinosaur because it's big and not considering that you'll be its next meal.
Thinking about aging, and the problems it brings, might be (as Groucho Marx famously said) a luxury you only get if you're lucky. Then, the other day I came across this statement by Samuel Beckett (to Lawrence Shainberg) "I always thought old age would be a writer's best chance... Now my memory's gone, all the old fluency's disappeared. I don't write a single sentence without saying to myself, 'It's a lie!' So I know I was right. It's the best chance I've ever had." Perhaps, without those cumbersome memories, without the glib fluency of youth, without those easy certainties, it really is a kind of freedom. At last.
One of the things J.K. Rowling gets so very right is that democracy is often untidy and always imperfect. For example, in Volume 5 of the Harry Potter series we see the Order of the Phoenix assemble to deal with Voldemort. And the Order is a bit chaotic, impractical, emotional, and confused a lot of the time. But they work together fairly well. Still, they are annoying since they seem so clueless. And that's the whole point. These are the Good Guys. But in order to confront evil they have to discuss, decide, squabble... and so on. Voldemort doesn't do that. He just issues orders and acts without consideration. The insight Rowling gives us is that democracy, where people actually care for each other and seek to do the best thing for everyone, is a scruffy, full-time job that can be tedious and is definitely slow. Dictatorship might look good for a few moments (they get things done, after all) but it is pretty repulsive if viewed for any length of time. It looks easy, decisive and business-like. Actually it's horrifically destructive of the human soul. Think about that when Trump makes his sweeping statements about what he's going to do "so fast it'll make your head spin", and when he makes unilateral declarations of any kind.