Well, the summer has done the trick.
Italy. Lie-ins. Long afternoons. The embargo of any news except my son’s regular updates about our olympic medal haul. And no-one mentioning the B-word.
It actually feels like we’ve been in Brexit rehab. Indeed, as I was just musing (in Minute Hack), if you look at the nation as a person, the UK has been exhibiting all the symptoms of a classic breakdown.
Breakdowns can go either way. You could argue they are an essential part of healthy growth. They can shake up our routines, make us think more deeply about what’s important, wake us up to what we should have been noticing. But they can also be the precursor to deeper trauma.
It all depends what we do next.
From the hammock I have been dwelling on my own youthful experience of breakdown and drawing up a short list of what we could be doing to ensure Brexit means Breakthrough, not Break Up.
Embrace the craziness. A great place to start is to give up the idea that we’re rational creatures. We’re not. Not as individuals nor as a nation. We’re flawed, fearful, fallible but fabulously human. A lot of the suffering lessens when we can release ourselves from the necessity to be right. And the shame of messing up.
Think process not incident. The referendum result has created a crisis. And it’s tempting to think that if we can resolve the crisis we have solved the problem. In mental health terms that’s like putting a sticky plaster on a slashed wrist, or talking a jumper of a ledge and then expecting them to go on as normal. This isn’t an incident it’s a symptom of a process that’s been years in the making. And it can’t be solved with a cup of tea and an encouraging pat on the back. As Phelim, a friend of mine said on Facebook; “To all those people telling me to get over it, I’m not over it. Get over it”.
Beware the False Dawn. The path from pathology to health has its ups and downs. There are moments in the sunny uplands when you think all is solved, only to discover another valley ahead. In case you are thinking all is fine now we have a new Leader and Bojo is back (is anyone seriously thinking that?) just keep going.
Declare (Inter)dependence. We simply can’t understand what’s happening from our individual perspective alone. No-one is right. Things only heal when we recognize we are part of a greater system. Even if we’re not personally suffering, other parts of the system may be. And we ignore that pain at our peril. The Leavers’ pitch was that even in a deeply interconnected world we can selectively withdraw ourselves from a part of the system called the EU. Personally I doubt that’s possible. In an internet-powered, interdependent world there is no OUT – only through. But even the most hardened Brexiteer recognizes we can only flourish on this little Island by deepening connections elsewhere in the world. Everywhere, disappointed people are railing at what they see as the system. Healing begins when we see ourselves as part of the system we are fighting.
The Cavalry isn’t coming. When you’re down and troubled/ and you need a helping hand… it’s tempting to pin our hopes on someone galloping over the horizon to save us. Some people think that person is Theresa. Other’s believe, with almost religious fervour, it’s Comrade Jeremy. And over the Atlantic, millions are putting their faith in The Donald. But here’s the thing – our recovery cannot be outsourced. The cavalry is NOT coming. If we want to move to a healthier place we have to do the work. Day by day. Person by person. Conversation by conversation. The finger puppets of Westminster and Washington can’t fix this. We have to.
Ask Better Questions. Asking a vast number of people to give a simple answer (leave or remain?) to a complex question is almost a definition of insanity. The chances of either choice being right was – nil! These binary choices are dramatic – and make good headlines – but lead to crude decisions. The healthy answer is always more complex. A and B or A through B. B then A. Or C, D, E and F. In our recovery phase, we should beware of voices (in the media, in government, in our heads) over simplifying our choices. And instead concentrate on asking great questions. Ones that really helped me through my own dark days included;
“How am I contributing to the problems that I say I want to solve?”
“How have I hurt you without realizing?”
“How is the person I most disagree with at least 1% right?”
Pick your Fears wisely. There was much mockery of Project Fear during the referendum drama as Brexiteers reframed their opponents’ perfectly legitimate concerns as scare-mongering. Ironic, given the Leavers’ own terror of immigration. The truth is fear is everywhere. It’s one of the great drivers of our lives – along with sex and greed. You’ll never escape it. But as part of our national recovery we could be more discriminating about the kind of fear we pay attention to. I’ve personally learned a lot from the Big Mind approach of zen master Genpo Roshi that identifies at least two main categories of fear. There’s Immature Fear, a panicky voice in our head that dashes around, jumping at shadows, terrified even of itself. It’s the source of hate crime, elite bashing, and drawbridge raising. Then there’s Mature Fear: wise, calmly vigilant, watchful and loving. It sees danger for what it is and takes appropriate precautions. With all the very real threats around, we need the latter not the former. In these times, I don’t buy we have nothing to fear but fear itself. I’d say pick your fears wisely and use them as fuel.
Take care of others. Breakdown is a massively self-focused exercise. It forces you to turn inward on yourself. Not once during the referendum drama do I remember politicians urging us to stand up for the smaller nations of Europe. It’s not only in our self-interest to support them and their economies, it’s ethically right. And, hell, it feels good! If you are feeling helpless, help someone else.
Say Thank You. Perspective is the first casualty of breakdown. As our attention collapses inward we feel as if no one has been hurt as badly as we have. One powerful antidote is gratitude. Look up, look around you. We have clean, running water. Freedom of speech. Rule (more of less) of law. While we are chiding the elite for screwing us, it worth remembering for much of the world we ARE the elite. All of us. If you can’t think of something to be grateful for, take a breath. There. You’re alive. Be grateful for that.
Act! It’s important to talk about how you are feeling. But in my own history, the fog really lifted, when I started taking action. It can be simply moving the body. I remember moaning to a friend as we jogged in the park many years ago. Every time I kvetched he upped the pace until we were sprinting so fast I just couldn’t think. Lesson learned.
If you don’t know what to do, experiment! Make something up and see if works. The Brits have a history of making things up – the industrial revolution, the internet, sherbert lemons and so on. Let’s use this chaos to unleash our creativity.
More than any generation in history we have the means to shape our own futures, communicate across borders and build relationships across cultures. Let’s create our own unions – European and otherwise – and use this traumatic period to kick-start a transformation that we’ll look back on with gratitude not regret. Brexit can mean Breakthough.
PS When we left for Italy we slapped a “YES to Europe” sign on the back of our car, expecting to be harangued across the continent. What we found was a lot of people agreeing that something needs to be done about Europe. Locals are even fluttering Union Jacks along the Ligurian Coast. It’s time the EU did some self-development too and let’s hope the referendum vote will encourage that. Maybe, as Leonhard Fischer puts it here, we did the right thing, albeit for the wrong reason.