Living with difference

Living with difference

Living with difference Society’s new norms

The mature and sturdy response of the New Zealand Prime Minister to the Christchurch tragedy has impressed everyone. She got to the heart of the matter speedily, responded to it unequivocally and set about changing the law immediately. The heart of the matter was summed up in her first words on the subject. ‘We are they and they are us; we are one’ (I paraphrase). Who can resist or gainsay a call like that? Who does not immediately feel kinship?

Fear is a great motivator especially when it comes to territory. If someone threatens your home, garden, estate, beach or private island you get mad at them, probably before you even enquire if something is wrong. Defending what is ours and those we love is natural. Up to a point it is healthy. The world is not, for the most part, such an orderly place that we can let our vigilance slip. We keep an eye on encroachers and invent their motives to allow us some aggression.

When we say, as we often do, that the world is changing, we sometimes mean that it is, but we aren’t. When we declare our intention to keep up with change there is often an unsaid ‘tomorrow’ tacked on. We spend our lives trying to arrange things in such order that we can ‘get on and enjoy life’. Indeed, the basis for virtually all beliefs is continuity. In reality, as soon as anything is settled it is almost immediately disrupted. That wasn’t always the case. Change used to be so slow that it happened almost imperceptibly. That pace died at the end of the last century.

There is only one way to deal with rapid change and that is to ask ‘what’s new?’ every morning and every evening. A system that requires long-term commitment, including capital investment that will take time to recoup, has to be flexible enough to be redunded at short notice. A good example is established political parties. They find that a broad policy doesn’t suit a fast-changing world. Watch for new political flexibility and don’t let the sobriquet ‘populist’ fool you. Populism is just another word for democracy at speed.

There was pain in continuity, too. ‘Same old’ used to be frequently said to describe the lack of progress towards greater comfort, longer life, more equal sharing. We still use the expression though for different things. A natural discontent seems to be part of human nature. It is what has driven us to be progressive. There is, however, a rhythm of life, at least for as long as we are mortal. That rhythm requires some continuity, marriage, family, relationships, shared interests, compatible ideals. A slower pace and a belief-based order served well for a time. Today’s continuity demands more logic but must yet retain our ability to feel.

An attempt to achieve this was embodied in the United Nations Charter. Aspirationally still valid, the practice has slipped into expedience, driven by short-term interests at the expense of the long-term. Religious belief, at least of the order-making sort, has declined, leaving a void of standards, of norms for a modern world. Violence, ugliness and greed fill the gap with unpleasant and sometimes disastrous consequences. What is lost in those outcomes?

There are many contenders but I rate lack of joy top of the list. There is plenty of compulsory fun, a lot of (rather hysterical) laughter, considerable excess but not much joy. When asked what parents want for their children happiness comes first, but happiness is a consequence, not a cause. Wealth, health, success all line up for approval. Joy is seldom mentioned, partly because so few people remember what it is, partly because it is usually quiet and reflective, not noisy.

When found, where do we see joy? Invariably in other people, surviving, performing, succeeding, exuding happiness achieved by effort. And when do we see it? When a quiet reflection makes us realize that something good is happening, that one individual has done something for another without thought of return. ‘Tears of joy’ is an almost lost idea and yet pure joy brings a tearful smile, a quickening of the heart, a renewed belief in others and therefore in ourselves.

A triumph of romantic hope over jukebox jubilation? I, for one, certainly hope so.

It is what makes us human.