This Christmas I was given a book by the Christian theologian Thomas Moore, ‘Dark Nights of the Soul’. Not the obvious choice to boost the festive spirit over this austerity Christmas, but for some unfathomable reason (Christmas with my family would drive anyone to extreme measures) I opened it at some point.
The book describes how tough times in life can be critically important in helping us grow. But Moore is not playing the self-help airport unit-shifter game, oh no. He explains that many don’t recover from their dark nights and that no one leaves a dark night unscathed. As you can imagine, this wasn’t exactly the stocking filler distraction I’d hoped for. I’d asked for the complete Peanuts 75-77 (I was born in 76), and Moore has good prose, but Shultz gets more laughs. And this Christmas we needed laughs. But Moore had touched a nerve and I was hooked.
Moore goes on to explain how dark nights are seen as essential rites of passage in many ancient traditions – as moments of transformation. Just as the body of the caterpillar collapses during its transformation into a butterfly, so we as individuals and as a society need to rest (though perhaps not collapse) whilst the transformation takes place.
And you’ve got to admit we could do with a bit of transformation round here. As Matthew Taylor brilliantly illustrates in his 21st Century Enlightenment video most pillars of the modern world are underperforming. The market, science and our bureaucracies are stretched to breaking point, by the credit crunch, climate change and increased pressure on services among much else. But whereas the caterpillar has a cocoon, where is our safe place, our sanctuary to protect us as we go through the vulnerable stages of transformation? It seems that with our embrace of the market, science and bureaucracies we may have lost our facilities for transformation. A dark night is upon us – but we don’t really know how to handle it.
I was prompted to write this piece earlier in the week after coming back from yet another government office where many of the staff had received notices of threat of redundancy that morning. One woman I spoke to had been there her entire working life, was clearly brilliant and loved her job, which as far as I could tell was vital for the community. I do hope she keeps it. But more importantly, I hope she keeps her positive spirit. If she is made redundant, that’s what will see her through and help her adapt to a very competitive job market.
Some well intentioned but undiplomatic words have been written about how the recession could create the time to fuel the Big Society, through unemployment-fuelled volunteering. Although I for one am guilty of working too much and helping out too little, we all need jobs and money. It’s non-negotiable.
But transformation is also non-negotiable, be it child to adult, single to relationship or through a career change, and now in our current situation. I do believe in the vision of the Big Society, but it is a big ask, and combined with the cuts there’s a lot of transformation required. Do we have it in us?
This dark night is offering us a unique opportunity to recalibrate how we live. Making simple changes like switching to a 4 day week is a real option for many. We’d each have less cash, but more time, more time with our kids, in the park, in bed, maybe even volunteering. It could even be a chance for some of us to take stock and refocus on what’s really important, a career change or a lifestyle shift. These chances are once a generation: we’ve got to take it. Our lives literally depend on it.
But all of this is contingent on resting in the cocoon. Entering that place of transformation, that space for reflection. Resisting that desperate impulse to move on, to force the next policy or personal habit. Resting in uncertainty, in discomfort, and trusting that when the time comes the cocoon will break and clarity will re-emerge. A new view, not unscathed, but perhaps clearer, healthier, deeper even.
If we want to opt out of turbo capitalism we must realise that our time squeezed lives need to become more spacious, to allow new possibilities to emerge. It may not be so much that we should do something new, but rather, in the words of Thomas Moore, ‘do less and create the space for transformation to emerge’.