A few thoughts from me about the year we have endured and the troubles ahead.
Those of us in our middle years in the West have seen and lived through a lot. From fear of nuclear war, to the collapse of communism. In our lifetime we have watched the Berlin Wall Fall and famine sweep through the African continent. We’ve seen the rise of extremism both at home and abroad and wars in the Middle East.
We’ve lived through recessions and stock market crashes. Many have lost faith in our institutions of power: our governments, and religious leaders. We’ve adopted technological innovations that were the stuff of science fiction when we were children, from the internet and mobile telecommunications to social media platforms - we are now used to living in an interconnected society. Like it or not, we have become global citizens.
Thanks to globalisation, we’ve seen the collapse of our mass manufacturing industries, and the rise of the Knowledge Economy in its place, based on intellectual capital rather than physical production. And now we’re seeing that give way in its turn to a new emphasis on innovation and entrepreneurship, an Innovation Economy.
The world now is a vastly different place from when we came of age in the sixties, seventies and eighties. The world of employment is unrecognisable from the the expectations set when we first joined the workplace. There are no “jobs for life” or even expectations the we will stay in the same careers as there were when we started out.
Some of these changes are, of course, welcome. Change can be necessary. Change can be exciting. Other changes have left some feeling displaced and confused.
2020 was a year the likes which none of us could have foreseen. And the upheaval is spilling over into 2021. Just a few of the events we have had to contend with:
Most of our lives have been impacted. Mass unemployment, impending global recession, even food shortages and unrest - we have seen these things before, but nothing has prepared us for the need to isolate from our families and communities. Not since World War 2 has a mass curtailment of our freedom of movement been imposed in the interests of public health and safety.
Very few of us have been left untouched by the events that unfolded, whether materially or emotionally. Even if inured by the sweet, soft blanket of wealth, the pandemic has rocked us all. No one is immune.
We seem to be living increasingly in an atmosphere of fear and anger. Our views have become more polarised and we are reverting to tribalism in an attempt to find where we belong, where we can feel safe.
As elders in the making, our experience and our wisdom is needed now as never before. We might feel helpless in the face of current events, but we have skills that we can employ - that we must employ - and amplify.
So how can we step up in a world that seems to have lost its mind? What role can we play?
We can only make change in the world when we are prepared to make changes in ourselves, so here are my suggestions for 8 ways we can step up in uncertain times. I would love to hear your ideas.
8 WAYS TO STEP UP IN UNCERTAIN TIMES
1. MODEL RESILIENCE
Never has it been more urgent for us as emerging elders to model resilience. We have lived through - and survived - every challenge life has thrown at us, whether personally or in the wider world. We know that this too shall pass. It is our responsibility to stay calm in the face of this crisis, to reassure the generations below us and help to provide a counter to some of the hysteria circling around us.
Children, especially, need guidance here. By leading by example, we have a tremendous opportunity to model resilience and community spirit for the children.
2. REVIEW YOUR BELIEFS
Most of us take on the values and beliefs of our parents or carers and the society into which we were born. As children, we naturally look to our parents for wisdom and protection. There is comfort in feeling we know what is right. That there is such a thing as absolute truth.
As we get older, we start to think for ourselves, possibly even to question what we have been told is true. We expose ourselves to other points of view, at college, in the bar, at the hairdressers. We start to critically evaluate what we have always believed to be fact. Often, that will challenge the narrative of our upbringing. We pick a political party that aligns in the main with our life view and the way we live. Then we get on with our lives. We work, we have families and the circle of belief formation begins again.
But what if, for example, those political parties have changed and evolved over time? What if you are voting for an ethos that no longer exists? Or that no longer really aligns with your values? We need to be prepared to review our beliefs periodically. We need to stay engaged.
3. VARY YOUR SOURCES OF INFORMATION
We are generally creatures of habit. We like routine and structure and predictability. A shower using the same toiletries, or a coffee in the morning in the same mug. The same newspaper or news channel … in the case of the latter, we like to have our beliefs reinforced and validated.
If you feel uncomfortable reading a news article written by someone who holds different views to yours, you need to read them more often. Not necessarily to change your mind, but to open your mind to a different point of view.
4. SEEK OUT THOSE WHOSE EXPERIENCE OF LIFE DIFFERS FROM YOURS
The problem with absolute truth is that if one person is right, by definition, another is wrong. An issue becomes black or white - there is a very different energy around the idea of there being shades of grey. The truth is found in the nuances.
I have to admit that I have often been guilty of turning away from opposing opinions on social media, creating an echo chamber where everyone I follow and engage with has similar views to me. It’s uncomfortable to have our views challenged, or to have our unconscious biases exposed.
That’s the thing about bias and prejudice - very often we are not even aware we have them. If an issue doesn’t impinge on our day to day lives, it’s easy to assume it doesn’t exist. After all, we are all caught up with the business of making a living, raising our families, living our lives. Only by being willing to see through the eyes of others can we begin to understand their experience of life.
5. LISTEN WITHOUT THINKING OF A REPLY
It takes practice to engage in active listening. It’s human nature to want to connect by relating what is being said to our own experiences. But we never learn anything new by talking about what we already know.
To really listen, you need to fully engage. That means paying close attention to what is being said, and showing you are listening by asking questions where appropriate, or reflecting back what the other person has said.
I know how you feel, that happened to me when… might feel like empathy, but it actually closes the conversation down. It makes it all about you. How much more would you learn, about that person and their experience of life if you asked, “how did you feel about that?” Put judgement aside and genuinely seek to hear.
Active listening can be learned through practice. It’s so worthwhile because not only might we benefit by learning something new, it makes the person we are talking to feel heard and valued. That’s something we all want.
In a world where views and beliefs have become increasingly polarised, we need to lead the way in listening before debating.
6. LET GO OF THE NEED TO BE RIGHT
We all want to be right. Let’s face it, it’s pretty scary to realise we’ve got things wrong, especially fundamental things. Plus none of us want to look foolish, or admit our mistakes. That’s human nature. But if we are so invested in being right, we will miss the opportunity to grow. It takes courage to be willing to be proved wrong. It takes grace to admit it.
I’ve been married for 4 decades - my whole adult life. My husband and I don’t always agree. On my wedding day, my father said to me, Jo, you’re always right. You know that, I know that. But if you want to be happy, sometimes it’s best to be wrong. Give someone else a turn.
Although, of course, I am usually right, unless the issue is something I feel strongly about, I have heeded that advice. I would genuinely rather be happy than be right!
In the context of the state of the world today, being prepared to have your mind changed is a powerful weapon in the fight against polarisation.
7. CHECK YOUR THOUGHTS
Nothing reveals our biases more than our unguarded thoughts. It’s not something to continuously beat ourselves up about, but we owe it to ourselves and the wider world to call ourselves out with honesty and compassion so that we can change.
It’s unsettling when things we believe to be true so much that we don’t even think about them turn out to be wrong.
As an example, during the height of the Black Lives Matter protests in 2020, the anguished counter hashtag #All LivesMatter appeared. I have to admit to holding this view in the past. I was proud to think I had brought up my children to “not see colour”.
It was only by reaching out to women of colour and really listening to what they had to say about their experience of life that I realised that to say I don’t see colour, whilst well intentioned, was actually negating the experience of other cultures. My attitude served only to deny that we are all equal, but different. That all our lived experiences are worthy of respect and celebration.
That we don’t need to say “all lives matter” because that is so obviously true we don’t need to say it - we need to say black lives matter until that too goes without saying.
It’s also important to keep in mind that to be for something does not automatically mean you are against something else. Saying Black Lives Matter is not the same as saying other lives don’t.
7. KNOW BETTER, BE BETTER
It would be easy to feel ashamed, or wrong-footed if we discover what we have believed to be true is not. I try to live by Maya Angelou’s exhortation:
Do the best you can until you know better. When you know better, be better.
Cultivating an open mind, a curiosity about others and a desire to be the best we can be enriches us as individuals as well as benefitting the world around us. Fight against the urge to cling on to any outdated beliefs. Even if your conclusion is that you have been right all along and your beliefs and values still align with who you want to be, the willingness to audit them is what will keep you relevant and engaged in the world as you age. Staying in a fixed mindset serves no one, least of all ourselves.
It’s easy to fall into the belief that we are helpless in the face of world events. It’s true that we can’t control what is happening on the world stage. All we can do is control the way we choose to react to them, and the stress they cause.
The change we want to see starts with us. We have a responsibility to look within and make whatever adjustments might be necessary to help, not just ourselves, but the generations coming up behind us.
I'd love to know your thoughts.