Back at the start of this era of Coronavirus, lockdown and social distancing I remember reading that the health crisis would bring out the best – and the worst – in people. Over the last few months that prediction certainly seems to have been accurate – I’m sure we can all think of examples of the best-of-us (key workers, community volunteers, Captain Sir Tom Moore etc.), as well as the less appealing elements (toilet roll hoarding, lockdown parties, the irresponsible behaviour of a visiting minority when tourism resumed). I also remember reading something by one of my favourite writers, Elizabeth Gilbert, who pointed out that there was a precursor to all the negative stuff: fear – again, we have seen a lot of that around these last months. For me, the negative behaviour also seems to come from a place where a minority of people think first – and sometimes only – about themselves, an individualist approach that is then mirrored in various aspects of society.
It’s certainly not new, but the pandemic has done much to magnify it.
And so I wonder – how do we promote the opposite of individualism – collective care, or in broad terms, community-minded thinking? (Where ‘community’ refers not just to the places in which we physically find ourselves, but the wider communities we inhabit and interact with, and the way we choose to lead our lives.)
Recently, I listened to an episode of the Michelle Obama Podcast, in which the former US First Lady spoke with her husband on issues around community, care and responsibility. I was struck by how much the discussion mirrored society’s movement towards a scenario where people often have much less support around them than they once did – one example given was the erosion of neighbourhood support in the care of children, and parents rallying around less to help each other out. The irony of the focus on growth and outside pressure to ‘keep up with the Joneses’ is that people have often been left feeling more isolated and alone, leading to a sense of scarcity, and the need to ‘look out for number one’ – a mindset that, when you think about it, people can’t always be blamed for. Everywhere we look, things are geared towards individual thinking – how many likes and followers we can get on social media, how much nice stuff we can own, popularity over principles. Is it any wonder that attitudes are converging towards the conclusion that the world revolves first, and only, around ourselves?
So much of this, perhaps, relates to the way in which we are raised, and the way we raise our children. I was fortunate to grow up in a small community here in Caithness, where community-minded thinking was the essence of how people lived their lives. My parents had my Mum’s family nearby to help out, neighbours or relatives who would babysit, a slow-lived culture where people dropped in on each other, where people weren’t alone or isolated – and where other people’s parents could also tell you off if you were misbehaving. The same was true of our visits to see our Nana and Uncle Iain – my Dad’s family – in Mallaig, in many ways, a very similar kind of community to Caithness. I was lucky, then – childhood left me with the impression that people looked out for, and cared for one another, that you considered the impact of your actions on other people, that the world was more than the sum total of the small, immediate bubble in which you found yourself. In many ways, I think this type of community-led mindset is still evident in most areas of the Highlands (one of the reasons our small communities have struggled so much with the wave of individualistic behaviour we’ve seen here over the summer, I suppose). Like everywhere, though, antisocial behaviour also happens at a local level, and it’s been heartening this year to see how much can be achieved collectively – the work of local community groups here (and across the country) has been inspirational. As we head into what is likely to be a very difficult Autumn/Winter, we’re going to need that sort of community-minded focus more than ever.
The only way we are going to rise out of this situation, is by lifting other people up.
Earlier this week, I found myself feeling pessimistic about the likelihood of community-minded thought – I was starting to believe that the wave of individualism was now prevailing. Our walks to school had turned into daily litter-picks, outings with my dog were blighted by stops to pick up the mess that other dog owners had left behind. More pictures emerged on social media, waste left by visitors to our area, other people’s rubbish thrown carelessly over walls and into verges. It was hopeless, I thought, as I trudged to our local beach to pick up two bin bags full of waste that had been left there during lockdown (it was the first time our own family bin had had enough room to accommodate them since the bags had been left there, several weeks before).
When I got to the beach though, the bags were gone – a community-minded person had already removed them. I stood there, looking out to sea for a moment, feeling hope and positivity bud once more inside my chest.
And I remembered something I read once – look for the people who are helping.
The thing is – there are always more of those people in the world.
So perhaps, there’s just one thing left we need to think about.
It starts with looking out into the world, and asking: ‘what can I do to help?’
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