On the Threshold

I have always found this time of year to be slightly ethereal – a combination of consumptionfest and time with friends and family, based on a long history of pagan festivals around winter solstice. Borrowed and repurposed as “Christmas” in the same way at St Nicholas, in his various forms, was repurposed as Father Christmas to market Coca Cola.

Underneath its crass commercialisation, this is a valuable time of year. For most of us, from today until the beginning of January, we enter something of a liminal space between the departing year and the new one arriving. It is a valuable time. A space between the everyday routines of the shortest response time to stimulus. Reflection more than Reflexion.

What has gone well in the last year, what not so well, and what have we learned about ourselves as we enter another irreplaceable year?

Clarity and contentment sit on a different plane to the modern gods of material success we are brought up to worship, and we can take a moment to consider; how is that working for us?

This year promises to have been stranger than many. Last year we knew we were in lockdown, this year we have to guess as public health goes head-to-head with the service economy for which is more important to our society, and our response to decision making in uncertainty is to, well, put it off for a bit. Do we really need data to decide whether to go to a party?

In the end, I suspect the service economy will win as those few people who own it recoil from the reality of its systemic fragility. The idea of hospitality, sport, education and healthcare as “Industries” (dictionary definition: economic activity concerned with the processing of raw materials and manufacture of goods in factories) has always sat uncomfortably with me. Notions of turning people, whether socialising, as athletes, or infirm as inputs to be converted to economic output as quickly and efficiently as possible I find distasteful.

One thing though seems clear, this pandemic will have gone on long enough such that what used to be normal is gone – we have forgotten how to do it. What was already disruptive has been accelerated, and has outpaced the ability of our infrastructure to respond. We watch, with bemusement, the plaintive pleas of city centre hospitality businesses and landlords looking for support, in much the same way as buggy whip manufacturers responded to the invention of the motor car, and travel agents responded to the internet. It is brutal, and hard not to have sympathy for those with expensive fast food and coffee franchises, but that they say is business. Schumpeterian creation through destruction in practice, not textbooks.

It is what happens next that will be interesting. Our society has been shaped by the primacy of money as our dominant value, and that looks to be running its course. A small handful of people own all the wealth, a small number of priests and acolytes look after it for them, and the realities of climate change place huge constraints on where we can go for “growth.” When we have privatised funerals and old age care, we’ve pretty much arrived at the bottom of the barrel of a caring society, and as we debate “ethical AI”, we have only to look at what the algorithms that focus on money has done for an ethical society. That does not bode well.

We are entering the time when, as the Cree prophecy suggests, that “when the last tree is cut down, the last fish eaten and the last stream poisoned, we will realize that we cannot eat money.”

In a couple of week’s time, we will resurface, most likely to the middle of the realities of the Omicron surge, to face 2022 and the other issues that have not gone away.

Between then and now, between the mince pies and merriment, we will have quiet moments to consider; who do we want to be in 2022, who do we want to be important and memorable to, and how do we want to be seen and remembered? To reflect on the reality that, if we can buy something with money, it’s not worth much really. A commodity. What we are given by those who love us that cannot be bought beats what we can buy hands down. Our values have become truly screwed up, and I wonder how much further we have to go before we take stock.

They will be fleeting moments, but invaluable. We need to use them well.

2022 will be a rollercoaster, and we are on the threshold.

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