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Who Do We Want to Be on Thursday?

22/06/2016 17:33 | Updated 22 June 2016

This Thursday will decide the course of our world for the next generation. It is probably the world's most important vote in the past fifty years and for the next fifty years. But it is not an election. We are not deciding who will rule us. We are not marking X's beside the one who we think will screw us less or who will make the world less worse, against our better judgement, and as a reluctant, exasperated rationalisation of one of two lesser evils. We are not making a temporary choice. We are, and this is not an understatement, deciding how history will remember us. We are deciding how our futures and our children's futures will look. It is ironic that the decision, whether to remain or leave, is symbolic. Do we want to remain on the path that has brought us so much, even though it may not feel like it when we can't get a first mortgage, struggle to save for retirement, or have to forego that vacation? Do we want to stay the course when many of us are still living with our parents or wishing our children weren't growing up so fast not because we love them but because we can't afford tuition? Do we want to carry on working with politicians with chequered pasts and questionable aims, even though we have a vague idea of what our parents and grandparents were fleeing from or fighting against? Do we want stability, even when we feel like the world picks us up, wrings us out, and throws us back down every single day? It's hard to find something in there to hold up, point to, and say YES, this is why. This is the reason why we don't need drastic change.

But this Thursday could be the first big fissure that unravels the world that we know. Never in human history has power been so benevolently shared. The ones with global power, the strong policemen of the world, are not kings and dictators, but elected officials that are beholden to us and play by the rules that we make. People are ruled by rulers that have to campaign for the votes that keep them in the halls of power. They can spend so much time thinking about us because they don't have to think about each other. They assume cooperation between each other and this allows for them to focus on us. But peace, like love, is fragile. The enemy, the darkness, the temptation, is always on the horizon, waiting, prodding for weakness, looking for the soft underbelly, whispering in our ear, pointing to an easy way out, begging us to give up. There are those that don't benefit from a peaceful world, that cannot persuade their fellow citizens to give them power, and must take it by force or deceit. But they are kept at bay by our cooperation. By our unity. By our values that are so ingrained in us that we can't imagine how people end up like they do in places where angels fear to tread. The places we see on the news that seem to have got themselves into such a mess. The places where our children innocently ask, 'why is that happening?' and we have no response aside from our own ambivalence. Sad that it's happening, but happy that it's happening there, not here; that our children are safe even though someone else's aren't.

And if we decide to leave on Thursday, we will be the first chink in the armour, the first crack in the defenses. We will have to fend for ourselves. And we will be desperate. And the ones that thought of us as friends will now have to think of us differently. And those that thought of us as enemies will do the same. And the world will become less focused on us and more focused on the people in the halls making the decisions, moving the chess pieces, sending the men. The ones that calculate risks and outcomes in terms of the number of lives lost or taken, and not as a list of people's friends and relatives. The ones that do not think about establishing a stronghold on a hill in terms of tears shed, bright futures extinguished, and regrets carried forward. The ones that make life and death decisions without all the facts and without the long-term outlook that comes with accountability. In short, the ones that have ruled us throughout our history.

We will either rupture, take the first decisive step away from cooperating with those we'll never meet but whom we trust, and give in to those that feel at home in divisiveness, those who don't invite strangers over for dinner or to the pub, and who feel strong by masking their own weakness in exclusion. Those that prefer to be among their own, because beliefs need to be believed, not challenged. Or we will not. And the world will breathe a sigh of relief. We will go out on Friday night, like last Friday night, eat too little, drink too much, and spend another Saturday thinking, if I only I had remembered.

But if we do stay, then we must learn from and be grateful for the result by paying homage to those that wanted to leave. The ones that have been left behind and who have, for too long, gone voiceless. The ones that haven't been looked after or lent a hand. The ones that feel like the past is better and the future is grim, that chances are few and the desire for change and for hope is strong. The ones that our governments have failed and that are justifiably angry. We must engage with those that repel us the most because they mirror us the most. They want change just like we do, but we have a toehold in a turbulent world, while they search for one. We fear what they are already going through. Reduced GDP growth doesn't play well in places where the jobs left long ago.

This has been a cry for help on both sides. Many have voiced inner beliefs that weren't widely held. These people, although many may not agree with them, were courageous. And we can laugh, and we can scorn, and we can mock them. But that is the easy way out. That is the same inner voice that convinces us to skip the gym, eat the chocolate, or smoke the cigarette. It is also the voice that tells us not to throw the lifeline to those drowning because the seas are stormy and you might fall in. The same voice that thinks walls are a good idea and that if we build them high enough, we can be surrounded only by those that think how we think, look how we look, and make us feel special. But sometimes we have to risk ourselves to save ourselves. Sometimes we need to answer the call in ways that are not glamorous or passed down through our historical narratives. Sometimes we need to focus on day cares and not deficits. Sometimes we have to remember not to forget the people that we have chosen not to see.

This decision is full of ironies, but perhaps the greatest of them all is that the entire world is now listening to the ones that feel voiceless and unrepresented. It would be a shame if it were too late. If, like a spurned lover, they were too hurt to answer the door because they knew who was knocking and they had had this conversation before, only in their mind, and they knew you better than you knew yourself and saw you coming from a mile away, and didn't need flowers or evidence or pleas or promises. They needed you be to a bigger, better person, earlier. They needed you to care when no one was looking.

The problem with history is that it's always in the past even though it touches the present. We live in times of relative plenty but that feel like relative scarcity. For many of us, the world is at our fingertips in a way that all that have come before could only dream about. But the financial crisis scarred many of us, too. Some of us had to shoulder a burden forced on us by those that are now telling us how bad it will be if we leave. Why should I listen to the banker that cost me my job or my house or that made it that much harder for my child or grandchild? Why should I trust an expert that didn't see the last one coming? I miss my son or my daughter that had to move to a place where I can't hug them but where they have had to forge a life starkly different than mine, where I hear the fear in their voice during their weekly check-in - how will staying change that? The only answer to these questions is that leaving won't make it any better. Walking away in the middle of a fight doesn't resolve the issue; it usually just makes it worse. Sometimes you have to stay up all night fighting to keep a relationship healthy. Sometimes there's a price to pay for happiness and peace. Sometimes you have to be an adult when you long for your childhood.

Our histories shape us. We experienced, and some of us are still experiencing, a downturn that compares to the Great Depression in extent. Now we split a bill and worry about the change rather than buying a round. Many have called for a hero, someone to unite us under one banner of hope and truth. But they've been wrong to do so because we are the ones that need to be the heroes. We need to share the spoils rather than hoard the scraps. We have a moment to shine in our light rather than to hide in our darkness. If we give in, if we give up, we are telling our children that what they want is immaterial. We are telling the world that we prefer to be left alone in the past rather than to face the future together. We are telling the Nigel Farages, Donald Trumps, and Marine La Pens of the world that the politics of hate, dishonesty, and division are worth pursuing. We are telling the millions that came before us and made the ultimate sacrifice for freedoms we take for granted, thanks but no thanks. We are telling the people that have been left behind that they are both right and wrong. Right that we hear, but wrong that we care.

Who do we want to be? We'll find out on Friday

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