January, named for the twin-faced Roman god Janus, is ever a time of contrasts. A month when resolutions are made and when - though ever so subtly - each morning brightens a little earlier and each evening holds its light a little longer; yet, equally, a period when these tokens of hope are offset by a nagging apprehension of the long, drear slog to our first warm days.
Over the weekend I was struck by another juxtaposition while reading a couple of recent items on the RSA website. The first was Anthony Painter's blog entitled, "The real issues we face will be completely ignored in the election." Painter's underlying case is that the post-crash prescription of austerity, tightened banking regulations and quantitative easing fails to grasp the complexity of globalisation and climate change, and the impact these will increasingly have on,
"our ability to manage our own national well-being, and the effectiveness of democracy and political institutions."A political crisis, then, crying out for,
"political leaders who can articulate the situation we face and how we might respond."
Painter features in the acknowledgements to the second piece, Jonathan Rowson's 40,000-word report Spiritualise: revitalising spirituality to address 21st century challenges (Dec 2014). In keeping with Painter, Rowson detects a,
"weakening of public institutions, acute ecological crises, and widespread political alienation and democratic stress."For Rowson, though, these are symptoms of a malaise at heart existential rather than political. And instead of preoccupying ourselves with "interest rates" and "economic growth," the urgent questions we need to address are:
- What are we?
- How should we live?
- Why are we here?
It's tempting to dismiss metaphysical enquiry as a luxury of privilege, and to object that demoting material considerations could ultimately threaten to stand Maslow on his head. But might we not have got things out of kilter somewhat? Last week US sports commentator Stuart Scott finally succumbed to the cancer that he had fought for several years. A few months earlier Scott had declared:
"When you die, it does not mean that you lose to cancer. You beat cancer by how you live, why you live, and in the manner in which you live."
It's tragic that for so many of us clarity about what really counts arrives so late in the day. And might not this clarity deliver a sight more humility, empathy and equity in the world?
In 2015 I'm not going to renounce my belief in the importance of social and political fair play, but neither am I going to underplay the necessity of Rowson's deeper questions about the meaning and value of being. Just as Janus managed to simultaneously look to the past and to the future, I'm going to work hard to look inward and outward and to see these not as contradictory, but as complementary views and spaces for agency. It's a fair bet that the politicians will spare little thought for either Painter's wicked problems or Rowson's spiritual considerations, but the rest of us can do our very best.