One of my all-time favourite films is V For Vendetta. Apart from the obvious moments (after all, right now, is there anyone who would object to Westminster being blown sky high, particularly if empty at the time…) one scene that really resonates is a montage where investigator Eric Finch says “I suddenly had this feeling that everything was connected. It’s like I could see the whole thing, one long chain of events… It was like a perfect pattern, laid out in front of me. And I realised we’re all part of it, and all trapped by it.” His companion, of course, asks if that meant he knew what would happen next, and with typical bluntness gets the response “No, it was a feeling. But I can guess…” And tragedy plays out, giving the film the chance to leave those horrors in maybe-land: did they happen? Did they not? Can the girl with glasses be saved?
We live in a time when every problem is treated as though it stands alone, and every individual is trained to see themselves as an island, with, if they are lucky, causeways connecting them to others, appearing and disappearing with the tides, with never a hint of where the mainland might be found. If you are ill, you get tablets. Tablets for blood pressure; for cholesterol; for headaches; for coughs, colds and not being quite at your best; for anxiety; for depression. Tablets for each individual symptom, as though all of these things are somehow caused separately, interacting independently with the body they have found a home in. Sorting out your work-life balance is a task for every individual, who is then held personally to blame if we get lost in the middle of a perfect storm of demands and expectations and can’t do it by ourselves. Saving the world means cutting your personal carbon footprint, giving up plastic around the home, individual action and sacrifice. The question is always: what are you doing? You as an individual; a family household; maybe, at best, as a town.
Seeing individuals as worthy of value and respect, with God dwelling within them, whatever they have done or thought, however they look and regardless of the capacity for good or evil weighing down their actions, is a gift and a curse and a thing we should all be aiming for. Seeing the individual as the height of all our ambitions, personal glory over a community rising together, has caused lives to fall apart, an ever-widening gap between the rich and the desperate, and Boris Johnson moving into number 10. How much further does this road have left before it splits into so many individual footpaths, some smooth and wide, some rocky and overgrown with nettles, but all leading inexorably into the wilderness of isolation, getting further and further apart, until we can no longer see, smell, hear, any other living things around us?
Talking to students has made me realise how unhealthy expectations in this country can be. One told me that she works so hard that she buys clothes and doesn’t have the time or the energy to wear them. They lie in the bags they came in at the bottom of the wardrobe until, packing for an extended journey home, they resurface, bringing with them the hope they first entered the home with; hope that will now be enjoyed elsewhere, because there is no time for it here. It is so different, she said, in the country she was born in. People there value and enjoy their possessions, their friends, their time. For someone who barely has the energy to brush her teeth at the end of some days, I confess, that sounds like an idyll beyond price.
How have we come to value ourselves and each other so little? Why do we value money so much more than time? During my first year as a teacher, I got used to a day that left the house running for school at 8am and didn’t finish until the next day’s lessons were just about thrown together, usually at about 11pm. I put up with the hours, the expectations, the lack of any life outside the walls I had prepared for myself. I boasted about how bad it was, as we outdid each other with stress levels and caffeine intake around the staff room kettle. But why? The expectation is that in order to have a job with meaning, with satisfaction, that changes things, however small, you put up with what is thrown at you. And acting alone, my choices are suck it up or sack it off, give up, do something else. But what if we all stood together? Not just my union (though we are working on that one); not just those working in the public services; all of us, walking together saying we, and our lives, and the planet are all worth more than mindless, individual busyness?
More time means more ability to slow down, to make from scratch, to take care and do, buy, say the right thing, not the easy thing. To have a sense of achievement from that. To tell someone else about it, and work together so that they can do it too. More life in that notorious balance means more opportunities for joy. And more joy means less greed; less need for eternal, all-consuming growth; more options.
Living within our means is a phrase that has been used for the good, the bad, and the blatantly discriminatory within society over the last decade or so. But when it is used, it is always used to talk about living within our financial means. What would it be like to live within all our means? To live lives where we use the time, the emotion, the energy we have to live our best lives; where nothing is asked of us that we cannot freely give? What would it be like to be able to look ourselves in the mirror and know that we are enough?
It is the summer holidays: traditionally the point that teachers look at their lives and try and sort out all their problems at once, now that they suddenly have space to breathe. I find myself looking at the chaos I create around myself and wondering what we would have to do as a family to live within our time-means. What would we as a country have to change in order to do the same?