Christmas is here and as the carol enjoins us “Tis the season to be jolly”. A time to put aside the preoccupations of our daily lives and “heedless of the wind and weather” revel in the Yuletide celebrations. But is it possible, in contemplating Christmas, to distance oneself totally from the events happening around one and reported through the incessant flood of breaking news.
By any standards 2016 has not felt a great year and this week’s events in Berlin have epitomised that sense of malaise in our affairs. For those families directly affected this Christmas will be an unexpected time of grief and for the rest of us there is a dull sense of revulsion of yet another heartless attack on ordinary people and an attempt to disrupt and terrorise the traditions of civic and civilised life. The response to the attack from some quarters, is equally depressing, stirring up hatred not just of individuals but of whole groups and reinforcing the sense of terror which, by definition, it is the first objective of the terrorists to create.
In my professional life too this has been a hard year. The NHS, like many other public services, is, after many years of austerity, under considerable pressure. There is much more to do as the demand for services increases and very little in the way of new resources to do it with. A genuine interest in doing more to help people with mental health problems in society is struggling to be realised on the ground as promises to find new investment fail to materialise or are overwhelmed by the scale of unmet need for help. Change and uncertainty abound and they alongside what there is to do create a sense of weariness and hedonic deficit. I can scarcely think of a time in my working life when I have been so ready for a break.
In general I am one of life’s optimists, my temperament and by experience. I like to believe in the possibility of positive change in both individuals and society and am not naturally pessimistic about human nature, although recognising history is full of examples of human folly and frailty. The events of the last couple of years have, however, shaken some of that optimism. Getting older is undoubtedly part of the piece, particular in a context where you have a sense of some of the things you have valued throughout life disappearing or being under severe threat. The relentless of the news and its enduring focus on the negative and shocking does not help either.
I am, unashamedly, a son of the Enlightenment, a supporter of the power of reason as opposed to fear and superstition, committed to values of openness and tolerance, delighting in difference and a believer in the possibility and reality of progress, of the elimination of suffering and the increase of human happiness and well-being. For most of my adult life, with some occasional moments of retreat, this view of the world has felt justified but at the end of 2016 it feels more threatened than I have known before. That, inevitably, feels disturbing.
Other Christmases have been different. Our first married Christmas in 1989 was one when the events of the Velvet Revolution had engendered a wonderful sense of optimism in the triumph of hope over the stale and oppressive forces of tyranny. Images of Berlin were central to that Christmas as they have been to this one but images this time of a totally different atmosphere and mood.
However, Christmas is a good time for reflection so what can it offer to counter some of the inherent gloominess of the times. There are a number of hopeful messages.
First the festival itself in its Christian and pagan manifestations recognises the need for hope in the midst of the depths of winter, for light in the midst of darkness, for a brief time of plenty before we face the time of shortage. This is a festival we have designed in the knowledge of our own need for cheer and encouragement.
Second, as I’ve seen lots of time in recent weeks on the streets of London, it brings out, most of the time, the best in us, encouraging acts of charity, an interest in the less fortunate and a wider sense of good will to our neighbours and fellow citizens.
Third Christmas brings us back to what matters most in life, to those closest to us, to our families, near and extended, and to our closest and oldest friends.
Finally Christmas has a sense of timelessness. A time to reflect on other times, on times of happiness or on times of previous difficulty which have passed and have been overcome. From that can come sense of renewed purpose in facing the future.
So perhaps this year will not be a Christmas of total merriment but it is a season to be jolly and to aim and plan for what can be different in 2017.