Have you ever held a wine glass to your lips and thought, “I could just bite this. What would happen if I did?” Or looked over a cliff-side railing and had to fight the urge to leap? Even if you’re a cautious person, not a reckless bone in your body, you will have had a moment when a dramatic, dangerous and potentially painful action has flashed across your mind. Your brain threw a dreadful idea your way and for a second, you were tempted to grab it and see what happened. Sensible people don’t act, though, right? Otherwise we’d all have shaved our tongues with our eyes shut on a bike. The thing is, I’m starting to think that many people are now entertaining similarly self-destructive notions on a political and social level. And I have an idea why.
Part of being depressed is a lack of self-respect. At my lowest, I couldn’t care less what happened to me. The world doesn’t care, so why on earth should I? It’s the beginning of the thought process that leads to suicidal intent and, for some people, death. On a simplistic level, it’s saying to yourself that there’s no good reason to live. I’ve had times where death became utterly logical. I would rationalise my misery to such an extent that suicide became less a dramatic release and more the perfectly reasonable actions of a sensible human being.
But what if you play that out on a systemic level? What if, instead of a damaged soul, you had a damaged society? An outsider would look at Brexit, or refuting climate collapse, and say, “No! This is clearly not reasonable. Your action (or inaction) is madness!” But this message means nothing to the Brexiter, or the climate denier. They have already rationalised their position. And I get it. I’ve felt it.
There’s a desire to have the whole damn system blow up in everyone’s face. Tear it down and hang the consequences. Because what we have right now is confusing and chaotic and unpredictable and stressful. It’s unbalanced and wrong. I buy things and I’m not happy. I work and I’m not secure. I have lost the connections with my family and community that used to provide warmth and love and trust. And I have no concept of God – manipulated on all sides to such an extent that I don’t even know where to start looking for Him. A spiritual void gapes in the centre of my soul and although I know this, I can neither articulate it nor do anything about it. So let the systems fall, let the storms come, let things shake and rip and crumble all around us. Maybe the answers will be in the rubble. And it’s action, right? It’s doing something. Break it, because something better might be built on the ruins. And if not, at least it’s broken.
Don’t characterise this as me labelling Brexiters and deniers as sick, somehow. There’s no Prozac equivalent waiting to ‘fix’ this problem. The established systems are no more the answer. If you’re working to maintain the status quo, you’re part of the climate crisis, you’re buying into a capitalist system designed to keep you shopping, keep you longing for more. Brexiters share much more than you’d think with ‘sensible’ people who cling to systems that have enormous, glaring flaws. Like the EU, or, as is becoming increasingly obvious, British parliamentary democracy. Insisting on the vitality of something that may be important but needs transformational change isn’t practical and sensible, it’s naïve. It’s like jumping onto the deflating life raft armed with a hammer and nails to stop it sinking. You and the guy diving in with rocks in his pockets? You’re both going to drown in the end.
We live in an era of unparalleled technological change. Many of us look at the future and don’t see a shining new tomorrow, but something distant, fragile and alien. We worry about our kids and how their lives will play out online. That short window between 1945 and perhaps 2008 aside (and even then, for a very select demographic), the illusion of endless progress has never been part of the human story. Do you know what humans and their ancestors wanted for their children for hundreds of thousands of years? The same stuff they had. Continuity, community, safety, love, warmth, food. Not to get eaten by a tiger, I imagine. We’re not designed for endless development. It’s a myth peddled by companies that rely on aspiration to drive our consumption. And guess what? It doesn’t work. It doesn’t deliver what repeated generations of small communities did. It doesn’t provide connection. And it sure as hell doesn’t provide meaning.
So, when you see people who want things to collapse – or don’t care if they do – empathise with them. No happy person wants things to fall apart, just as no happy person spends all day on Rightmove looking at house prices. So much of what we’re seeing is a response to the ripped fabric of human existence. Sure, there’s a pretty Instagram filter sitting on top of it, so it doesn’t look too bad from a distance. We’ve got ‘stuff’. But underneath, we’re a depressed society. We’re rationalising through our misery. Chaos is starting to make sense. To me, it feels like we’re close to the end of something. Which also means we’re near the beginning of something new. How wonderful if that could be a complete re-evaluation of our relationship with our loved ones and our planet. Let’s aim for that, rather than watch civilisation tumble off a cliff, covered in blood and red wine, thinking on the way down that things can only get better, just before hitting the rocks.