Welcome to the 311th day of the 5520th year of human recorded history. I know it’s going back a bit, but do you remember, five thousand years ago, the furore surrounding the Pharaonic election of the unifier of Upper and Lower Egypt, King Narmer AKA The Raging Catfish?
Phew-ee! I mean, I know the mace-wielding despot brought reliable taxation to the civilisation of the Nile Valley and I know he re-established Egyptian military authority in the Lands of Canaan, but man!
Five gets you ten that there was a forgotten faction, a rival party, shoved to the sidelines in the pomp of Narmer’s coronation, drowned by posterity in the literal column inches of the King’s tomb inscriptions.
Humans have come a long way, baby.
What is most important in your life? And where do you actually put your attention? The answers to these two questions, ideally, would be the same. They rarely are.
For example, friends, family, creativity and larking about outside are pretty much the most important things in my life.
But a disproportionate amount of my attention disappears into the screen, indoors, alone, fighting the swell of current events, the course of which I can’t even begin to control.
Without thinking too hard, what are the first things you remember from 2011?
If you’re anything like me, then it’ll be personal events, coloured with the purples of intense emotion:
- Cycling around the coast of Britain.
- Spending Easter in Shropshire with my then-girlfriend.
- Dislocating my shoulder cycling into a dog (the dog was fine).
- Playing guitar on stage for the first (and last) time.
- Squatting the Gaddafi family home in West Hampstead.
- The death and funeral of my nan.
Before doing any deeper interrogation of my memory banks, one major political event surfaced: the so-called riots after the murder of Mark Duggen by police in London. But even this traumatic national memory I saw as through a glass darkly.
Of course, a lot else happened in 2011 and perhaps you remember more than I did without prompts:
- The UK voted to reject the Alternative Vote electoral system. The campaign put strain on the already uneasy Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition (remember them?).
- The Arab Spring revolutions threw out three dictators: Ben Ali in Tunisia, Hosni Mubarak in Egypt and Muammar Gaddafi in Libya (with some assistance from British, French and US airstrikes).
- The Syrian Civil War began, precipitating the flight of more than 13 million people.
- The News International phone hacking scandal dominated headlines and ended careers, newspapers and the life of one former journalist in a bizarre marquee erection accident.
- Tony Blair finally appeared before the Chilcot Public Inquiry into British involvement in the Iraq War.
- The UK severed diplomatic relations with Iran.
- Barack Obama (remember him?) announced the killing of Osama Bin Laden.
- Mobile internet use reached 50 percent of Britons (I waited another five years).
- The UK enjoyed its second warmest year on record, in its warmest decade, on a globally warming planet. Yay.
From this list, 2011 looks like a disaster. At the time, it probably felt like a disaster. It certainly presaged disaster. And yet, in my own personal memory, it wasn’t so bad.
Human beings see the world through two very different pairs of Experience Spectacles, and we switch between the two depending on whether we are thinking about current events or thinking about past events.
Our current experience spectacles tend to give us laser focus on the bad shit, while blurring out the good stuff. Our past experience spectacles have the opposite effect. They tend to filter out the horror, smooth over the ugly, and focus on the good shit.
We switch between these two very different prescriptions for excellent evolutionary reasons. After all, Bad News Now could imminently threaten our lives and livelihood.
(I won’t labour the obvious point about how modern communications technologies have radically altered the availability and quantity of Bad News Now, but suffice to say that, if we wanted, we could find a different awful thing to think about every minute of our lives. Whether you see that as a healthy contributor to your own experience is none of my business.)
Conversely, there’s not much evolutionary benefit to holding onto Bad News Then because we have, by definition, survived it. That’s why not many of us are still bitter about King Narmer’s Nile Valley power-grab in the fourth millennium BCE.
As with my memories of 2011, we are better off remembering things that make us feel good or continue to offer meaning to our lives: completing my first epic bike ride, a painful shoulder that still pops out on me, the kindness of my grandma.
The thing is that we all know that our experience of present and past is coloured by these two very different pairs of spectacles, but we could do a lot more to correct their alternately dystopian and utopian lenses.
On the one hand, we would do well to spend more time fishing upstream in the meandering river of history to modulate our Pollyanna memories. Reminding myself of the tribulations of 2011 not only reassures me that even awful events are survivable, but also offers understanding of what was to come, and of what is perhaps still to come.
In December 2011, Prime Minister David Cameron vetoed a European Union treaty that was designed to address the on-going eurozone crisis (remember that?). The Conservative party was behind Labour in the polls at the time and this anti-European veto gave him a popular bounce. However, Conservative newspaper The Sunday Telegraph ran an independent survey that found a majority of voters now wanted a referendum on the UK’s membership of the EU.
I’m not alone in my memory of the vote to leave the EU in 2016 being a surprise campaign of disinformation and violence. But five years before Brexit, the drums were already beating.
Equally, we should make much more of an effort to place Bad News Now into a broader historical narrative. We’re so wrapped up in 2020 that we forget everything that’s ever happened and everything that ever will.
The antidote is to check that whatever is important to you is where you’re putting your attention. Stay focussed on your place in history, not your gut reaction to Bad News Now.
2020 is a terrible year. Too many people won’t be here for the future. But, for most, even 2020 is a survivable moment if we stick to what we do best: community. What counts now is not the bad news, but how we help each other through, until our memories do their opiate work of erasure and we can hold hands again.