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Helpline please - after the news!


In the UK, it is not unusual for a TV programme to be followed by a message like this: ‘If any viewers have found the theme of this programme distressing and would like support, please contact the helpline at…’ It may follow a disturbing documentary or drama dealing with issues like domestic abuse, addiction, or any of life’s dark episodes.

But the time when I could really use a helpline is after the evening news bulletin or a scan of a news website. More refugees drowned in the Mediterranean, more Brexit confusion, more negligence in nursing homes, more hacking into sensitive databases, more world leaders flexing their dangerous muscles, more evidence that this is the hottest year on record. It’s often overwhelming. A helpline then might help me retain some sane understanding of the world around me.

I easily throw my hands up in despair and blame ‘them’, some ‘other’. ‘These politicians, these leaders of this and that – they’re all in it for themselves’. Or, making full use of the gift of hindsight, I might mutter at the screen: ‘It’s their own fault’. Or ‘They should not have done x in the first place’.

While there may be (more than) a grain of truth in my reactions, if I’m honest, I know they often betray some lazy thinking on my part. Many politicians and administrators are very devoted to public service. Many are devoted to the communities they represent. Many workers in underfunded institutions are doing their best in difficult situations…and, true, sometimes it’s not enough.

Maybe I should try to understand our public servants a little better. Recognize the very tight corners in which they sometimes have to operate. The facts of the matter are rarely as straightforward as this armchair critic pretends.

Of course, there are charlatans in places high and low. And ‘jobsworths’ and ambitious and lazy people. They must be held accountable. But habitual cynicism about them is often just lazy thinking. I find it all too easy to sink into a kind of helpless or bored cynicism. But cynicism can be dangerous. It can lead me to doubt the honest intentions of anyone at all.

These days, we take it so much for granted that all citizens should have an equal voice in public affairs. We easily forget that it has not always been so. This year is the centenary of (some) women in the UK getting the vote. In large part, we have the Suffragettes to thank for that.

Those women (and some men who supported of them) were critical of social and political injustices. They used all kinds of methods to draw their concerns to the attention of a men-only electorate and an all-male parliament. And sometimes, what they did was shocking. Many of them risked their reputations. Opponents certainly accused the women of being too rebellious or unladylike or just in it for themselves. Some of them risked their lives. All of them had some very difficult judgements to make in their pursuit of the greater good for women.

As I’ve revisited the history of the suffrage movement through anniversary documentaries, I’ve been reminded of one important principle exemplified by these brave women in their motto: 'Deeds not words'.They decided to get off the side lines and do something about the problems they saw. For many it was just small things, stuffing envelopes or just turning up at an event. They did not simply sink into cynicism. They showed up.

Next time I am tempted to shout at the screen, even at the heart of my sense of powerlessness in the face of the relentless bad news, I’m going to try and give a moment’s thought to how I might ‘show up’.


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