We have spent some time this week clearing the apartment of Helen’s late aunt Myrtle. Our sorting experience has been no different from other times we have done this for elderly relatives. Outdated road maps of Britain, unfashionable clothes, dusty artificial flowers, an encyclopaedia overtaken by events – and, in this case, gadgets whose precise purpose is unclear - these can all go in the bin. Fairly easy choices.
But then there are those items which might just be useful to someone or other. Sorting begins to get more difficult. Some things which are definitely charity shop quality (when they open again!). Then there are objects which someone might like for sentimental reasons. An old photograph or letter or postcard falls from its decades-long resting place. Our curiosity is aroused, the memories return, and the clearing process grinds to a halt.
The whole business is informed by a wish to maintain some sort of connectedness with the last of a generation of the family. Her hoarding of what sometimes seems like clutter to us was an expression of values and commitments which would have seemed important at the time they were formed. Experience of the rigours of war which taught everyone to waste nothing. A life-time habit of making use of anything which came to hand to create her own teaching materials for the children whom she loved to the end. Decades of disability that had developed her need to buy online and often in bulk – to save trouble and inconvenience to others.
Someone suggested we just ‘bring in a house clearance company’. We shall not! Doing it ourselves is a matter of affection and respect for a life which mattered to us. We are laying to rest the treasures of a life. And we are examining our roots. We are assessing the values of a generation who gave us our values. This is not simply a house clearance. It is connecting with a life and looking at the values we have inherited from the generation before.
As we were doing our sorting, another group – American voters in the American presidential election - were also deciding what to retain and what to discard. In their case, of course, in their government and common political life. There too, values are clearly changing from generation to generation, across divides of cultures and ideologies. Unless connections are made across those divides – the alternative could be chaos.
Democracies, like families, require regular and committed investments of time and effort to discover, express and live healthy, sustainable values – and to stay connected while doing so! None of us does that perfectly. But, if they are to work well, national values need to be regularly examined – not just on a ‘party’ level but by individuals. The business of democracy, of deciding what to keep and what to throw out takes care, thought – and wisdom. As so many people have pointed out, it is cumbersome. But if enough electors aren’t taking the time to reflect, the choices of leaders, like the election promises of those same leaders, will be superficial. If there is a majority unwilling to examine carefully the values behind the superficial statements of divisive leaders, the result is clear: leaders who trade in divisiveness and xenophobia.
As we two continue to sort out our tiny-scale chaos on our side of the Atlantic, we can only continue to pray for the sake of our good American friends, that healthy connections can be made and sanity prevail on the grand scale in what, at the moment, looks like the chaos on the other side!