A couple of days after reading Penny’s cheering post about community and collaboration, I visited our local shop: the one she described as making such a positive contribution to our community. Behind the counter, shielded a little by the plastic screen, was one of the staff, a young woman. She was obviously distressed, and had been weeping. I gently asked what was wrong.
A car with two young men in it had pulled up outside the store a few minutes before. One of them had come in, looking for alcohol. He’d ignored the one-way system around the aisles, and social distancing. The young woman had come out from behind the counter and politely reminded him of the rules. Obviously under the influence of various intoxicants, he’d quickly picked an argument with her. When she had tried to insist more strongly, he’d slammed her up against the wall and threatened her with worse. She was a strong, tall, and clearly fit young woman, but she had been hurt and badly frightened. The police had been called.
A few days later, I visited a small supermarket to do our weekly shop. Well laid out, with a good-natured holding queue outside, and careful markings about which aisles to enter in which directions, it felt a safe place to shop. And then I found a young girl wandering in the wrong direction. I looked around and saw her mother a few feet away. I paused, expecting the mother to collect the child and continue ‘correctly’. Instead, the woman wandered past her child, going the wrong way, straight into my space – not just within two metres, but crowding me as I stood. Inside, I seethed. After she’d passed, I continued, only to encounter a middle-aged man at the end of the aisle. He looked down at the ‘no entry’ sign on the floor, frowned and tutted, and proceeded to ignore it, pushing past me. I steamed inside, fantasised punching him, and pressed on, grimly.
Among the many heart-warming and reassuring stories of community spirit in care settings, I’m hearing of stand-up, noisy and aggressive arguments between clinicians. Some of the increasing number of road rage events happening daily in our relatively quiet street may actually involve health or social care staff on their way to or to or from work. Some may involve characters like that violent shopper. The hooting and screaming young drivers may be the same people who are aggressively tossing bag loads of rubbish around our village green after feasting on crisps, chocolate, alcohol and energy drinks – and a joint or six.
All the characters above, including me, were feeling rage, for various reasons. However cooperative, people tend to resent rules, disruptions to their routines, barriers to meeting their felt needs as they damn well wish to. However positively most of us buckle down to this strange way of life, the anxiety, uncertainty, inconvenience and frustration we swallow puts us all on edge. However philosophically we cope with loss of income, fears about our futures, curtailments to our liberty, resentment bubbles away. And sometimes it tips over into rage, a convenient target having been identified – whether a rule impatiently and theatrically to break, a person to attack, a group to vilify – or of course, an easy public scapegoat like Neil Ferguson. Empathy and fellow feeling are eclipsed by the chance to ventilate primitive feelings. Some, like me in the supermarket, will be fortunate enough to be able to note and contain such feelings – even, quite soon, to laugh at themselves – but many will not.
Sometimes there is a relatively understandable reason for the targets we choose for our rage: like inter-departmental tensions in a hospital during exceptional times; like a person breaking the rules; like a politician seeming to be incompetent or out of touch. Work can be done to address, even resolve, such issues: discussions to thrash out differences; correction of ‘bad’ behaviour; modification of action or communication. It would be dangerous and naïve, though, to think that such adjustments are really going to neutralise, calm, or remove the angry feelings most of us will have somewhere inside us. Some of us will have soothing or containing ways of managing. Some will just be constitutionally more ‘chilled’. Some of us may be lucky enough to be able to project our feelings self-righteously, and with comforting certainty, into critical views about government policy or action. Some will have emotionally intelligent partners, family, friends, around who can meet and help with our feelings constructively. But all of us will have troubled minds to some extent, and many will be, not to overstate the point, burning, or exploding with rage, even hunting for prey.
As we prepare for the next phases of the Covid-19 experience, we, and our leaders, need to think seriously about how to address this disturbing reality. How we manage it, individually, in groups, as a society and globally, will be a key determinant of ‘recovery’. I will return to this question tomorrow.