Forgive the silence. Odd as it may seem, Penny and I have been on something called a holiday. I know that many others have tried it, with mixed results, ranging from being caught by sudden quarantine restrictions, to finding bookings cancelled, through to the simpler surprise and pleasure of actually getting a break. Ours was a strange mix, in many ways. It was our third attempt to go somewhere in the UK this year, two previous bookings having been suspended. That meant that, until the day we drove off, anxiety and uncertainty that it would never happen accompanied the hope, and the packing. National rules kept changing, with one big shift announced for three days into our break, making planning about who we’d meet, what we’d do, etc, depressing at worst, tenuous at best.
Our break was a cocktail of trying to switch off on matters Covid, and, naturally, meeting them all around us. The relief and pleasure to be away, in different surroundings, with views over the sea and seal pups to charm us, was frequently set, at least for me, against other feelings. I often felt a ‘background anxiety’, found myself easily tired, and was frequently disturbed to realise that I was just angry. These emotions did not appear simply to be about risks of infection/infecting, even about chaotic government, but about the state of the world – and probably myself – in general. I wanted to act responsibly, while suppressing irritation about far from logical rules, and the urge just to behave ‘normally’. I felt liberated by doing something, and yet constrained at the same time. I was pleased to meet people, but frustrated and wearied by the amount of attention that had to go into doing so responsibly. I wanted to seize the moment, while being darkly preoccupied with the future. I felt optimistic, a bit of a free agent, whilst all the time feeling rather helpless and trapped. I could go on, but I think you’ll get the drift: though much pleasure was had, for some of the time, at least, I was not great company, for myself or others.
All this was happening to someone who did (and does) not have Covid, nor any friend or relative currently infected; to someone who does not have to scrape by in poverty, self-isolate in a tiny student room, open a shop or cafe, teach a class, work in a ward or care home, drive a bus, run the country, etc. A relatively privileged white man of a certain age, who has simply experienced, watched and thought about what’s been happening for what is proving a very long time.
The challenges for me, though, may point to those for everyone, especially people who do have such bigger issues to face. In difficult times, attempts to relate to others, to cooperate and plan, to make things happen, are always infected, to some extent, by anxiety or rage. There is a constant tension between being preoccupied with self and being thoughtful about others, between pleasure and hope at being amongst people, and uncertainty about it. One’s creativity and sense of agency are often at odds with feelings of restriction, helplessness, even despair.
A central theme in our book, Intelligent Kindness, is the management of anxiety; how, when it is denied, or allowed too much power to infect decisions, or behaviour, it can lead to at best unintended consequences, at worst to toxic social and organisational environments. Whether we belong to the worried and dutiful, the quietly sensible, the devil-may care, the frustrated and sceptical, or the conspiracy-theory and aggressively libertarian wings of society, anxiety is a natural, but potentially dangerous factor in all our lives. It can direct our attention sensibly, or undermine rational thinking; it can heighten our awareness, or make us obsessively, even ritualistically, tunnel-visioned; it can generate concern and fellow-feeling, or make us self-obsessed and neglectful of others. Anxiety can make us actively work to create safety, but it can also pull us down into passive helplessness, or, just as bad, push us into controlling, even omnipotent, behaviour. It is most dangerous when either allowed to swamp other feelings and thoughts, or, especially, when it is denied. In both these cases, anxiety warps our agency, our common sense, our creativity, our ability to acknowledge our errors, our general behaviour. When anxiety about one thing dominates, consciously or unconsciously, we can fail to engage and listen, to attend to other risks, or, just as serious, fail to embrace opportunities for pleasure, companionship, or creativity.
Whether we are governing the country, trying to open a school or university to students, running a business, working in health or social care, or simply trying to get by, anxiety is ever-present. If we acknowledge it, and pay attention to how it is affecting our thoughts, actions and relationships, there is less danger of it skewing, even poisoning, our decisions and behaviour. Crucially, we need to contain it, to pay attention to whether we are passing it on unhelpfully to others, or able to reflect, to mitigate risks, and get on with what matters. Those of us with responsibilities for others, with leadership roles, must take care not to panic or falsely reassure those for whom we lead. We must avoid undermining their intelligence, imagination, creativity and individual agency by simply telling them what to do. We need to avoid the heroic, the gung-ho, the over-simplistic, the over-optimistic and the over-miserabilist, in our dealings with those for whom we have responsibility. Crucially, we must not separate ourselves from them, and fall into the trap of believing we can manage the problems and anxieties without their contribution. Anxiety is best contained and managed by honesty, dialogue, listening to each other, mutual support and cooperation.
On our holiday, we dropped into shops and cafes. We stayed for some of the time in a hotel. We joined a fabulous, hair-raising speed-boat trip around rocky islands. What was noticeable was how visiting places ostensibly following the same rules and procedures could evoke such contrasting feelings. In some, the risks had clearly been assessed, arrangements made, staff involved, confidence built, and the experience for all seemed to be reassuring, welcoming, sociable. We could all comfortably enjoy what we were there for. In others, rules seemed to be being anxiously, even aggressively, enforced, and attention to risks reduced to getting people to follow them, rather than paying attention to the whole situation. In these places, staff appeared to be mechanically preoccupied with their duties to implement procedures, ‘following orders’ rather than being active human agents, safe enough in themselves, and free to use their own intelligence, to engage with others as people. Some staff appeared anxious and even resentful. Clearly, some of these contrasts will have been down to individual psychology, but I’m pretty sure that the spirit in which staff – and customers – were respected, engaged with, involved, freed up to be themselves within necessary constraints, mattered a lot. In some places, leaders seemed to have swamped everyone with anxiety – about infection, yes, but also about doing things wrong, maybe even about other people in general. In others, safe social rules took their place in an optimistic, attentive and sociable environment. It would be good if policy makers, leaders and managers – all of us as citizens, workers and family members – could think more about all this. The risks we all face are going to go on for some time yet.