It is, of course, the season to be jolly, but also when we all look back over the year just gone, and think ahead to what might just be. The media are awash with such reflections and speculations, so I hope you’ll forgive me if I add some random thoughts of my own.
The backdrop is, of course, another strange year. We all thought 2020 particularly bad, and 2021 seemed overall like something of an improvement until recent events took hold and massively lowered our expectations.
Beyond the pandemic, the manner of our departure from Afghanistan signalled a retreat – of the West, and of its values – with which we’ll be living for many years to come, but also rained very immediate repercussions on thousands of Afghans who had hoped for a different future. The climate emergency maintained its not so glacial progress towards transforming our world for ill. And know-nothing populism continued to drag us all to hell in a handcart, though we also saw, perhaps, the first glimmerings of it being found out. There might just be a renewed appetite for competent governance rather than the nationwide reality TV immersive experience we’ve had to endure in recent years.
At an altogether more tactical level, 2021 brought a couple of personal reverses. First, two nights wired up in hospital with the recurrence of an old heart complaint. The episode itself passed quite quickly, but made me re-evaluate how well I was performing at the whole business of retirement (‘overdoing it’, said the report card).
The blog was one self-imposed pressure I decided to back away from a little, though perhaps not as much as eventually came to be the case (my apologies for that, and my thanks to those of you who have inquired why the blogs have been so infrequent). There were also a number of other priorities which I’ll come back to and which presented an opportunity cost to blog writing. In any event, my blogs in 2022 are likely to be a bit like London buses: either infrequent, or several arriving together.
The second negative was the loss of a very dear close relative. Together with the hospitalisation, this intimation of mortality preoccupied me for quite a while, and still does to an extent – the glidepath to a ‘steady state’ mentality can follow a frustratingly shallow trajectory.
And as she was the last of the generation ahead of mine in my family, there was a sense of the foundational elements of my early life having vanished irreversibly. The people who had guided me into adulthood, provided role models, supported and nurtured me through life’s peaks and troughs – well, they were now no more, and any questions I might have wanted to ask of them, I no longer could.
It’s easy to get maudlin about these melancholy aspects of our progress through life, and of course I recognise that I am still surrounded by remarkable people whose influence and impact have in many ways supplanted those of the generation now gone. I have learned that I need to maintain contact with the past, but not be enveloped by it. And it is of course unhealthy completely to let loose the shackles of sentiment – the tears shed for those now gone reflect not a predisposition to morbid reflection, but rather our innate humanity.
At the same time as the debits were recorded in the ledger of the year just gone, many credits found their way into the balancing column. My elder daughter married and my younger daughter got engaged; I sang my first operatic solo; met up with old and treasured friends; in the course of championing LGBTQ+ allyship, found myself on a panel being quizzed by Clare Balding and on the touchline at The Valley being interviewed for Charlton TV; spent a lot of time thinking about how best to provide pastoral support to non-religious members of the armed forces; saw some marsh harriers; and watched an emergent dragonfly take its first flight.
And here we are, near to year’s end, and even closer to Christmas. As a humanist, I don’t look for any religious message at this time of year, though I recall with great fondness the magic I felt as a child as the nights closed in and the Christmas story stirred my imagination and framed my perception of the world. Above all, and remembering that lost generation, it was a time for family – and still is.
I’m delighted that Christian friends get that added layer of meaning from the event, even if I don’t. But it’s still an important time of year for me and other non-religious people, the moment when we pivot from the coldest, darkest moments of our annual existence into the possibility of optimism for the time to come. I often half joke that spring begins at New Year, and summer in March – an act of self-deception that helps to see me through the coldest, wettest months and anticipate the casting of clouts when the rays of the sun first carry inklings of warmth.
Let’s hope that 2022 brings such brighter days, and respite from crisis and despondency, sooner rather than later. Let’s build an expectation that there are better ways of managing human affairs and those of our planet than passive acquiescence in decline and acceptance of the primacy of greed. Let’s see this Christmas and New Year as a turning point, a moment when the multiple challenges we face inspire innovation, co-operation and effective leadership.
Pious hopes, maybe. But if you don’t ask, you don’t get.