A couple of months ago, Britain voted to leave the European Union. Was it that recent? Really? It seems like years ago. I’d almost forgotten about it.
My attitude is perhaps tainted by the fact that I was a sceptical Remainer. Part of me was intrigued by the prospect of leaving the EU and wondered what it would be like. On balance, I decided I would rather not find out what it would be like. And I had a horror of the company I would be keeping if I voted to leave. But perhaps I’m not alone in feeling that, good or bad, the decision has been made and we now have to make the best of it. There is no point in dwelling on what is already in the past.
Some people are still dressed in sackcloth and ashes and are muttering about leaving the country. Economists poke into the entrails of the economy to see what effect Brexit has had, and there appears to have been some negative effect. We don’t know how long that might last. In due course, the terms of the divorce settlement will be agreed and we will no doubt have an argument about that.
But, for the most part, the decision is behind us and on we go. We do our job, get the shopping and pay the mortgage. What is done is done. (That was the significance of Theresa May’s comment ‘Brexit means Brexit’. People complained that it was meaningless, which on one level it was. Psychologically, it was another way of saying ‘let’s move on’, which was both necessary and what most people probably wanted to hear.)
We’ve been here before. For more than forty years, I was told (and found it easy to believe) that the Cold War was the most important issue in the world in which I lived. It affected every interpretation of the wider world and governed the foreign and defence policies of all major countries. It was the prism through which any significant world event was viewed.
Then the Cold War disappeared. Vanished. One day it was there, marginally thawed by the presence of Mikhail Gorbachev, making a move towards the chiller cabinet, but still pretty icy. The next day it had gone. Now where did that damned Cold War go? It must be here somewhere; I was using it only yesterday. Not long after its disappearance, it was not only history, but felt like ancient history.
This is a slight exaggeration, but not much of one. The Iron Curtain did not disappear overnight but, considering the size and apparent permanence of the edifice, it collapsed with bewildering speed. And did we spend much time wondering at this phenomenon? No. The day after the Berlin Wall fell, we went off to work and life continued as usual.
If I were asked to name the most remarkable attribute of humanity, I would say: resilience. You’re sent to the Western Front, go over the top, step over the putrefying corpses, get gassed, come home and get a job with the Gas Board. Or you’re sent to Burma, get taken prisoner, work on the railroad, are tortured and starved for three years, come home and become an executive in British Rail. Or you speak out against apartheid, denounce the President of South Africa, get jailed for 28 years and come out to find you are the President of South Africa. Is there no limit to what human beings can endure, or to the transformations we are able to make? Apparently not.
As for everyone, there have been crises in my life, times when I haven’t been able to see the wood for the trees, times when I have doubted whether I would find my way out of the forest. Yet, somehow or other, I always have. And, somehow or other, most people find the means to escape most predicaments and the resilience to construct a new life afterwards.
None of this is intended to minimise the psychological damage inflicted by traumatic events, nor to deny that their consequences endure, but the continuity of damage seems less remarkable than the continuity of life. Does anything really surprise us? In terms of individual events, yes: it is a surprise if a particular disaster occurs. But it is no surprise at all that there should be disasters. We know that, for the foreseeable future, there will be terrorist attacks in Europe, and probably in Britain. We just don’t know where or when.
It is the same with our own lives. We have no idea exactly what is going to happen, but we know that something is going to happen (even if only death) so that, when it does, it does not truly surprise us. Life goes on, we say, and it does because it has to.
We always start from here. And here is a compendium of everything that has gone before, the bad as well as the good. That is what revolutionaries and nostalgists fail to understand: they start from the future or the past. They never start from here. But here is where we are, and it is from here that we will proceed, with all the resilience we can muster.