Bursting the bubble.

Bursting the bubble.

I was walking around the lanes by our house this morning. This is the usual way I start the day; I walk the lanes around the perimeter of the farm. Earlier in the year it was good to make a check first thing to ensure there were no new lambs born overnight. It is always good just to cast an eye over the stock and the fencing. Later in the year it is vital to check for wind or flood damage and to check no trees have been brought down. It is the start of my day’s routines and, these times of lockdown, it is my social life. I will often meet a neighbour, usually the smallholder down the valley checking his fields, walking or occasionally driving past. Keeping 2 meters apart we can pass a pleasant half an hour so as we share whatever information we have of the goings on locally. This morning it was the girl from the top of the valley en route to collect animal feed. I was surprised to see her as she has just recently got her driving licence and was using her mother’s car, so I had not expected to speak to her when the car stopped. I had expected one of her parents. She was enjoying the freedom of being able to drive but had not been able to use it properly. As just after she gained the right to drive, the lockdown started, and nobody was able to go anywhere. Even now we are limited in Wales to travel of less than 5 miles. We had a pleasant chat, discussed when shearing might take place this year and we went on with our days. It was an unremarkable to start to the day, but as I walked home, I realised that it was much more significant than that.

As I walked, I realised that, for all my adult life before moving here, I have lived in a variety of bubbles. It started after I left school and went to university. During my time at medical school I mixed with students, nearly everyone I met was within 5 years of my age and all had similar backgrounds; we were all swots from school starting out in the big wide world. Then after graduation my bubble became even more tightly defined. As a junior doctor my life became the hospital, I mixed almost exclusively with NHS employees, I had very few friends who were not healthcare professionals of some sort. Later, as I bought property and had children the bubble changed but didn’t really expand much. Life became focused on childcare and work – so now most of my acquaintances were still healthcare professionals but limited now to those with young children (Those without children were doing things like travelling or having fun. They also could not feign adequate interest in a conversation about the best playgroups in the area).

The children grew up and escaped, I progressed in my career and moved house a few times but latterly, before I moved here, my bubble was still around me. I now lived in a quite grand house in an area of the city where all the houses were quite fancy. Hence all the people were people who could afford fancy houses, that is, middle-aged middle-class people like me. I didn’t know my neighbours well but did join clubs and societies as there were many options for this in the city. However, these were places where I met people who had similar interest to myself. So, I met a more middle-aged, middle-class, professional people like myself. They tended to have the same set of worries and concerns as me, read the same newspapers as I did, and increasingly held the same views as me. In the days before twitter and facebook we already had echo chambers, it was rare to meet someone out of your own class, or age-group, or to hear discordant views. If people held them, they were too polite, or frightened, to express them. In the city there were so many people I could choose my friends but this simple act of choosing meant I tended to gather with people I anticipated I’d like. This reduced the diversity of my social circle and, I suppose, narrowed my life.

I would never have stopped and had a half hour chat with a teenager when I lived in the city. This is a difference in small towns and the country. In this setting we have less people living adjacent to us but paradoxically this promotes a wider spread of friendships. In the city I could elect to mix with a certain group of people, chosen by my employment or interests. Here this is not possible; my neighbours and acquaintances are who they are. They are chosen by geography not by me. In the village hall committee we have doctors, farmers, teachers, labourers, electricians and carpenters. The age range in the committee is from 17 to 80 something. A similar range of ages and occupations are involved in the local show organising committee or in meetings for the town council. I was first struck by the class differences in meetings as, before moving, I had been sequestered in a little urban enclave with little variation. However, over the years it has been the intergenerational communications that have impressed me most. Age is no real barrier to communication possibly simply because the old know the young. An older person, like myself, walking through the town doesn’t just see ‘kids’ or ‘youths’; I see Geraint’s son or Ceri’s daughter, or perhaps the guy who sheared our sheep or limed our field, or perhaps Meilir who works in the insurance office who organised our woodland cover.

As I walked home this morning, I was glad I’d heard a 17 year old’s views on lockdown and the protesting in London. Yesterday, hearing a sheep farmer’s views on Brexit was helpful in broadening my perspective, as it was when I talked to our local electrician about the organization of the Health Service in North Wales. If I’d stayed in the city, mixing only with the likes of myself, and getting confirmatory views from the media I’m sure I’d have been a bitter, angry and opinionated man railing against the stupidity of a world that doesn’t see things my way. Thankfully now I hear enough views to know that there is always more than one way to look at things. I also know that a feeling of certainty and confidence is often the feeling that presages disappointment. I am glad I have burst out of the small bubble I used to inhabit and now have a more diverse set of friends. There is a lot to be said for the wisdom of crowds.

There is always something to be ashamed of (*)

When I made the jump and left the city for the rural life I was uncertain about how some aspects of my life might change. I was, however, quite sure that moving to a smaller community would be better. In his book, Sapiens: A brief history of mankind, Yuval Harari suggests that the largest group that we can live amongst comfortably, knowing our family and neighbours, is 150 of our fellows – above this number we need to call on cultural developments to substitute for our personal knowledge of people. In essence, up to 150 people – then first hand knowledge and gossip allow us to cope, above this we need extra strategies.

In the city I was aware that I was in a huge amorphous mass of people. Because we lived closely packed together our privacy became important. It was important to keep your life separate from your neighbours as we lived cheek by jowl with them. When the situation forces you to live close with your fellows and en masse it becomes important to keep your distance. Paradoxically, though I lived in a large group I knew relatively few people, I knew my immediate neighbours, but relatively few others in the street. I knew very little about people living 100 yards from my front door.

In place of my local community I had my professional community. I mixed with other NHS consultants, lawyers and teachers, in short I mixed with people like me. We would meet and bemoan why others  did not see the world as we did and could not see how correct we were in our analyses.   In the days before social media there were already echo chambers and I lived inside one. My already skewed viewpoint became increasingly bent by agreement and repetition.

When I moved, one of the first obvious differences I noted were the simple benefits of living in a small local community. Within a very short period I knew my neighbours;  I knew the shop workers, the staff that worked in the local farmers market, the farm workers, the foresters, the mechanics,  the people who worked the land adjacent to ours. I quickly discovered that I knew many more people, not just by sight but their name and history, than I ever had known when I lived in the large city.

It was, and is, a pleasant feeling to recognise your fellows when out and about. It gives a warm feeling of community and sense of security. During the recent storms it was our neighbours who sorted out the problems of fallen trees and blocked roads well before the local authority even thought about responding. When I have had problems with livestock it has been neighbours who have assisted and I have, in my turn, assisted them. When walking through the town centre I can recognise the faces of strangers and visitors to the area as I know who is local and who is just passing through.

In the main I like this but I have been aware that this is not a simple relationship but something that strikes at the core of living in a community. Because I know others, they know me, this means my reputation is much more important than it ever was before. When you are anonymous it doesn’t matter much about your reputation.  If you committed some heinous crime life would be much harder in a small community. True, if there were exonerating circumstances these may be more likely to be recognised (and taken into account), but failing this if you become the outlaw then you might prefer the anonymity of the city rather than the gaze of your fellows.

However, even at a much smaller level this reliance on reputation and knowledge of our fellows is important and, I feel, has beneficial effects on our behaviour. Imagine you are driving through town and someone pulls out suddenly and cuts you up. In the city it is all too easy to jerk the finger and shout the expletives, you’ll never see them again. In this community you might look in the car window and see your elderly neighbour on the way home after a worrisome visit to the doctors, you really don’t want to be shouting and gesticulating. Indeed had you done so you would rightly feel ashamed about your uncouth behaviour.

In the town if you drive along and notice someone with a flat tyre it is quite easy to drive past and reassure yourself that they will have phoned for help. Here, in this community,  you will know that you could be recognised, even if you do not recognise them, and it will be known that you did not help.  Passing on the other side would be the wrong thing to do, your reputation would suffer, and you would tend to feel shame and guilt that you had not taken the opportunity to help a fellow in need. In smaller communities you will tend to work with the same people again and again rather than interacting with many people on single, or a few, occasions. This allows you to develop your reputation by repeatedly showing such characteristics as honesty, fairness, punctuality or diligence. In short, you are able to demonstrate your honour.

I had not anticipated that a move to a smaller community would put me in closer contact to feelings of shame and its opposite honour. I am glad that it has as it has reconnected me with my own core beliefs. I know what I think is important and I now have to try to live in accord with these principles. This rediscovery of shame is important and beneficial. It is through shame that we change our behaviour, without it we can plod on seemingly oblivious to our failings and mistakes. I fear in larger societies we have substituted a culture of dignity for a culture of honour. We have substituted the right to respect for the duty to earn it.  While this may help maintain social cohesion by asking very little of individuals other then a modicum of good behaviour it means we lose some of the ability for self-improvement.

In a culture which has little role for11REGRET-popup shame, and tends to feel that we should accept everyone for who they are regardless, there are few prompts for people to improve themselves. As I have reported before, I wish people had cared enough about me, and dared, to comment on my gluttony and obesity so that shame may have driven me to diet  – rather than, as was the case, fear of death from diabetic complications prompting me to do so. For many of the current problems by which we are beset, are often the consequences of excess, indulgence or of short term thinking – an early experience of shame might be much preferable to the later damage experienced.

Most religions, indeed most moral codes, stress the importance of self awareness and self scrutiny so that we may be aware of our failings and correct them. The story of Adam and Eve in the bible can be read as mankind’s discovery of shame and recognition of our failings is integral to Christianity (“Indeed, there is not a righteous man on earth who continually does good and who never sins.” Ecclesiastes 7:20) . Likewise recognition of misdeeds and repentance are core constructs in the Jewish (Teshuva) and Islamic faiths (Tawba) and means whereby we instruct ourselves to become better people.

If we build an increasingly shameless society, one in which we are fearful of judging our own or others behaviour, we should not be surprised if it behaves in a shameless manner. If we take away one of our checks and balances we can expect to see increasing problems with excessive consumption, poor interpersonal relationships and failure to be good custodians of our environment. Let’s hear it for shame ! Even in large societal groups we still need shame,  the exhortation that “If it feels good do it !” is fine as long as it is accompanied by the knowledge “If it is wrong don’t do it”, you need both halves of the equation to live well.


(*) In this case it is my grammar, and ending a sentence with a preposition, which causes my blushes – “There is always something of which we can be ashamed” – Sorry, I’ll try harder. This is something I won’t put up with !