Grieving a world that never existed
Disappointment doesn’t really capture how I feel. I came to this realization reading Leila Billing’s blog on grief in the workplace. Her piece is about the personal losses and grief that pervade workplaces during the pandemic and how these are a factor in staff morale, organizational operation, and an important challenge for management and leadership of organizations. She also touches on “toxic positivity” that can be tone-deaf or even demoralizing.
It got me thinking about my own feelings about work which are complex and sometimes contradictory. And I realized that I’m experiencing a kind of grief.
I locate the start of my grief with the murder of Jo Cox in the summer of 2016. Jo was a friend and colleague from Oxfam. She was young and bright with young children and a bright future. And she was a leader in politics for humanitarian values and empathy. She was an advocate for unity: campaigned against the Scottish independence referendum and then against Brexit.
Her murder was awful in so many ways. But, in my mind, it would have had some kind of meaning if it helped turn the public against the racist, jingoistic political trend. Her murder was just one week before the Brexit vote, and I thought, this would surely turn the tide.
And then Brexit passed.
And that was the start of a kind of unraveling of my faith in progress. Jo Cox, then Brexit, then Trump, now Johnson. Then miserable response to the global pandemic which is killing millions, the incompetence of international and US public health institutions. The slow torture watching feckless leaders and institutions flail in the face of challenges. On so many issues. I could make a long list.
It’s more than disappointment that I feel. I think it’s more akin to grief. I’m grieving for my own illusions — for the things I no longer believe, for the many things I hoped were true and are now quite manifestly not. Things like believing that governments would take decisive action around a global public health emergency, that international solidarity and cooperation would prevail, that the “liberal international order” would come to the rescue. I’m so sad to know that it’s not true. Probably never was.
I’m not through this grief and so I’m not resolved. I’m not sure how I feel. I’m not sure what to do. Most days, I suspend my disbelief and plod along as if the old order and certainties still prevail. I do the things we might do if we were trying to patch it all together again. I pretend that our institutions aren’t a shambles. I affirm the catechisms of human rights, a rules-based international order, democracy, rule-of-law, the Sustainable Development Goals. The great modernist project. Other days, I feel it’s quite pointless and even damaging to try to prop up the smoldering embers of of a house that has already burnt down. Sometimes, I feel anger — even rage. More often, I feel sad and cynical.
What I can’t abide is pretending like nothing has happened; that we didn’t elect Trump, that Brexit didn’t win, that the hope and vision of Jo Cox hasn’t been darkened. There will be no rescue and I still don’t quite know what that means. Do we loyally stick to the plan, the talking points, the grand strategy and hope for the best? Or do we acknowledge that it’s hopeless and wasteful and try something different? But what?
I think this becomes a leadership and management issue for organizations in the international development sector, broadly defined. We can’t trudge along with our projects as if the world today is the same as it was 6 years ago. Too much has happened: DFID is no more, right-wing authoritarianism is ascendant, public opinion has turned inwards and polarized. Many institutions themselves are facing crises of legitimacy in the face of emergent social movements: Black Lives Matter, #MeToo, Decolonize Aid.
Some people will turn inwards — maybe try meditation or seek some spiritual counsel. Some will leave this work. But, I’m not willing to abandon hope for a better world, a better future for humanity. And a better humanity for the future. If what we’ve tried hasn’t worked, or has produced only temporary progress, then that doesn’t yet mean that something else can’t. But what?