The Emotions of Change: A postscript to The Fragility of Democracy essays
The photo above has a curious back-and-forth quality. It’s of me in Albania in 2019, a country I’d wanted to visit since hearing of the bizarrely isolated communist state in the late 1980s. I’m in a cafe which pays a kind of ironic homage to the country’s half-century of authoritarianism, and I’m on the phone — the kind of dial phone I was always on during my English adolescence. Is it my adult self phoning back to her earlier self, after a childhood part-formed by the legacy of Nazism, with some message from the future? Or is the mature woman taking a call from her younger self — one fascinated by authoritarianism — calling to tell me that the time has come to test, in real life, the lessons of the past?
Many months on from the writing of these essays and still teaching dystopian literature to children in Melbourne under lockdown, I’m starting to recover from the upending of western society, particularly my native Britain. Central to my recovery is my new life in Lisbon where, spurred by by feelings of growing alarm about what was happening in the UK, I came last winter with one suitcase.
I didn’t know it then, but over in New York Frieda Vizel was having a very similar response to lockdowns. Her struggles with the constraints of her orthodox Jewish background and subsequent exile from her community have given her a privileged insight into the resemblance of much of the thinking about Covid to the dogma and ritual required by conservative religion, and the formation of a new kind of public health fundamentalism.
So I was pleased when, as the host of The Not Very Normal podcast, Frieda asked me to join her as a guest, an invitation which prompted me to reflect on the emotional consequences of becoming an accidental émigré. Until the summer of 2020, I had never seriously entertained the idea of leaving the country, secure in the knowledge that I lived in one of the freest and most tolerant societies in the world. Because of this, and despite much travel in countries I found more attractive than my own, I always came home to Blighty. But by the end of the year I was living in Portugal, complete with residency rights and support from the people around me in the first steps of integration.
Drawn out by Frieda’s gentle approach, I realise that my prevailing mood over the last six months has been one of surprise. How did I get here, morphing from law-abiding citizen to someone with dissenting feelings so strong that I felt impelled to leave my own country? My initial shock on arriving in Portugal mid-winter has since softened and now ranges from a vague sense of bafflement peppered by moments of incredulity. My surprise is a surface mood, one perhaps akin to the denial in the five stages of grief, a kind of psychological skin to protect you from feeling too much while you adapt to a new situation.
Above all, the new emotional landscape which I now inhabit is characterised by mixed feelings. On the one hand is grief for the loss of a culture, a tribe, a sense of belonging — my lifelong home in both the psychological and the physical sense. It’s bound up with the perception that my country has changed so much that I barely recognise it. And yet, perhaps like a person leaving a relationship of decades, with hindsight I am starting to see the trends and changes that led Britain to where it is today, with one of the toughest and longest lockdowns in the world and the left calling for the closure of the borders. (I talk about some of these dynamics in the podcast)
On the other hand is the joy of finding myself in a new world, with all the pleasures of discovery. My new country is warmer than my old one, both socially and meteorologically — from the balcony on which I’m writing I can see the nesperas (medlar fruit) on the tree in front and am replete with a three-day weekend of dinners, drinking and dancing. The Portuguese seem to have what Frieda calls a sense of ‘the deliciousness of life’ firmly embedded in their culture, a trait which possibly provides some inoculation against fanaticism.
Central to my well-being has been the company of people with very different attitudes from those I’d seen emerge under Britain’s mono-focus Covid culture. Living in a tourist-hostel-turned-long-stay-residence until recently, I have met a vast range of people, from self-sufficient characters with the resilience to travel during a pandemic, to semi-lost wanderers whose inner displacement had been exacerbated by the crisis. Some are part of the new generation of Europeans moving around their continent for work or education; others have been fellow accidental émigrés, escaping a life that had become unliveable in their own countries. People of all ages and many nationalities, with different stories and situations — it’s been hugely restorative to live in such a colourful international community.
Meanwhile, my levels of trust have turned Janus-faced. While I’ve lost faith in my own society as a liberal democracy characterised by common sense and reasonableness, I’ve gained something else of inestimable value. Authoritarianism had been an abiding preoccupation of my working, thinking life; alongside the complacency that it lay firmly in the history of the twentieth century ran an uncomfortable personal question: if faced with it in my own life, how would I react? Would I do the natural, all-too-human thing, as Stacey Rudin points out, and go with the pull of the crowd? Or would I have the courage to see, and to act on that seeing? It seemed that secretly, all those years ago, my younger self had set my future self a test. It’s a relief to find that I’ve passed.
The experiences surrounding this new-found level of self-trust are testimony to the power of personal feelings in the social and political realm. Quoting the American writer and activist Audre Lorde on Brainpickings, Maria Popova makes a powerful case for the link between emotions and the ability to bring about change.
‘Our feelings and the honest exploration of them become sanctuaries and spawning grounds for the most radical and daring of ideas. They become a safe-house for that difference so necessary to change and the conceptualization of any meaningful action… We can train ourselves to respect our feelings and to transpose them into a language so they can be shared.’
Lourde names that language as poetry, but I take it that she means poetry in the wider sense, paraphrased by Popova as ‘the life of feeling, which is our locus of power, which is our fulcrum of action’. And well do I remember the uncomfortable feelings I had in the spring of 2020, watching the police approach me in my local park to tell me I was not allowed to be outside without doing what they considered the right form of exercise followed by, that autumn, a kind of gnawing fear at the imposition of ongoing restrictions. Now I can rejoice that, rather than pushing them away, I listened to those feelings until they gave birth to action and led me to a new, braver, world elsewhere.