THIS week my youngest child took the coveted role of “shiny star” in the wonder of her school nativity. I adore nativity plays. Sheer optimism and innocence on the stage watched by parents most of whom get a moment of blissful release from the daily battles we all face in life.
My water table sits at quite a high level at the best of times. For one reason and another at this time of year it bubbles higher. One of my good friends in the village where I live faces his first Christmas without his wife. His young boy and he will get through it, but having been cheated of their wife and mum to a vicious cancer it will be hard.
Last year my own sense of being hard done by when I was burgled the Sunday before Christmas was jolted into perspective when the Glasgow bin lorry tragedy happened the next day. Those families will face a hard season.
In our public life we lost two great men of letters in recent days with last week’s passing of Willie McIlvanney followed by the shockingly early death of the political writer Ian Bell.
Many of us grew up reading Ian and being challenged, moved and affirmed by him. Properly talented man. If I could have the week back I would have dropped him a note to say so. But we don’t get our time back.
All of these things combine to make me conclude that we would all do very well to expend a lot more energy on being gentler on one another and on telling people when they are alive how much they matter. We waste too much time focusing on small niggles when we should recognise the big positives in life and those we share it with.
This goes for our public and private lives in equal measure. The private we can control because it is our own conduct directly.
The public is another thing again. I started my working week with the chief executive of one of Scotland’s few global institutions. A proper organisation, with a great purpose and story. He resides in controversy. Every move he makes is examined, criticised and condemned. And praised.
I have long admired and liked him and how he goes about his business. We discussed his strategic challenges, but one thing he said has been reverberating around my mind ever since.
“Scotland is an angry country, it’s hard to lead anything here. Too many people with too much pain in their life are searching for someone to blame.”
Spend an hour on social media and we know it to be true. But that is just the harsh minority end of a general cultural point. Scotland judges people too harshly at times. Most times.
When public figures fail, the collective mob rushes to stamp on them as they fall. If anything goes wrong anywhere we want to find scapegoat much more urgently than the solution. “They” must do something about it and are all in it for themselves anyway.
Somehow we need to change this. Bit by bit. All of it. We could start with our self-policing of social media. It has shone a light into the dark recesses of many souls who now have the ability to lash out directly at public figures and each other. If they were in the room they wouldn’t of course, but they are in their own room, late.
And the ire feeds on itself and raises the volume and the heat and the anger, “an acid that can do more harm to the vessel in which it is stored than to anything on which it is poured”, as Mark Twain observed.
Being a gentler country is the opposite of weakness. It heals self-harm because that is what anger is. And anger leads to violence, not just physical.
To assign blame for this phenomenon to one side or another, to one party or team or thing, is to add to the problem. By making allegations of this conduct a tool in a political or sporting fight fuels the fire. Each and every side needs to focus on their own conduct.
And in the conduct of our debate leaders have to lead: in dealing with political opponents, in setting the tone of the national discourse in the media, in leading institutions and companies in what we all say to those who listen to us.
There must be less condemnation, faux outrage and disrespect; more praise where it is due and a healthy regard for the motivation and worth of those we happen to disagree with or compete against.
See someone in a position of responsibility who is in trouble for one reason or another? Rush to help and support and provide the benefit of the doubt. More often than not it will be deserved.
See someone “up there” doing something you appreciate or admire? Write and tell them, it could make the difference to their own private despair or otherwise. We don’t get our time back, the only way we can change all of this is in our actions today.
Scotland is a joyful place but it is also too often an angry country and that diminishes us all. We shouldn’t wait for loss and tragedy to remind us of that any more.