Damian Barr: Forward together in this age of uncertainty

“We must acknowledge the present state of emergency – but live as calmly as we can.” Damian Barr reflects upon tumultuous times...

One step forwards, two steps back. That’s how I walked home from primary school. Even the slowest kid overtook me long before I was halfway, and I was sad to miss He-Man but not so bothered about Blue Peter. This way, I could make half a mile last two hours before finally putting my hand on the door handle of the flat my wee sister and me now lived in with our Mum and her new man.

No matter how much I stayed in my room, in my books, I couldn’t avoid him. I took a deep breath before opening the door and held it until next morning – dreaded weekends and holidays, wished school was every day. The fear wasn’t worse than his fists but at least when he was hitting me I didn’t have to anticipate it any more. Always, always the terror of not knowing – what I was supposed to have done, what he would do next.

Right now, we are living through an age of uncertainty. House of Cards seems almost quaint, the news lifted from Homeland. I haven’t felt this anxious since I was a child, and I’ve never know so many people genuinely fear for their jobs, homes, hard-fought freedoms. Those most scared are those who have least power, who have had to fight hardest for what they’ve got. It’s business as usual for those enjoying six-figure privilege. It is women who are marching on their capitals, not men.

Many feel dragged towards a destination they have not chosen, even those who voted for it

With Trump’s inauguration and the looming triggering of Article 50, many feel dragged towards a destination they have not chosen, even those who voted for it. An ITV Wales/Cardiff University YouGov poll found Welsh voters would now vote Remain by 53 per cent if there was another referendum (Wales voted Leave by 52.5 per cent). But we cannot take even one step back. Our new uncertainty is fuelled day to day, month to month and, with Trump, tweet to tweet.

Brexit means Brexit but what does it mean today? Will you need a visa to go camping in France next summer? Will the British Bill of Human Rights value all humans equally? Will house prices crash? Will the trains ever run again? Don’t ask Prime Minister Maybe.
Donald Trump, now known as the President of the United States, received the endorsement of the KKK and only eight per cent of the black vote but denies being racist. Will he build his wall? Will he deport you and your family? Will China upgrade the impending trade war? Will we all be fired?

Every time we get close to an answer we’re hit with another question. Keeping us anxious stops us acting. This constant uncertainty takes a toxic toll.

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Bow Lane Dental Group, in the City, is reporting a high proportion of patients with stress-related issues. Said Dr James Goolnik, the practice principal: “We’ve noticed people needing help to manage their clenching and grinding, especially since Brexit and the weakness of the pound.” Easier perhaps to feel sorry for callers to Childline, which recently noted a 35 per cent increase in children reporting anxiety including concerns about Brexit, the US election and conflict in Syria.

Last week I had a nightmare that Trump was running secret mass ‘conversion therapy’ programmes. Not so far-fetched. Vice President Pence voted against hate crimes bills and equal marriage and closed HIV prevention programmes, saying “resources should be directed toward those institutions which provide assistance to those seeking to change their sexual behaviour”. Electric shocks, chemical castration and forced exposure to extreme pornography are among the types of ‘assistance’ often offered. Depression, mental illness and suicide are among the results.

I am not alone in my Trump-mares. Since 1992, Dr Kelly Bulkeley has studied patterns of sleep and dreaming during presidential campaigns. Trump features most prominently: “Several of the dreams are nightmares that leave people upset and disturbed upon awakening. Sexual themes appear in some of them, both negatively and positively. His omnipresence in the media shapes a number of the dream reports, making people feel there’s no escape from him.”

The future has always been uncertain – is tomorrow any more uncertain than it seemed in 1934?

Of course, not everyone wants to escape (and surely not even Melania has sexy dreams about orange fingers). For many, the unfolding nightmare is a dream come true – their fears have been allayed. Things can only get better (or so they think).

Of course, the future has always been uncertain – it’s only when we arrive there that we can look back and perceive, or imagine, a clear journey. We can see where we’ve been and where we could have gone. Is tomorrow any more uncertain than it seemed in 1934? In 1984 I wasn’t sure I had a future. “The best way to be sure that 2017 is not 1934 is to act as though it were,” wrote Adam Gopnik in The New Yorker.  “We must learn and relearn that age’s necessary lessons.”

Only the past is certain and we are warned not to repeat it but now, more than ever, we must ensure we do – because, in the end, good won. Just not soon enough. Or forever. We must acknowledge the present state of emergency but live as calmly as we can. We must be inspired by stories of survival and develop new strategies. But we cannot do it alone – we need teachers, neighbours, friends. I certainly did. For every step backwards we are forced to take today we must take two forwards tomorrow. Together.