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The fallout of disaster

BILL KIRKMAN

It is understandable that at a time when there has been so much gloomy news, many may relish the opportunity of lavish celebration as a shield against grim realities. The trouble is that in the process, it is only too easy to become insensitive.


The quest for material possessions is no safeguard against unpleasant happenings.

IN my "Cambridge Letter" at the end of last year I discussed -- not too seriously -- the British habit of predicting disaster from routine or run of the mill events. I remarked that, as prediction was an occult science, I would wait until the end of the current year to make my predictions for it, so that I could do so with the benefit of hindsight.

No one, I imagine, could have predicted the events of September 11, or the wide-ranging repercussions that have come in their wake. It is certainly difficult at the moment to envisage what repercussions are still to come, and difficult to be optimistic about them. Once again, therefore, I shall make no attempt at prediction for 2002.

If I had been forced to make a prediction last year, I would have stated, with great confidence, that Britain's materialistic society would become even more materialistic. I could then have pointed to many examples throughout the year confirming the truth of that forecast. The examples, as always, reach their zenith at this time of year.

Anyone who has been in Britain during the Christmas season will know that the country virtually closes down for several days. Trains, for example, do not run on Christmas Day or the day following. In preparing for this closure, however, many people's reactions are grotesque. Visiting the local supermarket this afternoon, for instance, I found myself watching people laying in supplies as if for a siege. Food in vast quantities was piled on the shopping trolleys. Some staple items had run out. A kind of competitive panic seems to take hold of people as they shovel up not merely food but toiletries and cleaning materials.

Another example, much more evident this year than before, is the expensive decoration of the outside of houses with Christmas lights. In some roads, even in my fairly low-key village, neighbours have been vying with each other to install bigger and better displays, the lights twinkling and changing colour in a way that would not disgrace Piccadilly Circus. Complaining about this kind of ostentation, and this evidence of conspicuous consumption, of course makes one sound like Scrooge. And it is doubtless understandable that at a time when there has been so much gloomy news to face, many may relish the opportunity of lavish celebration as a kind of shield against grim realities.

The trouble is that in the process, it is only too easy to become insensitive to some realities which ought to impinge on one's consciousness -- and one's conscience. My daughter-in-law gave me an example of this. which she, and I, find depressing. She is a nurse, working part-time in two clinics in the large local teaching and general hospital. Patients had brought in many boxes of sweets and biscuits as Christmas gifts for the staff, and my daughter-in-law was horrified to be told by one of the administrative staff that these gifts were only for the full-timers. As a manifestation of petty selfishness and greed such meanness is hard to credit. It is, obviously, a trivial and essentially unimportant example, but it reflects something far more serious and far from trivial.

In what is generally an affluent society -- far more so than half a century ago -- there are still many citizens who are in need, and whose circumstances are far from affluent. At a time of year which should be above all a time of good will, it is disturbing that many of the well-heeled choose to ignore them.

Part of the explanation lies in the fact that the reality of Christmas as a Christian festival has been increasingly submerged in the commercial imperatives of a largely non-religious society.

Interestingly, since September 11 there has been an increase in the number of people seeking a spiritual dimension to their lives, and an increasing recognition of the significance of religions (I use the plural advisedly). It is happening, presumably, partly at least because we have all become more conscious of our vulnerability. Material possessions provide no safeguard against terrorist attack.

It will be interesting to see if this spiritual search leads more people to focus their attention less on materialism. If it does, and if that is accompanied by a growth in tolerance and understanding of others in their spiritual search, there just may after all be a case for some cautious optimism in our predictions for the coming year.

The writer is an Emeritus Fellow of Wolfson College, Cambridge. E-mail him at wpk1000@cam.ac.uk

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