Reflecting upon the Ukrainian crisis, Matthew Syed wrote a compelling article in The Times in which he argued that ‘self-obsession has blinded us to the poison seeping into our democracies. No wonder we feel guilty’. He suggested that the West has become lost in its own dream world and he pointed out that, historically, self-obsession and complacency have all too often led to great empires failing to identify dangers until it is too late. Contemplating the decline and fall of the Roman Empire, Edward Gibbons observed, ‘It was scarcely possible that the eyes of contemporaries should discover in the public felicity the latent causes of decay and corruption’. In the last couple of days, several of our tabloids have carried rather less sophisticated and nuanced pieces that have picked up on the same theme.
Emerging from a global pandemic, we might be forgiven for a degree of self-indulgent introspection. Times have been tough, and perhaps it is only natural that we should focus at least some of our energy upon creating a better world…for ourselves. However, agonising over perceived slights and going out of our way to identify potential acts of microaggression does very little to advance the cause of democracy. I would argue that hypersensitivity and ‘cancel culture’ has all too often served to shut down the opportunity for the sort of vigorous debate and challenge that is so vital to meaningful intellectual discourse. When this is coupled with a slavish devotion to vacuous celebrities and social media ‘influencers’, it is not difficult to understand why one might conclude that our children are conditioned to operate in a febrile online world where negative intent is assumed and role models have little to offer of value other than hair, beauty and tanning tips. The scripts of Love Island and TOWIE are not known for their compelling examples of courage, integrity or compassion. Similarly, the Kardashians have little to share with the world other than their extraordinary business acumen. For those prepared to live in a superficial and rather soulless world; immersion in such a banal culture may provide a welcome sense of escapism. Ultimately, though, it really does not matter.
I would argue that it is our responsibility to ensure that our children are exposed to, and inspired by, the incredible stories of love and bravery that are all around us. Examples of ordinary people doing extraordinary things are inspiring precisely because they are relatable. The development of qualities such as empathy and selflessness does not occur in a vacuum. Our children’s characters are forged, in part, by the example that we set as parents. If we want our children to fulfil their potential as decent people then we need to invite them to reflect upon the example set by those individuals whose actions and behaviour serves to set them apart. We need to have an eye for those stories that are truly worth telling to our children.
An education is incomplete without serious contemplation of the human condition beyond the confines of home and school. We do not want our children to be overburdened with worry or to feel helpless in the face of humanitarian or environmental crises but nor should they be ignorant of their existence. When tackling such issues, it is up to us to highlight stories of hope and courage. It is up to us to show our children that there are things that we can all do to help make the world a slightly better place.
Surely one of the great love stories of modern times is the marriage of Richard Ratcliffe and Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe. Richard, an auditor by profession, found himself thrown into the complex world of international diplomacy after his wife was arrested on espionage charges whilst visiting her parents in Tehran. For almost six years, he campaigned for her release. He undertook two hunger strikes including one on the steps of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office. At the end of his second hunger strike, he observed:
“I think there’s a basic medical limit on how long you do a hunger strike for. I made a promise to Nazanin, I made a promise to my family, Mum in particular, and to the family doctors, that I won’t take it too far.”
Short of starving himself to death, Richard did everything within his power to bring about Nazanin’s release from prison and reunite his family. The images of their family reuniting at RAF Brize Norton in the early hours of yesterday morning were utterly heartwarming. During the darkest of times, Richard never gave up hope and there is plenty that we can learn about love and devotion from reflecting upon their story.
The other morning, Katie Lee showed me a clip of a lady playing her piano one last time as she prepared to leave her bombed out apartment. After the opening lines of Schubert’s Impromptu in A flat Major, she defiantly launched into Chopin’s Etude Op. 25, No. 1. Amidst the debris and devastation of the apartment, the beautifully poetic melody of this wonderful piece seemed heartbreakingly transcendental. It reminded me of the final scene in the film, The Pianist when Wehrmacht officer Wilm Hosenfeld asks Wladyslav Szpillman to play Chopin’s Ballade in G minor. It is an extraordinary scene and Adrien Brody won an Oscar for playing Szpillman. Sometimes art imitates life but just occasionally life imitates art. The wave of emotion I felt when listening to the lady play this piece was perhaps attributable to the fact that the domestic scene in the department seemed so real, so commonplace. Also, I spent a childhood listening to my older brother practising the Chopin Etudes – it felt utterly relatable. Had I been in her position, then I too would have made a beeline for the piano.
The incredible resolve of the Ukrainian people serves as an exemplar of courage. Similarly, the kindness of the hundreds of thousands of Polish people who have welcomed Ukrainian refugees into their own homes gives us reason to be hopeful for the future of humanity. My mother told me of a family she knows of in Łódź who live in a one bedroom apartment but have taken in a Ukrainian mother and child.
There are graphic elements of this conflict that are not appropriate for young children to witness. Explaining the backdrop of the Cold War and the dissolution of the Soviet Union is useful and there are some excellent documentaries on YouTube which explain about the formation of the Warsaw Pact and NATO Alliance. However, sharing with our children those stories which really touch our hearts, and encouraging them to engage with an emotional landscape that is populated with individuals whose actions serve to inspire the very best in ourselves is perhaps one of our most important roles as parents.
It is easy to feel overwhelmed by feelings of helplessness. It is tempting to sympathise with Georg Hegel’s jaundiced observation that, ‘The only thing we learn from history is that we learn nothing from history’. Yet in the midst of great suffering, we can discern (within acts of human kindness) a purity of spirit and a beauty that will ultimately overcome the ugly and destructive forces of those who perpetrate acts of aggression.
As parents, we are moved by so much of what we see happening in Eastern Europe. To share that with our children and to discuss the stories of those who are dispossessed of their land is of huge benefit; not least because in the midst of all this suffering, there are so many ordinary people worthy of our admiration and respect. It is important to empower young people so that they may focus upon the things that they can do rather than lamenting those things which are beyond their control.
Matthew Syed is right insomuch as the advance of authoritarianism has occurred in the midst of a collective slumber and it is our moral responsibility to respond with kindness and a determination to protect the right to freedom of expression.
Headmaster of Rossall School