British people have been expressing unease about the state of their country. One possible reason may be that nothing much else is happening in politics because of anxiety over Brexit. The prospect of economic recession is reducing confidence among many about their future prospects.
At the time of writing, the governing party is leaderless. Also a majority of elected members of Parliament appear to be reluctant to support the result of the national referendum about the European Union. In addition, public opinion is divided with many people expressing fervent views on either side of the issue.
Alongside the noise of a clash of fundamental views is an absence of any semblance of consensus and also a lack of direction in government. We are liable to feel empty and insecure if there are confused social values around us.
But is anxiety over Brexit the whole story here?
Reduced cohesion in British society
Security in a society is to do with its solidarity and morale; the way the nation hangs together. There have always been liberals and conservatives in Britain who rate for example individual freedom and national security in opposite ways. However, over 50 years ago the country was seen as cohesive with its acceptance of the hierarchy of social class and the widely accepted social values of its Christian heritage. Since then, with the decline of the churches, there has been a high rise in secular humanistic attitudes.
At the same time there has been a high rate of immigration. Ethnic groups can differ from one another in terms of their appearances, their dress, their cultural practices, their religious beliefs and their language or style of speech. Migrants are likely to base their self-identification on their religion whether it be Islam, Hinduism, or Sikhism etc.
There has also been a huge increase in global consciousness with the rise of connectivity across the world. This has been via mass media, the internet and easier long-distance travel.
As a result of all this the country has become a plural society. It is no longer clear what Britain actually stands for. There is presently an intense debate about what it means to be British. When society has a less cohesive framework of social values, it cannot tell us what to think. What is good and bad. What is desirable behaviour.
“There has been a destabilisation of ethical and moral certainties a consequence being that fear has become a paramount emotion of our contemporary times.” (Roland Robertson, sociologist University of Aberdeen)
Anxiety over Brexit & other major issues
The world is experiencing other problems which appear to be endless: the continuing migrant crisis, climate change, middle-eastern turmoil and terrorism. Events keep happening that seem inexplicable and out of control.
Actually, from the point of view of history, in whatever time or place we live, there has always been unpredictable difficulties that challenge our hope and confidence. Nothing in life is certain. Whether it be the effects of war, natural disaster, or disease. I hate to say this but anyone of us could get run over by a bus tomorrow.
Almost anything that goes seriously wrong, like anxiety over Brexit, can trigger a feeling of personal threat. But we cannot necessarily identify how this is affecting our inner self. It may be a deep sense of loss of meaning of life and belonging.
Anxiety over Brexit and meaning and purpose
If the nation lacks soul, we are left to our own devices to work out what we should value. But then we can suffer the anxiety of what has been called groundlessness. We may feel that there is nothing bigger beyond ourselves on which we can depend for advice. We are faced with the anxiety of having to form own opinions. The existentialist Kierkegaard called this the ‘dizziness of freedom’.
Likewise, we each need some support to gain a sense of a worthy goal in life. If this doesn’t come from our society we feel alone. We can feel like a leaf in the wind or being on board a ship that has no rudder. Anxiety at a deep level can come from feeling estranged from any truly human sense of purpose.
When society fails to give a sense of direction in response to problems, the challenge to each of us is to find our own path.
How to find our own way
Emanuel Swedenborg, spiritual philosopher, paints a picture of humanity as a single universal body. He says we together can be like one human being with muscle, skin, bones, and internal organs, all the separate components working together to form the whole. There is wide variation in ideas across the peoples of the world. Yet, for him, all the communities of good people are as one body. This is because they all have a common aim of loving kindness, whilst acknowledging a higher spiritual source beyond themselves for their love and wisdom.
Likewise, I would say that although political beliefs within a plural society such as Britain vary enormously, still the country can hold together: it and operate as one body if all have mutual concern and develop a bit more common sense. This might start to happen if campaigners stopped attacking those who oppose them by muckraking. Also, if journalists stopped fanning the flames of bias. Perhaps we all need to better learn how to reflect on social issues and express humility, acknowledge others’ perspectives, recognise uncertainty, and seek compromise. Then maybe we will find a deeper sense of meaning and purpose to life that transcends the loud headlines and slogans that surround us.