And other thoughts on getting over 2016 – and making it through 2017.
Words by Brian Christian, the Principal of the British School in Tokyo
Well, that’s a relief! We’ve made it to January and that tinsel-tangled, sparkle-and-spangles Christmas thing is over for another year. It’s not so much the excess and over-indulgence that grates, nor the inescapable loop of syrupy festive pop (if I hear “Walking in a Winter Wonderland” one more time…). It’s not even the kawaii cuteness of it that I find irritating: all those woolly Rudolph hats with cartoon red noses and floppy antlers, or the strangely menacing green elves lined up to welcome you at department store doors. These I can cope with. It’s the peace and goodwill I can’t stand.
Does anyone really buy into that stuff anymore? If the experience of 2016 has taught us anything at all, surely it has to be that the naïve notion of “goodwill to all men” is an old idea that has had its day. As every Twitter troll instinctively grasps, we now live in a not-so-brave new world where blinkered intolerance has found its voice and it’s the loudest in the room. And it’s not going to shut up any time soon.
It came as no surprise when it was announced that the 2016 word of the year in both the USA and Great Britain, according to the Oxford Dictionary, was “post-truth”. There were times when it felt like expertise and knowledge just didn’t count: Global warming is a China-inspired fiction, Brexit means Brexit, and Santa Claus is coming to town. Why stick to the truth when there are better stories to tell?
When the twin refrains of a successful US presidential campaign are “lock her up” and “build that wall”, when a desperate clamour for shelter is drowned out by the hostile thunder of slamming of doors across Europe, when gunmen and bomb-makers target the ordinary and the innocent in the name of some one-eyed warped crusade then it’s hard to share in any rose-tinted concept of love and brotherhood, comfort and joy. In the words of the late and much lamented Leonard Cohen: “I don’t consider myself a pessimist. I think of a pessimist as someone who is waiting for it to rain. And I feel soaked to the skin.”
Or at least that’s the way I might feel if I didn’t spend most of my days working with children, the young men and women who will in time be the generation that will have to pick up the pieces of our fractured and far-from-perfect world and set about the task of bringing it together again. They may just be starting out on their adventures but I know they do so with an understanding that diversity is something to be celebrated; that the opinions of others, though they may be different from their own, are far from worthless; that listening quietly can often achieve as much and more than shouting out loud.
Late in the old year, a new study from the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health found that having an optimistic outlook on life – a general expectation that good things will happen – may help people live longer. The study went as far as to suggest that healthy behaviours only partially explain the link between optimism and reduced mortality risk: it is apparently a distinct possibility that optimism might even have a direct positive impact on our biological systems. No more Mr Scrooge for me. From now on my glass is going to be half full and every cloud will have a silver tinsel lining. My New Year’s resolution for 2017 is to put my faith in the potential of the next generation. Theirs is the authentic voice of the future.
Who knows? By next December I might even feel able to hum along to “Winter Wonderland” again. “Sleigh bells ring, are you listening…”
This column appears in the January 2017 issue of Tokyo Weekender magazine.