What to talk about when things get uneasy

I know that people who come into the shop are a little more concerned than usual, and that if they weren’t before, they will be now. There have been conflicts and difficulties in the past, and I have had to intervene. But things have changed. The biggest change is that it is so easy to get things wrong, especially in a small shop where everyone can hear everyone else.This means I have to intervene more often.

Now I have something that can help a little. When there was angst about the government, I used it. Once, during an argument about Bob Hawke, I used it. Once, after an enraged threat, ‘Well, I’ll fucking tell you something’, I soothed the participant with it. Once some travellers from Victoria in my shop were told sharply that they had no right (to something). I fired the accuser with a new issue, and luckily it worked. A man leaned over me angrily about vaccinations, (‘it’s all about profit’), and I moved him on gently to a greater issue.

This is because there are common issues. We can bend our anger and hatred upon these, and they deserve it.

The greatest of these is phone updates.

I ask, ‘Do you like your phone?’

We mostly don’t. People bend over their phone screens for me, trying to find the words for something that, while vital, provokes endless rage. If necessary, I probe the wound:

‘Do you do the updates?’ No argument can survive this question. Everyone takes out their phone and looks at it, looking for the update still sitting there like an arsehole.

‘God, updates. With this phone, I can’t update anything. Look at this.’ And they show me the source of all evil, previous argument gone.

‘Fucking hate this phone. Don’t get an Android.’

‘Samsung. Useless. Apple is better. But…’

I ask, ‘Should I do this update?’ This provokes intense anxiety (except in young people, who will fearlessly update anything) in case I am mis-advised.

‘Don’t do it mate.”

‘Na, fuck that.’

‘Never.’

‘Do all of ‘em. Else you’ll be hacked the shit out of.’

There are other things. Printers. All people hate their printers. This includes me. They always work for the first eighteen pages… ‘

So, what printer do you recommend?’

‘God, I hate Canon. So shit. And Epsom. They’re wankers.’

“God. Don’t ask me. I got this one at home that….’

Australia Post. People look stern and severe.

‘You tell me why it takes ten days for a pack to get from here to Woodside. I mean, what are they doing with the stuff!’

‘You know what they charge? You ever been in there? You have to queue from here to the river. That’s because they’re all dickheads with fancy watches. Actually they’re ok here. But they’re shit in Mt Barker.

‘Well, they lost my stuff. Everyone knows they smash the parcels to bits and reckon they didn’t. No compensation for me.’

Developers.

I only use this for emergencies. Because after this one, everybody is family, and nobody will go home.

Why read?

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I am looking at too much news. Every day there is more, and it’s loud – data and facts mostly, and many, many images.

It is like entering an art gallery and being told very quickly, loudly, and with huge authority, which pieces of art are red, which are small, which are thick, and which are useless. And then, which pieces contain wool, which ones are cold, and most importantly, which ones are bad, and may have possibly broken the law. I get 15 seconds with each piece, my face on the painting, grazed, my eyes hopeful. Then leaving with these deafening crashes of information and baffling images still sounding and still hurting. This is the news.

At the moment journalists seem to mostly locate, circle, and then humiliate. There is no context and no perspective, and therefore no understanding or compassion. I learn nothing. I remain fixed. But I have definitely honed my skills in blaming and allocating disgrace. I do this all the time. It is easy because (obviously) I am not like them.

Them:

Politicians getting it wrong, government employees doing nothing, stupid women shopping at Bunnings, idiots sneaking across borders, fools not wearing masks, not obeying, not staying home, not getting it right, not saying the right things, not avoiding the wrong things, believing silly things, buying too much, keeping too much, standing too close, driving too fast, being mean, being ugly, being critical, careless, violent, dishonest, selfish: them.

I can’t really see the problems, but I can clearly see who is to blame. I don’t understand the situations. I am distracted from solutions. I am never sure what is going on. But shaming is the most satisfying solution – because I can then forget all about. This leaves me with no clear perspective of humanity, except that it’s all someone else’s fault. Soon I will scroll my news feed for more satisfaction.

But when I read, I must return to an acute and clean discomfort – that “them” is “me”. And that there is not a single situation where I would or could be other than “them”. Literature tells me that human nature has not changed and that there is always, always more to everything. I am the same as anyone when lacerated by fear; we do what we do. What’s different is how we express it, if we get caught, and if our badness is of quick value to someone else.

But the news makers themselves – the ones who chase and choose the news, presenting these facts and those awful images, keeping us informed. What is their story? What awful deadlines and expectations do these individuals face that they must hurl so much gravel, so quickly and so powerfully.

I would like to be able to step back and understand more, consider the larger, diabolically more complex stories behind what is happening. To acknowledge my own deep and fearful place in it all. How else do I gain a consoling perspective? How else to grow compassion?

Of all the inanimate objects, of all man’s creations, books are the nearest to us, for they contain our very thoughts, our ambitions, our indignations, our illusions, our fidelity to truth, and our persistent leaning towards error. But most of all they resemble us in their precarious hold on life.

Joseph Conrad

Notes on life and letters 1921