Around the time that Donald Trump got elected, an old saying from Barbara Bush – the white-haired, be-pearled wife of George Bush Sr. – started doing the rounds. It couldn’t have come at a better time for those who, like me, felt shell-shocked by what felt like a seismic and entirely unexpected world event. (Even if my very wise American husband not only predicted a Trump win, but put enough money on that outcome to pay for Christmas that year. I still haven’t dared tell my stepchildren that The Donald paid for our turkey and their presents.)
‘What happens in America,’ observed Mrs. Bush during the period of her husband’s presidency, ‘isn’t because of what happens in The White House. It’s because of what happens in your house.’ In other words, she was explaining that we shouldn’t be looking to politicians to fix the world – but instead, be seeking to do what we can to improve the lives of those around us. Most particularly, our family, friends and neighbours.
And it really got me thinking. I have friends who constantly wait for the world to be ‘fixed’ by politicians, not having quite twigged that although well-meaning people may go into politics to make the world a better place, it’s actually very hard to bring about real change. Elected politicians want to get elected again, which often alas wins over good intentions and principles. They’re subject to lobbying from vested interests who are happy to pour millions into their parties’ coffers to get what they want. And besides, as any naval commander will tell you, turning round a battleship – which is basically what any country is – is a lengthy and difficult process.
So you know what? Anyone who’s waiting for the world to be ‘fixed’ and made better is going to be bitterly disappointed. (Something they’ll probably vent about on Twitter or Facebook, which seem to have become Rant Central, as far as I’m concerned. Just when did everyone get to be so ANGRY?) Instead, I agree with Barb: that there’s a huge amount that can be done on a small and local scale that can make life better for everyone.
Without a political bone in my body, you won’t catch me standing for election (local or national) anytime, ever. But in the spirit of the late Mrs. Bush, that hasn’t stopped me coming up with an action plan for making the world a better place.
Eat together as a family, whenever you can. Yup, we’re all busy. Yes, kids can get quite vocal when they’re prised from their Nintendo Play Stations or the latest round of X-Factor. But there are all sorts of good reasons to schedule regular mealtimes together. According to mentalhealth.org.uk, meals eaten around the table help kids to develop social and conversational skills, while giving much-needed structure to life. They make people feel connected – and the unexpected bonus is that people who eat together tend to eat more fruit and vegetables than they otherwise would, while eating sitting upright is also better for digestion.
Share food in other ways. New mothers, sick friends, grieving friends all appreciate gifts of soup, casseroles, pies. A home-made dish often expresses more than you may be able to put into actual words – and is almost always hugely appreciated by the recipient and/or their hungry household.
Look out for a neighbour. Loneliness is widely acknowledged as a huge problem in our communities – and it’s often invisible, because lonely people stay indoors. If you have a vulnerable neighbour, check in on them occasionally. A little bunch of flowers, a Kilner jar of the aforementioned soup, an offer to mow the lawn (or get your teenager to). At the very, very least, learn what your neighbours are called and greet them by name. When I ran my bakery, I tried to memorise as many customers’ names as possible.
Even now when I walk down the street, I smile and say: ‘Hello Prue. Hello, Mrs. Flippance…’ My husband invariably asks: ‘How do you know that person’s name?’ I tell him: ‘I not only know their name; I know they like a white bloomer/granary stick/whatever.’ But one of the things that made our shop so popular was simply that we tried to learn those customers’ names – and that’s something a Sainsbury’s Local is just never going to offer. In an increasingly disconnected world, this seemingly small thing makes a huge difference to how people feel.
Share stuff with friends and neighbours. I love the sharing economy. I even have a gorgeous little statuette that I bought with a friend that we couldn’t agree ownership of, so we time-share her six months on, six months off. On the swap-over night, we take her out to dinner somewhere nice and it’s a lovely bond to have. On a slightly more practical and less glamorous level, though, not every house on your street needs its own mower/power-washer/strimmer/extendable ladder/pruning shears. Or at least, not all the time.
Can you pool things with neighbours? I can hear the chorus from here: ‘What if it gets broken?’ But so be it. Maybe have a little ‘repair fund’ that everyone pays into (because of course, it happens); it’ll still amount to way less than the cost of everyone having their OWN power-drill languishing in the basement. And the fear of a snapped strimmer cable should not be a disincentive to at least giving it a go.
Join in a neighbourhood clean-up. Check your local paper. Don’t think: ‘It’s the council’s job to keep the streets clean.’ Yes, it is (and it’s why we pay rates) – but isn’t it just nicer for everyone to live in a place that is litter-free and tidy? However, don’t wait for a formal clean-up to pick up that lager can or sweet wrapper and put it in the bin. Even though we have regular beach clean-ups in Hastings, where I live, my friends and I still have a ‘three-pieces-of-litter’ rule for beach visits: we don’t leave till we’ve gathered three crisp packets, beer bottles, fish ‘n’ chip wrappers… And let me tell you: it’s infectious. It’s way, way harder in 2019 to find those three pieces of litter than it’s ever been.
Give up reading the national newspapers. And preferably, watching the news. I realise this is completely radical, but when you’re constantly exposed to global events and political manoeuvrings over which you have absolutely no control, it is indeed very easy just to throw your hands in the air over your inability to do anything. By contrast, I read my local paper cover to cover, meanwhile – because this is what impacts me and my neighbours directly. And when volunteers are needed for an event, or there’s a fundraiser for a local hospice, time permitting I may just be able to help.
Smile more – and be nicer. ‘It costs nothing,’ as my mother would’ve said. But oh, does it make a difference to strangers. (I realise this is easier to do outside London, where strangers seem to think you’re a psycho for smiling – but I have stopped caring what other people think, so I’m just going to keep at it.)
By this point you may have me pegged as some kind of 21st Century Pollyanna, with a naïve world-view, who thinks everything can be fixed with a grin and an offer to share my Black & Decker. Well, I don’t. But neither do I feel I have time to wait for someone else to make the world a better place. So I’m going to keep on doing my bit. And just imagine, if we all did the same, joining up the dots of kindness, thoughtfulness and community spirit one by one, how different the world might become.
I reckon Barb nailed it.