The friend opposite me was clearly relieved about the problem he had resolved with a colleague.
‘I let it go.’ He said. ‘I felt so much better, like a weight lifted from my shoulders. It was the opposite of what I expected.’ My son just came back from Israel. But let’s not start there…
Recently we sold a car. We had only just bought it, replacing an older one that was getting a little unreliable. Buying the new car had been a complete pain. We carefully investigated the one we wanted; essentially an updated version of the same utility family estate that we were replacing. We pondered the wisdom of such a spend, nearly £10K. We worried by night and day, eventually deciding to go for it. We contacted the seller, a reputed dealer in Liverpool. It was all arranged, but then there were problems. The car wasn’t quite the specification in the advert. Then the delivery needed to happen on a certain date or it would be delayed by a few weeks, and we had already sold the car it was replacing, so we were locked into an inconvenient time scale. This meant that, no, it wouldn’t be delivered in pristine condition on a truck, as originally promised, but driven down, adding dust, grit and another 300 miles to the pristine finish. Then we found out that some of the dashboard trim was missing, and the spare key didn’t work. Many calls back and forth followed. I had to ‘press 2 for car parts and servicing’ innumerable times, wasting my life on hold whilst a recorded inanity promised me salvation in the form of a wheeled metal box.
Although it may sound like it, this isn’t meant to be the outpouring my very own ‘first world problem’ (loosely defined as the overblown angst of someone who feels utterly devastated by the injustice of having to fly Economy class when they paid for Business). The point I am making is that the purchase of our new car, sold to me by that showroom voice as a joyful, liberating experience, was in truth exactly the opposite.
A couple of months later, I left my house on my regular walk to the station. I passed the new car, a redundant obscenity, exposing as a sham our compulsion for acquisition. Our lifestyle had evolved, thanks to rediscovering the use of my legs and an Oyster card, and our children’s revelation that buses are cool. We just weren’t using the new car very much. Later that day, we decided to sell it. I rang a local dealer, ‘Bring it down’, he said, ’I’ll take a look’. An hour later, the deed was done. I caught the bus home, feeling joyful and liberated.
As I sat there tootling through the suburbs, I mused how much more pleasant an experience it had been to sell the car than to buy it. I wondered: was it just a cliché, or did letting go of stuff always so directly correlate in my life to a sense of liberation? Perhaps it is a simplification, but I couldn’t escape the dissonance: losing was joy, in stark contradiction to what we are normally led to believe.
My son’s trip to Israel on a three and a bit week youth tour coincided with the most recent flare up of hostilities. Did this current conflagration garner disproportionate news coverage? Or was it just the fact that my first-born child happened to be there at the same time? Nevertheless I was struck by how many of our non-Jewish friends asked me if he was OK, and some even vocalised what seemed to be behind the inquiry of majority: ‘How can you let him go, at this most dangerous of times?’ When I explained that there are some countries and regions in the world where there is never a less dangerous time, they seemed to boggle, as is understandable to people who do not realise how safe and stable their world really is. Israel-Palestine is one of those regions. When I lived there for the best part of a year, aged 19, the Lebanon war was raging. Fighter jets regularly roamed over my Kibbutz, heading north laden, or south, ominously less so. A short stay in hospital with an eye injury put me in a bed on a ward next to wounded soldiers. Although I sat there with a patch over my face, my eyes were opened. At that time, a particular truth emerged, around which I have often wavered but frequently return: I learnt that taking sides doesn’t help.
My son came back safe and sound, ‘baruch hashem’ as we say. He was slightly bemused about the fuss being made, and mostly pre-occupied with the succession of dark, beautiful girls he seems to have befriended on facebook. That’s how it should be of course, for a nearly-sixteen-year-old, determined to wring as much life out of the summer before his GCSE results. Rightly, it was left to his father to mull the juxtaposition of his insouciant life so close to the border of catastrophe.
My wavering is constant, but usually in the service of the ‘don’t-take-sides’ principle. As the debate rages around me, I notice how often my move seems to be back towards balance. When Islamophobia dominates, I want to put on a Keffiyeh and befriend a Palestinian (unfortunately I don’t know any). When Bradford fanatics declare a ‘Zionist-free zone’, I want to wrap my self in an Israeli flag, jump on a train and sing the Hatikva in the Kirkgate shopping centre. When simplistic explanations are trotted out about ‘those people making trouble again’, I want to lecture on the Sykes-Picot agreement of 1916 (look it up), and how this sceptred isle is up to its neck in culpability over most of the stuff that seems to be going on ‘over there’. But then, I love this England, my home.
Mostly I fail to take a position that lasts longer than five minutes. I used to think this was a weakness. Now every time I feel the contraction of rage or fear, and lock onto a firm belief that assuages it, I know that this unhelpful reflex won’t last for long. I used to think this vacillation was weakness. But now I tend to believe that there are already far too many people out there holding on to fixed positions. Will peace ever come? I don’t know. But I do know that if it does, it will have been through the careful construction, by a craft more deft than I can conceive, of a compromise between fatefully incommensurate worldviews. It will only come from letting go, and being prepared to lose something. In the words of one of my favourite poems, by Elizabeth Bishop, ‘One Art’:
‘The art of losing isn’t hard to master;
so many things seem filled with the intent
to be lost that their loss is no disaster.’