In John Irving's 1978 novel The World According To Garp, a little boy is warned about a strong undertow at the beach where he and his family holiday every year. He mishears the caution and thinks he’s being warned about a dangerous Under Toad, a terrifying creature that lurks beneath the waves ready to pull him under at any moment. The Under Toad becomes a family reference for anxiety, as it did between my mum and I, when I first read the book as a teenager and didn’t have the language to describe the sense of pervading dread that I’d often get in the pit of my stomach.
My own personal Under Toad has been on overdrive for the past few days, prowling menacingly at the very edge of my vision. The world seems a mad, terrifying place where there’s no escape from violence, division and fear and it’s a place that I can’t make any sense of. Over the weekend, I found myself willing the world to just stop for moment and see the reality of what’s happening, until I realised we did exactly that only a couple of years ago. Unfortunately, the possibility of learning from the mistakes of our past and moving forward in a more respectful, gentle way - a possibility that seemed to be at our fingertips during the pandemic - now seems either foolishly naïve or the destructive waste of a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, depending on how generous you want to be.
The only respite I could find over the weekend was being outside, walking through the woods, methodically putting one foot in front of the other in the crisp Autumn air. The trees are starting to change colour and the ground underfoot was thick with the first layer of leaves that fell during the summer drought. It feels an immense privilege to have the luxury of walking through these trees whenever life feels too overwhelming and as I stood in quiet stillness listening to birdsong I thought about all those people who are living in terror and uncertainty, of those who are ignored and oppressed.
The problems of the world are so complex that it’s becoming increasingly clear to me that the old systems aren’t serving us. I don’t trust our world leaders to act with compassion or kindness or to prioritise humanity in a way that seems authentic and genuine. So many of them seem exclusively committed to self-serving pissing contests and to turning a blind eye to holistic, integrated solutions that prioritise both people and planet. The space for nuance and conversations which are capable of acknowledging a multitude of truths has all but disappeared.
So, what’s the answer? To be honest, I have no idea. However, it seems to me that while the urgent problems of the world need immediate attention, there’s also a pressing need to create stronger systems for the long-term that will hold us with more care and love than they currently do.
I once read somewhere that most human actions come as a reaction to either fear, pain, shame or joy. I don’t know how rooted in actual research this is but it’s often been a handy shortcut to understanding when I’m short on answers and it’s often held up to be true. So, if the violence and the hurt that the world is suffering is based on fear, pain and shame, is joy the antidote? And if so, how do we create more of it? If fear is rooted in fear of the unknown, can that be assuaged with curiosity? Can shame be cured with forgiveness? Can love heal the pain? If so, maybe the path through is based on how we bridge the divides that separate us to reach the joy on the other side.
If our leaders aren’t going to provide us with the answers we need, then we must work to find them from the ground up. I think that’s how we find the courage to play our part when things seem so bleak that we want to look away. We step up. We look to those around us and care a little bit more about them, we make sure they’re ok and we see where we can create some joy in their worlds. We don’t know what individual pain, fear and shame people may be dealing with but we can try and pepper the world with whatever happiness we have at our disposal. We work from a place of that intentionally builds joy.
This may feel small and idealistic, it certainly does to me, but maybe the very action of creating a global community of people capable of doing what our international leaders seem incapable of is the beginning of a new way of living in this world. A way of life that centres joy and all the associated compassion, empathy and love that comes with that and a way that defeats the ugly, impatiently-waiting Under Toad once and for all.