People Stay Strong
People Give In.
The title to the 2018 Manic Street Preachers release sometimes feels like it could have been written as a prophetic anthem for 2020. The pandemic has made all sorts of existing problems worse, while isolating us from loved ones and company more generally. Many of us have been left to wallow at a low ebb and sometimes it’s hard not to imagine the whole world feeling the same way.
During the lockdown, or what we’ll soon likely be referring to as the first lockdown, I found comfort in music more than usual. Almost all genres of entertainment can be a form of escapism in one way or another, but music has the ability to turn you around to instead view reality through a different lens. This happened to me with this song, offering a sort of melancholic catharsis.
‘People Give In’ was perhaps as good a summary as any for the outlook I was trying to escape. So as I looked to music to lift my mood, to help reinstall some vibrancy, you might not expect such a song to help with the process. In fact, it did just that, by reminding me of the amazing capacity for endurance that exists within us.
‘People Give In’ may be the title, but it isn’t the sentiment. Of course, it doesn’t shy away from harsh realities — the Manics never do, as I mentioned when writing about their antifascist anthem. But they’re not what you’re left with by the end.
People get tired; people get old, we’re reminded. People get forgotten; people get sold. It’s a simple rhyme, but it hit me hard as it matched the despondency I was feeling about the world around me. We’re facing a pandemic and the ravaging effects of climate change yet our leaders’ instincts are to protect the money; we need solidarity more than ever yet war continues to rage across the globe and brutality exists in every corner. When faced with the reality of the often abstract senselessness of humanity, sometimes it feels as though there’s nothing to do but ask ‘why?’
The Manics offer no answer. That’s not what this song is, and isn’t what I needed — warm platitudes and flimsy rationale that break under the lightest scrutiny wouldn’t have helped. Instead, they share their trauma in failing to understand any of this. As our questions begin to spiral, leaving us pondering over subjects no less vast than the meaning of life, we’re offered the chorus.
There is no theory of everything,
no immaculate conception, no crime to forgive
When I was younger, I read A Brief History of Time by Stephen Hawking. One idea that fascinated me was that scientists were working toward some sort of formula that could accurately describe and predict all real world events. We learn Newton’s Laws of physics at school, and we have quantum mechanics for the stuff they don’t explain. But they don’t sit together neatly, and the idea persists in the scientific community that some sort of all-encompassing formula of incalculable value to humankind exists.
Many years later I read The Grand Design, and Hawking hadn’t given up on his ambition. But in the twenty-two years between the books being published, the man often considered one of the world’s greatest intellects hadn’t managed it. And then he passed away.
I’m often accused of flagrantly untenable optimism, but even I concede that we may never get the answer to this most important of questions — at least not in our lifetimes. For many it remains the Holy Grail of scientific discovery, but for those of us stuck yoyoing in and out of lockdown, contemplating life, that doesn’t help much. Today, as in 1988, there is no theory of everything.
One of the more controversial aspects of The Grand Design was that Hawking had seemingly given up on the idea of a God. There was simply no need for one. I’m not a religious man. There are times when I’m envious of those able to take comfort in the certainty of a creator, an afterlife, a set of rules to guide you to some eternal paradise. I understand that there can, in fact, be a need for a God. But I can never balance these ideas with my perception of the world around me.
My point isn’t to start a debate about religion, but to highlight my own difficulty in understanding why we’re here. For many of us, the idea of some original sin that needs atoning for will never be a satisfactory explanation. Equally, some grand theory explaining everything may never be found within our lifetimes, and if and when it is found, there’s more than a chance it won’t be enough to fill the void of meaning we experience. Torn between the then and now, never really knowing the why and how.
Maybe all we have left is people.
Yes, people give in. Life is hard, sometimes too much. As the song reminds us, we can break down, lose trust, cave inwards. We endure so much it’s inevitable that we reach a limit and give in. But so often we keep going, surrounded by the inspiration of others finding a way. People stay strong — this fact is just as true as any of its antitheses.
We have each other. We have our own remarkable achievements and those of others. We may never know all the answers but together we’re looking and making remarkable discoveries — to me, at least, that’s comforting. During a global pandemic that at times has felt like solitary confinement, it’s encouraging to remember that many of our worries are not ours alone, but shared.
People break down
People move on
People can’t cope
People stay strong
The abject awfulness that exists in this world takes nothing away from the strength we have to find something positive and cling to it. Sometimes we don’t need to be distracted from the horror, but reminded that beauty still exists in spite of it.
A little while back, a Swedish friend of mine sent me a cartoon drawn by his compatriot, Jan Stenmark. It was of two figures sat on a bank, overlooking a body of water. Its caption read:
‘One day, we will all die.’
‘All the other days, we will not.’
It’s a morbidly uplifting sentiment, I suppose. But it sparked the same sense of positivity in me, reminding me that we can achieve so much while still acknowledging uncomfortable truths. We don’t need to run from the big questions — it’s possible to face up to them, defy the odds, gain the victories that matter.
Now and again I like to close my eyes, listen, and spend a few moments at peace with reality. I find it helps.