Jonathan Rowson: "We all need bigger hearts, frames & hopes"


This is the first of a series of blogs from those who are our co-initiators in The Alternative UK, growing it from the core. Some thoughts from Jonathan Rowson, founder and director of Perspectiva

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“What is most personal is most universal”. This exquisite line of psychotherapist Carl Rogers is a little counter-intuitive at first, but on reflection it’s deeply true.

The content of our lives varies greatly, but the form or shape of human experience is familiar across contexts. Whatever you are doing – eating an orange or swimming in the sea -  there is that same sense of ‘being there’, of a situation, an expectation, an action, then responses, outcomes… It keeps on going, as we do.

The more deeply you open up and share your story and give testimony to what is uniquely your own, the more scope there is for others to discern their form in your content; their setting in your plot. The recent Danish advert – All we Share - captures that sentiment beautifully. Human differences are real, but so is human solidarity, and we connect most fully and deeply at the existential level – when we are, in Rogers’ terms, most personal; which means most open, most vulnerable, most generous.

This notion that what is most personal is most universal is a deeply political point, and the source of political hope. Our political thoughts and feelings are always ‘thrown’ by our personal circumstances – and while some are more thrown than others, we share that sense of being thrown. The early feminists were not kidding when they said that the personal is political, but their point applies beyond gender relations.

Let me share my day to allow this point to manifest.

I just returned from Kingston hospital where I spoke with a French Dietician about my 17-month old son’s milk and egg allergies. I was relieved to hear that he seems to be outgrowing them and in the warmth of the moment I wanted to ask her how she felt about Brexit. She looked so at home. But it felt too intrusive.

I took an Uber home and reflected on modern employment contracts. My Bulgarian driver, Diana, heard my son’s name Vishnu and checked that it referred to a Hindu deity, adding that in Bulgaria India is “a very mystic and important country.” I have no idea if that’s true, but as the author of an applied research project on spirituality I found the communication validating, gratifying even. God! 

Vishnu is asleep upstairs now, and like all working parents I approach my computer in a messy kitchen with a keen sense that the clock is ticking. In about 90 minutes Kailash, my seven-year old, will be dropped off from a piano lessonby afriend and school parent who is Mexican. I only have a certain amount of creative energy, so Kailash will have one of his staples, spaghetti with butter, salt and cheese. I will add tinned sweetcorn as a concession to health.

Then Vishnu will wake up, cause some joyous trouble and point quizzically at the clouds. Then there will be baths, books and beds. And then we’ll see what remains, and whether I can resist that half-finished bottle of Bordeaux loitering near our neglected fruit bowl.

These last few days my wife Siva – an academic lawyer - has had various deadlines keeping her at work late. I have deadlines too, but they are softer and gentler, at least for now. My fortieth birthday for instance, is more than 5 weeks away.

Being a Londoner means constant contact with people from other parts of the world. One result of Brexit is that so many of the people that make me feel at home here no longer feel at home themselves. And being a parent means you feel the trials of other parents more acutely, so in recent weeks the stories of immigration rules changing such that families are forcibly separated have felt particularly harrowing.

But an email has just popped into my inbox. I am listed as a 'co-investigator’ on an academic bid about rethinking macroeconomics--the consortium has been successful. This development is fairly typical of my professional life. I am an intellectual nomad who seeks the experience of home in all sorts of unlikely places.

I wonder if I was included in the application because they needed some non-academics to indicate ‘impact’ or ‘engagement’. Or maybe I really do have things to offer? Maybe we can’t reimagine the world without rethinking the economy, and perhaps it’s better not to be an economist to make that case. What is ‘the economy’ anyway? I frequently sense that there is no such thing.

Earlier today I had some other good news – I’ll be speaking on BBC Radio 4’s Moral Maze on Wednesday night about ‘virtue signalling’ and why, when properly understood, it’s a good thing. We need more people to find the courage to speak out for human virtues and their cultivation, and if some self-satisfied vanity is evoked along the way, that’s a small price to pay.

In my ‘day job’ as founding Director of Perspectiva, I call myself an applied philosopher, but it is technically more precise to say I’m an ontological activist. In my work on climate change especially I campaign for ‘reflexive realism’, bending the arc of reality through actions designed to shape perceptions of what is ‘realistic’.

Which brings me to the gladdening launch of The Alternative in the UK. We will not create a new politics unless we proactively and collectively ‘get real’. That means insisting that politics speaks to the fuller reality of human experience, encapsulated neatly by co-initiators Indra Adnan and Pat Kane as ‘I’, ‘we’ and ‘world’. This perspective is highly syntonic with Perspectiva’s desire to integrate ‘systems, souls and society’. We all need bigger frames, bigger hearts and bigger hopes. 

There is so much to more to say, but I just heard Vishnu crying. His nap did go the distance alas. He can’t be hungry, so there may well be some nappy action ahead. That’s my politics for today.