I bought a copy of The Big Issue yesterday, the first in a long time. I was a bit shocked at the increase in price. Then came a mixture of guilt and, I suppose, a sort of unconscious bias against a poor person who was not British and thereby different from the rest of us.
But why should I mind the fact that The Big Issue has gone from £3.80 to £4? It’s a good cause, after all. Then I looked into the eyes of the woman selling it and saw someone not just in need, but having to engage in an activity which I would never want to have to engage in. So the feeling of guilt, along with the now conscious bias, was somewhat mitigated by a common thread of understanding. I say common because her gaze met mine, not as someone begging for help but simply as another woman who happens to be experiencing hard times.
There wasn’t time to hear her story and, in any case, I wanted to establish that fragile but essential line of empathy before embarking on a longer conversation. She was from Romania is all I know about her. Perhaps we’ll talk more next time I meet her.
When I got home I read the editorial in the copy of The Big Issue. Does anyone actually read The Big Issue when they buy it? Perhaps having to spend £4 on a copy motivated me to make that effort. I don’t always get around to reading it, which is another source of guilt. But The Big Issue needs to be read, not just because it’s an excellent product, but because buying it and not reading it reduces a person like the woman I bought it from to being no more than someone begging on the streets. It diminishes their humanity, their human worth.
And this brings me to the content of The Big Issue itself. In the current edition (6th December, 2021) the editor speaks of people’s basic desire to do good. As the writer suggests, we hear so much about people who are against the kind of actions and policies that make for a good society (the treatment of refugees, for example, and the wearing of masks during a pandemic) that it is easy for us to give up on ourselves as a moral society, to forget that we have a moral compass to go by at all, and to also forget that the majority of people want to steer our collective life along that trajectory. But when society and the individual gives up on its capacity for good, and on the existence of a collective conscience, we also move into the realm of despair.
I think that if I were to depict our world and society in the bleakest terms, I would use the word ‘despair’. Despair is about giving up all belief in the possibility of our own capacity to do good and, by implication, of love between human beings. It’s about abandoning hope. Paul McNamee, the editor of The Big Issue, reminds us that most people are loving human beings, that there is such a thing as a collective, or social, conscience (he cites a YouGov poll of last week which revealed that 82% of people in the UK are unhappy with the way our government is dealing with refugees) even if we don’t behave in a loving way all the time. He reminds us of what we are capable of, not so that we can feel smug and complacent, but to give us enough hope to carry on, just as the woman I bought The Big Issue from must carry on in order, perhaps, to survive at all.
The Big Issue represents, symbolically, perhaps, what is really needed for the earth and all of us who dwell in it to carry on. We don’t need grand words or empty promises from politicians, especially from those who lie to us. We need to know one another as equally in need of the love another person has to give, however it is asked for and however it is given. The important thing, the big issue, is to remain alert to the need and ready to address the enormity of the task.