The birth of courage from a ruptured heart

A rupture is haunting Europe. Less than 36 hours ago, half of a country at the heart of the continent voted to leave the common institutional framework known as “European Union”[1]. Of course, everybody reacted (and is still reacting), from established media[2] to social networks[3], from financial markets[4] to cash machines in remote places[5], from politicians all over the world[6] to the proverbial woman (or man) on the street[7]. There are those who cheer and imagine a series of further -exits, prefixed by almost any imaginable letter in our European alphabets. There are those who cry bitter tears confess disappointment, irritation, shock, or outright anger. And there are those who say nothing – which might not be the worst choice when everybody around you is talking[8].

This time, I choose to speak up. I speak, first and foremost, as a human being wanting to contribute to human beings living together for mutual benefit, no matter where and when. I also speak from having academically dwelt in some of the darker times and places of European history[9]. And I speak from two decades of experience with seeing much needed changes in a broad range of institutions fail often – and, fortunately, sometimes succeed[10].

Firstly, to put things into perspective: This is not an earthquake, this is not an outbreak of war, this is not a terrorist attack, this is not a beheading, and this is not a madman’s murder. It’s also not the death of a loved one, it’s not a divorce, not a coming-of-age, and not a friend blocking a friend on social media. And, for the sake of completeness, it is also not salvation, it is not the last judgment, it is not some final victory (of whatever over whatever), and it is not the holy grail saving all souls from suffering forever after. It is a people in the middle of Europe having cast a democratic vote. Which – compared to alternatives experimented with in European history – is infinitely superior to a people raising arms against another people or against some of their own (however defined). And also infinitely superior to parts of a people chopping of heads of other parts of a people (however those parts are defined). And also vastly superior to people physically having to leave the place they’re frustrated with and suffering in. All in all, things could be much worse.

Secondly, nonetheless, this is a vote that has resulted in a rupture ripping right through the middle of not only the people who voted, but through all of us Europeans, collectively and individually. This rupture within all and each of us is what hurts and what brings up the feelings of grief and sadness that are uttered by so many across my timelines. Speaking solely for myself (while inviting you to feel along and explore what resonates with you and what doesn’t), this rupture is a rupture of being torn:

  • Between a firm belief in the indispensability of inter-, trans-, supra- and beyond-national institutions in an age of global challenges…
    … and the observation that many of such institutions are not only far from perfect, but massively underperforming.
  • Between a firm belief in the value of political participation for creating thriving societies…
    … and the observation that a few hundred kilometres away, an act of participation just produced an anti-participatory claim.
  • Between a firm belief in the ability of human beings to make the best possible use of their own minds…
    … and the observation that charlatans, snake-oil dealers, and spurious saviours still (or: once again) gather audiences and gain attention.
  • Between a firm belief in the utter uselessness of all violence and aggression that comes from taking sides…
    … and the observation that not taking sides might actually weaken the case for non-violence and peace.

Now, never in my life ever could I imagine letting myself resolve these inner ruptures in the direction of fighting imperfect institutions (instead of working to make them better), denying participation (instead of listening more), giving up on barkers, bootlickers, and their entourages (instead of trying to understand how they see the world), or grabbing arms for (or against) anything at all. But then, what if, staying firmly put on the side of principles, I get caught by the grand dame Dorothy Sayers’ unsurpassed wisdom that “the first thing a principle does is kill somebody”[11]? What if I fall short by failing to inspire change where change is needed, failing to infuse authority where guidance is looked for, failing to contradict wrong views where truths are distorted, or failing to hold strong against belligerence where danger is imminent?


Sandro Botticelli, The Birth of Venus (1480s) found here [retrieved Jun 24th, 2016].

Thirdly, then (and in full awareness of the arrogance that assumes that my inner life has any relevance at all to what’s happening around us in Europe): What do we do with a rupture that threatens to threaten principles that, themselves, when held too tightly might threaten our lives and our living together? Here’s what I recommend:

  1. Before all else, reach inside ourselves and look at the rupture in our very own hearts: What makes us sad? What makes us mad? What makes us scared? What gives us joy? What inspires love? What brings us peace of mind? And where do the ones and the others clash? Where, when and what do we want – and at the same time shy away from? Where, when and what do we fear – and at the same time desire and dream of? Then, look those contradictions right in the eye, own them and take responsibility for our own thoughts and feelings in all their complexity[12]. Only with this (and with a bit of luck) will we get them on their way towards their own dissolution.
  2. Then, reach out to others, in particular those who are not part of our day-to-day filter bubbles. It’s no longer enough to bathe in mutual reassurance of like-minded friends. We need to turn our senses outwards and forwards, listening to those who inhabit other filter bubbles, feeling our way into their minds and hearts. What are the differences? And what are the similarities right underneath? What are the similarities? And what are the differences right underneath? Not get stuck with positions, but explore stories, beliefs, and personal (and collective) myths. Only with this (and with a bit of luck) will we discover inspiration for common ground, common pathways, and common goals.
  3. Afterwards and on these grounds: Debate, discuss, and disagree – fiercely, forcefully, and with the full power of human speech[13]. Not treat politics like cat content that can be clicked away or blocked when we feel offended. What are the principles that we want to live by in our shared spaces? What are today’s heirs of freedom, liberty, brotherhood and their likes? By which measures do we want to be judged and held accountable, both in our outer lives together and in our outer (and inner) decision making ? What are irrefutable common values that no personal taste, preference, or opinion might ever go against? Only with this (and with a bit of luck) will we (re-) create a European expanse to live in as we grow, play, think, do, build, craft, dream, dance, and dare.
  4. Finally, then (and only then): Derive mechanisms that help stabilise, structure, and strengthen this very expanse – organisations and processes, habits and cultures, ways of communication and interaction, and all that jazz[14]. What of today’s institutions, laws, and customs is helpful for what we want to be in the future? What’s hindering us from becoming what we want to be? How can we effect change while respecting, developing, transforming, and sometimes transcending the continuities that make up our world as we know it?  How can we help and hold each other when things don’t work out as planned? Only with this (and with a bit of luck) will we build a European society both robust and nimble enough to handle its own shortcomings, over and over again.

Responsible, diverse, disputatious – and with the humility needed to shrug off the spectres of sovereignty, supremacy, and stupidity: This is the courage that I believe can arise from the rupture that tore our hearts open, and this is the courage that I believe is needed to guide ourselves into a future we all want to live in. The courage born when violence is dissolved in frothy waves of ocean foam, when human beings see each other eye to eye, and talk amongst them with receptive ears, with words like a fairies tripping on the green, or, like a nymph, with long dishevelled hair, dance on the sands – and yet no footing seen. The courage that’s a spirit all compact of fire, not gross to sink, but light, and will aspire[15].

Let’s find that courage, and let’s use it well.

[1] Given the recent nature of the event, I refrain from giving sources at this point in time. For future generations: I’m talking about the “Referendum of the United Kingdom’s membership of the European Union” (June 23rd, 2016), commonly dubbed “Brexit”. BACK TO TEXT

[2] Such as “The Ecomonist”‘s special edition which can be found here [retrieved Jun 24th, 2016].BACK TO TEXT

[3] Although with a notable absence of an overwhelming hashtag (other than the rather technical #brexit itself) or the possibility to put up a temporary profile picture somewhere (at least to my knowledge at this hour).BACK TO TEXT

[4] Shown, for example, in these graphs published by the Word Economic Forum [retrieved Jun 24th, 2016].BACK TO TEXT

[5] I’m referring to a random post on some social media site where someone reported that they couldn’t withdraw money from a British bank account earlier today because of a lack of exchange rate information. Don’t ask me where I saw that post, please.BACK TO TEXT

[6] And I’m deliberately not quoting someone who, say, went to open a golf course somewhere and commented on something on the way.BACK TO TEXT

[7] With my sad anti-hero of the day being the much quoted person interviewed on BBC who said: “I’m shocked & worried. I voted Leave but didn’t think my vote would count – I never thought it would actually happen” copied a thousand times on Twitter today – just search for the quote. BACK TO TEXT

[8] As a total aside: A few weeks ago, I wrote at length about the value of silence – read more here [retrieved Jun 24th, 2016]. BACK TO TEXT

[9] Having worked on European Peace Plans, the Thirty Years’ War, the French Revolution and identities in war and peace in Europe, the resulting books – with apologies for references that might come across as self-marketing – having been published as “Rêveurs de Paix? Friendspläne bei Crucé, Richelieu und Sully” (1995), “Von Regensburg nach Hamburg. Die diplomatischen Beziehungen zwischen dem französischen König und dem Kaiser vom Regensburger Vertrag (13. Oktober 1630) bis zum Hamburger Präliminarfrieden (25. Dezember 1641)” (1998), “Reflexive Politik im Sozialen Raum. Politische Eliten in Genf zwischen 1760 und 1841” (2003), and “War, Peace and World Orders in European History” (with Beatrice Heuser, 2001). BACK TO TEXT

[10] Those who don’t know me can find more information on my webpage [retrieved Jun 24th, 2016]. BACK TO TEXT

[11] Said by Lord Peter Wimsey in “Gaudy Night” (1935).BACK TO TEXT

[12] Like – to give just one example – German journalist Kathrin Wessling in her recent beautiful reflexion on the end of “Selbstverständlichkeit” – read here [retrieved Jun 25th, 2016].BACK TO TEXT

[13] On this, read Timothy Garton Ash’s “Free Speech” (2016) – and read it now (or discover its genesis and a vast plethora of materials on [retrieved Jun 25th, 2016].BACK TO TEXT

[14] If you can’t wait, I recommend my current favorite collection of potential solutions in Ulrike Guérot’s new book “Warum Europa eine Republik werden muss” (2016) – non-German speakers can read more about her ideas here [retrieved Jun 24th, 2016].BACK TO TEXT

[15] As you’ll have noticed already, this is shamelessly adapted from the unequalled master of European minds and hearts, William Shakespeare (from “Venus and Adonis”, 1592/3).BACK TO TEXT

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