There is a well established link between superstition and numbers. In the West we have such trepidation around the number 13 that certain buildings lack a thirteenth floor, airplanes lack a thirteenth row and streets miss out a building number 13. In other cultures different numbers evoke fear - in Japan the number 9 is avoided (perhaps because in Japanese the word nine sounds like suffering) and in China the number 4 is considered unlucky because it sounds similar to the word for death.
After this year I am left wondering what level of fear the number 2016 will inspire in future generations.
Many have commented on the vast numbers of talented and famous people who have died this year: David Bowie, Prince, Muhammed Ali and Leonard Cohen to name only a few. The state of British politics has become virtually indistinguishable from an awful cross between “In the Thick of It” and “House of Cards” and even Stephen Hawking considers the current political landscape beyond his understanding. The British MP Jo Cox was murdered. Most recently (and possibly most worryingly) one of the most right-wing demagogues in recent years - a man who believes climate change is a conspiracy, who seemed remarkably unfazed by his endorsement by the Ku Klux Klan and (at the time of writing) is seriously considering creating a register for Muslim Americans - is now the US president-elect and is set to be Commander in Chief of the most powerful military in the world. Far-right groups are gaining strength and popularity across Europe and Marie Le Pen is openly talking about creating a “New World Order”
I remember learning the Ancient Greeks believed the world was built around numbers and when they discovered irrational numbers this shattered their beliefs. Such numbers, including pi and the square root of 5, are impossible to express exactly as a fraction and when expressed as decimals are unending and without discernible pattern. I confess I’m starting to empathise with the Greek philosophers: only a couple of years ago I would have been certain that the progress towards a kinder and more equal society (exemplified by the USA electing its first black president in 2008) would be so secure that someone like Trump could never win an election and now I know I was wrong (and that there are even people who consider Trump not extreme enough!).
In my tutoring work I have been lucky enough to know so many wonderful students and families. One of the the things I still love about my job is the number of other languages, customs, cultures and nationalities I have had the chance to learn about. And now I read reports of spikes in the number of hate crimes and find I have a little bit of fear for so many of my current and former students.
One of possible measures anyone may be able to take to try and ensure 2017 does not continue this regressive trend into nationalism and xenophobia is to support charities that will uphold civil liberties and mitigate the environmental damage caused by Trump et al. Nearer to home, we cannot forget that an ever growing number of families are relying on food banks and the number of people let down by the current benefits system runs into the thousands. This version of an Advent calendar (putting one item for a food bank in a box each day in December and then donating the box to the nearest local charity on Christmas Eve) may be of some help, and a petition to suspend the fit-for-work assessments may be found here. Others have suggested donating to reputable news organisations as they need more support than ever if they criticise or challenge regressive practices.
Despite the depressing tone of this post I would like to leave you with some hope for 2017. The first comes from the life long work of Abdul Sattar Edhi, founder of the Edhi foundation that provides an incredible range of vital services in Pakistan, including ambulances, hospitals and orphanages, Sadly, Edhi is one of the many luminaries who passed away this year but I think his example of how much good a single person can do is needed now more than ever. The second is this illustration of the votes cast in the American election by those aged 18 - 34 who, more than any other age group, voted against Trump and the myopic racism he espouses.
Lets make 2017 a better year!