She wanted not only to turn a sceptical eye inwards, to interrogate her own worst impulses towards jealousy, cowardice, heartlessness, cruelty – her ambitions were more vaulting than that. She sought to extirpate even these impulses utterly, or at least have others believe that her blemishless generosity of spirit comprehended them not. A being of light, and no darkness. But being human, and not a plaster saint, being motley and mortal, this excision failed. In the secret and disavowed terrain of her small-heartedness and her malice, thoughts like poisonous toadstools multiplied. Jealousy. Bitterness. And ultimately, she disintegrated. Pitching for perfection, she brewed a vinegar bottle in her own breast.
I thought our candidate for sainthood was a good deal worse than many decent sinners I have known. They understood, as she did not, that we are all of us creatures of shade as well as light. Our erratic impulses may be kindly as well as crooked. You needn’t be in thrall to the bleaker portions of your personality, but only an idiot tries to efface them.
In my bones, I am not a nice person. Most Tickells have vein of ice cutting through them, somewhere. One of the more admirable traits in Scottish culture is our fondness for sparkling cruelty, and the cutting remark well-administered to a worthy object of scorn, with a twinkle in either eye. We don’t disavow our shadows. But as I’ve grown more ancient, I’ve become less cynical, less negative, less inclined towards the detracting remark.
In my late teens and early twenties, I was, I think, frequently insufferable: sardonic, knowing, condescending, unconstructive. Swaying the brittle swagger. Anxiety masked – poorly – by scorn. Sometimes needlessly cruel. Often over-estimating the solidity of the people and ideas I trained my enervating attention upon. There isn’t much to be proud of. But you should forgive yourself and others your youth, and theirs. You learn, they learn, you both change.
I owe a lot to teaching other people to clarifying my values. It now seems to me far more important to think with a different vocabulary. Fostering, growing, encouraging – and above all, striving to understand. I do wonder if 2016 is the year in which we are all of us – collectively – ought to reckon in a more sober, thoughtful, playful and basically kind way with the strong feelings which our recent politics have unleashed on all sides.
We don’t need saints. We don’t need to blot out our unkind feelings. We don’t need worthy lessons from hearts, blessed and cursed with the inability to feel hatred or anger. But I wonder if we can’t respond to our current political and emotional predicaments in Scotland with a more human face in the coming year. With more bravery. And with a kinder, deeper, more surely rooted confidence too.