Be not afeard. The isle is full of noises.
How to top Beijing? That was the question that rang in the air prior to the event. It seemed impossible, such was the unified precision, power and purpose of China’s message in The Bird’s Nest.
London by contrast feels so contradictory and imperfect. The talk before the event (ludicrously and shortsightedly) was all about the traffic, congestion, security and the weather. Many worried about how the ceremony could represent a post-Empire, post Industrial Age Britain. This debate felt perfectly captured by the almost existential question: who should light the Olympic flame? After all, who are we today? Do we know?
Having recently returned from the ACBS Conference, this is an interesting question. Viewing the self as one single, fixed entity can be deeply problematic, because it leads to fusion and inflexibility. Conversely, accepting a more diverse version of one’s ‘self’ (or identity) can bring a broader, more flexible repertoire of behaviour and greater freedom to move towards one’s values.
In the post-Imperial age, Britain has long searched for a clear identity. From one perspective, this is a problem, for we all need to feel a collective sense of ‘we’. But from a contextual behavioural perspective this lack of identity – this ‘isle full of noises’ – means there is more space for freedom and flexibility.
Now at the Opening Ceremony the stadium was throbbing with life. Many different stories were told, but there was no ideology being pushed, other than perhaps that of humanity itself.
This means we can celebrate the NHS whilst wondering about its funding. We can mark the right to protest whilst hosting an event which requires control (and yes, restrictive commercial practices). We can pay tribute to our fallen, whilst feeling uncomfortable with our Imperial past. This is who we are and it is everything that we are. Instead of the control of Beijing, we had the humanity of London.
It is not clarity or certainty or one single identity which characterises London. In fact, it is the absence of these things which makes it great. This is what the Opening Ceremony so perfectly captured – the uncertainty, diversity, self-deprecation, madness and creativity of Britain.
People are not types and they restrict themselves when they act as though they are. In the same way, London’s acceptance of its various selves, including its imperfections, can offer us all a template for moving forward, with compassion, for ourselves and for others.
Does this mean we contradict ourselves? Very well, we contradict ourselves. But we are large, and we contain multitudes.
In the end it wasn’t one person who lit the Olympic flame, but many. This was for everyone, and all of us.
Welcome to London 2012.