AC Grayling: Knowing our fate is the first step to coping with the pain of hard times

It might be cold comfort to say so, but one of the remarkable things about human beings is their adaptability and resilience
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We are told by the Chancellor and all commentators that the Comprehensive Spending Review is going to have tough consequences for everyone.

These are belt-tightening times; harsh realities have to be faced; there is no alternative. Hard times are on the way.

There are two ways of thinking about what people are likely to feel when faced with the promise of difficult times, such as a major recession, severe economic cutbacks, an epidemic disease, or a war – any situation where people will be anxious about the adverse effects on their personal lives by what is about to befall. Will they be depressed and troubled? Will society fragment, will selfishness and divisions increase? Or will people stiffen the upper lip, draw together in mutual support, and endure?

The answer is both, and most likely, one after the other. No one likes bad news, and no one likes to have a cloud hanging overhead, especially if the promise is that it will grow a lot darker and lower before it begins to lift. So at the outset people will be worried and insecure. And there will be a use of sharp elbows, of people pushing to get into a better position than others, or to suffer less. In hard times, the less appealing aspects of human personality can come to the surface.

But as the reality of the situation bites, past experience says most people will begin to adjust and cope. The national experience of wartime – an even more serious example – offers a lesson. Rationing, danger, giving up some ambitions at least for the time being, experiencing loss, and the other vicissitudes of a time of emergency such as war, were all alarming in prospect and burdensome when they arrived; but somehow people pulled through, and there were silver linings, not least in the increased sense of community that came from everyone being in the same predicament.

Of course, there is a certain amount of post-facto sentimentality about how nice everyone was to everyone else during the war, and it should not obscure how tough it really was to live through it, and for some years afterwards. Being faced with severe economic cutbacks is not quite as bad as being bombed, but in their own way aspects of it are as hard: many will lose their jobs and homes; the stress on families will cause break-ups and breakdowns; the despair of joblessness and the grinding nature of being short of money. These are all horrible experiences, and the cutbacks condemn hundreds of thousands of individuals to them.

It might be cold comfort to say so, but one of the remarkable things about human beings is their adaptability and resilience. The way they adjust to new realities and find strategies for living even in what, to an outsider, would seem appalling conditions – refugees in camps, prisoners in jails – are examples of both.

This point has lately been much discussed in connection with the sentencing of prisoners. A jail term of a few years is punishment indeed, but a sentence of 10 years feels, on day one, no different from a sentence of 14 years; and after about five years in prison the individual is so adapted and inured to the experience that the length of remaining time is almost a matter of indifference.

But these points should not console politicians making stringent spending cuts. Themselves guaranteed a job and a warm place to spend their days throughout the recession, they should not think that by the next election, people harmed by their policies will have got so used to being poorer, jobless or homeless as to be willing to leave the authors of their miseries unpunished. They might have coped somehow, and still be able to laugh and enjoy aspects of life, but adapting is not the same as forgiving.

In fact, there is a problem with the way politicians justify actions that have a swingeing and widespread effect on individual lives. The standard trick is to blame the necessity for it on their predecessors in government. So the current Coalition blames it all on Labour, not mentioning the bankers nor the unbridled greed of financiers in the years that preceded the crash of 2008. It is undoubtedly true that there are uncomfortable things to be done as a result of the mess the money men made, but a suspicion generated in the minds of those who bear the burden is that if the blame is not fairly apportioned, part of the remedy conceals ideological and not genuinely economic motivations. Suppose this latter is true, as some commentators say: well, people will adjust just the same, and cope just the same, but they will be even less inclined to forgive when the time comes.

What makes the prospect of hard times often harder to bear than the reality of them when they arrive is uncertainty. Initial uncertainty makes everything seem worse; once one knows the facts about how one is going to be affected, it becomes easier to look for solutions. One problem with the current situation is that the Coalition Government came into office promising hard times; months went by before the announcement of the spending review, with leaks and speculations somewhat blunting its impact; but the delay added to the uncertainty, and to the dragged-out sense of an impending worsening of the situation. And even now that the announcement has been made, many public sector employees still do not know whether or when the axe will fall on them – likewise for many in the private sector whose companies are affected by the public sector. So the uncertainty continues, a nagging anxiety for hundreds of thousands of people who can't plan, who wake each morning with that feeling that there is something bad happening to them, who pencil figures on envelopes and wonder about the mortgage and the bills, the insurance policies and the car expenses.

No doubt politicians could not take necessary decisions if they paid too much attention to the subjective texture of individual lives, though in an ideal world it would be that texture which would govern all decisions. For the individuals themselves, one consolation is that the moment they know what is going to happen to them personally, they can begin the more positive task of responding. The passivity of waiting, the powerlessness of uncertainty, are the abrasive things: action is a blessing in those circumstances.

Dickens's Hard Times begins with Mr Gradgrind, "the man of realities and calculations", demanding nothing but the facts. Dickens intended him to be an example of the wrong kind of education because he excluded the poetry of life, but in actual hard times there is much to be said with facts. Possessing them is what turns the depressing and worrying period of anticipation into the coping and solution-finding period that inevitably follows.

If there is hope in the current gloom, it is that whatever we feel now about the coming savage retrenchment in the economy that many will have to put up with, they will indeed eventually put up with it, and survive. But they will not forget.