Tag Archives: intentions

Pooh Sticks and Perfect Intentions

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Happy 2015, dear reader.  How are you?  I hope your festive season was joyful, relaxing and as sparkly as possible.

I’m sure that everyone’s Christmas experience is unique, but there are a couple of thoughts that most (if not all) of us have towards the end of the holiday season:

1) I love my family, but I could probably go a few weeks/months/decades without seeing them now.
2) I have GOT to eat a salad.

Ending the year with good intentions for the future leads me neatly onto my main topic for today, which is new year’s resolutions.  Of course, many people don’t want or need the excuse of January 1st to try new things or give stuff up.  In some ways it seems bizarre to block out twelve months of our lives and classify them as having been collectively “good” or “bad”, and to make decisions about our future based on the events that took place during that time.  Is that why the tradition of making resolutions prevails in our culture?  Because we need to believe that we can divide our lives into units of what we have done and what we are going to do?

There is nothing wrong with doing this, of course, or with most traditions in general.  Tradition – as the characters of Fiddler on the Roof know very well – is extremely important.  Traditions can be religious, cultural or local.  They can even be something that only you and one other person abide by, such as the annual game of pooh sticks that I play on Hungerford Bridge with my friend Paul.  We do it on New Year’s Day, and each stick represents a resolution for the year ahead.  The original idea was that the person whose stick came out first was most likely to keep their resolution.  This year it was so windy that our sticks kept flying back to hit us in the knees, so we had to improvise slightly.  (“Shall we just go to the other side of the bridge and chuck them downriver?”  “Er…yeah.”)

I don’t know about you, but Paul and I usually find that our resolutions stay fairly similar year on year: there’s always a resolution about learning to manage our money, and another about improving ourselves in general.  There also tends to be something project-based (Paul: “Build a PC!”) and an optimistic love life goal (Me: “Sort it out”).  In some ways it is disheartening to think that our aims are inching rather than leaping forward, but then who can be expected to completely change their lives in just one year?  Or two?  Or three?  Or…oh…I’m spotting a problem here…

People’s resolutions stay similar because we are only human.  No matter how many years we are given or how good our intentions are at the time of resolve, we will probably never achieve complete perfection.  Paul, God bless him, never criticises me for the fact that “clear my overdraft” has been on my resolutions list for the last three years in a row, and I appreciate that.  He does remind me of my successes, e.g. last year I resolved to take a show to the Edinburgh Fringe, which I did.

This time of year can be very tricky, because we are caught in a limbo world of recovering from the previous year and trying to plan the next.  If we think that we have made little progress over the past year, we can become pessimistic about what we are capable of in the next one.  The important thing is to keep going, keep trying, and to make sure that you have people around you who will remind you of how far you’ve come.

Have a glorious Friday, and a wonderful 2015.  You have achieved a lot more than you think.

Jeremy Bentham Could Do With A Hug

altruism

Hello and welcome to this year’s gazillionth bank holiday Monday!  I hope that you’ve got some lovely activities planned.

Altruism is a very tricky business, and lots of people don’t really believe that it exists.  The philosopher Jeremy Bentham argued that humans exist to maximise their own pleasure and minimise their own pain, and that supposedly selfless acts are nothing more than our attempts to feel good via other people’s gratitude, social status, smugness, etc.  (Does anyone else get the feeling that poor Jeremy hasn’t had a lot of love?  Someone give him a cuddle.)

Bentham’s bleak assertion may not sit well with some of us, but it actually taps into something that we’ve all experienced in some way.  We all know the phrase “nice guys finish last”, and that’s a pretty fair summary of how we feel about unrewarded kindness: it’s not fair, and if it’s not fair, why should we bother?

Firstly, life is not fair, and we already know that.  We’re working within an unfair system where hard work is not always rewarded with promotion, love is not always requited and people don’t always say thank you when you hold a door open for them.  Therefore, choosing how to treat others based on what’s ‘fair’ is arbitrary and a bit useless, and deciding whether or not to perform a selfless act based on the injustice of the world is ridiculous.  “I will not help that small child get safely out of the path of that speeding car, because last week a child just like him bashed into my knees at the supermarket.  Fair’s fair.”  Fair is stupid, so forget about it.

Secondly, if you’re that fussed about getting rewarded in the first place, then you’re not being altruistic.  That’s not a criticism of you personally, by the way: after all, who doesn’t like to be rewarded?  Altruism is essentially being kind, generous etc. without any notion of reward: a truly altruistic act is performed by someone who does not even think about the pay off, let alone seek it.  This is sometimes difficult to imagine, and it can get very complicated when we have the best of intentions: making some we love feel better when they’re sad isn’t even altruistic, because their happiness makes us feel happy, because we love them.  Aren’t we selfish gits?

So it may not be real selflessness, and it may be that altruism doesn’t exist at all, but being kind and generous without requiring anything in return is very important.  This is partly because we all have systems of morals, and the one thing that just about every religion in the world can agree on is that being kind to people is important, but also because it means that we can be proud of who we are and how we behave.

Let’s be honest: showing someone love, kindness, sympathy and support can be very demanding, and if the gesture is either refused or ignored we end up feeling foolish.  I don’t know about you, but one thing I hate is being made to feel like an idiot (largely because I can do it just fine by myself without any help from others, thank you).  But showing someone love does not make you an idiot: it makes them the idiot if they don’t appreciate it.  And why would you want gratitude from an idiot?

If you’re still feeling a bit under-appreciated, I could always make you some biscuits.  How’s that?

Have a spectacular Monday.