Peace on earth and good will to all?

Good heavens, it’s December — where in the name of all that’s holy did 2018 go? It seems like only yesterday I was decking my metaphorical halls and boggling about the speed at which 2017 was evaporating. Does any one else experience December a bit like an annualised Grounhog DayA month when everything seems to repeat itself bringing a sense of  déjà vu and some difficulty in separating one year end from another?

It’s the time of year of dementedly cramming in everything that needs to be done in the count down to Christmas. The lure of the holidays beckons like a Siren call and you start to feel a bit over it all. As the weather hots up and the time runs out, it’s so easy to get a bit tetchy and lose sight of age old seasonal calls for peace on earth and good will to all. These become more compelling every year given our current reality and the scary future outlook we’re facing on many counts. Whatever religion or spiritual philosophy you embrace, surely the prospect of peace on earth and goodwill to all should be front and centre of everything we do if we are to leave any sort of joy to the world of our children and grand-children?

But, sometimes it all feels overwhelming. What can any individual do in the context of so much dysfunction? Well, lots actually. There are so many examples of incredible individuals who have changed the world through their inspiring lives. Clearly there’s the holy trinity of Martin Luther King, Nelson Mandela and Mahatma Ghandi and their ilk. Amazing as these Titan’s of human rights were, the heroic and very much less travelled paths they walked fell a bit beyond most of us. But there are many less known others throughout history who have shown what can be achieved with vision and compassion. People like Henry Dunant who found the Red Cross in 1863 and whose humanitarian ideas gave rise to The Geneva Conventionin 1864.  People like The Tank Man, who stood in front of a column of tanks from the People’s Liberation Army in Tiananmen Square in Beijing in 1989 armed only with his shopping bags. This unknown hero became an ionic image from Chinese pro-democracy protests which were brutally suppressed through weeks of clashes between with government forces in which thousands of people were thougtht to have been killed.

For sure, not everyone has it in them to show bravery like The Tank Man, but little things matter too and the ripple in the pond effect cannot be under-estimated. I’d say it would be wonderful to inspire those “I want what she’s on” responses and to infuse random strangers with our positive energy. As I said in my previous blog, I am a big fan of the kindness movement and the possibility of step change through benevolent influence. However, in the same vein, it’s the little things that can also be the most irritating and potentially destructive causing a chain re-actions of negativity and aggression, sometimes leading to violence.

I was sharply reminded a few days ago as I was walking briskly along the pavement (or sidewalk depending on where you live), enjoying the sunshine and day dreaming happily about the summer holidays. God was most definitely in his heaven and all right with my world. Then it wasn’t! What is it about people in groups? Do they forget that their group is simply a subset of the rest of humanity? Apparently so! Imagine my irritation when a clump of ‘yoof’ ambled towards me oblivious to my presence, or right of equal passage on the public footpath, forcing me to step into the road to be able to get past them. How inconsiderate I thought. How rude! Channelling Michelle Obama’s “when they go low, we go high”, I swallowed the “screw you” (or other expletive) that was begging to be lobbed at their retreating backs and strode on trying to get my dander levels under control!

I haven’t often felt pavement rage like this since I lived in London. In those years, we used to talk about aggressive walking – i.e. elbows and handbags as weapons being fair game to get through the milling, chaotic melees that were Regent and Oxford Streets in the lead up to Christmas. In bustling metropolitan places like Central London or New York where the populations are in the multi-millions, it’s often impossible to do as you would be done by pavement wise. In places like New Zealand’s capital of Wellington with its paltry 450,000 (and that’s the whole region, not just the city itself), not so much. There really is no excuse for pavement hogging here because we don’t have the rivers of people to contend with and it’s doubly annoying because there’s generally no need for it.

In the busiest places however, necessity is the mother of invention. There is a sort of acknowledged pavement etiquette which is applied by most people for the sake of everyone’s sanity and wellbeing. This is particularly true during the twice daily king tides of people flooding out of the underground stations in the morning and then receding back into them in the evening. Minor decisions about people flow are made intuitively and constantly whilst navigating these human tsunamis. Situational awareness is a critical survival skill.

It’s not just inconsiderate people that cause problems. Artless tourists are another source of rage to locals. When I started sifting around, I was quite entertained to find that there are studies about the walking speeds of locals versus tourists and workers versus shoppers. There are even groups lobbying for the introduction of fast and slow lanes and texting lanes on pavements that are colour-coded to achieve directional flow. Trouble with any sort of pavement regulatory system — voluntary or imposed — is that not everyone’s going in the same direction and you might want to cut across the flow to get into a shop. This can be life threatening at peak times — you’d have more success crossing the Spey River in full spate after the sprint melt.

In summary, when we take to the pavements, forget good will to all, simple good manners, courtesy and politeness all too often disappear faster than you can say Donald Trump. Oops did I mention the ‘T’ word? It seems a shame that the concept of good manners is ow so very much equated with a stiffling colonial past. There’s been a lot of talk over the last months of ‘incivility’ in the political arena. Taking it outside of politics, perhaps incivility is the contemporary articulation of the ancient proverb ‘manners maketh man’? (For man, read men, women, LGBTs and children). Whatever name you give it, I don’t think I’m alone in experiencing almost a soulful longing for a kinder, more considerate society and world. And where better to start than in the way we interact with our fellow humans on a daily basis?

The earliest known reference to the proverb “manners taketh man” was in the writings of William Horman, who lived between 1440 and 1535 and was headmaster of the very famous English schools Eton and then Winchester. Horman’s book ‘Vulgaria’ (translates from Latin into something like ‘everyday sayings’ or ‘common sayings’) is a collection of proverbs that were in common use, so it may have been around for many years, even centuries before Horman’s time. The proverb’s meaning has come to be that your mannerisms and characteristics make you who you are. That people are judged by their manners and conduct. But in its earliest use, it likely had a broader meaning – that manners make us human —  that politeness and etiquette are what prevent us from falling into savagery.

Well, it certainly feels pretty savage when a phalanx of people fail to give way on a pavement forcing you to walk on the street. It’s also quite savage when someone crowds you at a check out or tail-gates you in a place where they have no possibility of overtaking. Those shouted cell phone conversations some people insist on having in public that disturb the peace — a legal offence in many countries and most definitely savage. Ditto people who talk through movies or concerts. Call me old fashioned but I’m still a big fan of those very under rated ‘magic words’, please and thank you . And would it really hurt for drivers to acknowledge my courtesy with a wave? So many of them don’t. Barging in front of me in a queue is not a winner either! And please don’t sit at my dinner table texting or checking your social media conversations — I believe that’s called excessive virtual socialising.

I don’t want to go through my days having spasms of irritation and being a victim of these every day acts of thoughtlessness that spoil my buzz. I’d say manners are still a fundamental need of a civilised society. We just need an updated version for our current reality in which we struggle to deal with over-population and resort to smart devices as the universal panacea. Manners might not cure all the evils of the world, but what a different place the world would be if we really could extend goodwill to all — we might even succeed with achieving peace on earth. Amen to that.

 

 

All I want for Christmas is …

A couple of days ago, a colleague who has one of those ill-timed birthdays just before Christmas, stormed into the office the day after her birthday with a face full of thunder. This somewhat melodramatic entry resulted in one of those impromptu discussions common to small workplaces. Her birthday experience got us debating one of the abiding themes of Christmas.

You might be mistaken for thinking that we discussed the meaning of peace on earth. But no, our philosophical dive was even deeper than that. You see, her husband had just committed the ultimate crime. For her birthday, he bought her … er … well … none of the things she’d flagged so carefully as being acceptable — the gorgeous silver bracelet, a painting she’d fallen in love with, a bottle of her favourite fragrance, tickets to the Nutcracker etc. No, he didn’t buy any of those. He bought her one of those slim-line stick vacuum cleaners. What was he thinking? So many issues there. The domestic goddess thing exists only the Nigella’s dreams. For most of the rest of us the gift of a bit of cleaning apparatus, however beautifully designed, has eerie echoes of Stepfordwifery!

After we got over the horror of it all and revived once of the more faint-hearted among our small group with smelling salts, we exchanged worst present stories and had a good laugh. Of course the terrible offerings received over the years from our various ‘Hims’ morphed into a bleat about the minefield that is buying presents for the men in our lives. Why is it so difficult for both parties to recognise a fundamental and universal truth; buy them what they say they want, not what you think they want? Of course, being single, I’m spared the soul searching that goes with selecting a gift for THE man in my life. But I do have men in my life and while they are a little less problematic than buying for a HIM, the challenge still feels a little like a blank Sedoku puzzle (I’m useless at Sedoku by the way).

Few of us are strangers to that ‘oh crap’ moment that sets in as we realise that his or her birthday is imminent. And Christmas? Well, Christmas can move from being a time of goodwill to all to one filled with axe murdering rage as the pressure mounts, the budget gets blown and we approach the big day with trepidation — be still my beating heart — will he like it?

I’ve had a few fails over the years, but I’d say the epic one among them was a few years back. I’d just come back from the UK equipped with what I thought was the perfect present for the then man in my life who pretty much had everything and had the means to buy himself anything he didn’t have. I had thought what I’d found was an inspired choice. Who wouldn’t cherish a sterling silver olive spoon based on a design made for King James I? Consider the perfection of my gift. A tiny, exquisitely-formed runcible-spoon with which to fish an olive out of a jar or bowl, the runcible feature (aka the built-in holes) allowing for drainage of the unappealing briney stuff olives usually float around in, preserving one’s clothing from drips and similar. What more could a man want?

Truly, I thought this gift had everything: novelty value, cute quotient, implicit statement to new man about my towering good taste AND expensive enough to impress, but not be overdone. Imagine my surprise when my beloved looked at it for a nano-second before moving on to fuss endlessly about some cutesey thing his young daughter had given him. I sulked for about five minutes then grumpily acknowledged to myself that perhaps it was one of those gifts that were really all about me and what I’d like. Of course, it was consigned to that Bermuda Triangle at the back of the wardrobe (every house has one) where unwanted presents get sucked in, never to be seen again. … why, oh why, didn’t I take it with me when I left? I loved it. So my point?

“What would you like for Christmas, darling?” we say.

“Buy me books … music … chain saw accessories … a subscription to Model Engineer … a drone… Oh, and those new mags would look so cool on the car,” he replies with the fanatical light of the obsessive lurking in the depth’s of his pleading eyes.

And what do we do possums? That’s right, we ignore him. Or perhaps we do buy him the current D.I.Y best seller — How to dismantle a toaster and put it back together in world record time — as a token gesture. Then we go and buy a little romantic something else because we can’t believe the D.I.Y. snorefest, however much of a masterpiece it may be, is a proper gift because it’s not what we’d want to get. Where’s the romance in it? We simply can’t imagine that he can really be happy if we give him the ‘blokeish’ thing he’s asked for. Of course the outcome is as predictable as my inability to say no to chocolate; he hates it and we lurch from (at best) utter incredulity and hurt feelings at his lack of gratitude to (at worst) relationship-threatening outrage.

So my point is, buy him what he asks for … unless it requires sacrifices or participation on your part that is distasteful to you or downright illegal. Surprising him with a bouquet of long-stemmed red roses delivered to his work place on Valentine’s Day, or dimming the lights while he opens the elegantly wrapped package containing Dupion silk boxers is not necessarily the way to his heart. If he asks for a widget, it’s probably what he really, really wants. If you buy him a widget you will be spared the disappointment of seeing his bewilderment as he unwraps your carefully chosen object d’art with a “wtf?” look on his face.

If you want the same treatment, don’t just give him hints in code that would have furrowed the brows of the Enigma team. Be very clear. Be clear to the point of pushy. When he asks you what you want, tell him. Don’t fall back on the cruise for a bruise idiocy of “I’ll love anything you buy for me.” That path leads to stick vacuum clearners!

But really, what a ‘first world’ problem to have! It’s all so shallow. I’d love it if we could get rid of the commercial madness that is Christmas (or pretty much any other festival), and all the brand-led conspicuous consumption that is par for the course. The endless coveryer belt of consumer crap that no-one either wants or needs — let’s axe once and for all the ‘landfill’ shopping and find some deeper meaning in our lives.