Jonathan Dodd’s latest column. Guest opinion articles do not necessarily reflect the views of the publication. Ed
I’m sitting here wondering where the time goes. All that time, all those things that have to be done, and all those things that get put off or left to their own devices, and as we all know, devices don’t run by themselves. I sometimes think of my life as a house that’s been over-run by one of those invasive weeds, until it just looks like a big bush in the shape of a house.
I saw a photo of one once, and it seemed so much worse than an empty house, or a ruined one, or even those Roman villas where everything above ground was removed and used to make new houses by people of a later generation, who knew nothing about civilisation, or just preferred to use a stone that was already dressed and available, rather than making one themselves. Someone said that we’re walking on giants’ shoulders. We’re also walking on the rubbish of history. Dig down, and you find everything that was thrown away, or lost, or forgotten, by the generations before.
Children know only the immediacy of feeling
My time has always flown by. I can’t remember ever being bored, apart from a vague memory of sitting as a child in a silent house, in the midst of summer holidays, watching the pouring rain, and feeling that time was standing still, and there was nothing to do and no prospect of anything ever starting to move again. But I was a child, and children know only the immediacy of feeling, and they haven’t yet been trained or disciplined or brainwashed into doing those jobs that need doing before you’re supposed to be able to sit down and do something pleasant.
At that era of history in which my childhood occurred, there was only one television channel, and Children’s Television didn’t start until late afternoon, even in the summer holidays, so I wasn’t even able to switch it on and watch it vacantly while time passed by. I remember when my children were small, and during those periods when they refused to sleep for a portion of every night, I longed to have something to occupy myself while I was walking the floor, trying to settle one of them. But that was before all-night television. It was eerily quiet, and every moment seemed like an eternity.
There’s never closure for traumatised parents
Some people never had children, and some people had children who slept every night, and some people have forgotten that awful grinding night-time trudging. I knew people who had babies that would only sleep if the hoover was going, or who had to put the child in a car seat and drive, just to get some quiet, if not peace. Of course, no ex-baby, now grown up, ever remembers the traumas they put their parents through, so there’s never any pay-back. There’s never closure for traumatised parents, apart from a possible feeling of ironic amusement if those children have trouble with their own children.
My father had a bumper sticker, the only memento he brought back from a reluctant trip to the USA. It read thus – “IF I’D KNOWN HOW MUCH FUN GRANDCHILDREN WERE, I’D HAVE HAD THEM FIRST!” Nowadays, because most young parents have to work and can’t afford childcare, weary grandparents get to do much of that parenting all over again. Life is just like that. I remember a story about a lift-operator being interviewed about his job, and he said this – “It has its ups and downs”.
Everything is mixed up
No period of our lives is ever all good or all bad. No year or season consists entirely of rain or sunshine, no relationship is always happy or always miserable. We tend to remember an impression of each period or relationship like that though. I hear many mothers saying they forget how terrible the birth was, otherwise they’d never get pregnant again. When we’re prosperous, and worries are few and far between, we forget the difficult times, and we’re traumatised anew once things go badly, and vice versa. In fact, everything is mixed up, and how we’re affected by each one depends entirely on our mood, or on our own inner attitudes.
We all know people who are relentlessly cheerful, and there are just as many people who resist any attempt to crack their stony faces into a smile. It’s not that their lives are either sunnier or drearier, it’s because that’s how they see it all. I find that sunny and bouncy people are generally more on the lookout for enjoyment and pleasure, and those who expect nothing to work properly or give pleasure tend to be less adventurous, so this internal attitude can alter our actual behaviour when it comes to deciding what we’re going to do, or what risks we might take.
There’s no rhyme or reason why things should happen
But Life itself doesn’t give a fig what type of person you are. It’s going to award the lottery prize at random, and there’s no rhyme or reason why things should happen, but they surely do. I know all this, because I’ve been both. I used to be an Eeyore, expecting everything to turn to dust in my hands, and I was miserable. I gained a modicum of respite and grim satisfaction in this, and I was comforted by the thought that I was cutting down on the opportunities of being defeated and let down. But I wasn’t happy.
One day, for no particular reason, I realised that I wanted to be happy, and I understood that even a split-second of happiness was worth a lifetime of disappointment, and I changed into a person who is relentlessly cheerful and upbeat. I didn’t do it instantly. No Road to Damascus for me there. Gradually, I made myself become a different person. Or rather, I was the same person with a different attitude. It was hard work, and I had to be tremendously disciplined, but I did change, and I became happier.
The trick is to notice what you’re saying to yourself
Of course, happiness is easy sometimes, like on holiday or when you fall in love. But it’s harder when your mind is full of worries and struggling with big questions or decisions, or just faced with difficulties ahead which seem to have no resolution. I’ve had a somewhat challenging period recently, which isn’t necessarily over yet, but it has relented somewhat. It has been a real struggle to remain positive and upbeat at times, but I’m still standing. The trick is to notice what you’re saying to yourself.
The medical profession has realised recently that people get better quicker if they expect to, and feel that they should be helping themselves. So now they get you up as soon as you’re woken up from your operation, and the emphasis is all on getting you home and resuming your life as soon as possible. This makes the current crisis rather ironic, because there are lots of people stuck in hospital because their social care has been austeritised out of existence.
A form of words that sounds positive and looks forward with hope
We don’t have to wait for anyone else if we want to become positive and happy people. We just need to say things to ourselves that are positive. I never lie to myself though, because that won’t help at all. I just find a form of words that sounds positive and looks forward with hope, rather than something that will make me feel worse. It’s all about the way we use this wonderful language. You can start by listening to yourself. If you’re stuck at a bus stop in the rain, you can complain as much as you like, but that won’t make the bus speed up, it’ll just make you more miserable. But you can think about how happy you’ll be when the bus arrives (true), and you can be grateful that it isn’t even colder than it already is (also true), and you can look forward to getting home and having a nice cup of tea. You can even preview how lovely it will be to be sitting down watching the rain from your own comfortable armchair.
There’s a trick I learned once which really helps. When we experience something, we do so with all our senses. So if we’re on holiday, we feel warm and happy, and these feelings are real internal physical sensations that our body experiences and responds to. Our skin responds to the warmth of the sun, and our brains send chemicals round our bodies that make us relax all over and smile. When we remember that holiday, it’s not like looking at a photograph, because as we remember the scene and the event, we also remember how we felt, and our brains send out those chemicals again.
We can just make ourselves scared for no good reason
I’m often amazed at how clever and sophisticated we are, and yet how completely ignorant we can be, not through stupidity or lack of study, but because we simply haven’t ever considered some things, or been taught them by anyone. So, for instance, if I ask someone whether they’re happy, they can usually give me an answer. Yes or no, somewhat or a lot. But when I ask them how they know they’re happy, they get very confused. They say they just are. What we don’t understand is that everything we feel, whether physical or emotional, is all bound up in our bodies and our minds.
When we’re frightened, we know we’re frightened. We usually think we’re frightened by something, and that it’s in our minds. But when our minds are frightened, we send chemicals out into our bodies to get ready for trouble ahead. Our blood gets diverted to our limbs, our breathing speeds up, and our hearts beat faster. We notice that we’re feeling shaky and we’re sweating, and that’s our evidence that we’re frightened. We forget that these are only the results of our fear expressed in our bodies. We don’t need to be in a dangerous situation to feel fearful and behave in this way. We can just make ourselves scared for no good reason. And when we remember that we were frightened, our bodies recreate those feelings in our bodies.
Get into the habit of being positive
The same thing happens for all our emotions. Our bodies confirm that we were happy when we remember good times, and every time we remember that happy time, some of that happiness and those bodily feelings are recreated. So thinking about good things has a real effect on how we feel, and how our bodies feel, in exactly the same way that we can recreate dread or misery if we think about or remember those times. So it makes sense to get into the habit of being positive, because it will feed back so we become more positive ourselves.
I could sit here and wonder why I’m writing all this down, because nobody’s going to read it, it’s pointless, and there’s not much reason to bother, so I’d be more likely to give up. Or I can tell myself that someone may read it and feel a little bit better, and their day might go better than they expected, and that makes me feel that it’s worthwhile, which will encourage me to keep going, and a little warm glow will settle inside me, and make me smile.
I know I can decide which of those feelings I can encourage myself to feel, and I can simply tell myself that’s how it is. And so it is. You can do this too, if you want.
If you have been, thank you for reading this.
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