Jonathan Dodd’s latest column. Guest opinion articles do not necessarily reflect the views of the publication. Ed
Getting through the daily grind can be a wearisome thing. Few are the people who have never had to worry about bills, or paperwork, or keeping things clean and tidy, or the need to keep safe or warm or unbothered by those annoying outsiders, whether they be wearing suits and smiles, or relaxing under newspaper in doorways, or appealing mutely for our charity from our television screens. We’re all worn down by the sheer weight of everything and everyone around us.
But the thing is that there can never be any possibility of living for much more than a moment without all that stuff affecting us. We remember or imagine those brief days of childhood, when it was summer and we just did what we wanted to do, and were lost in worlds of our imagination. We encourage our children to have as much fun as they want, and at some point we throw an avalanche of responsibilities and requirements at them, to go to school, behave properly, grow up, study for exams, get a job, save for their pensions, and join the rest of us on our treadmill of work and responsibilities.
Sometimes it can feel like we’re on top of it all
I’m not saying this is a bad thing, and sometimes it can feel like we’re on top of it all and there’s enough money coming in, and the worries recede, like the tide going out and revealing that wide expanse of white sand, lit up by the warm sunlight. But at other times it can all seem never-ending and dreary, and if we’re not managing, we have to exist in a constant miasma of worry. James Cameron created the Terminator, who would never stop, never give up, and who was tireless and relentless, marching in pursuit of his victim, who would never be able to feel safe or relax. Life can feel like that sometimes.
The effect of all this is that we spend a lot of time trying to avoid or minimize the bad stuff, and we long for the good times in every way we can. That’s why we look forward to holidays so much, and time off work, and festivals, like Christmas, which is, let’s face it, a release from those everyday troubles. We get to take a break, when those bothersome people don’t work either, and we can all breathe for a space of time and try not to think about January coming soon. I suspect there’s a lot of that in the pleasure of going to football matches, or cinemas, or churches. Not so much to enjoy the experience itself, but more to lose ourselves in something.
We all know people who have been lucky
We’re very good at making up strategies and behaviour that take the hard edge off the bad stuff. Some of us simply blank it. Men are especially good at ignoring that lump or that difficulty breathing, or the small pains in the chest. It’s just heartburn, or not enough sleep, or must get fit, or working too hard to take the time to get a check-up. It’ll go away by itself. Just get through it. We all know people who have been lucky, who have been missed by the arrow of fate, and we all used to know people who ignored it until it was too late.
We also develop behaviour that tries to shut out some of the noise, or that gives us temporary pleasure or release. Too much alcohol, or driving too fast, or eating too much, or becoming addicted to a life on social media, or working out excessively, or buying things from the shopping channel can fill these moments which would otherwise just contain dread. We all do some of these. I do, and so do you. And it’s all right, up to a point.
Like the tides, our lives are full of ebb and flow
The purpose of any day is to get to the end of that day so you can go to sleep. The purpose of night is to sleep, so you can wake up the next morning with an opportunity to make changes, or with enough energy to get yourself through that new day. Like the tides, our lives are full of ebb and flow, and we find ways to fill our time, and do the things we want to do whilst avoiding doing the things we don’t want to do. Sometimes we can’t avoid the unpleasant stuff, and sometimes we get a strange satisfaction from actually doing it. But it never lasts. I’ve known lots of people who become almost addicted to the joys of food, or running, or making model airplanes, but I’ve never yet found anyone who loves to fill in forms correctly, or post things in time. I’m not sure why.
A lot of us spend much of our time and resources on making our lives look as if we don’t have those worries. We set up elaborate ceremonies and take a lot of photos to be put out on social media, or collected in photo albums, if we like that old-tech way of doing things. We take great pleasure in remembering how happy we were, then. We book holidays in places where the sun shines brighter, the sea is warmer, and everything is more colourful and bright, for the same reasons, and it does comfort us. We buy expensive clothes, or cars, or mobile phones, which bolster our confidence, or perhaps which hide our insecurity, and we tell ourselves we’re doing all right. And usually we are. More or less.
What about that old chestnut, the Meaning of Life?
On top of all these worries, there are more existential things out there to plague us. Some of us worry about our lives. Are we doing well enough? What about that old chestnut, the Meaning of Life? Should we take that religion thing seriously, or can it wait until we’re on our deathbeds? We’re told we should seize the day, live in the moment, don’t worry, be happy, and then we’re told we must save, pay into our pension plans, insure ourselves in case we die or lose our jobs, and get a burial plan sorted. Can we do both? Should we do one or the other? Does any of it help? Who knows? And if nobody knows, should we worry about that?
I certainly don’t have any answers to any of this, and the way I lead my own life is far from perfect, believe me. I mess up, and avoid things, and I have to duck and dive occasionally with the best and worst of them, and I also agonise about what’s right and wrong and whether I’m living a life that’s right, or memorable, or actually useful, rather than being a further drain on our already-depleted resources.
The extra thing that Life does
I suppose there’s no help for me. Because on top of all that, there’s the extra thing that Life does, which is to throw in random stuff. You could live in the path of a bush fire, or a geological fault line. You could have a flat in a tower block in London. You could step off the pavement at the wrong moment. You could win the Lottery, or someone could leave you an unexpected inheritance. Anything is possible, good or bad. We have no idea what’s going to happen. Some people think that’s a bad thing, and it’s the fear of uncertainty that does for them.
Personally, I’ve had my share of both bad luck and miracles. I expect my run of mixed fortune to follow me all the days of my life. Sometimes I’m going to be really happy or really comfortable, and sometimes I’m going to struggle. If all that went away, I think I would miss it. I think I would mourn the loss of uncertainty, and my days would be poorer if there was less to live for or to get through. I think it would be a mistake to expect Life to produce sunshine all the time, because it doesn’t, and it can’t be made to do that.
You need the downs as well as the ups
Someone once told me that it’s necessary to experience the loss of Love, otherwise you’ll never be able to fully appreciate Love when it comes to you. I understand that, and it illustrates the simple truth that you need the downs as well as the ups, otherwise everything is just flat. There’s no denying that uncertainty and bad things happening cause us a lot of work and trouble and worry. But they also strengthen us, and teach us to value the good things, and hopefully they might help us learn how to avoid them or deal with them better the next time they happen.
Now I’m just going to play another quick game before I fill in that form I’ve been avoiding all week…
If you have been, thank you for reading this.
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