Jonathan Dodd’s latest column. Guest opinion articles do not necessarily reflect the views of the publication. Ed
If wishes were enough to make things happen, then by now we’d mostly be residing in a very large number of individual paradises. But it’s never that easy. Mary Poppins was able to snap her fingers and say – “Spit, Spot!”, and sing about a spoonful of sugar while a whole roomful of chaos righted and tidied itself, and somehow it seemed like we should all be able to do that. But in real life it’s only work that makes and keeps things tidy.
Sadly, it’s work that makes good governments, and fair societies, and truth and justice and all that other stuff we crave, and not enough people work at that, which is why things don’t work as well as they should. Of course, we crave the magic trick or bullet, or the superhero or superheroine, or the fantastic new technology that will transform our lives. People don’t usually pray for a feeling of satisfaction while hoovering up cat fur, or the ability to sing while sweating over a mountain of ironing though, they’re more likely to pray for a magic ironing machine, or a robot hoover.
Like a badly-guided missile
I expect people might think it old-fashioned of me to suggest that cleaning the house is work worth doing, but the sense of rightness and satisfaction when you’ve finished trumps any grumpiness you might feel when you start. And it’s no surprise to me that, even if you’ve felt exactly that feeling, the next time you have to do it all over again, you don’t remember the triumph, and your memory homes in on the grumpiness instead, like a badly-guided missile.
The thing that dispirits us most, I think, is that your lovely tidy shiny spotless home takes no time at all to go back to looking just as careworn and dowdy and dusty as it did, so the whole thing has to be repeated. And repeated, like a record that you didn’t even like, jumping back a groove endlessly because of a scratch.
Shouting from their corners and waving their plans about
There’s another thing we have a problem with, and it has to do with all those paradises. We can mostly agree that something must be done, but we’ll never be able to create a quorum for one single good result. Everybody splits into small groups, shouting from their corners and waving their plans about. There’s a story in the Bible, where everyone in the world speaks the same language, and they think they should be up there in heaven with God, so they start building a tower. The story has it that they were doing so well that God panicked. Presumably He didn’t want to be too close to the neighbours.
Not only did He smite the tower mightily, but he messed with all their heads so nobody could understand each other any more. Quite why He did that, or why it’s worth putting in the Bible, I can’t make out, because it doesn’t say much about His trust or expectations for His creations. I don’t believe either that there was ever any mythical time when we as a species were quiet and calm and peaceful and full or happiness and shared purpose. Come to think of it, I don’t believe there ever will be a time like that either. We seem to thrive on chaos and discord.
The priests get to be at the top of the pyramid
Most of the stuff in the Bible, and probably in lots of the big religious books, seems to me to be rather humdrum. All those laws about who should enter the tabernacle of the Lord, and what you should eat on which days, seems to me to be a form of intrusive rule in order to force social cohesion. The religion stuff has obviously been tacked on to make it feel more authoritative. And, guess what, the priests get to be at the top of the pyramid, and they were far too busy to build it themselves. That’s an all-too-familiar story.
Our utopias, like our religions, have always been very domestic. Many mansions in heaven, a peaceful life with olives and fair companions, and so many others. We all end up joining the religion that promises us after we die those things we love or aspire to in this life. Or maybe the things we feel we’ll never deserve. Hence the clash of paradises. There would inevitably be signs up in certain parts of Heaven saying ‘No Blacks, No Dogs, No Irish’. And the justification for that is that the Blacks and the Dogs and the Irish would all have heavens of their own to live in.
Who’s going to clean all those mansions?
I’d like to think that at least one of these ideas contains something like the truth, but the people who tell us about God’s will are a bit vague on so many details. I never understood why they were so confident about making up the big story, but so coy about the detail. Who’s going to clean all those mansions? What were the heavenly aspirations of all those fair companions who are going to be forced to comfort the holy martyrs in Paradise? Who doles out the dogfood, and if there’s a heaven for dogs, does that mean there’s a heaven for each different kind of dog? Do lions get to hunt in their heaven, and what do they hunt, if the antelopes are all happily installed in their own heaven?
This rant doesn’t mean that I don’t have my own ideas about religion and the afterlife, which I do. I believe we should actually spend a lot more time making this life as good as possible for everybody while we’re here, and we should be using our minds to work out for ourselves what it’s all about, rather than swallowing someone else’s idea of heaven. My real gripe with religions is that they behave like travel agents, selling eternal package holidays on credit to those who aren’t willing to put the work in on figuring it out for themselves.
Discovering the home-life of our friends from school
I was fed a load of tosh in my childhood. At the time I swallowed it because that’s what you do, before you know enough to start asking proper questions. I was very aware of the difference between what everyone said in church on Sunday and how they behaved the rest of the week, but I didn’t have any other examples to compare that with until I was at school and mixing with other children and visiting their houses. I think we all remember having our eyes opened by discovering the home-life of our friends from school.
Life is a one-way trip, with no set destination. If there is a map, it’s not available to any of us. We’re on a Magical Mystery Tour, and it’s up to each one of us to make the most of it, wherever it might take us and whatever it demands of us in return. We’ll get very scared, and have blissful moments, there’ll be long periods that we’ll struggle to remember, and experiences that burn themselves into our memories and our characters.
Turn round, keep going, set off into the wild blue yonder, or stay still
At every step of the way there will be possibilities to turn round, keep going, set off into the wild blue yonder, or stay still, and there are no instructions. We have no idea what the consequences of any of our actions or inaction may be, or who our friends really are, or who will still be our friends in the next moment or the next decade. We have this terrible tendency to forget that nothing is set in stone, that everything can change with our next breath, for better or for worse. The only way we learn to find our way in life, as in a dark room, is to set off, feeling our way, until it becomes familiar.
After a while, things become so familiar that we become bored with them, there’s no fun or excitement any more, and we either settle to a life full of the same old thing, until we’re jolted out of it, or we realise that we need to keep moving, while our legs still work. Life does this to us. If we’re not learning, we’re turning to stone. I think we all know at least one person who has done just that. Do we want to be like them? Do we accept that it’s our fate to be like them? Or do we go looking for another darkened room, or buy a train ticket to an unknown destination?
That piece of paper is just a list of excuses
All this requires work. The difference between people can often be seen in the amount of energy they use. Keeping your life healthy requires effort and hard work, which gives back joy and excitement, and considerably more pleasure than sitting still doing things that are familiar. You should be changing your diet, learning new skills, meeting new people and getting involved in challenging activities. It’s very easy to write down a long list of very good reasons for not doing any of these things, but that piece of paper is just a list of excuses, which can blow away in the wind.
Putting off things you would like to do makes no sense either, because the putting off becomes the terrible habit you can’t break, until you forget what you used to dream of before you gave up. The health of your heart is closely tied to your dreams. Excitement and anticipation and new experiences keep your heart beating properly, and your heart sends your blood singing through your body, and all your systems work better than you might imagine. Sitting still has never been recommended by anyone as an exercise regime and a recipe for happiness or any other positive thing.
What can we possibly achieve by doing nothing?
Above all, we have a tendency to imagine that work is bad, because it requires effort. Yes, it takes effort. Yes, we feel tired sometimes. Yes, we want to give up, crawl down a hole. But what can we possibly achieve by doing nothing, never stirring ourselves for anything, never getting excited, never taking a chance on something unknown?
And at the end of all that, we’ll be welcomed into whatever paradise or heaven we believe in, because we won’t have wasted our lives or learned nothing of any value. Or if Paradise turns out to be something other than we imagined, we’ll be ready for the new challenges. Or, if there’s nothing, our last thoughts won’t be about regret for things not done, and chances not taken.
Work is good!
Work is good, any work positively undertaken will bring rewards, although not necessarily those we expect. Even paid work can be made better with a good attitude, and there are always opportunities, if we keep our eyes open. Never Give Up! Never Surrender!
The question is not whether you agree with me, it’s simpler than that. Can you come up with a better plan? And if you do, please let me know what it is.
If you have been, thank you for reading this.
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