And why cock-eyed optimism keeps us making more….
Back in the bad old days, when life was “nasty, brutish and short” for both man and beast and denizens of the Western world paid a great deal more attention to the Bible (since healthcare was down to the local wise woman or barber-surgeon and war and peace depended largely on the whim of the local overlord) they were advised that it was useless to predict what might occur in the future since, unless they coincided with the will of the Lord, all one’s careful plans would be as so much chaff in the wind.
“We’ll meet again at Yuletide, God willing,” would have been said with real feeling.
The Qur’an teaches the same thing; unless your plan coincides with Allah’s greater scheme you are less likely to succeed than fail. And so it is unsurprising that in those Muslim countries where life in this brutal era is far more precarious, a living hell on earth for some, you seldom hear anyone express a wish for the future without adding the obligatory “Insha’Allah”.
When was it, exactly, that we in the “West” thought we could be responsible for our own destiny and start believing in our own supreme powers to cook up and see through our plans? Sometime after two unimaginably destructive world wars made Christians begin to doubt warfare on that scale could possibly be the intention of their Divinity?
Or when TV showed us all the other parts of the world, where different Gods seemed equally indifferent to the pleas, wishes and the plight of their faithful?
And mankind’s own scientific and technological advances backed up the hubris that he had a good deal more control about life and death, and alleviating the possible misery in between?
Business ethics started to overtake the ten commandments and catechism by rote sometime in the later 20th century, between the first publication of Cosmopolitan magazine and the apotheosis of capitalism in the nineteen-eighties. Most people’s idea of personal development suddenly had less to do with character and spirituality than developing a top-class CV and having a Life Plan or a Business Plan that would make them millionaires by 30.
We were encouraged towards goals and tick-lists, qualifications, progress markers and competition with our peers.
Reaching adulthood on the cusp of this period I couldn’t help but be confused. Attending convent school and church on a Sunday with my parents, we soaked up “do as you would be done by”, “it’s easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than a rich man to enter the gates of heaven”, etc., etc. and all the Christian virtues that helped society stick together. After a fashion. An old fashion. Next thing we knew, my father, who worked for an American oil company, came home preaching the latest on time-and-motion studies, marketing strategies, the bottom line and other imported credo.
Then, Margaret Thatcher was pronouncing, “There is no such thing as society” and Gordon Gecko uttered the immortal, “Greed is Good” which soon lost the ironic quotation marks.
And so, it became usual to think that if things were not going right in our life, it could only be Our Fault. We couldn’t have planned for all the eventualities, been cautious in times of belt-tightening or bold when temerity was called for. We obviously hadn’t drafted our life like a business opportunity! How on earth could we expect to survive without a plan?
Touching wood, crossing your fingers, not treading on the lines of your black cat, throwing salt under a ladder and saying a little prayer …. how irredeemably old hat. And yet, probably no more nor less effective than having a plan!
And why am I reflecting on all this right now?
Because at this time of year everyone seems to have a plan in place.
“What have you got planned for Christmas?” everyone asks from the first leaf fall.
Since so many families are fractured or re-assembled, far-flung or feuding, I suppose some kind of plan needs to be in place if you want Christmas to be a family affair with limited potential for nuclear disaster. And, unfailingly, the thankless chore of orchestrating who gets together, with whom and when, falls to the adult females of the family. (Would Christmas festivities take place anyway if it was left to anyone else? Another whole debate!)
I’m no big fan of all the hoo-ha about Christmas. Our credit card bills won’t be imploding and you won’t be able to spot our house from outer space. Our remaining rump of family is far away in Australia, and my man and I are neither especially religious nor material-minded.
We haven’t exchanged presents with each other since early in our relationship, when a series of unfortunate errors of judgement (thick cream woollen sweater, horizontally-ribbed, anyone?) allowed us to draw a line under the dreadful, reluctant slog round the shops. We now put the festive thought into buying big-ticket family necessities, such as attachments for the tractor (though these are far too difficult to wrap and hide under the tree).
The biggest plans we usually make are to do something relatively traditional to mark the day, ingrained in our DNA as it is, (and so as not to be complete curmudgeons,) without falling too heavily for all the marketing and maudlin sentiment.
However, I do like to put up a Christmas tree and look again with fondness on the old decorations; listen to carols on the radio and get together with friends or at least catch up with some news in a card (though Lord spare us boast-post, please). Living in France, we are not subject to quite the same commercial bombardment as in the UK, though the French have made a valiant effort to catch up in the last decade.
Usually we have a more or less traditional meal – the English and French fare being similar save for the pudding – with friends who either don’t have anyone close or whose family, for whatever reason, cannot be with them on the day, and sometimes we just choose to have a simple dinner on our own.
Occasionally we have been invited to celebrate with other people and also, very rarely, we have been away, either back to the UK or away for work. My dream is to be able to get away from the whole shebang for a few days one time, and this year we actually started to make plans to spend Christmas in Seville with another couple. Direct flights from Toulouse have started up recently and, as luck would have it, a young couple living very close by started a horse/pet sitting business and seemed ideal to take charge of the boys for a few days.
But, as luck had second thoughts, the young couple split up and the horsey half moved away for work, so I held off making bookings until we found another horse-sitter.
Then, a few weeks ago the friends we were to travel with said they didn’t want to go away as she had fallen and broken her ribs – after only recently breaking her wrist. We could only commiserate and offer to have Christmas day at our house instead. As it was, we hadn’t found anyone else to look after the boys.
Finally, last week, we heard the news that they are separating, at least temporarily, over Christmas ……… and I have every sympathy with both of them because something has gone terribly wrong under the tranquil surface of their life and we are bereft because we didn’t realise or offer some kind of understanding or support before. She has gone to stay with family and he may still join us for Christmas day.
And then there’s the New Year’s Resolution – a planning farce if ever there was. Rather like going to confession when I was too small to really understand the concept and confessing the same sins week in, week out (always getting the same “Ten Hail Marys” penance – it should have been a clue), I look back at diaries from years ago when my aims scarcely differed from one decade to the next and were rarely realised.
Just for a laugh, this is a table of my equestrian planning since 2009….
Plan 2009: buy well-schooled Iberian horse/ finally get to grips with classical riding. Actuality: after months of searching bought delinquent Spaniard who bit everything in sight
Plan 2010: make progress Actuality: we made some progress; there was, in truth, no further backwards we could go (without transport), and yet….
Plan 2011: consolidate progress Actuality: whilst mounting bareback, achieved compound fracture of the tibia, unresolved until later in the year, when I fell over and broke my jaw and fractured my skull. Result, overfamiliarity with hospital, retrograde equestrian progress.
Plan 2012: stay fit and well Actuality: Plate removed from leg, then broke toe wearing high-heeled sandals – duh; next, loss of balance for several months due to inner ear problems, diverted by helping a friend through her relationship problems, sudden death of darling old horse, tired and demoralised. However, we did achieve plan B, “Acquire a Horse Trailer”
Plan 2013: concentrate on getting back to riding, get horse out and about in trailer Actuality: incessant rain, draining depression, some riding and external training, after initial willingness horse developed intractable (sic) van phobia, rain turned to Amazonian heat with insect life to match, put off most riding and trailer practice until autumn. Now, finally making up for the last three years….
Plan 2014: Erm … nothing I’m willing to risk going down the drain by committing to writing!
OK, we would never get motivated and move on without looking forward optimistically to what might be, but, when plans go awry, as well they may, at least you can build character by being resilient, flexible and, like the proverbial Pinyatta, able to come back for yet another bashing.
And so, on that pragmatic note, I wish each and every one of you out there, whatever your beliefs,
A MERRY CHRISTMAS AND A HAPPY NEW YEAR
“Insha’Allah”, of course.