Dw i ddim ffan grêt o’r haf, mae’n well gen i’r Gaeaf. Yn enwedig, dw i’n mwynhau’r gaeaf pan mae’n bwrw eira. Mae’r eira yn tynnu pob lliw allan o’r tirlun, yn gadael llun monocromatig. Mae bob darn o rwtsh wedi diflannu a dim ond yr amlinelliad o natur yn parhau i fod.
I am not a great fan of summer, I’m more jolly in the time of the holly. Snow hiding the rubbish and painting monochromatic pictures are the joy of the season. In this case a holly tree under snow
As it is December, and Christmas nears, I have been reminded by the incessant TV adverts that I should really get down to the serious task of present buying. It is, after all, the meaning of the season and the sooner we get down to buying and consuming the better. I have written before that I won’t be joining this type of Christmas, in a post-scarcity world I have no desire to take part in this feast of over-indulgence. I would, however, be keen to try and rekindle an older sentiment of the season, that being the call for “Goodwill to all men” .
My initial thought was that I could change to issuing charity gifts for friends and family and, likewise, they could send these to me. However, on further deliberation I don’t think that this is a good idea. I fear that charity gifts never really benefit the sender or receiver and are not the most effective way of benefitting the charity either.
I want to be charitable, and to do so, I must take something of mine and decide to give it, without desiring any reward, to someone who needs it more than I. If I had decided to spend £20 on John’s Christmas present but instead made a £20 charity gift on his behalf then I have not really donated to charity. I did not forego anything to make the donation so I can hardly be thought of as having made a charitable act. In fact, it might be argued that I deprived John of his gift and stole the £20 from him to make my charitable donation.
Similarly John has not made a charitable act in receiving the gift. He did not forego anything nor did he make any conscious decision to make an act of charity. Indeed, had he chosen to act charitably he may not have concurred with my decision, he may not have felt that my donation to the “Campaign to save the Guinea Worm” was the most pressing of the world’s concerns. So neither of us has managed to act charitably by the exchange of this gift. But there are further problems.
When we make acts of charity it is generally wise to keep these private. As the bible enjoined us “But when you give to the needy, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing,”. It is helpful not to “sound a trumpet” before us to publicise our actions. If we wish to give without thought of reward or recompense we should avoid this publicity, it is possible that the publicity and good regard we obtain could be thought of as a reward for our donation. These issues are not minor, as thoughts of how we might be viewed for our donation might influence which causes to which we donate. By not publicising our intentions it might free us to consider charitable causes which might be less popular but actually of more merit. So this publicising is not good for me, as the donor, and can only act as some virtue signalling to John who now gets a present which simply reminds him that I feel virtuous after giving his present to charity.
It would have been more honest and appropriate to put £20 pounds in an envelope and send it to John with a note suggesting he might want to donate the money to any charity he so desires. This would circumvent another problem. Charities are aware that sometimes recipients feel these gifts are less festive and thus they bundle a gift with them – in my case a lovely cuddly, fluffy guinea worm toy! The £10 that manufactured, packaged and posted this gift cut the charitable donation in half making this type of giving less efficient. Rather than giving gifts to each other, with a charitable component, we should give directly to those in need.
Christmas used to be powerfully special. It had the strength to stop the madness of World War I, for an all too brief few days. It gave a temporary respite to the hell and madness of the Western Front. The importance of Peace and Goodwill was what marked Christmas apart from those other winter festivals which we use to raise our spirits in the middle of these dark, cold days. Indeed, there are even new occasions, such as Black Friday, to give us an excuse to loose the reigns on our consumption and counter any qualms we might have about over-indulgence. Unfortunately, however, this tendency has begun to affect Christmas also. If you were to look at the paraphernalia surrounding Christmas (the adverts, TV programs, shop windows, cards, craft fairs, grottos, etc) you would clearly see the theme of maximising our personal pleasures. With the emphasis on consumption and indulgence, and the loss of any sacred elements, Christmas has been hollowed out. It has no core nor substance, the traditional virtues of this season have been lost, but all is not lost, we can recover the situation.
This is what we need to do to reclaim Christmas. We must stop giving presents to those who already have, to those who we know, and start giving to those who have not, and to those we don’t yet know. We must start to show “goodwill to all men” and start to spread the benefits that we enjoy so that they can be enjoyed by others. Therefore I want no presents, not even charity presents, and hope that with any money you save you may be able to use for your own charitable activities. I, for my part, pledge that I will keep my part of this bargain and ensure I do likewise. Between us we can start to recover some of Christmas’s significance and its power to make the world a better place, even if only temporarily. We may be clutching at straws but if we do not act we might lose Christmas forever.
I read today [OECD] that Britain has the highest rates of obesity, and fatness, in Europe and is the 6th most obese country in the world. There is also the terrifying statistic that the rate of obesity has doubled since the 1990’s and we face the serious prospect of this bankrupting the NHS. Obesity is a major risk factor, as we all know, for diabetes, cancer, hypertension, heart disease, stroke and dementia – this rate of change should alarm us – but it won’t.
For many years, most of my working life, I ignored a growing problem. This problem was the growing size of my belly and my increasing size. By the time I changed my lifestyle 6 years ago I had managed to create quite a respectable problem for myself. My waist was 35 inches, my weight was 14 stones and unfortunately not being a tall man my BMI was 31.6. I was quite clearly obese. This had crept up on me, I knew as I aged I was becoming less fit but I didn’t look that different to many other middle-aged men and nobody passed any adverse comments. As a doctor, I knew I was building up risks for myself but I was able to minimise these in my head. Nothing bad had happened, I don’t look that unusual, my blood pressure is OK, I still stay active – it really was easy to convince myself that this was no great deal.
Then came the rude awakening. Five years ago I was diagnosed with Type II diabetes mellitus with blood sugars so high I had the full range of symptoms and was started on metformin instantly, at a pretty high dose. I then went through the NHS’s education package. This told me to take my medicines, eat regularly and sensibly, and take a bit of exercise. With this, I was assured, the thing was manageable and I’d be fine. No-one took a blind bit of notice of the large, and obvious, wobbly bundle of fat I had around my middle even though this was the most conspicuous thing of my appearance. (If you want to imagine me then – not recommended – then imagine a potato with four cocktail sticks as limbs, that was me to a “T”). I sat on classes with other similarly shaped people and we all pretended that there was nothing amiss, nothing that eating a stick of celery couldn’t sort out. I went to the gym, where the rhythmical bouncing of my and my new friends’ bellies, while we tried to jog on the treadmills, was almost hypnotic to watch. Through it all no doctor, no nurse, no dietician, no-one said – for goodness sake get rid of that belly ! They were all too polite to mention it.
When I received the diagnosis a cold shiver went down my spine. I’d worked in an area where I’d seen the consequences of diabetes. I’d spoken to men about to have their feet amputated, I’d given rehab advise to folk after their stroke, I’d completed forms confirming that a diabetic man was now blind, and I’d consoled widows after their spouse’s fatal heart attack. I knew my mortality risk was now considerably increased and I knew some of the problems I might face. I also knew, from very cursory information gathering, that my poor diet and obesity were the main factor in this.
I decided to change, I was so scared and shocked, I knew I had to change. I went on a low carb diet and lost 3 stones, I kept on the diet and took regular exercise. I saw my waistline shrink, my belly disappear and my blood return to near normal. After a few months I came off medication and have remained medication free, and with relatively normal bloods, for the past years. A couple of my diabetic pals, who were equally shocked, did the same thing with similarly good results. But I meet my other pals, who were never troubled by the thought of their weight; still obese, still taking medication and now starting to experience the adverse consequences of this illness.
So I have a personal interest in this report of growing obesity in the UK even though I am a relative neophyte to the world of diets and healthy eating. What are we to do to try and stop this growing trend. It is clear that there are some things we can’t do.
We can’t reduce the availability of food. This is a non-starter, there is no way we can limit what people eat – they must do this themselves. If you don’t sell the double pack of Mars bars I’m smart enough to get around this by buying two packs as is everybody else. Attempt to limit things by smaller packaging could only work if we were happy to accept central rationing of our food, otherwise we just buy more of the smaller packets.
I don’t think that we will get around this by education. I don’t think that there is anyone left that thinks a Big Mac and fries becomes a healthy option because it has a gherkin in it. We all know that a salad is healthier than a bar of chocolate – education is the answer when ignorance is the problem. That is not the issue here.
I doubt we will have much success tackling our increasingly sedentary lifestyles. Anyone suggesting we get rid of the automobile, or suggesting we dig roads by hand or get rid of any other labour saving machinery, is unlikely to have a successful career in politics. We can suggest that people exercise and find ways to make it easier but, unless we are going to have forced marches then we need to find ways to make people want to do this.
The key in the affluent west is that we need people to want to be normal sized, to fear being obese. This is what we have lost. As I walked around I saw other people the same shape as me, it normalised my obesity. Chairs, cars, everything has been slightly adapted to suit the larger body, each step making it easier to be obese and, more importantly, making it easier to ignore your own obesity. I needed somebody to tell me – “Whoa ! You’ve got far too big there. That doesn’t look right” but even when I had fallen ill people were too afraid to mention it. They were happier to let me die earlier or loose my sight, or foot, than to be accused of “fat shaming”
We would prefer people to be comfortable in their obesity, than in any way upset – but this is precisely what we do not need. Discomfort might prompt thought and redirection and improvement to their health and life. I wish someone had spoken honestly to me, when I asked “How do I look ?” I wish they had said “you are getting fat” rather than lied with “Fine”. There is no need to be unpleasant about this we just need to be honest. We also need to be careful about attempts to actively normalise obesity. I noted, when in the supermarket today, this is not as strange and impossible idea as I had thought – three of the covers of magazines (directed to young women) were using obese models. It may be dangerous to promote anorexic stick insect ideals of beauty but it is equally dangerous to promote obesity as a good choice.
The problem of obesity has unfortunately got bound up in the gender issues of objectification of womenWe but obesity doesn’t affect only one gender. All of us are at risk when we treat our health and future in a cavalier way like this. There are many vested interests who would prefer us not to think about it; the food and pharmaceutical industries would be much happier we consumed more of their products and dealt with the consequences. The media and beauty industry can sell us their products either way, fat or thin models, it is of no concern to them simply which model sells more copy.
People are free to live as they wish, they are free to be fat or thin as they choose, but they must choose with adequate knowledge. We should not influence these decisions because of our political biases and we should net let people die early because we were too afraid to tell the truth.
It is gingerly, and with a great deal of trepidation, that I write today’s post. I have been struck by the awfulness of Carl Sargeant’s death on Tuesday when it appears he took his life after having been accused of misbehaviour and having lost his government position. Now, I don’t have any great affection for politicians and did not know a great deal about Mr Sargeant before this event so why has his apparent suicide affected me ?
Firstly because it is a very obvious reminder of the terrible damage we are doing to our society and the rule of law by the ongoing hysteria in the media about sexual abuse and politicians. Clearly I would want to see any politician, of any hue, who abused any other person dealt with and punished appropriately. The promise of power and influence, that the world of politics offers, means that it will attract more than an average amount of psychopathic individuals. Therefore it is quite reasonable that we may find an above average number of people who are guilty acts of abuse in our governmental bodies. But, equally clearly, I only want guilty people punished and shamed. This distinction is one of the hallmarks of a civilised society where rules are just and punishment only justly applied when it is warranted.
One of the earliest legal treatises was the Mishneh Torah which was an attempt codify the bases of Jewish Law. In the early attempt to tease out guiding principles for a fair and just society the great philosopher Maimonides wrote :-
“It is better and more satisfactory to acquit a thousand guilty persons than to put a single innocent one to death.”
as he was aware that to do otherwise was the start of a slippery slope which lead to a lawless and unjust society where conviction, not being based on an adequate burden of proof, could lead to punishment on the basis of a whim of courts and rulers. This has also been referred to as Blackstone’s Formulation after he stated “All presumptive evidence of felony should be admitted cautiously; for the law holds it better that ten guilty persons escape, than that one innocent party suffer“.
This principle should be considered alongside another, related legal principle, that is, the presumption of innocence. All legal systems hold this principle dear. Roman law states “ei incumbit probatio qui dicit, non qui negat” (the burden of proof is on the one who declares, not on one who denies), and Islamic law, Common Law and the Civil Law all carry this basic tenet. As the public puts it “Innocent until proven guilty“. This is a principle that keeps you and I safe : we can only fall foul of the law, and be punished, if we are found guilty after trail not simply by accusation.
In the Carl Sargeant case he was treated as if her were guilty before he had a hearing. He lost his position and was treated by Carwyn Jones, The First Minister of Wales, as if the accusations were true. This is the habit, increasingly popular, of jumping to the conclusion that accusations are truth. It is this approach which underpins such campaigns as #IBelieveHer. Now it is understandable that we want to increase the justice for those who are victims of any form of abuse but this strategy is very dangerous. If we believe the accusers without question what is the need for a trial ? If we believe the accusers then the only thing missing is retribution. This leads us to a very dark place where people can be destroyed by malicious accusations.
This photograph, might explain my concerns about this. This is a group of Welsh special advisors out for the evening celebrating on the night that they had just started the ball rolling on the case against Carl Sargeant. These are the expressions just after they have opened the floodgates of innuendo and suspicion. A colleague and erstwhile friend has been thrown to the dogs and this photograph reveals their feelings that very evening. When accusation becomes proof, accusations become dangerous and powerful political weapons which some people seem to enjoy using.
This is not the only legal principle that was ignored in Carl Sargeant’s case. He was never given details of the accusations nor knowledge of who his accusers were. Again in English Law, Roman Law, and also the Sixth Amendment of the United States this is a ignoring a cornerstone of justice. In the Bible, when Paul was accused, it was described thus :-
“It is not the manner of the Romans to deliver any man up to die before the accused has met his accusers face-to-face, and has been given a chance to defend himself against the charges.”
If one does not know the accusations, nor your accuser, you are effectively denied the opportunity to defend yourself. If you can not defend yourself you cannot receive justice. It has long been known that ignoring this principle would lead to injustice and would facilitate terror. The oppressive, nightmarish qualities we try to explain when we use the term “Kafkaesque” , relate to being on trial but ignorant of your accusers and their claims as so well described nn Kafka’s novel Der Process (The Trial). Secret accusations, secret courts and clandestine meetings have always been the way of the power hungry who wish to subvert justice. In this particular case it seems that it has gone further than this as there were also meetings with the accusers when their stories were discussed with all the risks of contaminating evidence of any wrong doing. This is very reminiscent of the history of the Stasi, or the Gestapo, collecting accusations so that they might prove useful against political enemies in power struggles at a future date
Carl Sargeant did not know of what he was accused nor do we. We know that it could not have been sufficient to warrant police involvement. It is likely that it was behaviour that is deemed inappropriate in our present moral climate. He might have behaved in a manner more in tune with an older generation than the present. If this is the case then it is probable that a further legal principle is in the process of being ignored – we can only be tried for offences against the rules that applied at the time. Guilt can not be backdated. If tomorrow they pass a law outlawing drinking alcohol on Sundays, it is this principle which protects me against them coming and punishing me for last Sunday’s drinking. I am obliged to follow the law as it is just now, not as how it might be in the future. Without this principle we could all be facing punishment in the future for some act which is not a crime at present – did you spank your child ? Did you smoke in a public place ? etc etc. The same guideline should be used when we consider social mores and customs.
For all these reasons the story of Carl Sargeant is a sad and worrisome tale. He did not receive fair justice and now never can. We will never know the truth of these accusations as they can not be tested now that he has died, so justice will never be served. These principles are not minor bureaucratic foibles but are the foundations of our enlightened society. For the sake of all those black men lynched in the South in America, denied a trial and presumed guilty on the words of their accusers, we must fight for these principles. For the sake of all the women accused of witchcraft and killed never able to confront their accusers we need to remember how important these principles continue to be. For the sake of the very many women who are going to be accused of adultery, or other crimes in the middle east, and face death just on the basis of an accusers word we need to promote these ideas and promote civilisation.
Carl Sargeant worked hard for his community and tried to improve the world by his work in politics, I hope now that he can rest in peace. Hopefully his family will also find peace and perhaps, in time, they may see that his sad death contributed to a turning point when society turned its back on hysteria and witch hunting.
I often think that gratitude is much misunderstood. Despite the positive psychology movement and religious organizations recognizing its benefits I sometimes feel only half of the subject is considered.
There is a reasonable body of research which suggests that keeping a Gratitude Journal, a diary of things for which you are grateful can help you promote a positive frame of mind and a greater sense of happiness. People who keep gratitude journals have been shown to be generally happier, optimistic and more productive to similar people who do not keep such journals. Gratitude Journals have been shown to reduce depressive symptoms and possibly have beneficial effects on some chronic physical ailments.
Intuitively this “count your blessings” approach seems to have much to commend it and I have looked at a number of paper and computerized gratitude journals. They did not work for me. When I tried to use them I transformed into tearful actor winning the best cameo role in an international film at the Oscars – “I’d like to thank my Mum and Dad for having me, my children for being nice, my employers for putting up with my incompetence, my neighbours for having a nice garden, the sun for shining and making me feel warm, my bodily health for persisting so far despite my ignoring it, the wind for clearing the lawns of leaves and the bees for pollinating the plants so we do not die in a famine. I’d also like to thank the canteen boy .. .. .. .. “.
This was the problem, there are many, many things one might be thankful for. Although, it has to be said, that I only became aware of these once writing in the journal. I was not thankful before I sat down to think, largely I had taken these things for granted. I had glimmers of gratitude after I wrote the lists. Sometimes I worried that the feeling I had was contentment rather than gratitude, a sense of happiness with my lot, having counted my blessings I was pleased there were so many.
There is a danger in this: if it fosters contentment might it not also foster complacency? It might make me happier by making me happy with my lot. Perhaps a better route to happiness sometimes would be to recognize my troubles and tribulations and change them.
I think this risk is biggest when only half of the nature of gratitude is recognised. In addition to being grateful for things we are also grateful to people. Gratitude is a debt we owe, when we feel gratitude we know we require to say “thank you” to someone. Those of a religious nature rarely forget this half. They are thankful to God and gratitude serves to bolster and strengthen their faith. Thanksgiving is a natural aspect of religious life and gratitude is understandable in this context.
“Rejoice always. Pray without ceasing. In everything give thanks, for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus toward you ”
1 Thessalonians 5:16-18
To whom do those without a deity give thanks; to friends and family certainly, but who for the bigger things – to fate ? And what of those things one enjoys that one sees as the fruits of one’s own labour – you can not really be grateful to yourself, you can’t owe thanks to yourself. And here is the rub. Sometimes people are grateful to the fates that they have been lucky and no disasters have befallen then, they are proud that they have worked and collected many things to look on in happiness, they are pleased that they have formed good relations with their friends and families and they feel fortunate that their parents bore them in a place they feel safe and secure. But this pride in your own acheivements and contentedness with your circumstances is not gratitude. There is a shorter word for this Self Motivated User-focussed Gratitude, it is called being “smug“. Unfortunately the happiness that accompanies smugness is always short-lived because, as we know, pride always comes before a fall.
Which would you prefer the red or the yellow ? Would you prefer tea or coffee ? Would you prefer I wore this dress or the first one ? Thousand of times each day we use our option to chose our preferences. When I saw the word appearing as the Daily Prompttoday, my initial thought was that “I’d prefer not to do that one, it’s too trivial” But after further consideration I realised it was one of the most important issues we face.
When we select preferences we are making a choice and this process of thinking and choosing is what makes us human. When we prefer something, and choose it, it is based on a conscious decision; an awareness of our desires and needs and consideration of consequences. When I do things, most of my actions are determined by my conscious thoughts and deliberations unlike animals which are largely driven by reflex and instinct. Though goats may eat leaves instead of snails it is not because of preference; they eat what they are wired to eat, there is no element of choice.
Our desires also have deep instinctive, animal roots but as sentient beings we elect and choose how to act in them. I may desire the sandwich you are holding, I may even need it if I am hungry, but I do not simply take it. I make a choice as to whether that is the right thing to do. Similarly, no matter how strong baser urges to mate might be, we make a choice as to whether to try and initiate mating is appropriate or wise. Our entire waking lives are a series of choices one after another. How we make these choices, how we exercise our free will to choose, is what defines us a person. The person who sees his own desires as having importance over everything else is well known to us, and generally poorly regarded. On the other hand, the individual who temperately meets her or his needs, and pays heed to the needs of other when the make their own choices, is generally well thought of.
We need to be able to make these choices in order that we can become better people. We need to be able to choose freely in order to be good. I pay my taxes reliably (I have little choice in the matter) and the money I give does help many good projects amongst the poor and disadvantaged. But I have not acted as a good person in doing this, I did not make that choice, I did not prefer to help someone else over myself, thus this was not a good act and I did not become a good or better person. If I had given a fraction of this money, by my own choice, and expressing a preference that is was used by someone else rather than myself, I would have done a much better act and may have taken the first steps to becoming a good person. (Thankfully the corollary also holds that I am not a bad person because of the tax money I gave being used for bad ends, for example funding the wars in the Middle East).
Many totalitarian states justify their removal of choice as being possible as choice is no longer necessary. If people are fed, housed, employed and repaired then there is no need for choices they say. The former eastern bloc used to argue that, as all needs were met (although they rarely were), there was no need for choice which was a capitalist decadence – why give people the choice of 10 types of car when everyone can have 1 basic car ? Choice creates envy and discord – just ensure everyone gets enough and there is no need for choice. This type of thinking does work when managing farms; feeding, housing, mating and repairing the animals can be done effectively without arranging any choice but animals don’t need choice, humans do !
When humans find themselves unable to make choices, or find that their choices make no difference, they become unwell. Seligman wrote about “learned helplessness” when he observed the effect of removing effective choice from dogs. Many stories told by the survivors of the Nazi camps reveal that once choice has been removed from life, hope also departs, and people cannot survive and live without hope.
So whether you made the choice to read this, or not, enjoy the millions of choices you are going to make in your life and try and prefer the options which will be better for you.
I find it very difficult to express the differences that have occurred in my life over the last five years but this pick-up full of goat willow might help. It might not be obvious on first glance but bear with me.
About a decade ago I experienced a crisis of faith. I had progressed well in life. I had a well paid job as a consultant in the NHS, I had fairly good health (or so I thought), my children were grown and doing well for themselves, my marriage was sound and I had no debt. I enjoyed regular holidays and gained pleasure from the status of my work. I was a technophile and the Koreans could not invent gadgets and novelties quick enough for me and, fortunately, living in the centre of the town I could shop at any hour of the day or night. No appetite needed to wait to be sated.
However, despite this I found that I was often unhappy, frequently disgruntled and usually felt aimless and bored. I thought that my relative affluence was part of the problem as was the inauthentic nature of my life. I lived most things though the eyes of others. I had realised that many of the moral and political views I had were incorrect and unhelpful. I decided that I need to change; so I left my post, headed out of the town, and sought a new life. I often think it has worked and my current happiness seems to support me in that belief. However, it was my neighbour’s goat willow that let me know how much life had changed.
My neighbour has a great deal of what she calls pussy willow (salix caprea), but which is also known as goat willow. It has the latter name because in Heironymous Bock’s herbal it is shown in a drawing being eaten by goats, and I can confirm that goats are very partial to it. Now my neighbour needed to clear her garden and saw the goat willow as garden waste destined for the bonfire. When she told me I felt my spirits jump.
With the very poor summer, with little sun and very few dry spells, we have not been able to take a crop of hay. As a small scale enterprise we can not use silage and big bales of hay, we require to make small bales of hay by hand. This has left us short of goat food and sheep food for the winter ahead, so the idea of all this forage going free was exciting. I was round within minutes to collect it and get it back to the goats. They, in turn, picked off every leaf of the first batch at their first sitting leaving me shafts which I can dry over the next year or two to create kindling (Willow needs seasoned for a long time before it burns satisfactorily). I was feeling very pleased with my discovery thinking, I’ve saved my neighbour work, reduced waste, fed the goats, saved some of our hay for the sheep and started to provide fuel for 2019.
Then it struck me. Five years ago I could never experienced such pleasure from such a simple days work. At that time, I would have been trying to convince myself I was happy while unpacking a gadget I had bought following yet another shopping excursion. I would have been trying to convince myself that the increased speed or memory size the thing had would improve my life, but would still be vaguely aware that it was simply another gewgaw that I’d replace with a newer version next year. Now finding simple pleasures in simple activities lets me lead a freer, more settled, life. It has allowed my appetites to shrink to more normal levels so that now I can gain as much pleasure from finding a supply of edible leaves as I did before at much greater expense. This may have been the insight that William Morris had when he wrote “Free men must live simple lives and have simple pleasures”