Self Motivated User-focussed Gratitude

Self Motivated User-focussed Gratitude

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.


From Daily Prompt : Gratitude

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Goat Willow

Goat Willow

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.Untitled picture

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.

Not a leaf left
Not a leaf left

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

 

 

 

 

‘Karoo’ by Steve Tesich

The idea of the ‘Great Amercan Novel’ imagessuggest that each epoch has its own novel. A piece of work so good that it both captures the times and stands as a great work of literature in its own right. The “Grapes of Wrath’ in the 30’s, “Catcher in the Rye” in the 50’s, “To Kill a Mockingbird” in the 60’s; each time seems to have revealed its memoire. I’d suggest we have found our own in “Karoo” by  Steve Tesich.

I am ashamed to say that although this book was published in 1998 I had never heard of it, nor considered it, until a week ago. During a long drive between Wales and Scotland it was discussed on the BBC radio book programme. The enthusiasm of the reviewers was so great that, the minute I got home. I purchased a copy on the kindle. A few days later I had finished it and was awed by the skill of the writer.

A term like “tragi-comedy” might be employed to define it and certainly it manages the rare trick of being at times hilariously funny while at others being heartrendingly sad. The main character, Saul Karoo, is our anti-hero through the book and is our present day version of Sinclair Lewis’s ‘Babbit’ or Updike’s ‘Rabbit’. A man who seems to be able to fail at almost anything and has the reverse Midas touch, and able to destroy just through casual acquaintance. However, sometimes by looking at the grotesque we are able to see out own flaws more clearly. Seeing someone fail on this epic scale it is easier to consider our own, much smaller, foibles and failings.

Steve Tesich was a script writer and this is evident in this book. The reader can visualise every scene in Karoo’s monologue and some of the visual humour will make you laugh outloud (His mother’s shovel dance for example). It is difficult to review this book without giving away and  plot surprises. It would be unfair to do so, as there is great pleasure in the book waiting and anticipating the catastrophy you know is around the corner. If you have not found this book then I’d suggest you start looking.

 

Pope Francis and the “invasion of libertarians”

Pope Francis and the “invasion of  libertarians”

The Pope’s recent foray onto the political stage has been rather disappointing.  I had been heartened over the first few years of his Papacy that he seemed to be the man required to rejuvenate the Catholic Church and to reconnect it with the  people. He seemed to be able to recognise areas of public life that were problematic and also to be able to see ways to counter these. His comments on issues such as war, hatred, and greed were both welcome and wise. However, his recent attack on the philosophy of libertarianism was thus both a surprise and a disappointment.

This is firstly a surprise because he has previously been well informed and accurate in analysis but on this occasion he has revealed himself mistaken.  Secondly it is a disappointment as it is likely to neither help the Church nor the people.

It is apt that Pope Francis  was not speaking ex cathedra as on this occasion he is clearly not infallible. He fears that libertarians will fail to work for the “common good”. As he is reported to have said :-

“A common characteristic of this fallacious paradigm is that it minimizes the common good, that is the idea of ‘living well’ or the ‘good life’ in the communitarian framework,” Francis said, while at the same time exalting a “selfish ideal.”.. ..

…. ..”because on the one hand he supposes that the very idea of ‘common’ means the constriction of at least some individuals, and on the other hand that the notion of ‘good’ deprives freedom of its essence.”

He labours under the common misconception that libertarians reject society and, as individualists, wish an atomised existence. This is wrong as all libertarians see the value of associations and communities and encourage their development as long as they are voluntary arrangements.  Most libertarians see the development of the capitalist society as one of the great successes of humanity  as it lifts so many out of poverty and want. This is a system clearly based on trade and agreements between individuals so that all parties can benefit. People trade as equals and both parties benefit, subjects obey because they must and only the ruler consistently benefits. Though self-interest guides the arrangements that people make this is not the only motivation people have. Our desire to assist our fellows is also a serious motive for our actions and as Adam Smith mentioned in the first sentence of his book :-

“No matter how selfish we suppose man to be, there is obviously something in his nature that makes him interested in the fortunes of others and makes their happiness necessary to him, even if he derives nothing from it other than the pleasure of seeing it.”

The main focus of libertarianism is to set the individual free so that he, or she, can make the arrangements that they wish.  Adam Smith reminds us that  “man is an animal that makes bargains, no other animal does this, no dog exchanges bones with another” . We exist in order to, and by reason of, making  alliances and exchanges with other people. We do this in order to improve our own lot and the lot of those we  cooperate with.  As Thomas Paine stated in “Common Sense”  :-

Society in every state is a blessing, but government even in its best state is but a necessary evil; in its worst state an intolerable one; for when we suffer, or are exposed to the same miseries by a government, which we might expect in a country without government, our calamity is heightened by reflecting that we furnish the means by which we suffer…”

Libertarians wish to allow people to make their own societies not simple to follow the diktat of those who have cornered power. From a Christian viewpoint this is important: we have free will to allow us to live our lives as we wish. In doing so we may become good people or we may not. If we simply do as the state commands us, we are not good, we are simply disciplined. We are only good when we, ourselves, make the choice. I have no choice but to pay my taxes to ensure the welfare state runs (as well as paying forthe military machine unfortunately), my payment was not a good act, simply a necessary one. I paid my taxes primarily to avoid suffering on my part (jail or other penalties)  rather then to benefit others (though that is a happy side-effect). Leaving people free to make these arrangements themselves allows us to be good rather than obedient. If I want to be good then I need to be charitable or, possibly, pay extra taxes. Though the latter system may not, on balance, work as while you may give more to support the welfare state you may also be contributing to fund wars abroad,political initiatives at home you disagree with, or to fund corporations as they use government legislation to stifle free trade through competition.

We should recall that this is not a minor point. Of the many virtues that we may aspire to exhibit the greatest of all is charity, as we demonstrate our care for our fellows. All the writings are clear that, of all the gifts, charity is to be preferred over all others. Taking this options away from us, doing it on our behalf whether we wish to or not, and distancing us from our fellows would cause serious problems to many Christians who see, in libertarianism, a manner in which to practice faith and recall the first letter from Paul to the Corinthians :-

If I speak with the tongues of men, and of angels, and have not charity, I am become as sounding brass, or a tinkling cymbal.  And if I should have prophecy and should know all mysteries, and all knowledge, and if I should have all faith, so that I could remove mountains, and have not charity, I am nothing.  And if I should distribute all my goods to feed the poor, and if I should deliver my body to be burned, and have not charity, it profiteth me nothing. Charity is patient, is kind: charity envieth not, dealeth not perversely; is not puffed up;  Is not ambitious, seeketh not her own, is not provoked to anger, thinketh no evil;

Rejoiceth not in iniquity, but rejoiceth with the truth;  Beareth all things, believeth all things, hopeth all things, endureth all things.  Charity never falleth away: whether prophecies shall be made void, or tongues shall cease, or knowledge shall be destroyed.  For we know in part, and we prophesy in part.  But when that which is perfect is come, that which is in part shall be done away.

When I was a child, I spoke as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child. But, when I became a man, I put away the things of a child. We see now through a glass in a dark manner; but then face to face. Now I know in part; but then I shall know even as I am known. And now there remain faith, hope, and charity, these three: but the greatest of these is charity.

As individuals we have to make choices and stand by these. The sum of the choices we make and the associations we form are what defines us as an individual. In libertarianism we don’t have the luxury of a relative morality we are obliged to be responsible for ourselves and our morals. Mathew 7 is quite clear; people will know us by our actions.

Watch out for false prophets. They come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly they are ferocious wolves. By their fruit you will recognize them. Do people pick grapes from thornbushes, or figs from thistles? Likewise, every good tree bears good fruit, but a bad tree bears bad fruit. A good tree cannot bear bad fruit, and a bad tree cannot bear good fruit. Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. Thus, by their fruit you will recognize them.

Rather then being a risk to the ‘common good’, libertarianism is a way to increase it. A mercantile society with free trade has increased the number of people free from poverty. Libertarianism promotes the ideas of personal responsibility, moral behaviour and freedoms in association and thought. Perhaps, the Pope has mistaken libertarians for libertines but he should be aware that personal responsibility is a very effective antidote to unrestricted hedonism.

The Pope is in a difficult position. His church is associated with a history that is often far from glorious, his church is mired in present scandals and his church operates in increasingly secular societies.He should see that perhaps the growth of libertariansim might actually be associated with a growth of interest in issues of morality and responsibility. While this may not benefit the church it may be very valuable in helping people find their own faiths and morality and this is probably the greater good.

 

 

My final Christmas

new_year_03It is with a tinge of sadness that I have realised that this is the last time I will celebrate Christmas. The decision came to me while I sat in church having taken my father-in-law to the Christmas Eve service. We sat in a nearly empty church while a handful of elderly people tried to celebrate a central tenet of their faith. It was at odds with everything outside. Inside they spoke about love and charity while outside we had watched people rushing, as I had been, to buy last minute presents and prepare for a few days of festive, feasting and excess. As I watched this I realised I don’t want to participate in this any longer.

When I was a young man with children I enjoyed Christmas. I enjoyed the rituals and the traditions and enjoyed spending money so that I might see the pleasure on my childrens’ faces when they opened their presents. But over recent years I have found myself increasing estranged from the event. Little of the event now relates to the original Christian traditions; cards rarely mention it, songs likewise and there is little spoken about what it actually being celebrated. If anything at all is being celebrated.

Cast adrift from its roots in faith, Christmas now rides the waves of a sea of ennui and dyspepsia as we all try to maximise our pleasure by eating, drinking and buying. Like many others, I now live a reasonably comfortable life and any gifts I give or receive tend to be small luxuries as, thankfully, none of my friends or family live under hardship. Winter festivals, including those that predated Christmas,  were important in times of scarcity while we awaited spring. They were a chance to lighten our spirits, to kindle hope that the future will be positive and to allow ourselves a bit of comfort in a bleak period. In a post-scarcity world there is little need for this. The things we buy are are no longer important bridges to help us through to better times but simple luxuries, often completely useless items, we hope will temporarily heighten our pleasure. I am too old to believe in Santa Claus and  I am jumping off this treadmill of gift-giving.

I tried  purchasing charity gifts for all as a way to circumvent these problems but realised I had made an error. In doing so I had not enabled the gift receiver to give to charity. They had no choice and thus took no part in the decision to donate. I had not really given to charity either, as I had used money I was gifting to someone else for this. So, in essence, I had given nothing of my own to charity, someone else had not chosen to give to my charity freely, and I had advertised the fact that I had donated. These acts of virtue signalling allow everyone to lose a little of their dignity and I doubt engender much future charitable giving. In hindsight it seems a lose-lose scenario. (I will continue to give presents to my grandchildren at this time of year but simply because I love them and enjoy seeing their happiness.)

I hope my stopping celebrating Christmas will help me find something I fear I am loosing. I will still want and need a way to express the ideas of faith, hope and charity through the winter months. But this will be much easier if I don’t have to  participate in Christmas. I have faith that humanity is good. This faith may at times be tested by the actions of a miserable abnormal few, but there are more times when humanity impresses me with its benevolence. Because of this faith, I have hope that we will continue to make the world a better place for all who live in it and I personally hope that I will play my part in doing this.This leaves charity, the most important  aspect. I need to be more charitable and will use this time of the year to remind myself of this. I may be comfortable but some of my fellows are not, I need to do more to assist them. I can use the year’s bacchannalia as a paradoxical reminder to work harder in charitable actions.

via Daily Prompt: Festive

 

 

The Testament Of Mary.

I can say, with some confidence, that had this book not been chosen by my Book Group I would have been very unlikely to have read it. However, I was glad it was chosen as I felt that there was a gap in my reading, in that I had not tried the work of Colm Toibin before.

imagesHe is clearly a writer of considerable skill. His output has been prodigious, in prose and in poetry, and generally highly regarded. Indeed, he was listed as on the the top 300 British intellectuals by The Observer newspaper.

While the novel did give me a glimpse of this ability it was overwhelmed by the negative feelings the book invokes. I read that Colm Toibin writes in quite austere conditions seated on a hard, uncomfortable chair. I can believe this as the discomfort and misery seems to have been channelled into this story. This is the story of Mary as an angry misanthrope. Discard any ideas you may have had of the saintly Mary, and ideas of Mary as the epitome of motherhood. This is Mary as a very earthly mother, a mother replete with faults and angry and exasperated by her son.

This mother doubts her son’s miracles, despises his followers (all ‘misfits, fools and stammerers’, men unable to look a woman in the eye) and hostile to those who she feels are glorifying his history. She has turned her back on him. In the past; by denying his divinity, in the present; by literally turning her back as she flees the hill and his crucifixion, and in the future; by attempting to confound the writers of the gospels. In the final pages she turns her back not only on the man but also becomes an apostate switching to  a new life and faith with Artemis.

This book clearly intended to be controversial and iconoclastic. However, it is brief and without substance; there is no revelation in its attack, nothing new is uncovered, no alternative vision is offered. The only thing made clear is that the writer has problems with his Catholic heritage.

This is iconoclastic in the same way that drawing spectacles or black teeth on a picture of the Madonna would damage the icon. Iconoclastic but also a waste of time, to borrow a phrase “It is not worth it”.