Goodwill to all men

NOTE: This post was meant to go up on Christmas Eve, but WordPress clearly broke on me so apparently you get it now instead- sorry. Ah well, might as well put it up anyway…

 

Ah, Christmas; such an interesting time of year. The season of plenty, the season of spending too much, the season of eating too much, the season of decisions we later regret and those moments we always remember. The season where some families will go without food to keep the magic alive for their children, the season where some new feuds are born but old ones are set aside, and the season where goodwill to all men (and women) becomes a key focus of our attention.

When I was young, I always had a problem with this. I had similar issues with Mother’s Day, and Father’s Day even more so (I don’t know how I came to know that it was an entirely commercial invention, but there you go), and whilst Christmas was awesome enough that I wasn’t going to ruin it by seasonal complaints, one thing always bugged me about ‘the season of goodwill’. Namely, why can’t we just be nice to each other all the time, rather than just for a few weeks of the year?

A cynic might say we get all the goodwill out of our systems over Christmas in preparation for being miserable bastards for the rest of the year, but cynicism is unhealthy and in any case, I try to keep it out of my bloggy adventures. Plus, we are capable of doing nice stuff for the rest of the year, even if we don’t do so much as some might think we should, and humans never cease to be awesome beings when they put their mind to it. No, it’s not that we give up being nice for the rest of the year, but more that we are quite clearly eminently able of being more nice but not, seemingly, all the time.

Goodwill to our fellow man is not the only seasonal occurrence that seems more prevalent over the festive period for no obvious reason; many of our Christmas traditions, both old and modern, follow a similar thread. Turkey, for instance; whilst it’s never been Christmas fare in my household for various reasons, I know enough people for whom a turkey dinner plus trimmings is the festive standard to know that these same people never have the bird at any other time of the year (I know you Americans have it on Thanksgiving, but I don’t know enough about how all that works to comment). I saw a comment online a couple of weeks ago about eggnog (another seemingly American-specific thing), and mentioning how this apparently awesome stuff (never tried it myself, so again can’t comment) is never available at any other time of the year. A response soon followed courtesy of a shop worker, who said there’s always a supply of it tucked away somewhere throughout the year in the shop where he worked, but that nobody ever bought it outside of December.

We should remember that there is something of a fine line to tread when we discuss these ideas; there are a lot of things that only occur at Christmas time (the giving of gifts, decorations, the tree and so on) that don’t need any such explanation because they are solely associated with the season. If one were to put tinsel up in June, then you might be thought a bit odd for your apparent celebration of Christmas in midsummer; tinsel is not associated with anything other than festive celebration, so in any other context it’s just weird.  This is particularly true given that tinsel and other such decorations are just that; decorations, with no purpose outside of festive celebration. Similarly, whilst gift-giving is appreciated throughout the rest of year (although it’s best to do so in moderation), going to all the trouble of thinking, deliberating, wrapping secretively and making a big fanfare over it is only associated with special occasions (Christmases or birthdays). Stuff like turkey and eggnog can probably be classified as somewhere in the middle; very much associated with the Christmas period, but still separate from it and capable for being consumed at other times of the year.

The concept of goodwill and being nice to people is a little different; not just something that is possible throughout the rest of the year, but something actively encouraged as being a commendable trait, so the excuse of ‘it’s just a feature of the season’ doesn’t really cut it in this context. Some might say that quite a lot of the happiness exuded at Christmastime is somewhat forced, or at the very least tiring, as anyone who’s looked at the gaunt face between the smiling facade of a Christmas day Mum can tell. Therefore, it could be argued that Christmas good cheer is simply too much work to keep up for the rest of the year, and that if we were forced to keep our smiley faces on we would either snap or collapse in exhaustion before long. Others might say that keeping good cheer confined to one portion of the year makes it that much more fun and special when it comes round each year, but to me the reason is slightly more… mathematical.

Human beings are competitive, ambitious creatures, perpetually seeking to succeed and triumph over the odds. Invariably, this frequently means triumphing over other people too, and this is not a situation that lends itself to being dedicated to being nice to one another; competition and the strive to succeed may be key features behind human and personal success, but they do not lend themselves to being nice to one another. Not infrequently, such competition requires us to deliberately take the not-nice option, as dicking on our competition often provides the best way to compete with them; or at the very least, we sometimes need to be harsh bastards to make sure stuff gets done at all. This concept is known in philosophy as the prisoner’s dilemma, which I should get round to doing a post on one of these days.

However at Christmas time achievement becomes of secondary importance to enjoyment; to spending time with friends and family, and to just enjoying the company of your nearest and dearest. Therefore, comparatively little actually gets done over the Christmas period (at least from an economist’s point of view), and so the advantage presented by mild dickishness to some others for the rest of the year disappears. Everything in life becomes reduced down to a state where being nice to everyone around us best serves our purpose of making our environment a fun, comfortable place to be. At Christmas time, we have no reason to be nasty, and every reason to be nice; and for that reason alone, Christmas is a wonderful thing. Merry Christmas, everybody.

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Socially Acceptable Druggies

Alcohol is, without a shadow of a doubt, our society’s commonly acceptable drug of choice; no matter that one third of people admit to smoking cannabis at some point in their lives, or that smoking kills tens of thousands more people every year, neither can touch alcohol for its prevalence and importance within western civilisation. It’s everywhere; for most polite social gatherings it is fundamentally necessary as an icebreaker, every settlement from the biggest city to the tiniest hamlet will have a bar, pub or other drinking venue and many people will collect veritable hoards of the stuff, sometimes even in purpose-built rooms.

Which, on the face of it, might seem odd given how much it screws around with you. Even before the damage it causes to one’s liver and internal organs was discovered, it had been known for centuries that alcohol was dangerously habit-forming stuff, and it was generally acknowledged that prolonged use ‘pickled’ the brain. It also leaves those who imbibe it severely confused and lacking in coordination, which has proved hideously dangerous in countless scenarios over the years (even contributing to several assassinations), and can be almost guaranteed to result in personal embarrassment and other decisions you’re really going to regret when sober. If it wasn’t for booze’s noted enhancing of promiscuity, it might be surprising that drinking hadn’t been bred out of us simply thanks to natural selection, so much does it generally screw around with our ability to function as proper human beings

Like many drugs, alcohol has its roots in the dim and distant past when it felt quite nice and we didn’t know any better; a natural product when sugar (usually in the form of fruit) comes into contact with yeast (a common, naturally occurring fungus), it was quickly discovered how to make this process happen efficiently and controlledly by putting both sugar and yeast under water (or in some other anaerobic atmosphere). All raw materials were easy to come by and the process didn’t require any special skill, so it was only natural that it should catch on. Especially when we consider that alcohol is generally considered to be the single best way of making the world feel like a less crappy place than it often appears.

However, the real secret to alcohol’s success in worming its way into our society is less linked to booze itself, and has more to do with water. From our earliest infancy as a species, water has been readily available in the world around us, whether it be from lakes, rivers, wells or wherever. Unfortunately, this means it is also available for lots of other things to use and make their homes in, including a vast array of nasty bacteria. As can be seen with the situation across swathes of Africa and the Third World (although this problem has been reduced quite significantly over the last decade or so), access to water that is not fetid, disgusting and dangerous can be nigh-on impossible for many, forcing them to settle for water containing diseases ranging from cholera to dysentery. And that’s where alcohol came in.

The great advantage of alcohol is that its production can be very carefully controlled; even if the majority of an alcoholic drink is water, this is generally a product of the fruit or other sugary substance used in the brewing process. This means it is a lot purer than most ‘fresh’ water, and in any case the alcohol present in the fluid kills off a lot of bacteria. Even for those that can survive that, alcoholic beverages are far more likely to be bottled (or at least they were, before someone discovered the sheer quantity of suckers willing to buy what you can get out of the tap) than water, keeping any more invading bacteria, parasites, insects and other crap out. All of this was, of course, not known before Louis Pasteur first came along with his Germ Theory, but the facts stayed the same; historically, you were far less likely to die from drinking alcohol than drinking water.

Still, come the 20th century most of our sanitation problems in the developed world were sorted, so we didn’t need to worry about all that any more did we? Surely, we would have been fine to get rid of booze from our culture, throw out a feature of our lives that ruins many a night out, body or family? Surely, we’d all be far better off without alcohol in our culture? Wouldn’t we?

In many cases, this kind of question would prove a purely theoretical one, to be discussed by leading thinkers; however, much to the delight of all champions of evidence over opinion, the USA were kind enough to give banning alcohol a go way back in the early days of the 20th century. A hundred years ago, campaigns from the likes of the church and the Anti Saloon Bar League painted alcohol as a decidedly destructive influence, so successfully that from 1920 to 1933 the sale, production and consumption of alcohol within the United States became illegal.

At the time, many people thought this was a brilliant idea that would yield great social change. They were right; society as a collective decided that the law was more like a guideline anyway, and through their lot in with the mob. This was the golden age of organised crime, the era of Al Capone and others making fortunes in dealing bootleg alcohol, either dangerous home-brewed ‘moonshine’ liquor or stuff smuggled across the Canadian border. Hundreds of illegal speakeasies, clubs whose drab outsides hid their gaudy interiors, and in which were housed illegal gambling nests, dancers, prostitutes and a hell of a lot of booze, sprung up in every major American city, and while the data is inconsistent some figures suggest alcohol consumption actually rose during the Prohibition era (as it was known). Next to nobody was ever imprisoned or even charged with their crimes however, because the now-wealthy mob could afford to bribe almost anyone, and in any case most police officers and legal officials were illicit drinkers themselves; even Al Capone wasn’t taken down until after he was suspected of ordering some rival gangsters gunned down in what became known as the St Valentine’s Day Massacre. Eventually a group of supremely dedicated policement known unofficially as ‘The Untouchables’ managed to pin tax evasion charges on him, and even had to switch a bribed jury to ensure he went down (a film, The Untouchables, was made about the story- give it a watch if you ever get the charge). By the time Franklin D. Roosevelt repealed prohibition upon coming to power in 1933, the message was clear: America loved alcohol too much, and it wasn’t about to let it go.

Alcohol is, in its effect at least, not a special drug; many others can be used to forget the bad times, enjoy the good times and make the world feel like a better place. But there’s something about, something about its cultural imagery, that makes it timeless, and makes it an immovable feature of our world. It could be that it’s probably the cheapest recreational drug, or maybe that it’s the oldest, but to me the real secret to its success is its weakness, combined with the way it is almost always served very dilute. Most illegal drugs give an instant hit, a huge rush followed by crashing downer, and this makes any use of it a brief, wild experience. Alcohol is more mellow; something you can spend an entire night slowly drowning your sorrows in, or casually imbibe whilst chatting and generally functioning like a normal human being. It’s slow, it’s casual, a feature of an evening that does not necessarily have to define it- that is the cultural secret to alcohol’s success.

Living for… when, exactly?

When we are young, we get a lot of advice and rules shoved down our throats in a seemingly endless stream of dos and don’ts. “Do eat your greens”, “Don’t spend too much time watching TV”, “Get your fingers away from your nose” and, an old personal favourite, “Keep your elbows off the table”. There are some schools of psychology who claim it is this militant enforcement of rules with no leeway or grey area may be responsible for some of our more rebellious behaviour in older life and, particularly, the teenage years, but I won’t delve into that now.

But there is one piece of advice, very broadly applied in a variety of contexts, in fact more of a general message than a rule, that is of particular interest to me. Throughout our lives, from cradle to right into adulthood, we are encouraged to take time over our decisions, to make only sensible choices, to plan ahead and think of the consequences, living for long-term satisfaction than short-term thrills. This takes the form of a myriad of bits of advice like ‘save not spend’ or ‘don’t eat all that chocolate at once’ (perhaps the most readily disobeyed of all parental instructions), but the general message remains the same: make the sensible, analytical decision.

The reason that this advice is so interesting is because when we hit adult life, many of us will encounter another, entirely contradictory school of thought that runs totally counter to the idea of sensible analysis- the idea of ‘living for the moment’. The basic viewpoint goes along the lines of ‘We only have one short life that could end tomorrow, so enjoy it as much as you can whilst you can. Take risks, make the mad decisions, go for the off-chances, try out as much as you can, and try to live your life in the moment, thinking of yourself and the here & now rather than worrying about what’s going to happen 20 years down the line’.

This is a very compelling viewpoint, particularly to the fun-centric outlook of the early-to-mid-twenties age bracket who most commonly get given and promote this way of life, for a host of reasons. Firstly, it offers a way of living in which very little can ever be considered to be a mistake, only an attempt at something new that didn’t come off. Secondly, its practice generates immediate and tangible results, rather than slower, more boring, long-term gains that a ‘sensible life’ may gain you, giving it an immediate association with living the good life. But, most importantly, following this life path is great fun, and leads you to the moments that make life truly special. Someone I know has often quoted their greatest ever regret as, when seriously strapped for cash, taking the sensible fiscal decision and not forking out to go to a Queen concert. Freddie Mercury died shortly afterwards, and this hardcore Queen fan never got to see them live. There is a similar and oft-quoted argument for the huge expense of the space program: ‘Across the galaxy there may be hundreds of dead civilizations, all of whom made the sensible economic choice to not pursue space exploration- who will only be discovered by whichever race made the irrational decision’. In short, sensible decisions may make your life seem good to an accountant, but might not make it seem that special or worthwhile.

On the other hand, this does not make ‘living for the moment’ an especially good life choice either- there’s a very good reason why your parents wanted you to be sensible. A ‘live for the future’ lifestyle is far more likely to reap long-term rewards in terms of salary and societal rank,  plans laid with the right degree of patience and care invariably more successful, whilst a constant, ceaseless focus on satisfying the urges of the moment is only ever going to end in disaster. This was perhaps best demonstrated in that episode of Family Guy entitled “Brian Sings and Swings”, in which, following a near-death experience, Brian is inspired by the ‘live for today’ lifestyle of Frank Sinatra Jr. For him, this takes the form of singing with Sinatra (and Stewie) every night, and drinking heavily both before & during performances, quickly resulting in drunken shows, throwing up into the toilet, losing a baby and, eventually, the gutter. Clearly, simply living for the now with no consideration for future happiness will very quickly leave you broke, out of a job, possibly homeless and with a monumental hangover. Not only that, but such a heavy focus on the short term has been blamed for a whole host of unsavoury side effects ranging from the ‘plastic’ consumer culture of the modern world and a lack of patience between people to the global economic meltdown, the latter of which could almost certainly have been prevented (and cleared up a bit quicker) had the world’s banks been a little more concerned with their long-term future and a little less with the size of their profit margin.

Clearly then, this is not a clear-cut balance between a right and wrong way of doing things- for one thing everybody’s priorities will be different, but for another neither way of life makes perfect sense without some degree of compromise. Perhaps this is in and of itself a life lesson- that nothing is ever quite fixed, that there are always shades of grey, and that compromise is sure to permeate every facet of our existence. Living for the moment is costly in all regards and potentially catastrophic, whilst living for the distant future is boring and makes life devoid of real value, neither of which is an ideal way to be. Perhaps the best solution is to aim for somewhere in the middle; don’t live for now, don’t live for the indeterminate future, but perhaps live for… this time next week?

I am away on holiday for the next week, so posts should resume on the Monday after next. To tide you over until then, I leave you with a recommendation: YouTube ‘Crapshots’. Find a spare hour or two. Watch all of. Giggle.