Trophy kids

I’ve often wondered why parents do it, you know what I’m going to say, especially if you have experienced it. Why do they try to sell you their child?

It usually starts with a cursory enquiry about your offspring, and then the sales pitch begins. Little Johnny has just passed his third grade piano, while learning to juggle with broadswords and while speaking fifteen languages. Little Marcie has won a place at Oxbridge to read medicine while single-handedly saving her village by digging a well with her bare hands.

I’m being flippant, but you know this tale. You nod politely, give a watery smile and fervently wish the earth would open up around you.

So, what is going on? Do they want you to abandon your kid and immediately adopt theirs? Do they think you will neglect your beloved child to start a cult worshipping their obviously superior family?

I can’t say I fully understand it, but on a personal level I think it stems from a couple of things. It certainly is about reflected glory, the desire to bathe in their children’s accomplishments. Instead of a happy pride in them, they seem to feel the need to brandish them as trophies. Hence the term Trophy Kids.

At times it appears to be a deficit in themselves they are trying to fill with vicarious achievements. I’ve certainly seen this in dads with talented sports stars. They may have been okay at sport but they can live their dreams through their kids. They can’t of course, and they often drive their kids without mercy to do more, go faster, reach higher… In some cases things work out and the parent mellows, but not always.

And then there is the mirror image, where parents compare their children unfavourably with yours. Little Kevin can’t use the swing properly, but look how high yours is going! Then you have to reassure them, don’t worry about it… they will find their swing. This comes from anxiety, I think, the fear that comes with parenting that you aren’t doing it correctly. Where is the manual?

But my own feeling is that our system is at fault. We’ve let competition creep into every facet of our lives. We have to be on our game in every single area. Look at my job, my home, my car, my kids. Look at my achievements, look at theirs! They reinforce my greatness, or they carry me where I’m not so great. We have to stop this before we alienate our kids, destroy our relationships, make ourselves ill, and, ultimately, reduce our world to rubble…

Our children are not tools or trophies. They need our love and our time, and no amount of material things or achievements can substitute for that.

Trophy kids… just, no!

They are not commodities, freaks or oddities, they are a gift. They can lift our hearts, bring us joy, so just enjoy their pure existence. They represent persistence, resistance, they are the hope that helps us cope. Children need our time, our presence, our undiluted affection, some direction, but not control. They do not belong to us, we have to let that go.

Destructive divisions

They stand us up against one another. You know the drills as well as I do, just as you recognise their scape goating. Their adoption of diversity is just another means of creating divisions, of directing our accusatory gaze sideways rather than upwards.

Famine, terrorism, discrimination, nationalism, the destruction of the environment, all are the products of a corrupt system built and maintained for the benefit of a very small minority. The divisions they stimulate and exacerbate between groups of people are designed to channel frustration and deflect attention from the real causes of most human ills – inequality and injustice.

Immigrants bring crime, disease, cultural¬† incompatibility. Age old tropes that they wheel out periodically to generate divisions they then mercilessly exploit. Look up media accounts from the 19th century, then compare them to tabloid coverage today. Place them side by side, and you won’t be able to distinguish them.

Older people are a drain on our resources! They talk about a demographic time bomb, which immigration might help prevent, but don’t expect consistency, that is not their game. They turn the blessing of living longer and in better health into a crime, the very thing we have desired for generations. Given their way they would create the world of Logan’s Run.

Women and men should be at war, minorities are splintered into ever smaller factions. Disabled people, people of faith, those without any faith, everyone turned into a category, forced into a box, and the boxes never quite fit together. Diversity has become a commodity to exploit, and, a means to wear us down. Everyone seeking an advantage for their category at the expense of the others.

I am not dismissing differences, they are real, and, wonderful in many ways, a cause for celebration. They give us alternative ways of seeing things, they produce diverse music, foods, experiences. They bring life and colour to our world.

But, they do not extinguish what we all share. The desire for respect, the need for love and security, validation, to feel valued. What binds us is our common humanity, and in order to disinter these bases for unity, we will need to challenge this system, actually recognise where the source of injustice lies. When we turn our accusatory gaze upwards we will finally see what ails us, and begin to take it down, brick by unfair brick.

Division

They want us to despise the ‘other’,
Ignoring they’re our sister or our brother.
Older people are a burden, unproductive.
Everything they say is so reductive.
Minority cultures are divisive and destructive.
Immigrants bring in crime and disease,
The same old tropes and racist pleas.
Women are displacing and replacing men.
‘We’ must rewind things, hold them back again.
Diversity has become a means to separate,
Frustrate, close the gate, and denigrate.
But differences are overblown, yelled through a megaphone.
We need to put them in perspective, repaint their tone.
We share so many things, and unity brings
Salve to the many stings, it quells our sufferings.
Happiness, fulfilment, love. A real sense of worth.
We all want those, and they’re what we all deserve.

What Will They Think?

I want to talk about control, but only one distinct aspect of it. As a person who has lived with mental ill-health for an entire lifetime, I have had to cope with a very thin skin. Other people’s perceptions have been important to me. Too important.

Have I upset him or her? What will they think of me? What have I done? Why are they ignoring me? Endless, needless agony. Worrying about what others are thinking has cost me so much pain and time. It has caused me to follow paths I didn’t choose and miss experiences because I’ve been afraid I might embarrass myself. What a waste.

Thankfully, I’ve encountered people that have taken their own path, and others who have dismissed the shackles of conformity.

As an example of the former, I grew up with this guy, let’s call him Seb. As a boy he was intelligent, amusing, but something else, he was grounded. I would go so far as to say he was happy. He was the lead singer of a band, and he really couldn’t sing, but he enjoyed every minute of it. Academically, I always believed he coasted, getting by with good grades, but never pushing himself to do more.

After he left school he worked as a delivery worker, married his childhood sweetheart, had kids, and worked on behalf of others in the union. Once, I got a job at his firm on a temporary basis, and at the end of the late shift he gave me a lift home. He talked about his family, his interest in local history, and he wanted to know about my studies. Genuinely wanted to know.

Seb is a hero of mine. His brother is a professor, he has two PhDs and has won prestigious awards for his work. This makes Seb proud, but it doesn’t make him jealous. He is impervious to the idea that he has failed in relation to his brother. And the reason? He hasn’t failed. Seb has lived his life, by his rules, and he hasn’t focused on what other people think.

Dev, I met on my estate many years ago. He was married with two young kids who were just a shade older than my son. In some ways we were a poor fit, Dev was a manual worker, without much formal education, and on the slow side. He wasn’t stupid, far from it, but he wasn’t sharp, or quick of thought. But he was kind, friendly, and, fun.

Our families got quite close. I recall going together to a leisure park. It had ride on trains and a fantastic indoor play area. We sent the kids off to play, and I settled with the other adults in the cafe. Suddenly, Dev stood up and said, ‘come on, let’s get in there!’ I watched incredulously as he ran off to the drop slide. Dev didn’t care what anyone thought.

With a shrug, I followed and had one of the best afternoons ever. Not only did I enjoy myself, but I connected with my son. We had the best time. And from then on I would pile in there and not waste time wondering what the other parents thought. And later on I passed that along to other hesitant dads. It felt good.

They both taught me, Seb and Dev, and it’s a lesson I’m still learning, that we cannot control what other people think. Whether they approve or disapprove of us, whether they like us or not, is not our business. Popularity, conformity, are chains not trampolines, they tie us down not send us higher.

Let go of the notion that you have control over the way people think, of how they see you. Be yourself, follow your own path, and in the words of Dr Seuss:

Be who you are, say what you feel, because those that matter don’t mind, and those that mind don’t matter!

Essentialising

We want to essentialise, simplify, tell the lie that life is yes or no, stop or go,
Although we surely know that it is not that clear, not matter how we wish it so.
People are good or bad, happy or sad, the prisoners of their views,
But we can choose to change, rearrange, recognise a world of different hues.
Labelling is tabling an excuse, a reason to remain along a single grain,
That causes pain which tries us, ties us down onto a one-way train.
It is scary, we should be wary, but life’s texture is not a thing to dread,
Instead, enjoy uncertainty, it sets you free, even when you’re in over your head.
And as for people, they can grow, learn, erase mistakes, exploit the breaks,
We offer them through love, push comes to shove, we are not pure, to say so makes us fakes.

We are NOT Superior

Utilitarian Jeremy Bentham

I’ve witnessed over the past few days a tendency in us, and I do mean us, to want to order ourselves in hierarchies of the imagination. If we can’t ‘be superior’ by having money, status and wealth, then we want to construct other ways that we can promote ourselves above others.

It may be that someone likes soap operas and we prefer going to the opera, or they may love boy bands, and we like Beethoven. But as much as we may like to think our tastes superior, or that we enjoy higher pleasures, we are wrong. Simply, and unutterably, wrong.

Jeremy Bentham was correct when he said that pushpin was as good as classical pursuits, because the happiness they produce lies on a single scale. The scale, as with everything we subscribe to, is constructed. Happiness is happiness, that is my belief.

I’ve experienced a lot of this hierarchical nonsense, and, to my shame, I’ve often been guilty of it too. That is something I intend to challenge going forward. I am no better or worse than anyone else, and neither are you.

But I see it all the time. Whether it’s: ‘I’m not on social media to gather followers, I have a message,’ or: ‘I live in a monk’s cell, while you are a mindless consumer,’ many of us just cannot help ourselves. We seem to want to divide people into categories of good and worthy, and less enlightened and trivial.

When I was at school I recall a girl I really liked sneering at me because I was a ‘Kev’. I didn’t know what she meant; another friend explained that she was saying I was ‘mainstream’, a robot, mindlessly following the herd. It hurt, a lot. She was a goth, which she regarded as being alternative and edgy, a transcendent being.

Except that all the things she bought, from the posters on her walls to the clothes, make-up and jewellery she wore, were mass produced. She was as much a consumer as I was, it was just that fewer people subscribed to her consumption patterns. Even her precious music, that she waved at me as a weapon, was made by people earning their living by playing it.

Funny, now that I look back on it, and I can also see the irony in this post. It’s about judging people for judging people. Don’t worry, I get it! But I still stand by my original point. There are some that we have to judge harshly because their interests are not simply at odds with ours they are positively dangerous. Donald Trump is a lazy, spiteful, solipsistic, demagogue, who, left to his own devices will destroy our world, and I do not mean that figuratively.


So, yes, some judgement is necessary, the process of ‘othering’ is unavoidable and sometimes beneficial. You have to ‘other’ Hitler or Stalin, they were murderous megalomaniacs. But we don’t have to ‘other’ people of good faith just because their preferences and interests don’t match our own.

In fact, to spend our lives in these hierarchies of imagination, actively harms us in at least two important respects. It creates artificial divisions between us, preventing us from meeting people we wouldn’t ordinarily encounter. We may find ourselves living in corridors of homogeneity, which, though comforting, can also be stifling. Diversity has really profound things to offer us, if we are foresighted enough to see them.

Associated with the barriers we erect between ourselves and others, we are also robbing ourselves of unexpected pleasures and experiences. That boy band song might be really good. There might be a scene in a soap opera that genuinely touches you, or a piece of ‘chick lit’ that speaks to you.

These hierarchies of imagination, as I call them, hold us back, they injure us. Not only do they limit our vision, they stain our souls, because we are all connected, whether we like it or not. So, my advice is, every time you feel the urge to denigrate someone to make yourself feel superior, challenge it. Hierarchies of the imagination aren’t nourishing they are impoverishing.

You are no better or worse than anyone else. You are enough and so are the vast majority of the people we share this Earth with

Learning Love

There are so many different kinds of love, but in this post I want to concentrate on two linked kinds. The first is the love we feel for children, our own children. I am going to talk about my experience of parenthood.

The second type is an empathy that having children engenders. This is why I don’t believe in the selfishness of love, that belief that the right have that we can only truly love our ‘own’, our biological offspring, and wider blood relations.

On the contrary, I believe that the love we feel for our sons and daughters expands our capacity for love. This reflects the belief that love is a muscle, it grows with exercise. The more we love, the more we can love.

One of my first introductions to this notion was at the hands of my beloved mother. My wife was newly pregnant, and when I broke the happy news to mum, she was initially wildly excited. Then, in a quiet moment, she looked at me with moist eyes and said something that shocked me:

‘What if I can’t love the baby enough? I love all of you so much, what if I don’t have any more?’

I have to confess that I was a bit unsettled by this, and not a little concerned. My reaction was to reassure her, but I was not reassured. It remained a slight anxiety in the background of the pregnancy.

But when our son was born, my mum took him from my wife and burst into tears. She told me that a huge wave of love crashed over her, that any fears she’d had evaporated instantly. My mum showed me clearly how elastic our emotion and devotion can be.

It also made things sharper, it changed my perspective. Here’s a trivial but clear example. The film Gladiator. We saw it before having our boy, and we enjoyed it, but there is a scene in which the young son of the lead character is run down by galloping horses. Murdered in the most callous way imaginable a life extinguished as dismissively as it’s possible to conceive of.

It was horrifying.

However, when we watched it again after becoming parents, that same scene was utterly devastating. We couldn’t believe how powerful it became, the fear that lives with you every minute of every day was triggered so vividly in the cinematic death of that child.

It is a fear that will never pass, but which is so heavily outweighed by the joy that our son has brought to our lives.

But there is a more indirect love that grows out of parenthood. It has struck me several times since. It’s the recognition that other people are children, that they are the sons and daughters of someone, no matter how old they may be.

It is a profound realisation. When people are hurt, or vulnerable, it brings out the parent in us. We want to help or comfort them. It has led us both to protect other people’s children. Despite the social prescription of interacting with kids these days, I recently lifted a little boy off a high wall with a drop on the other side; it was a long fall into a pool of stinking, stagnant water. His parents were distracted and dad mode instantly kicked in.

But as I said, it works across the generations. It has led us as a family to care for an elderly neighbour, after a nasty fall. We took turns to cradle her until the ambulance arrived. It wasn’t just the natural care for someone in distress, but a more paternal love, we both felt that extension of empathy parenthood has created.

Having children has not produced a narrow, selfish love. It has given us a new kind of love, a more generous, intense and all-embracing type of love. For us it underlined our connectedness to others, it showed us that love is not muted or limited. It is boundless, endless, eternal and painfully beautiful.

I am not claiming that parenthood, biological parenthood, is unique in this. The object here is to share an experience, a deeply moving and life changing experience. I don’t believe for one moment in hierarchies of love. That is the true beauty of an emotion we cannot taste or touch, and which cannot be scientifically explained. Love. It just is.

Impatience!!!!

Driving home from work today we came to a roundabout which was congested. It’s a small roundabout at the head of our small town. Why they didn’t leave it as a junction I don’t know, we seem to have a love affair in this country with roundabouts, some stretches of roads are simply links between the bloody things!

I digress.

Anyway, the passage across the roundabout was blocked by traffic, so to pull onto it would have blocked the lane coming around from the right. So we paused to let the traffic flow again. Almost instantly, the person behind started blaring their horn, and I do mean almost instantly.

It flustered my wife, who nearly pulled out into a van swinging around from the right. For the sake of seconds the impatience of that person nearly caused an accident. It was all I could do not to lose my temper and undoubtedly escalate things. Thankfully, I’m a little wiser these days (only a little, I’m not getting ahead of myself here!)

And this is now a common issue. People will thump their horns if they have to wait for a fraction of a second. If the car ahead doesn’t immediately leap away at the lights, or on an accursed roundabout, they are increasingly likely to face the discordant reprimand of the car horn.

Now, I am not advocating hesitancy, and I am well aware of some mitigating circumstances. Sometimes the hammerers of horns are generally in a hurry, or, they are being held up by someone checking their mobile phone rather than focusing on their immediate priority: piloting a large, metal killing machine.

(As I’m sitting here in a supermarket car park, a horn battle has begun. Someone had the temerity to take too long to move across… you guessed it, a mini roundabout. Queue gesticulating and swearing and raised fists…)

But often, or so it seems to me, the intention is aggressive, and I’m imputing here, speculating, but at times it feels like they want to humiliate the person in front. Show them up, demonstrate their own superiority. In a time where so many feel helpless, worthless and afraid, this perhaps shouldn’t be such a surprise.

But surprise or not, it’s sad that many of us are so impatient. Of course, modern life plays into this frustration. As everything gets faster, so we want it to go EVEN faster. Things load in seconds these days and yet we still tap our fingers and curse the delay. If we have to wait for another episode in a TV series for seven days, it feels like an eternity.

This wider impatience is a related problem for sure, and I will come back to it. But here I want to stayed focused on how we behave in cars.

From beeping the horn at lights, to pushing people to pull over in the outside lane, to haranguing learner drivers. Cars seem to bring out the worst in all of us at times, and some of us most of the time, and it’s something we need to address, because a slow loading time for a computer isn’t going to kill anyone. When we lose it in cars, let our frustrations boil over, the outcome can be lethal.

So, we need to resolve this. Not the State, not the police, us.

When we feel the need to rush, pause, think about what we’re doing. Why are we in such a hurry? Often we aren’t going anywhere special, just making our way home, or to work, or somewhere without a deadline. And even if we do make haste how often does it really profit us? You’ve seen it, just as I have, the person who weaves in and out of lanes, overtakes on the inside, but gets caught at the same set of lights.

So, maybe we could pause before we press the horn. Maybe we could hold that curse behind our teeth when we encounter someone learning, just as we once did. Perhaps we can remember, not only that we are in charge of a miniature tank, but that we can change our perspective, and in the action of it, change what happens around us.

Patience is a virtue to be sure, but in certain circumstances, it can be a literal life saver.