Friday, 31 December 2010

Decisions, Decisions

On revisiting the story of David Copperfield recently, I was reminded of the character of Mr Dick. When she doesn't know what to do, Miss Betsy Trotwood simply instructs Mr Dick to tell her. Mr Dick, in his amiable fashion, thinks of something. Whilst he may think of something much in the way that Winnie the Pooh might Think of Something in a bumbling, haphazard way, both, it seems, come about wisdom or the truth of the matter, without quite realising it.

We all need a Mr Dick in our lives. To turn to when, try as we might, having looked at it from every angle, we still simply don't know what to do.

"Mr Dick," I would say. "Tell me what to do!"

And Mr Dick would have a bit of a think, screw his face up in a pondering sort of way, and then he would tell me what to do. Simply, cleanly, sparingly. Thank you Mr Dick, I would say.

The mother of a close friend of mine used to advise her to make her decision before going to bed, and then see how she felt when she woke in the morning. If the feeling was good, she had made the right decision, the feeling bad or uneasy and she still had time to change it before it took effect in the waking world.

I tried it once or twice, but I could never quite fool myself into believing I had made my decision, when I knew I might revise it in the morning. It never felt serious or substantial enough to be a true decision.

Some would say there are no right or wrong decisions, just different paths. I am sympathetic to what they mean, but it is spectacularly irritating to be told this when one nevertheless has to decide something one way or another.

Of course, a Mr Dick abdicates our responsibility, and we are no longer children. As helpful and easy as it might be, do we really want someone else to be making our decisions for us?

So, off into the New Year for all of us. Decisions to make, people to see, places to go, things to do. Be proud that you guide yourself, that you are your own guide, arbiter and lover. And, to share the advice my father gave to me many years ago before a (musical) performance... If you are going to make a mistake, do it loudly, and as if you meant to make it!

Happy New Year

Friday, 17 December 2010

What is in an Action?

A comment on my last post by Not a notting hill mum raises a very important question about culpability.  The example in question was an extra-marital affair.  My point was that if the person considering or actually having the affair knew that the knowledge of it would hurt their pre-existing partner, then they were guilty of behaving in an un-loving manner towards their partner, whether the partner did in fact know or not.  By saying this, I am clearly claiming that there is another element to the act, not just the exhibited behaviour itself, upon which it should be judged.

I understand that in a court of law the intention behind a resulting event is considered, as well as the nitty-gritty of what actually took place.  But I am no lawyer, and indeed what interests me here is not how things are judged in a court of law, but in our own everyday moral court.  The court of our conscience.  The court of our own innate sense of what is right and wrong, loving and un-loving.  Some might say these are not the same thing, but for this argument's sake, let us assume they are.

On what should an action be judged? Only on what actually happens as a result? Only on what was intended and the motivation behind it? Or a combination of all of these? It is possible to say that if no one is hurt (emotionally or physically) by an action, then how can it be wrong? But this sits ill with me.  If the 'do-er' knows it could hurt, how can their conscience be clear? Conversely, if someone is hurt by an action, but the 'do-er' had no intention of that, not even any idea it was possible, and their motivation was good and loving, can one condemn the 'do-er' for their accidental hurt? Ignorance is poor defence, but what of the complete accident? An action is not just a random event in space and time, it is motivation, intention and thought, and all must be weighed in the balance.

Sunday, 12 December 2010

When is an affair, an Affair?

When does a friendship between a man and a woman (or two men or two women of homosexual orientation) cross the line? When does the relationship become something that would not be acceptable to a spouse of either man or woman? As a married friend said to me the other day, referring to a new female friend of his: 'It is difficult about enjoying another woman's company isn't it? If it's good, then you wonder if it's bad. I wonder when it crosses a line... Of course if she were a bloke, or I female, it wouldn't be bad.' So, using this example, what is the added ingredient that makes two equally enjoyable and rewarding friendships, judged 'good' if with a man, but 'bad' if with a woman?

The obvious line people always cite is sleeping with someone, but I don't think it's actually that clear cut. I suspect it is possible to be emotionally/heart unfaithful without anything physical happening, and it is possible to sleep with someone and yet not be unfaithful to the emotional relationship with your spouse or partner. And it is different from couple to couple, whose conditions and requirements of their intimate relationship vary.  Which on the one hand doesn't seem to help at all, and indicates that each new couple discuss and stipulate what they personally would see as a transgression, a violation, of their intimacy.

Or, do we think, that bar the usual exceptions in particular, individual couples who stray from the norm, that there are general, objective standards of decent, 'faithful' behaviour? Or is it actually that the rule of thumb is the basic one by which to guide all our actions? That is: is my act loving or un-loving, both to myself and to all touched by the act? The 'to myself' and not just others is crucial.

Monday, 6 December 2010


When I say 'pain', what do you think of? Physical pain? Emotional pain? Mental pain? How do you distinguish between these? Can you? Or is pain just pain? Pain does not just have behavioural consequences, there is something 'it is like' to be in pain.  If the feeling is absent, you cannot claim to be in pain.  It is not possible to imagine a pain, it is a thing of a moment.  You can remember that you were 'in' pain, but you can't summon back the what 'it is like' of that pain from memory, you are either in pain in a particular moment or not.

Physical pain seems straightforward: bring affliction to a part of the body, and pain will be felt by that person in that part of their body.  Awkward that it has been reported by some amputees that they can still feel pain and other sensations in the limb that the doctor knows has now been removed.  And can you expect two people with exactly the same injury, to feel exactly the same pain? How do we know? Can you describe your pain to someone, as is sometimes asked? When people say they can 'feel your pain', can they?

What of emotional pain? That searing pain in the chest or gut apparently caused by tremendous upset, hurt or grief.  Mental pain? The head or brain aches associated with concentrating hard on difficult intellectual problems.  In that we apparently still feel both emotional and mental pains in specific areas of the body, perhaps all pain is actually physical? Or all in fact mental? What is clear, is that you ought to be very careful before ever making a judgement about anybody else's pain, of whatever kind.  Being in pain is to be feeling in pain, and you cannot feel theirs, only your own.  It might be the same, but you don't know.

Friday, 3 December 2010

What is the Snow bringing us?

So now, this country that we call the United Kingdom, is covered in snow.  Pristine, white, beautiful snow.  Cleansing snow that wipes the slate clean, and gives off a magnificent light.  White, innocent and child-like in one way, dangerous and menacing in another.  Boughs and branches bend with its weight, roofs of outbuildings cave in, it stops the traffic, it blocks the flow of people's lives.  Not so friendly and magical now.  When it melts, all will be worse.  Mud, slush, mess, debris and damage await us.

But early this morning I was out walking with my dog.  He gambolled, sniffed and played, and I looked out over the fields.  White as far as I could see, barely a mark blotting the surface of the landscape.  I stared too long and for a moment I was blinded by the bright, white light.  It reminded me of the light that those who have narrowly escaped death, talk of having been invited into, but from which they turned and withdrew at the last minute. 

I blinked and looked at the fields again, and thought of the crops and plants in stasis beneath.  Was the snow bringing us a moment of death? In grinding our daily lives to a halt, in hiding our world under a beautiful shroud or blanket, just as we cover the faces of people in death, in reducing us to carefully putting our feet one in front of the other lest we fall over, it is stopping us in our tracks.  Hello, it says, this is not All There Is.  For look, it says, how can it be so important, look how easily it disappears.

Sunday, 28 November 2010

The Other Hand

The frost has been so incredibly beautiful the last couple of days. This morning it was so intense it spread not only across grass and fallen leaves, but up the bushes and hedgerows to the very tops of the trees.  All was white and crisp. When nature is so beautiful, so magical, does it not feel as if there is the hand of something else? It is superlative.  So breathtakingly glorious, that there is something other-worldly to it all, not explained by our functional, prosaic existence.

I don't think it matters what you call this Other Hand. To some it will be God or Allah, to some it will be Spirit or Light, to some it will be the comforting Mother Nature. I don't think it matters what you call it, or whether you call it anything at all. You don't need to label it. Things don't always need a label. Lack of labels doesn't diminish understanding...they just help the verbal communication from person to person, but woe betide you if you understand something different by the label. Then where has it got you? Further misunderstanding!

Why is there so much beauty in what we call the 'natural world'? But there is, have you noticed it? Just as my spirits may be lowering, or my mind is occupied with thoughts that absorb me, nature gives me a little jolt. Suddenly I spot something, or smell something, or hear something, and I am pulled out of my egotistical little world. This morning it was the sight of the heavy frost, the hard feel of the frozen earth beneath my boots, the smell of ice, wood and smoke and the sound of a still world bolstering itself for Winter. And I forgot myself. Which I think was what was intended.

Friday, 26 November 2010

Who Am I?

When I was twelve years old we were given a little assignment at school, I suspect because there was free wall space and they needed to fill it. We were given a lined sheet of paper with a box in which to answer the question 'Who Am I?'  With hindsight, I realise that what they were after was a nice paragraph or two along the lines of 'my name is...I have one/two/three* brothers/sisters* (delete as applicable)....I like ice-cream and chocolate....I don't like....' You get the idea.

Despite supposing to be one of the clever ones, I made a big mistake. A mistake so big, I was sent to the headmaster.  What was my mistake? I answered the damn question.  It was a lesson early on in my school career, that it was only the exceptional teachers that really wanted you to answer (or try to answer) their question... Apparently my answer was so alarming, that they were concerned about me, and so much so that they couldn't deal with it and the headmaster's intervention was needed.

So what did I say? What made them anxious about my psychological well-being?

Well, the fledgling philosopher in me took the question literally, and I rather assumed at the time that that is what everyone was doing.  I wish I had a copy now of what I wrote, because I rather suspect it would make a nice little introduction to an essay on Personal Identity. I will come back to this question, probably repeatedly, because it is a fascinating one...what do we mean, to what do we refer when we say 'I'? Age twelve, I could use the word, but I had absolutely no idea what 'I' actually meant, and I simply said so, with a twelve year old's honest reasoning. Whoops. Call in the Social Services.

Wednesday, 24 November 2010

Having a Cause

Having a 'cause' reminds me of those science experiments all those years ago at school...the kind where you'd have the hypothesis given to you by the teacher, the outline of a method, and you knew, despite all the 'dressing up' of the task as a real 'experiment' that you would fail if you had not proved your hypothesis by the time you came to conclude the experiment.  So, in other words, there was no experimental or ideological freedom.  Having a Cause from the beginning, knobbled you at every stage.
People who have 'causes' as adults are similarly blinkered and one-track in their direction and ideas. They have their Cause and so there is no room for anything else.  At the end of this scale are the Extremists or Fundamentalists, not necessarily religious. Their view and views are so honed, so refined, so narrowed, they exist rather than live.  It is a living death because their life's work is done, they know everything; they need entertain no doubt, no questions.

They are everywhere.  I suspect just as common at the school gate as in government, and both frighten me. Every one of us has influence, a politician may have influence over policies, and a managing director over his employees, but is this any less insidious than the teacher over their class of young minds, the parent over the child, the chatterbox in the corner shop, or the chap vocal in the pub with his friends? We know the idea about the however-many-degrees of separation between every one of us, is it not reasonable to suspect that a person's influence over just one other can have unimaginable and far-reaching consequences?

If you have no Cause, you don't know where you're going, you can't pre-empt, and you don't know what might and might not be important, so you quietly pay attention to everything.

If you have a Cause, you risk knowing where you are going, knowing what you are going to say and conclude, before you even begin to speak, and that, my friends, is at best just an ignorant, uninteresting shadow existence, and at worst, a very dangerous thing.  

Tuesday, 23 November 2010


I feel sick.  I feel sick because I have to have a difficult conversation with the man I love.  I have to tell him that how things are is not okay.  If he deals with it, we can carry on.  If he does nothing, we will have to separate.  There is not a single bit of me that wants to separate from him.  If we do separate it will not be because we do not have a deep and loving connection.  Sometimes circumstances are just not right.  Damn them.  I feel sick because as much as we love each other, our time may be over.

I look for integrity in others, I try and ask integrity of myself.  I see integrity as a wholeness or harmony of the self.  It is honesty, but it is honesty with oneself, it is the knowledge that if one did various things, those acts would somehow violate that harmony.  One would let oneself down.  In that sense, it is an internal construct, an internal rule by which to measure our actions.  It is possible that sometimes no one else would know one was acting without integrity.  But you would know.  As with all our behaviour and actions, our integrity is our own responsibility.

We had the conversation.  We talked together, not 'to' or 'at' each other, but together.  It was only the anticipation that made me feel sick.  The moment we began to talk, the sickness vanished, because then it became the simple expression of how one feels, no expectations, no machinations to achieve a particular outcome.  Just: here we are, this is how I feel, what do you think? I don't know what he will do, and when.  I don't know what the result will be for us.  But I spoke with love and honesty about the only thing I really know: how I feel and what I am thinking.  The thoughts and feelings of others, and thus their actions, belong to them, and we can assume no authority.

Wednesday, 17 November 2010

Cartesian beginnings...

Thoughts are my pleasure, my excitement, my motivation, my work.  After a childhood of relentless questioning, I studied Philosophy at one of the best universities in the world.  I was taught by some of the greatest minds in the field, and my pulse still races when I think of the intellectual excitement of those years. 

There, I began to realise how little I knew.  Now, after many more years of listening, reading, studying, inquiring, maturing, experiencing, living and feeling, I am just as excited by the world around me, and what possibly lies beyond, but my realisation is how little anybody knows.  We believe a lot of things.  We know next to nothing.  Does it matter? I know I think.  That'll do nicely.  It is fascinating, it is full of wonder.

I know something else too:  I feel.  I have a mind, but I have a heart too.

I had the most brilliant of tutors (a brilliant tutor and a brilliant philosopher - the two don't always come together) who encouraged all thought, all ideas as equally valuable.  No thought, no idea, no feeling is irrelevant, however simple or mundane it may seem.  You might discard its argument along the way, but you must always entertain all possibilities.

From our thoughts and feelings comes the action and emotions of our lives; they determine our behaviour, our words and our deeds.  We can work out how we choose to live our particular lives, or just that particular moment, even if there is little of which we can be certain.  It's not scary, it's thrilling.  

The philosopher is still in me now, but I am also a woman, a mother, a lover, a friend and a human being.  I offer you my juicy human quotidian thoughts, you never know what we may bump into along the way...

Please feel free to post relevant comments.  Keep the pulse racing.