In Which I Reveal My Face

No, I’m not laying aside the niqab (I never took it up), but I have long been in the habit of keeping my face off the great interwebs. Even back in the day when I had a Facebook account (which I closed around the time I started this blog) I didn’t show my face in my profile photo. (Faceless-book?)

Rudolf Rössler Dame mit Maske
Also not my face.
It is within the realm of possibility that some of you may remember my foray into the cashless economy some years ago, in which I knit a hat and scarf in return for a portrait to be painted. Thankfully, the portrait did not eventuate at the time, and I am now able to present a (cough) somewhat more mature face to the world. No novelty hat, for a start.

It has just occurred to me that I could have asked, for this week’s question, what you imagine I look like. And then I remembered that the vast majority of the blog’s followers at this new address are people who know me in real life anyway, and therefore they wouldn’t have to imagine.

But! “I would by no means suspend any pleasure of yours,” as Mr Darcy said when Elizabeth Bennet pointed out that “if I do not take your likeness now, I may never have another opportunity.”

Those of you who know me by sight already are welcome to essay a word-portrait in the comments, should you so wish, and those of you who don’t are welcome to resort to your imaginations to furnish you with material for one.

And then you are all most welcome to visit the About page (in menu above, or click here) to see the portrait which Esther Van Kuyk has created of my very own face – positively its first appearance on this or any site!

What do you think? I like it very much, myself. Especially the eyes. I know they don’t look like they’re pointing in quite the same direction –  that’s because my eyes don’t, and I particularly requested Esther to retain that quirk of appearance. One eye is looking at you, and the other… well, to be honest, the other is probably secretly reading a book. Tolle Et Lege, after all.

In Praise of Pollyanna

Yep, that Pollyanna. This isn’t a book review; I’m thinking of Pollyanna herself and her attitude, her “Glad Game.” She is practically synonymous with that positive view on life which is gratitude. We tend to think of gratitude as ‘saying thank you’ – but it runs a whole lot deeper than that. Gratitude isn’t just saying thank you for a gift, it’s a matter of what you recognize as a gift.

Pollyann statue (18902222832)Pollyanna is a surprisingly unpopular child in this day and age; I have even heard “Pollyanna” used as a put-down or insult, when someone is deemed to be unacceptably positive or optimistic. And there, in a nutshell, you have the two fundamental ways of looking at life, the positive and the negative, the Pollyanna and the put-down.

One looks for the best in everything, and is thankful for it. The other sees the worst in everything, and is continually discontented and grumbling. I myself have been far too often guilty of the second, but I have hopes of reform. It will no doubt take practice, but hey, what’s neuroplasticity for, if not holding out the hope of lasting change?

Epicurus and Epictetus, the two Epic philosophers (the management apologizes for the irresistible pun) both had something to say on the subject of gratitude. The former advised people to “not spoil what you have by desiring what you have not; remember that what you now have was once among the things you only hoped for.” The latter contented himself with noting that “he is a wise man who does not grieve for the things which he has not, but rejoices for those which he has.” Different words, same idea. Count your blessings.

ravensbruck_camp_barracksOf course, counting other people’s blessings for them is seldom a good idea – unless you’re sharing their difficulties as well. Consider the astoundingly thankful Betsie ten Boom, who, according to her sister Corrie, was even thankful for the fleas which infested their barracks in Ravensbrück concentration camp. Why? Because of Paul’s urging to “Be thankful in all circumstances, for this is God’s will for you who belong to Christ Jesus.” Corrie admits to having been somewhat dubious, until she realized that their contraband Bible and totally forbidden Bible studies were escaping notice because none of the camp staff wanted to go in to inspect the place. God moves in mysterious (and sometimes itchy) ways…

So if Betsie could be grateful even for fleas in a concentration camp, surely we can find things to be grateful for in our own lives! Let us be honest with ourselves. Very few people will not be thankful if they are given an obvious gift, but the world still has an enormous number of basically negative people. I know – I’m a recovering negativeer myself. The problem isn’t that we are all basically pre-haunting Ebenezer Scrooges; the problem is that we don’t recognize most things as gifts. As G. K. Chesterton pointed out, “When we were children we were grateful to those who filled our stockings at Christmas time. Why are we not grateful to God for filling our stockings with legs?”

StockingsYou may answer, because we don’t all believe in God. And perhaps you don’t, but it is still necessary for you to be grateful, even if you find yourself in the somewhat awkward position of being full of undirected thanks. Because people who are not grateful, who are never thankful for all the good things in their life but take them all for granted and focus only on the shortcomings and lacks – these people do not have good lives.

I don’t mean to suggest that if you expect bad, bad happens, and if you expect good, good happens. Your attitude isn’t in complete control of what happens to you, but it does control how you experience what happens to you. Life is a mix of good and bad for everyone. What matters is what you focus on and what you skate over. Beauty isn’t the only thing in the eye of the beholder.

Two years ago, 689,000 Facebook guinea-pigs users were subjected to an experiment: if what they saw on Facebook was filtered to skew more positive or more negative, would what they wrote move in the same direction? Answer: yes. There is quite a bit of controversy about this – not least the ethics of experimenting on people’s emotional balance without their permission, or, indeed, knowledge – but it raises an interesting point.

Looking at flowers? No – looking at Facebook.

So be grateful. Not just for the obvious things, but for the unlikely ones, the ones that aren’t immediately recognizable; the ones that fade into the background of your life, the blessings that are too big to notice. Because there’s a reason why the word “ungrateful” is so often followed by the word “wretch”.

As with so many things in life, gratitude is easier if you get in the habit of it. The Caped Gooseberry and I finish each day tucked up in bed thanking God for the good things of the day. It’s something the Caped Gooseberry started in the earliest days of our marriage, and we’ve made it a habit. It works for us, and it makes sure that at least once each day, we focus on seeing the good. Even the worst day, when reviewed in memory, proves to have hidden pockets of blessings for which to be thankful.

And happily, there is no statute of limitations on gratitude! You can be thankful for the same thing(s) for years; you can be thankful for something you just remembered from years ago. There’s no correct technique to worry about, just have at it! But if you’ve forgotten how to be grateful, take a course of Pollyanna.

Traitor To My Time

Do you ever feel out of place in your time? Is the post-modern era just not you?

I don’t mean physically, necessarily, although it’s tempting to look back to a time when one’s personal physique was the ideal and the clothing of the era would actually be becoming. (Note to self: avoid 1920s.)

Do you ever have the feeling that you are out of step with your times, that their values are not yours, and you just don’t fit in?

I feel this quite frequently. I haven’t settled on a preferred piece of history (probably just as well as I couldn’t get there if I did) but I am most definitely not a Thoroughly Modern Millie – or an Ironically Postmodern Paige.

I recently read an interesting article by Adam Gopnik on why he doesn’t tweet. He asserts that people largely adopt the latest newest social media/communication device or technology because they want to fit in. As he puts it: “The urge to belong to our age is more powerful than the need to use our time efficiently… They fear being traitors to their time, renegades to their generation.”

It’s not about the need. It’s about the fun and groupiness of the new way of doing it. I once had someone text me in the bus to ask me to open the window – someone sitting less than two metres away who could have made himself heard without even raising his voice.

And who hasn’t seen the two teens sitting side by side, texting each other? By no stretch of the imagination are their cell phones fulfilling a need. It’s just fun. Era-appropriate fun, although if their parents are paying their mobile bills they might disagree.

Now, I am not so utilitarian of soul as to suggest that all these forms of technology and communication be dropped. But we tend to see them as a sort of sine qua non of modern life, and as a result those who don’t adopt them are left out – not intentionally marginalised, but nonetheless finding themselves out on the fringe.

It is possible to live a full and fulfilling life in 2014 without a Twitter feed. Or a Facebook account. Or even a cell phone. You may miss out on some witty exchanges (assuming they weren’t high-profile enough to make the news) or some parties (because Facebook only lets your friends invite Facebook-people) or that thing you just remembered you should have put on the shopping list, but think of what you gain.

Is this the modern substitute for saying grace?

We complain of overload – too many contacts, too much that could be interesting, and too many people playing annoying games or posting pictures of what they had for lunch (before they ate it: mercifully there is no ‘Digesti-Cam’ app – yet).

Of course, many people judge that ‘keeping up’ is worth these hassles – and that’s their choice, a choice they should be free to make. But it isn’t a choice if you don’t feel you have any option.

So here I am, planting a flag in 2014 and claiming this little piece of the post-modern era for those taking the path less travelled by: the traitors to our time.

Full disclosure: I do have a cell phone. I use it every day, but I’m considering getting an alarm clock to do the job instead.