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The Most Important Things in Life Aren’t Things

August 16, 2010

Because it’s Ramadan and I and all my fellows fasting (and pretending to fast) around the world are challenged now, not only to abstain from food and drink, but from other things that would break the fast as surely as a Dorito – unkindnesses and snapping tempers, and all the terrible things an unguarded tongue can do, I wanted to make a reminder to myself about how to keep myself from dodgy dealings, but also how to be better. And I have to apologise for all the (utterly unintentional) food references; it must be Freudian.

I view life-hacks in much the same way as I view recipes: vaguely instructive but in need of refinement, and necessarily adaptable because I rarely have the right ingredients or equipment. Think of this as my interpretation of a life-hack, with the customary inability to show any degree of parsimony. For which I apologise.

So: here are ten completely arbitrary things that I’m trying to work on, and you can too, but you probably already do better than me okay let’s just carry on-

1) Mending relationships

Back in the day, people used to darn their socks. Just because the heel had worn out didn’t mean it was time to discard it. These days, you can buy a pack of 5 for £2 from Primark and so it seems pointless to darn them when you can just as easily toss ’em out and get a new pair. Such socks wear out quickly, don’t mean much, are cheap and cheerful and ultimately come and go without being overly noticed.

People have flaws, and we’re bound to run into them sometimes – but they can also have a lot of good qualities. If any of our relationships with family or friends have gone awry…we should try again. Our relationships shouldn’t be like these socks. They should be better. So get darning.*

2) Biting back

I must admit, there are things that annoy me very easily. I can forbear in certain things almost indefinitely but other things get my goat immediately. Such a thing happened recently. Then, a week or so later, I realised it didn’t bother me anymore, even though it really really had at the time, to the point I might have had a series of mental aneurysms. And so…if you won’t be angry about it later, is it worth being angry about now? Really? In a sense, it’s trying to condense the irritation phase, speeding up a process that happens anyway – sprinting to the land of It Doesn’t Matter instead of crawling on your stomach in camouflage gear.

3) Giving gifts

I’m one of those awkward graceless people who have no idea how to receive a gift. I find it rather uncomfortable and daunting. But ah, giving gifts – now we’re in easier territory. And a gift isn’t an extravagant beribboned confection which involves you living on gruel and water for 8 weeks to pay for it, and, um, I can’t afford that. No. A gift is remembering little details about people and following them up – like visiting your friend and picking up a pot of yoghurt for her kids on the way, or seeing a buy-one-get-one-free deal on those Cadbury’s chocolate fingers you both adore nom nom and getting one for yourself and one for them. Giving gifts is the simplest material pleasure in the world – just ask the Bengalis. They find it impossible to go anywhere empty-handed. Sometimes, they even take fish.**

4) Sharing

Sharing, as my little 4-year-old student says, is caring.*** And do you know, it’s very nice to carry little things with you for all the accidental occasions of needing friendly sustenance? I like to keep something in the bottom of my bag for such unforeseen meetings – usually a packet of those halal jelly sweets. Which I actually don’t like much, but I know other people do. It also gives you something to do when you can’t think of anything to say, especially if you suffer bouts of being socially challenged like me. I can attest that shoving a packet of raspeberry kisses up someone’s nose stops the conversation from getting too dry. Well, actually, it stops the conversation. Not least because of the horrified and incredulous way they are looking at you, wondering how they came to be in the company of such an inept crackpot weirdo. And you can see regret at stopping to speak to you all over their face like a hungry squid.

But don’t let that put you off. BE PREPARED: keep things on you for the specific purpose of artfully sharing. You never know who you’ll meet where. Or when you will get trapped in a cave at high tide all dressed up and nowhere to go with nary a morsel to eat nor drink. Believe me, I’ve been intensely grateful for having hidden chocolate at times like that.

5) Treating everyone like strangers

Okay, I know this sounds horribly counter-intuitive, but bear with me.

You know how when your Uncle Jim uses that annoying patronising tone with you? At the precise nasal frequency that makes you grind your teeth almost involuntarily? Yes, it’s awful – it really is! – but if some random person at the bank or post office were to do the same, you’d just nod and smile and get on with your life, right? The people closest to us surely deserve our forbearance (even if they do regularly and constantly inspire our irritation) more than a bank clerk or a cashier or a telesales idiot from the other side of the world. And if we can be so forgiving of strangers, can we not try to treat people who really matter to us in the same way?

6) Anticipating someone’s needs

If you know someone needs something, don’t wait for them to say it. Particularly if they are choking on a fishbone and actually can’t verbally communicate their need for you to perform the Heimlich manoeuvre on them. Give them Heimlich! It might save their life. But also it’s nice to do it in non-fatal situations. The thing is, we know very well that not everything has to be verbalised to be understood. Just like our friend choking on the fishbone, a person’s condition can tell us a lot more than words. Sometimes people find it hard to say they need help. So if you see that someone needs a friend, or a plumber, or money…don’t make them ask.****

Self-respect is a precious thing.

7) Loving criticism

It’s hard, isn’t it? I know, because for every time I’ve ever been dressed down by my harshest – and most beloved  – critic, it was accompanied by a note saying ‘listen to your critics and don’t get upset because they’re doing you a favour, even me, even though you don’t think so now’…and it used to upset me dreadfully. But the best and most a person can learn is from their critics: there’s no education in praise. Praise and encouragement are a self-esteem and confidence boost, they’re not points of departure for constructing something.

You also have to have enough gumption to discriminate the valid, valuable criticism from the gratuitous, because of course, not all criticism is valid. However, going out on a dodgy and precarious limb, I’d add that all critique is good, even if the only good you get out of it is learning forbearance.

8. Letting people explain

If there is one thing that people do that causes me more grief than I can adequately describe, it is ascribing wrong interpretations to things I do or say. I think people – more than they know – presume a great deal about other people that they have no right or justification to. When people do things, you don’t know every reason why, in all its permutations, even though you might think you do, and that is a simple truth.

Because you don’t know, any interpretation you ascribe to it will be through the filter of your own thoughts, feelings, opinions and MOOD. A significant portion of all our ill-feelings and unhappinesses with people are to do with poor communication; it isn’t enough simply to communicate: you must communicate well. And to do so, you have to be willing to allow people to explain themselves in their own way, in their own words, and you have to hear them. For instance, that slammed door might have been an accident. You should suspend any and all feelings until you know. Conjecture and speculation are no use here.

Most of all, we should make as many excuses for other people as we do for ourselves. We are so quick to overlook our own mistakes and yet dwell on others’ – shouldn’t it be the reverse? And as quick, too, to ascribe malice or call it a character flaw, when really, we can’t know. Muslims try to live by the principle of ’70 excuses’.

9) Begging pardon

Have you ever been caught in a strange impasse where something happened that was not your fault in any way, but the other party adamantly would not apologise even though they should have? I react to that like a transpiring plant under osmotic potential – the atmosphere is suddenly a vacuum of a sorry that has to be said, and when the other person will. Not. Say it…it rips itself out of me. Someone had to say it! It’s the only way to restore equilibrium – it’s a law of biology, chemistry, physics and maths.

It doesn’t sound great, but it works – it is to the ego what wholemeal bread with milk and honey is to the body. And what takes down the swelling of the ego has to be good for the soul, right? I think a little apologising goes a long way, as long as it is genuine and sincere.

10) Being kinder all around (and saying please and thank you)

‘Always be a little kinder than necessary’

– J M Barrie

Acts of kindness shouldn’t be random – they should be consistent like a good batter, until one day they find their way into habit. And making good habits is something worth toiling over, because unlike an unfaithful spouse, they’ll stay with you and help you your whole life.

* I don’t mean that as a euphemism for condemnation XD Don’t go around condemning people. It’s not nice.
**To a Bengali, that is better than chocolate. In fact, if anyone ever wants to bring my parents a present, they’d take a nice fish (or a mango or some vegetables) over chocolates any day. Hint hint, guys. Also, I prefer chocolate to fish. But don’t get me any please because that would be painful and embarrassing. For both of us EVERYONE IN THE WHOLE UNIVERSE.
*** Actually, he says ‘shawing is cawing’, because he doesn’t pronounce his ‘r’s yet. Bless.
**** Especially if they’re eyeballing your crisps covetously, and even if it sometimes suits you better to pretend you didn’t see. I know, I’ve done it XD

Title credit: Sabrina’s mother-in-law via Slice of Lemon. Images: Fruits Basket and Ouran High School Host Club

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14 Comments leave one →
  1. James permalink
    August 16, 2010 3:22 pm

    OK! I will take these 10 commandments and follow them from now on! Actually I pretty much (try to!) do these, I think they’re great!

    Except for number 6. For 2 reasons – 1 You shouldn’t Heimlich someone immediately they choke, it can cause internal damage & bleeding (though it’s better than the alternative of choking to death >_< ). The 1st response should be to encourage them to cough, if this doesn't work then give them up to 5 HARD slaps on the back, *then* move on to Heimlich. The slaps need to be hard as the point is to dislodge anything stuck in the throat and hopefully avoid having to do the Heimlich.

    Anyway, getting back on topic from the first aid lesson, I think these are great 🙂 I've just realised that I do no. 4 already subconsciously – I always get more than I need just in case I need to/get the opportunity to share. Which is doubly great since if no opportunity to share arises you can EAT IT ALL yet still feel virtuous on account of having had the intention of sharing. Or maybe that's just my excuse…

    • August 16, 2010 3:37 pm

      Hahahahaha, thank you for the correction – obviously, there’s a good reason I’m not a doctor (apart from the fact that I like pointing and laughing too much XD).

      I used to watch 999. You’d think I’d remember something. Oh wait – I do: no Heimlich for kids, and turn babies upside down.

      #4 kind of makes me think of that W C Fileds quote, ‘always carry a flagon of whiskey in case of snakebite, and furthermore always carry a small snake’ (for reasons that are too tangled to undo XD). But it makes me laugh. Also, it makes me think of Emergency Rations, because of course, that is the true purpose of secret food (with that excellent condiment, virtue).

      I need to stock up…

      What? The topic isn’t food?

  2. August 17, 2010 1:59 am

    ohhhh saya. if i ever proposed to you before just forget i did because this now is the real thing. i. adore. you. marry. me. i will bring fish for your parents and chocolate for you.

    i really really really love these points you’ve made. is this a normal day for you? or week? you come up with the most life-altering step-ladder to goodness and jot it down on a napkin? or a… series of napkins. and then it ends up here in blogland where people on the other side of the world i mean the ocean will read it and feel SO GOOD ABOUT LIFE because it is fixable, mendable, alterable. we aren’t spiritually stuck, even if we feel stuck. i hope you write a book one day and have a character attempting to perform these commandments (suggestions). i would very much like to watch. my characters tend to try and fail a lot. as do i… okay, over and out.

    • August 18, 2010 5:40 pm

      Is this a normal day/week/life for me? My life is a work in progress, so I honestly can’t say it is, 100%, but I want it to be. I figure the only way I can find solutions is actually to diagnose my problems, and a good half of that list is a result of me trying to tackle some shortcoming or other head-on, while the remaining ones are things I find easier, and so try to do as much as possible, and the things that aren’t on the list are things I’m too ashamed about to talk publicly on XD

      I write all over my hands. It’s a bad habit, but sometimes I just don’t have paper. My dad’s given up trying to cure me of it (although that may be to do with the fact that I moved to writing up and down my forearms so nobody would see)(thus, polite confusion as to why I had ‘the vital importance of paying attention and letting people explain’ written up the inside of my forearm like a love-tattoo). I am also constantly tapping things into my phone, because my thoughts are like little fishies and dart in and out of my mind with alarming alacrity so I have to catch them QUICK otherwise they’re, fwish, gone.

      Maybe I am tired of looking at my own writing, but I find your comment much more inspiring than the above post altogether (which actually I am not inspired by, probably because I KNOW THE TRUTH). Also, please write a book, too. I lack the discipline, horribly evident in the fact that I should be working on my dissertation write-up and instead am writing this comment.

      Pshaw, we are already married. Let’s renew our vows, though. And have a party involving the eating of a lot of food. That is: you have the party, I’ll have the food.

      ‘kay?

  3. August 17, 2010 2:00 am

    and omg where do you get these images and their quotes???

    • August 18, 2010 4:03 pm

      Errr I watch anime* (/read manga) and regularly hit the screenshot button (to everyone’s eternal irritation) while laughing like a loon on loon tablets – in this case Fruits Basket and Ouran High School Host Club (all watchable on YouTube, I think). Seriously, they are so funny sometimes – it’s a shame I can’t post whole clips XD XD

      (* I was once told by someone that that made me a reprehensible human being, which I must say pleased me greatly.)

  4. hina permalink
    August 18, 2010 8:46 am

    Fantastic article! You write sooooo well and I found myself laughing and thinking throughout this whole piece (excellent combination). Thank you!

    • August 18, 2010 4:05 pm

      Jazakillah khair! Laughing and thinking sounds like a combination I could try. Usually I just laugh. And laugh some more. I mean, I find myself funny, which I realise is in poor taste, but it’s still hopelessly true. So it’s good to share the madness a little instead of being all alone in my little cave of gigglesnorting.

  5. August 20, 2010 1:54 am

    oh my, i can crack up at my own jokes SO WELL. i have to. nobody else will!

    okay, party at my place. you bring the food. i mean chocolate. chocolate covered food will be fine. as long as it is chocolate food covered by more chocolate.

  6. Anonymous permalink
    September 3, 2010 8:18 pm

    Love this – lots to think about, thanks

  7. September 5, 2010 5:36 am

    This is very nice! I love how you use ouran high. Thanks for sharing!!

  8. Mahfooz permalink
    September 6, 2010 4:22 pm

    Love this, hopefully try and implement the ones that I aren’t already a part of me. You really should think of becoming a professional writer if you are not one yet.

    With regards to Bengalis and fish, it’s true we really do LOVE them (more than anything else) but I’ve never had people bringing fish to our house or vice versa, but mangoes (I agree) are a BIG hit and other fruits like grapes etc. When I’m going over to my friends’ house, my mum would pester me to take an “amor box” (box of mango) while I insist that it’s not a common thing around here and would rather take a box of chocolate or something.

  9. September 6, 2010 5:55 pm

    hahaha. I enjoyed reading and pictures of anime make it more interesting 🙂

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