The Most Important Things in Life Aren’t Things
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.**
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 😄 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 😄
Title credit: Sabrina’s mother-in-law via Slice of Lemon. Images: Fruits Basket and Ouran High School Host Club