Thursday, 28 October 2010

Somebody Else's Shoes

A Pair Of Shoes, 1886 Vincent Van Gogh

What would it be like to live in somebody else's shoes? I never tire of asking myself this and trying to look at a situation from another perspective. Isn't this what being human is all about? Each of us playing a character in the game of life. According to psychologists, our ability to understand another person's circumstances, point of view, thoughts and feelings is an automated response. We are programmed to reach out and extend empathy, as it is otherwise termed, to both human and non-human kind. Could this be so when some days it seems this very quality is lacking? Is empathy an illusion? All in the mind of our altruist egos...

I liken empathy to pick 'n' mix. Yes please to the fizzy cola bottles and white chocolate mice, but no thanks to the flying saucers. Similarly people pick and choose who or what is deserving of their empathy. Pictures of natural disasters force us to sit up and take notice of the plight of others from around the globe.“Those poor people” we say, whilst watching nightly broadcasts and flinging money and impractical aid at the problem, but is this true understanding? I remain unconvinced by this mass sentiment. Can we ever really walk in others' shoes?

To be empathetic surely implies that all beings have an equal right to be understood, regardless of their actions, or whether they're animal, vegetable or mineral. I jest, but if a person commits a wrong, judged by you or in the eyes of the law, they are still entitled to a fair hearing. Yes, actions do speak louder than words, but what was the motive? There are always two sides to the story as the saying goes, even if the circumstances or lifestyle portrayed is not to your own. Judgments are too often made in haste and based only on an initial impression or appearance, and what we think we would have done in the same scenario. The truth is you don't know. Nobody does. Until you're actually in a similar predicament it's all guesswork. Condemning the opinions and actions of others is undoubtedly easier than reflecting on your own. In doing so, are we weaving a tangled web of deception? Appearing to be empathetic, but continuing to place our self-interests ahead of others? Pampered by the state, are we now more concerned with taking rather than receiving?

In these modern times, it would be difficult not to agree with the latter. This is not true in every instance, but how many of us have walked past incidents where we could have offered a helping hand? Some unashamedly stop and stare, listen to an exchange in uncomfortable silence, or blindly ignore the obvious, even if it's a little old woman struggling to get a tin off a supermarket shelf. Getting involved means taking a risk and cuts into our previous time. Any act performed out of concern and kindness has become a risky and unrewarding move. 

How do we restore a greater empathy for others? By removing the indifference we feel towards those who look and think another way? Veggies and vegans are surely included in the category of “misunderstood”. Considered to be an excessively sensitive and sentimental bunch, research ironically suggests that we do indeed readily emphasize with others – both humans and animals. If empathy is to evolve with humankind, isn't this one more point in a vegetarian's favour? I like to think so. Vegetarianism and empathy go together like a new pair of shoes.

Thursday, 21 October 2010

In The Prime Of Life

Have you ever asked yourself if you are fitter than a pensioner? This is the question being posed by BBC3 to late teens and twenty-somethings, with astounding results. Young adults are clearly not fitter than those four or more times their age. Only in the Sunshine state you might say with their obsession for healthy living, but could the same be true in Britain too? The very same conclusion might be drawn if we allowed our seniors to play an active role in life. Upon reaching pensionable age however they're carted off into nursing homes and retirement villages. Unfit to be seen and heard. Cast aside so the more able can take their place. Is it right that we condemn them to obscurity, looking instead to younger models for substance?

Jostling for position is natural some would argue, and hardwired into our primitive brains, but those deemed the fittest in society are surely examples of how not to live your life. Excessive boozing and guzzling, explosive language, violence and promiscuity are pretty much the norm. A heady mix of youthfulness and rebellion. Am I exaggerating? Perhaps. Generations before us in their youth were probably not that different. Unlike Peter Pan, the boy who never wants to grow up, these boys and girls are squandering their youth on a diet of poor choice and excess, caring little about the consequences. Prolonged into adulthood, their biological age is ticking. Instead of ageing to perfection like a fine wine, they're fast-forwarding to an uncertain future or no future at all.

What's the remedy to this? Public health education obviously isn't having the desired effect, but as shown on BBC3 learning from others does. Lightweight in format, it nonetheless underlines the value of elders to the community. New dogs are taught old tricks and the old benefit from learning the new. Isn't this the attitude that should be reinforced, and not one in which we treat people like fashion, definable by age?

A burden on society is how the elderly are usually described, with nursing homes the dumping ground for those, it's assumed, have nothing left to give. Entering those doors deepens the state of decline. As the solution to a flourishing problem – what to do with our ageing population?, can we honestly say care homes have the best interests of the residents at heart? Evidence appears to suggest otherwise – residential homes do harm by doing far too much. Is this how we'd like to live out our golden years? To have our independence and freedom to think for ourselves curtailed? We only need look to the recent BBC1 series “The Young Ones”, where six celebs were taken back in time, for our answers. Giving residents autonomy in care homes has produced similar results. We need to build on this, as like rainforests cut down in their prime; without elders the human race is a dying one.

Thursday, 14 October 2010

What The Bleep?!

How often do you think the average person swears? I wouldn't like to hazard a guess. Using and hearing expletives has become an everyday occurrence, like having tea and toast for breakfast. Not a day passes by when you don't hear a swear word or two used in general conversation, hollered in the street, or on the telly. Why so many feel the need to use expletives, dropping them nonchalantly in every other sentence I cannot fathom. What do these expressions add to a conversation? The answer is absolutely nothing! They do exactly as described – pad out a sentence without contributing any further meaning, much the same as flavour enhancers do in processed foods. Both unnecessary additions, but yet considered standard practice.

The use of foul language and crude behaviour has in my view escalated since I was a child, but then my exposure was limited. My parents refrained from swearing around me and commandeered the TV remote. Any violence, bad language, or funny business and the channels were quickly changed. With the old push-buttons this was often not fast enough! The legacy of this protective parenting however remains today. Expletives make me feel uncomfortable and seem superfluous to any plot or discussion. Is swearing the only way for us to convey our sentiments? I think not, but it's being absorbed and practiced by people of all ages like blotting paper. Kids swear like banshees in the playgrounds and the adults aren't much better. Our overuse of the F-word apparently going unnoticed.

Who's to blame for this lax attitude? Parents? Schools? Government? Media? Gordon Ramsey? Do we reply too heavily on the watershed to police our eyes and ears? The watershed stands for little when most kids have TVs in their rooms and stay up well beyond 9pm. What about programme makers too? A minute after 9 and all hell breaks loose in the name of drama. Whatever they can get away with to shock or titillate the audience they will. What impact or cost is this having on society? The results are discernible, but what about generations to come? Is stricter protocol the answer? In a nutshell no. Looking to the state to govern our code of conduct is dodging the problem, which some would say we do quite enough of already.

Gordon Ramsey I'm not, but I'm no angel either. True, I refuse to litter my conversations with foul language, but the odd word is occasionally muttered under my breath. Voiced out loud, they sound sinful – insulting to the ear and to whoever is passing by. Such profanities as these do not easily roll off my tongue as they seemingly appear to do for others. Are these words more acceptable in print where they can at least be read in silence? Their crudeness offends me here more than it does on hearing them. My question is simple: why? Is our command of English so poor that we cannot find more intelligent words to express how we feel? That may not be too far off the mark. Grammar, pronunciation, and spelling have fallen by the wayside, and ghetto speak has become the fashion. You can barely comprehend a word that's said! Parents or not, as adults we set the tone and vocalise to youngsters what is and isn't appropriate. Like Morse Code, swearing is best disguised in bleeps.

Thursday, 7 October 2010

Celebrity Veg

Idolising people and reading about their lives is a mug's game isn't it? Maybe so, but we all do it. Who's wearing what? Who's dating who? Who's having a melt down? We wait with bated breath for any triviality to be reported, regardless of their A or C list status. Why? Some readers use it to connect with their idols, others to feel smug. An escape from the monotony of life - the modern equivalent to keeping up with the Joneses. I liken it to being addicted to junk food. You know it's bad for you, but the temptation to indulge is always present. Personally I try to avoid getting caught up in all the latest celeb tittle-tattle. I don't buy the gossip rags or care about who's doing what. Snippets are inevitable though. They leak into every facet of life – TV, Internet, Radio, the local shopping centre etc. It beggars belief that celeb goings-ons are worthy front page news. Is this what we want the kids or adults of today to aspire to?

Fame nowadays is a “Cinderella” story. A media-made conveyor belt of wannabe stars. Each of them hand-plucked from obscurity and thrust into the dazzling array of lights, camera, action. Five minutes of fame is all it takes to grab the headlines and apparently the love or hate of the nation. Who do we blame for this phenomenon? Reality TV? Social Networking? Media? Ourselves? Why are we so interested in the lives of others? Hearsay only fuels us to be overly judgmental. The interactive Channel 4 reality show “Seven Days” demonstrates this point perfectly. Seemingly normal adults have consented to being filmed and allowing others to comment on how they present themselves and choose to live their lives. The negative comments have been flowing, while the positive ones have been few and far between. Many of us would retort that this is the price you pay for fame, but should this be the case? Yes, criticism can be constructive, but personal insults are vindictive. Nobody benefits from this feedback or humiliation. Isn't this leaving the door open for all of us at some point to be on the receiving end of such candid behaviour? What gives us the right to be judge and jury?

You could argue that reality show participants have invited intrusion into their lives, but what about bona fide VIPs? Is this intrusion justified? Should careful conduct be necessary both in public and private? As public figures, I agree they have responsibilities to uphold, but they're also human and liable to make mistakes. Flawed just like the rest of us. Why can't the press accentuate the positive – their achievements and contributions to charities, and focus less on their appearance and latest relationship break up? What message are we sending the youth of today? That idle celebrity gossip and subsequent fallout is more important than global wars, famine, and the good deeds of others?

This led me to think about veggie VIPs. Who in the world of vegetarianism do you look up to? According to various websites, there's quite a list, but how do we know these are the real deal? Often those identified as such turn out to be pesky pescetarians! Others who proclaim themselves as veggie are unable to sustain this once the spotlight's faded. This media-governed world is a fickle one. Perhaps this is a lesson to us - we should leave celebrity out of it, be guided by our own principles, and let veg be the star of the show.