My Jeans Don’t Fit Anymore

Today, as I packed my bag for a weekend break, I noticed that I’ve been wearing the same two pairs of jeans for quite a while. Wear a pair and wash the other. Switch over. Repeat. I had told myself it was because they were the comfiest jeans, the nicest fit, the easiest worn, but today I knew I had to face up to the reality: they were the only two pairs that still fit.

Since I’ve started studying full-time, the amount of exercise I’ve been doing has plummeted drastically. Add to that the temptation to snack whilst ploughing through Law books, and the result is obvious. I’ve put on more than a few pounds. I knew it already and I’ve made something of an effort, on-and-off, to do something about it. I’m by no means overweight, but I’m certainly not as fit or as healthy as I once was.

I took my other pairs of long-unworn jeans from my wardrobe and started trying them on. “If I just hold my breath…” I said as I wriggled around, trying to fasten the top button and failing miserably. At this point, my usual reaction would be to get disappointed and angry at myself for letting things get this way. I would put myself down. Then I would resolve to get really fit and stop eating junk food, and I’d rebuke myself if I dared even look at a packet of crisps. But this harsh approach didn’t work. Within a week or two I had fallen by the wayside and was back salivating at the sight of the McDonald’s Drive-Thru menu.

I took a different approach today. I didn’t get angry at myself. I knew it wasn’t how I wanted to be, but I also knew that it was the reality. I said to myself, “This is how things are. But it isn’t how things have to be.” I was gentle on myself, whilst not shying away from the fact that I do have to make changes.

I’ve found myself thinking about how my weight gain sort of crept up on me. But it didn’t really. I kept turning a blind-eye to it. “Sure, it’s not that bad. I’ll just eat better tomorrow,” I said, munching my way through a box of Pringles and eyeing up the Crunchie bar next to me. Then I would go through the cycle of anger, resolve and failure again.

One of the most famous weight-loss programmes has coined the term ‘syns’ for high-calorie, less filling food, the sort which made up a large part of my own diet for the past few months. I thought about the play on the word ‘sin’. And I realised how similar the way we treat our bodies and our souls can be. How many times do we let sin creep up on us because we turn a blind-eye or make excuses for our behaviour? How many times do we say, “Just this once,” or “It’s not that bad. At least I’m not as bad as so-and-so”?

Like our body, the wellbeing of our soul depends on what we let enter it. If a diet of fatty, nutrient-deficient food leads to an unhealthy body, what does the equivalent do to our souls? The more we neglect what is good for our soul, and the nutrients our soul needs, the easier it is for sin to take a hold. The less time we spend in prayer, reading Scriptures, partaking of the Sacraments, carrying out good works (exercise for the soul!), the more time there is for unhealthy things like gossip or scandal. Each time something like this enters us, it may seem small, insignificant. But one day, the damage it has done will become apparent.

And that’s where Confession comes in. God invites us to Confession by saying to us, “This is how things are. But it isn’t how things have to be.” God loves me as I am, no matter what. Whether I weight 120lbs or 300lbs. Whether I am in a state of grace or steeped in sin. As St Paul so powerfully wrote: “For I am sure that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor powers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor might, nor height, nor depth, nor any other creature, shall be able to separate us from the love of God, which is in Christ Jesus our Lord.” (Rom 8:38-39). Yes, God loves me as I am and nothing can take that from me. But just as I love my body too much to leave it as it is (in its current, unhealthy state), God loves me too much to leave me as I am when I let sin take root. God is waiting for each of us, urging us to repent, to turn away from the harm we have caused ourselves and others. He waits, not to scold us or put us down, but to lift us up. To help us repel what damages our soul and rejoice in what does it good.

St Teresa of Avila once wrote, “Christ has no body now on earth but yours, no hands but yours, no feet but yours. Yours are the eyes through which Christ’s compassion is to look out to the earth, yours are the feet by which He is to go about doing good and yours are the hands by which He is to bless us now.” Love your body and your soul, for they are the gifts God has given you. May your soul be filled with compassion for yourself and for others, and through the nourishment of of your soul, may your body be given to God for the purpose of carrying out His will on earth.

Why Do I Need To know That?

The internet is a strange place. It’s a place with no end. For every piece of information that is consumed, there are many more being created. Some of it is great: I’m currently studying a Law degree, and a lot of the course resources are online. There is a wealth of knowledge out there and some people are using their talents well. But how do we distinguish between what is  good content and what is not? Usually, the line is quite obvious, but a lot of time time we have no way of telling whether someone’s story is true or not. Of course, we could take the time to do our own research, but with so many other pieces of information being thrown in front of our eyes every second, who has the time for research?!

There is a real issue regarding what people think is appropriate to share with others. Often, they cannot differentiate between something worthwhile sharing, and information that is of little value to the rest of us, or even still that is distasteful and harmful. On Tuesday they may share something insightful about the refugee crisis, and on Wednesday they’ll post 26 photographs of their breakfast. Readers are constantly having to filter the information we retain.

The problem has spilled over to more traditional forms of information sharing. For example, I have an acquaintance (who, for their own sake shall remain anonymous) who often buys The Daily Mail. A day or two ago, I noticed the second story on the front page was about a GP who was taken to court for spanking her ‘lover’. Here’s a link to the online version: 50 Shades of Grey and a spanking that left tycoon dialling 999 and his GP lover in court after she left him covered in dozens of bleeding welts Read past the headline and you will note that the lady in question is no longer a GP (mentioning that fact in the headline would have reduced the scandal level, so we’ll not mention it until later), and she was acquitted of any wrongdoing. So what have I learned? That a man and woman I had never heard of, and am likely never to hear of again, enjoyed what some would call an adventurous sex life. At the time of writing, the online article has been shared 669 times, and 127 comments have been left. Include those who haven’t shared or commented, and the readership of the Daily Mail in hardcopy form, and you have thousands of people walking around the UK in the knowledge that these two people shared a sexual fetish.

The same day, I had a catch-up with another friend whom I hadn’t seen in a few months. There was a lot that had happened in our lives during that time that the other wasn’t aware of. And all I could think about was the fact that I had such intimate knowledge of two absolute strangers, but no clue what my friend had been up to for the past 9 weeks. It made me realise that I need to become a better curator of information. The media world and the internet world will always provide us with more information than we can handle. It’s up to us to choose how much of it we let in. More effort should be spent with our flesh and blood friends. Okay, it does actually require the effort any active engagement should, rather than being a passive receiver of the constant stream of information on a screen. But would I rather know how my friend is or how some millionaire’s sex life has panned out? The internet has made the world a smaller place. We can learn so much about other cultures and about other individuals. We can meet our future husband or wife online. But unless we become effective curators, it can make our own lives very small. We end up knowing too much about people we have never met, and not enough about those closest to us.

“Take what works and leave the rest,” is a phrase I hear quite a bit these days. And maybe that’s how we should treat the internet. A lot of it works well: online shopping is great for people like me who live in a rural location. Social media is good for keeping in contact with loved ones who are geographically distant. We can learn a great many things through the internet. Make use of it. But leave the rest. Leave what is toxic, leave what is unnecessary. And at times, just leave it altogether. Get up, go outside and meet a friend. Laugh with someone instead of laughing in your own head at a screen. When we are old and grey, we won’t marvel at all the great times we spent in our rooms scrolling through pages on the internet, but rather the real-life occasions we shared with good friends. And on that note….it’s a beautiful day today, I’m going out now to enjoy it.

A Lesson In Patience

Sundays are a day of ritual. For my brother and me, Sundays will always include brunch at a local cafe. We have our favourite table, our orders tweaked slightly from the official menu, and the staff know us well. This Sunday past however, our routine was slightly off and we ended up going about 45 minutes later than usual. That 45 minutes made a huge difference. There were no seats and it would be at least another 15 minutes until we would get one. I decided I couldn’t wait. As we walked outside I could feel the muscles in my shoulders and neck tighten, and expressions of anger began to flow from my lips – “We should be able to reserve a seat. Who are those other people? Do they go there every week? How dare they!” I was visibly angry and tense, much to my brother’s amusement.

Why? Why couldn’t I wait? Why did I get so annoyed? I can’t help but wonder if it’s because I’ve become so used to instant gratification. If I want something I can’t buy locally, I can go on Amazon and have it delivered to my door the next day. If I want to find out the population of China, I’ll have the information on my phone and in my hands 10 seconds later. It seems like everything can be bought, everything can be personalised to suit my needs, everything can be obtained in an instant. The more we get, the more we want, and the more dissatisfied we become with what we have. Albert Camus portrayed powerfully this phenomenon in the character of the emperor Caligula, who becomes such a malcontent despite all that he has, that he goes out and tries to capture the moon: “The world as it is is unbearable. That’s why I need the moon, or happiness, or immortality, or something…”

These unrealistic desires that are caused by having too much all at once, can lead us to put unrealistic expectations on other people. I expected the owners of the cafe to keep ‘my’ table on Sunday, and for all the other customers to be aware that I would require a seat at an unspecified time. We lose patience with strangers and friends alike because they do not live up to our high expectations of reality. In preparation for this blog post, I did a few searches on what annoys people most, and I noticed that many of the annoyances were due to impatience. For example, The Independent’s “These Are The 50 Most Annoying Things About Modern Life,” had amongst the top-ranked irritations the following: computers freezing, slow WiFi, getting stuck in traffic, public transport delays, and waiting on the phone for doctors.  Half of the top 10 were issues of impatience.

There is something to be said for rituals of the religious type. Attending church, praying and meditating are all excellent means of setting aside feelings of impatience. They slow us down and create a separation between our true selves and our  unfulfilling and unhelpful desires for more. They, in theory, should help us practise patience. When, for example, St. Josemaria Escriva received a complaint that Mass was too long, he replied: “You say the Mass is too long, I say your love is too short.”

There is, therefore, one antidote to impatience – Love. The next time the you feel the person in front of you at the check-out is taking too long to pack their bags, don’t tweet about it. Don’t get angry because you get home 1 minute later than you would have liked. That minute is only wasted if you choose not to love. It is only wasted if you choose to hold onto your negative feelings. Give the person a smile instead. Maybe they’ve had a rough day. Or offer to help them. Don’t ruin that extra minute, and beyond, by holding onto a trivial annoyance. Practise patience with others, and with yourself. If you have to wait 15 minutes for a seat, wait. Or, hold onto the annoyance, and go home hungry and angry as I did.

(Anti)social Media?

We’ve all been there: standing in a queue, waiting for a friend outside a restaurant, sitting on the train; for many of us these occasions leave us feeling a little awkward. So out comes the phone in an attempt to pass the time whilst looking busy and engaged. It’s as though we think if we’re looking at a screen, no one else is looking at us; we’re not just randomly standing on a street corner, feeling unnecessarily conspicuous . We are busy people. We have friends. You, the stranger passing us by on the street, are of no interest to us and we are of no interest to you. Let’s all just get along in our own little bubbles.

Engaged. That’s how we like to feel. But to what extent? I have a friend who often says that by telling everyone something on social media, we’re really telling no one. As I walked to work today, I thought about the usual type of post-weekend conversations we have with our colleagues. Mostly they begin with, “Well, what did you get up to this weekend?” And I imagined two possible responses:

Firstly, they could say, “I went onto Facebook, looked through my newsfeed, liked 7 statuses and 3 photos, and made 1 comment. Then I scrolled through Twitter, wrote 2 tweets and re-tweeted a status from a minor celebrity.” The second response I imagined was, “I started reading a new book. Then I watched a film on Netflix.”

Now, whilst the first person did actually ‘engage’ on social media, it is unlikely that a conversation will flow from that with your real-life, flesh and blood colleague. They’re unlikely to be interested in the fact that someone you were friendly with at school 10 years ago went to a football match and had a really nice pork pie. The second person didn’t engage with anyone – they read a book and watched a film BUT there is an opportunity for further interest from their colleague: (“What’s your book called? I’ve been meaning to watch that film; do you think it’s worthwhile?). The conversation can continue. And it is through these types of conversation that we truly engage with people – yes, on a somewhat shallow level. But that’s how real friends are made. I’ve had people add me on Facebook that I haven’t seen in 15 years and who, if I walked past them on the street, would probably not even say hello. Having them scroll through my status updates and photos is not going to make us any closer.

I’ve often chuckled to myself when I’ve seen older people sign up to Facebook. I’ve rolled my eyes when I’ve seen them write a long ‘thank-you’ message to someone who simply liked a photograph of their grandchild. I’ve felt a little sad when they’ve tried to converse with their sons or daughters and get nothing back in response. But really, they’re probably using social media better than we are. They’re using it as a platform to keep in touch with those who are physically distant. Would they dream of writing a message to their friend who lives 2 doors down, when they could be with them, sharing a story over a cup of tea?

We no longer send birthday cards to our friends; Facebook will remind us of their upcoming birthday, and a quick “Happy birthday! x” will do. We expect nothing in reply. If our friend likes it, or goes as far to say ‘thanks,’ that is as far as our interaction will go. Twitter lets us think we’re having conversations, but really, who actually has a conversation in which each input is 140 characters or less?

We are drifting apart, whether we believe it or not. We place our curated lives on screen for relative strangers (or in some cases, total strangers, just like the ones we ignore on the street) to decide whether they like it enough to click their mouse, or whether they care enough to make a comment to which there may never be a response. Social media has its uses, of course, but as time goes by, I can’t help but feel like it is using us.

Choose Happiness?

“Happiness cannot be pursued, it must ensue, and it only does so as the unintended side effect of one’s personal dedication to a cause greater than oneself or as the by-product of one’s surrender to a person other than oneself.”

~ Victor Frankl, Man’s Search for Meaning

It is difficult to miss Coca-Cola’s new advertising campaign, encouraging us all to ‘Choose Happiness’. The company invites us to take photos of us doing things that make us happy and upload them with the hashtag #choosehappiness. They’ve set up 300 ‘happiness meters’ across London in an aim to somehow make people in London happier (public transport that actually works would probably be more effective in turning London’s frowns upside down). It seems as though every other advert on my television invites me to ‘choose happiness’ as I watch dozens of beautiful young things with perfect teeth holding bottles of Coke to remind me just how happy I could be if I bought a bottle myself.

They’ve even done a Happiness Research Study (ensuring to note at the very beginning that they cannot guarantee “that the information in the report is correct, accurate, complete or non-misleading…”). Parts of the study are admirable. Young people, for example, are apparently less interested in seeking happiness through material goods than previous generations. They are more interested in going out and experiencing life. Instant thumbs up from me. The report encourages us not to make our happiness dependent on those outside of ourself because if we do, we’ll spend our life constantly chasing it, never actually obtaining it.

So what’s my issue with the campaign? Firstly, it is that happiness is still being treated as an end-product, something we should have, something we can choose to have. The survey claims that 96% of teens have tried doing things in the past year just to feel happy. And it seems like Coca-Cola want this figure to be 100%. But if we look at this figure and put it alongside figures of teenage depression rates, teenage alcohol and drug consumption, what are we telling ourselves? Only that we have a nation of unhappy teenagers who are desperately seeking happiness by any means. That, surely, is a recipe for disaster.

My second issue is that it perpetuates the notion that MY happiness is the most important thing in life. The parents of previous generations wanted their children to contribute to society, to do good. Now all we hear is, “As long as you’re happy. Do more things that make you happy”. Nothing is mentioned of the consequences of that. The questions ‘how will my happiness affect others? Is my desire for happiness a selfish one? Will it hurt others in the process? Will I let my friend down because lying in bed, eating pizza will make me happier than helping them wash his car, even though I promised I would help?’ are seldom asked.

The campaign uses buzzwords like ‘instant fun’ and ‘living in the moment,’ and when the idea of goodness does get a mention, it is only to tell us that ‘doing good feels good’. Don’t do good things because they are good. Don’t do good things if they cause you any difficulties. Do good when it makes you feel good. Give to charity and revel in how good it makes you feel. Volunteer in an animal shelter and then take to social media to tell everyone how great it feels. Take a photo of you helping your elderly neighbour cross the road (don’t forget to include your bottle of Coke in the picture!), upload it to Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Tumblr and wait for the notifications to roll in, telling you what a good person you are.

I would urge you then, not to choose happiness, but to choose goodness for the sake of goodness. Choose wisely. Choose things that are worthwhile. Choose a positive outlook on life, because that is what will make the real difference. I will leave you with a beautiful little animation which to me illustrates the perils of trying to ‘choose happiness,’ and shows that by doing something worthwhile for others a little bit of happiness will often come your way as an unintended side effect.

Do more

Diary

I’ve always liked having nice things. If I saw something functional and/or beautiful, I would buy it. One day I realised I had all this lovely stuff but I wasn’t doing anything with it. I had invested thousands of pounds in camera equipment that would go unused from one month to the next, a TV I never watched, books I’ve never read, a bicycle I rode twice. The list goes on. The first feeling that hit me was one of guilt. So many people would love to have just one of these things and here I am, letting them gather dust. Instead of being beautiful, useful objects, they were now clutter. What good is there in owning wonderful objects if they’ll never be used?

So I started to de-clutter. Bags upon bags of clothes and trinkets were sent to the charity shop. Anything that hadn’t been used and was not going to be used I began to give away. And it was liberating. I felt less restricted by the things I had once desired so much. But what now? It wasn’t enough to just throw out things. What was I going to do? It wouldn’t make much difference sitting in an empty room rather than a cluttered one. So I made a promise to myself. This would be the year I would begin to DO more. My money would be spent on experiences rather than objects. I wanted to make lasting memories and try new things. And now I want to make a record of those things.

What made it more difficult for me is that I’m pretty much scared of everything. Heights, spiders, sheep, cows, open staircases, birds pooing on my head, electricity, fire…Everything. I’m not sure I’ll get over some of my fears, but by doing more new things I feel like I am triumphing, little by little. I don’t deliberately set out to conquer my fears, but if a challenge arises, I’ll try to face it head-on.

The DOing (as I like to call it) doesn’t always have to be big. It doesn’t have to be facing a fear. It can be something small like reading the book you bought a year ago and never read. It can be going for a walk in the rain when you don’t really feel like it or learning how to sew. It can be saying yes to something when you want to say no. The world will surprise you with wonderful things if you just say Yes. Time is precious and I don’t want to waste a moment of it.