SWB on Altruism

So, it’s January, as you may have noticed. I’m frozen, tired and not even feeling smug and virtuous because I’ve neither given up  wine nor embraced a meat-free lifestyle. Last night a friend put a picture of her steak dinner in a local bistro up on Instagram, which prompted me to think: ‘Take that down before you’re lynched!’ I am just properly NOT in the form for any class of self-denial. I am working full-time. I have two small, demanding children. I am trying not to think about the pending apocalypse. Boris Johnson is still PM. Trump is still President. How are earth are people managing NOT to drink? If you’re doing Dry January and still managing to stay remotely positive then I applaud you.

Equally, I extend my admiration for my friends, who in growing numbers have embraced ‘Veganuary.‘ Sometimes, (and I know this makes me a bad person) but I wish my friends could be a bit more rubbish, just to make me a bit better about myself, and my limitations. Maybe I could live without drink, or TRY to be a vegan, but definitely not as a double whammy. And not in January. I can’t even manage to SAY ‘Veganuary’ without it sounding like some sort of invasive gynae procedure. I think the NHS may have missed a trick in not coming up with ‘Vaginuary’, to encourage more women to get their cervical smear test over early the year and look forward to brighter things ahead. While on the topic of lady bits, check out the new candle range from Gwyneth. Dear God. Whatever next?

However, as a nod to a healthier attitude towards my innards and climate change, I have been experimenting in the kitchen with hearty soups and dhals. My red lentil dhal, in particular, was a thing of great beauty. But having given it a great deal of thought, the idea of never eating a soft boiled egg or a bagel slathered in cream cheese would make me very sad indeed.

But instead of feeling shite about what I’ve NOT managed to do, I’ve been thinking back to something I did last year which brought me much happiness.  At the risk of being perceived as a sanctimonious do-gooder and all round pain-in-the-hole, I shall elaborate. Lately I’ve been noticing features on Radio 4 and shared articles on social media on the benefits of doing good and I’m thinking, feck, these guys might just be ON TO SOMETHING.

At the school where I’m currently teaching we got word of a BBC initiative  to encourage children and the elderly to read poetry and then bring them together. It was thus named, imaginatively, ‘Poetry Together’. ‘How fabulous,’ I thought to myself.  As a preliminary exercise I went along to a local residential home with my  offspring and read some poems: Pam Ayres, Wordsworth, Marriott Edgar, (quite the eclectic mix.)  Initially my children looked a bit sullen but I made them go round with a bowl each of Murray Mints and Butter Balls, which perked them up a bit. The next week the Small Child even managed a tiny smile and by the time our third visit rolled around they were actually saying ‘Is it time to go yet?’ The residents were brilliant, some of them sparky and acerbic, which I enjoyed very much. I was giving off about how dreadful my children were one evening when one grey haired lady chirped up: ‘What did you bother having them for if they’re so awful?’

I thought this was marvellous. ‘Sometimes they’re alright,’ I conceded. ‘I did take you for ice-cream after school, didn’t I?’ I said, nudging the Older One.

‘She did actually’, she confirmed.

Nice to know they have my back.

So when it came to taking the pupils from school down for the ‘official reading’ it was all a lot easier. It helped that I was familiar with the place, because when organising any trips these days it can be a stressful affair, with about a million risk assessment forms and God knows what else to consider. Given my past experiences, that’s probably just as well.

But, to my utmost delight, it all went swimmingly, better even than expected. (That’s the joy of being a pessimist, any positive outcome is always a tremendous boon).

I had prepped the kids with some questions to ask, and one wee fellow went straight up to a lady and said ‘Hello! What pets did you have when you were young?’ She was all pleased, and told him about her lurcher, who according to her father, was even better than the border collie for rounding sheep. All the kids circulated, chatted away unselfconsciously without any awkwardness, before performing their poem. A few even volunteered to read out their own limericks. I was almost in tears with the loveliness of it all.

I’ve decided to continue to call in when I can. One afternoon we borrowed Fred, our friend’s springer spaniel and he went down an absolute storm. He’s nine now and a sedate sort of a fellow, thus a perfect fit for a care home. We did, however make the mistake of going at lunch time and he would have had an elderly gent’s beef and cabbage swiped off his plate had I had not a mighty grip of his lead.

That same day we got chatting to a lady who had been an evacuee during the war and had been sent to live on a farm in Tyrone. She said she missed it dreadfully when she got back to Belfast and had loved animals ever since.  I’m thinking of getting on the line to Streamvale Open Farm and seeing if I could get the lend of a few chicks, or maybe a rabbit. That would make for a fun visit.

In contrast to all these good vibes, a couple of times over the holidays I found myself in the city centre. It was a frightful experience altogether: most people had the faces gurned off them, and I overheard a few irate gentlemen opine that ‘it was all fucking shite, so it was.’ I agreed with them entirely.  All the horrible mindless consumerism doesn’t appear to be making us any happier. Maybe volunteering would be a better way to spend an afternoon, (or part thereof.)

It’s true, as Phoebe from Friends once said, that there’s no such thing as a selfless good deed. Anytime I take a trip to the home I leave feeling a bit more contented with my lot.

So you heard it here first: altruism is the new drug of the twenty-twenties. In the midst of all this horror-show it’s lovely, actually, to take some time with a few nonagenarians and take a few deep breaths. It’s soothing for a troubled soul, and makes me feel less bad about the glass of Primotivo of an evening. I guess if we do what we can, in whatever way works best for us, we can ignite a few sparks as we wait for the spring to arrive.






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