a resolve for the new year

The arrival of a new year is something very special, yet its importance is often overlooked due to its unfortunate proximity to Christmas. This is a shame, as celebrating the possibility of clean slates and second chances seems so much more deserving than the recognition awarded to the 25th of December. After all, what is Christmas but a pagan ceremony pilfered by the Christians and grafted ever so slightly to suit their dogma?*  And what has it become but the biggest marketing success story of all time; an event whose primary purpose is to encourage excess and indulgence, promoted for the support it provides the economy and which has survived due to its being successfully marketed as a day of generosity and giving?

This New Year is particularly important to me, as 2012 is the year I quit my life and commence the biggest adventure of my otherwise risk free existence. In just days I will venture to Melbourne in an effort to find a place to call home; somewhere I can allow myself the time to access my creative side and offer direction to my raging verve.

My resolve for a fresh start has come about in response to feelings of frustration regarding the life into which, in many ways, I feel I’ve been forced. Like many, I feel somewhat betrayed by a society that grooms us from childhood for a life of monotony and conformity, rather than fostering within us a thirst and appreciation for individuality and ingenuity. Like a child who has just discovered Santa Clause is fiction, this is a truth that’s been hard to reconcile.

As lovely as it can be, Christmas is just further evidence of the way in which our consumer driven culture prevents us from taking possession of our own lives. Playing on our innate goodness and generosity towards the ones we love, the Season of Giving encourages us to spend big and charge it to our long suffering credit cards. We take snaps of our Christmas trees, dwarfed by the gifts we’ve placed beneath them and proudly post them to social networking sites. Somehow we have been successfully convinced that the number of gifts we purchase or the amount we spend can be taken as an indicator of how much we love our families and friends, or how much fun we’re going to have on the big day. As a result of our kindness, shops become richer and many of us become increasingly enslaved to rebuilding our savings.

But of the gifts we bought and received over the Christmas period, how many did we need or even want? How many survived garbage night? What number did we purchase out of a secret sense of obligation, rather than with the needs or interests of the recipient in mind? Unfortunately, while the junk we’ve accumulated inevitably gets stored or abandoned after the conclusion of the festive season, our credit balance doesn’t disappear, and we return to work newly incarcerated by the prospect of paying next month’s credit card bill. In our minds we feel somewhat silly, but at least we had a happy Christmas.

It’s only recently that I’ve come to realise that this unfortunate process is unnecessary. After all, the moments we remember long after the wrapping paper has been recycled and the tree has been disassembled are the times we spent laughing with our loved ones, rather than pouring over our newly obtained things. Perhaps we should abandon the concept of gift giving, or at least tone it down a few notches. If we were to do this, the importance of the season wouldn’t change, be we could rest easy in the knowledge that we weren’t being brainwashed by a very busy and very clever commercial sector.

I suppose the New Year really comes at the perfect time, as it heralds The Resolution, a notion adopted for its ability to console, making the Christmas come down easier to bear. Soon after Boxing Day the reality hits that the holiday will soon be over; for a great many of us this means returning to jobs we resent or at best tolerate. The resolves of the New Year make this fact easier to accept and we reassure ourselves that this time will be different; we’ll get a new job, pay off our credit card, lose the extra weight, landscape the back yard, wean ourselves off microwave dinners, spend more time with our families. And we believe in our resolves just long enough to survive January, the most depressing month; the new cycle has just commenced and the Christmas holidays have never been further away. It’s a frightening truth; so many of us endure the bulk of our lives for those two weeks of carelessness a year.

The thought process which has resulted in me throwing in my unstimulating job and generic lifestyle has led me to ponder a fundamental question: if our lives were more intrinsically satisfying, could the problems we unsuccessfully resolve to mend each year be prevented? Could it be that a sense of discontentment is what leads us to generate short term fixes, such as eating too much take away or buying too many DVDs, creating longer term problems in lives with which we aren’t entirely happy?

 

This year I propose we all resolve to begin the process of setting ourselves free. Many of us have at least elements of our lives we would like to quit, and why shouldn’t we? Instead of being beholden to the conditioning that’s weighed us down since we were old enough to believe we were making our own decisions, let’s begin to actively and consciously make the choices that shape our individual stories.

This year, my aspiration is to live in a way that will make me happier. How about making 2012 your year, too? After all, we only live once. No ambition we might have is beyond our capabilities; at the worst we’ll discover some particular thing isn’t for us. At which point, we try something else. For this year, let’s aim for the life most worth living.

What aspect of your life would you like to quit? And what is it that’s holding you back?

*Celebration of the pagan ceremony for the winter solstice, now recognised as Christmas, was initially forbidden by the early church. However, when they realised how deeply ingrained was the custom in the hearts and minds of the people, it was decided that they would keep the ceremony but slowly change its meaning. This proved successful over time because nothing from the original tradition was changed; the red and green colours of the Yule time (meaning ‘young’) remained, the festooned tree, which represented the pagan goddess was unaltered and the mistletoe and holly, symbols of fertility, also lingered. The Christians simply enforced a name change for the ceremony, calling it Christ and insisting it would from then on be considered a celebration of his birth, rather than commemorating the renewal of the sun’s solar course. Interesting, Easter is also a virtually unaltered Pagan celebration.

 

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the selfish nature of giving

 

In the season of indulgence and excess, people find themselves thinking of Africa. Whether briefly or otherwise, we allow our thoughts to wander to the various third world poster nations and we proffer throw away statements to families who doze with bursting bellies; if only there was a way to share our leftovers with the needy. After having this thought and recognising the impractical nature of such a venture, for the most part we feel better, though for those of us who have a guilt that’s slightly harder to abate, we can call the number on the screen and commit to a dollar a day before breathing a sigh of relief that we’ve done our bit for another year.

This time three years ago I was commencing my first trip into the big world on my own. I flew to Africa and spent six weeks on a volunteer project in Swaziland, assisting in a day centre for orphans and building mud brick houses for disadvantaged families. This programme was coordinated by a not for profit organisation who offered various packages to people wishing to see the world while ‘making a difference’. As I boarded the plane that day in early January, a warm glow surrounded me; I was doing something noble and good. I had been blessed with a life of opportunity and privilege, and now I had a chance to give back by voyaging into the third world with the vague intention of ‘helping’ in an effort to prove that I was open minded and generous. After all, I was under no disillusion; I was one of the lucky ones.

Being born beneath the star of cynicism, while others blindly embraced the tour, as the weeks unfolded I became increasingly aware that the ‘aid project’ with which I was involved was in fact just another tool of the western world. Rather than existing to bring about a shift in the social taboos of the SiSwati people and instead of possessing the intention of building infrastructures and providing educational opportunities to close the gap for the African nation, the programme was little more than a commercial venture fuelled by the discontentment, guilt and arrogance of the first world; people like me, who had tricked ourselves into thinking we were there for others. Actually, we had come purely for selfish gain, hoping to find ‘meaning’ in our lives, or else to offer some kind of something as a means of making ourselves feel better about the fact that we’re doing nothing significant to adjust the disparity between the first and third worlds. We ‘volunteers’ give a month of our time and believe that we’re square; we pay our tribute before returning to our modern conveniences without having to feel responsible. Of course, it didn’t work out that way and I came home feeling a fool for the ignorance that I had exhibited regarding the state of poverty stricken nations.

However, visiting Africa certainly taught me many things that I hadn’t expected to learn. For one thing, I was shocked when I was informed that in countries such as Swaziland, our ‘help’ is actually enabling a self destructive ethos for the local people. During my visit in their country, I spent a weekend with a man named Myxo who still lived the traditional lifestyle of the SiSwati people. He explained that by sending money or visiting his country we are being unwontedly selfish; that in a Kingdom where the soil is fertile and land is freely given by the King to any SiSwati man willing to reside and work it, his people are choosing to migrate to the townships frequented by white tourists in order to sit with destitute expressions and be given cash by ignorant but good intentioned westerners, rather than bothering to earn an honest living for themselves.

I also returned with the sobering realisation that no amount of ‘giving’ is going to abate those feelings of discontentment with which so many of us from the first world are plagued. After being back for a few weeks, while I remained abstractly aware of the blessed lifestyle I enjoy in Australia, I was no happier about my job or personal prospects. This desensitisation led me to wonder at whether, rather than being justifiable feelings, perhaps I was simply a victim of the western condition; that in the absence of genuine problems over which to fret, we invent our own sources of grief and suffering. Upon considering this theory, suddenly my various basis of angst seemed pathetic and invalid.

Without a doubt I consider it is good and healthy to open our minds to other places in the world, whether through travel or by other means of educating ourselves. In saying that, I am ashamed to admit that despite the sobering realisations I made regarding Africa and our bandaid treatment of the country, I have done nothing for these people since arriving back in the land of opportunity. I guess the size of it made me feel impotent, though I know that’s just an excuse to make me feel better.

Please be aware that I realise that I’m judging we westerners harshly here. I have a lot of faith in the human spirit and on a basic level it’s great that we consider others and recognise that we are lucky people. I also recognise that when we donate to one of many and numerous charities to ‘save the children’ we’re trying to help in the only way we know; by sending money, the single entity we value above all else, aside from our comfort and lifestyle. We are also targeting our efforts towards the only continent the majority of mainstream organisations encourage us to assist. When it comes to Africa, we’ve been alerted to a problem and we’re doing what we can to fix it. This can only be a good thing.

Certainly, it’s imperative that we recognise that it isn’t only in Africa that people are having a hard time. In fact, there are many places where communities are finding things much, much worse; at least the majority of African countries endure their poverty in relative peace (though of course there are exceptions to this; the Ivory Coast has been in a constant state of war for many decades). Unfortunately, many places sorely requiring foreign aid aren’t considered trendy to assist. Somebody’s agenda clearly dictates it either unfavourable or unbeneficial to acknowledge the humanitarian needs of political refugees in war torn countries, for example. It’s hard to accept that those who are most in need of our support are the very ones whom the government and popular media of our country have chosen to censor.

So this holiday period, why not dedicate some of your spare time to considering the places in the world which are currently most in need of our support. Africa will not be forgotten if you spend an hour reading about the current climate in Palestine, for instance. For an easy to follow explanation of the history of the conflict, here is a website you can visit: http://www.merip.org/palestine-israel_primer/intro-pal-isr-primer.html. Or to view current statistics regarding the war and learn more: http://www.ifamericansknew.org/.

If you learn something new, tell a friend about it. Because more than anything else, well intended Australians simply need more information regarding the political climate of what is rapidly becoming a global village. Let’s face it, being the barer of this information will feel much more rewarding than providing your bank details to an automated voice message recorded by an organisation preying on your guilt and already maxed out credit card.

Happy holidays, guys. x