“Did I flinch? Oh, tell me I didn’t flinch!” On idolising stoicism
The line in the title comes from Lark Rise To Candleford, one of my favourite books and a very rare insight into the collective psyche of the British nation at the time of Queen Victoria. Strength, endurance, stamina and stoicism were so prized that girls delivering their first baby would beg the midwife to reassure them that they had not flinched, that they had endured their pain and suffering in appropriately stoic fashion. Some of that came from the supposed Biblical decree that the daughters of Eve would bear their children with great suffering and we must endure it without complaint, but some goes beyond the austere Christianity of the time and has its roots much deeper in a cultural identity.
“Mustn’t grumble” is a bit of a mantra in Britain. We’re good at the whole understatement and self deprecation; “Not bad” is often meant as high praise over here, much to the mystification of other English speaking nations. You’ll often see certain phrases in obituaries: someone passes away “after a long illness bravely borne” and the highest praise for someone fighting a life threatening illness is, “She never complains”. On social media, that melting pot of shifting cultural memes, complaining, moaning, whining, whingeing are considered so unacceptable that most of us put a bright, cheerful face on so that we avoid any accusations of being a bit of a moaner. People preface very valid statements with, “I know I shouldn’t grumble” or “I know plenty of people have it much harder than I do so I shouldn’t complain.”
I do wonder if it might be killing some of us, keeping in the anguish, not sharing how we truly feel.
Oh I know we don’t want to make a fuss. We don’t want to be thought weak or pathetic, but why? It’s not as if these days admitting you’re ill, unwell, tired, elderly, frail are going to get you left behind with rations for a day while the tribe marches resolutely onward, leaving you to either starve or be finished off by the cold or wolves. It doesn’t make much sense to me. No one wants to be a burden on others, yet as we get older, inevitably we cannot expect to retain the complete independence of youth and full health and we will come to rely on others to help us. It’s a cycle. We aid the frail and infirm and one day, we too will need the same aid. For some, the frailty comes sooner than for others, but I believe that we are being subtly indoctrinated by the prevailing philosophies espoused by government, into believing that all human worth is based on fiscal usefulness. The Nazis exterminated all those they believed to be “useless bread gobblers” and it’s that fear of being useless that I suspect is what drives the idolisation of stoicism over compassion.
It’s subtle most of the time. We all know folks who never seem to pull their weight, who constantly seem to scrounge and complain and demand attention and it’s unattractive to most of us. We don’t want to be seen like that. No one wants to be known as the one who won’t stand their round at the pub. Because I am no longer working full time, in paid employment, I often feel a sense of shame that I am not earning the kind of salary expected for someone of my education and experience. I fear that I have somehow wasted my education, have done nothing with it – SOLELY BECAUSE I CANNOT SHOW A FINANCIAL RETURN ON IT.
This is palpably ludicrous and shows how seductive that way of thinking is. You cannot measure in fiscal terms my contribution to the world. I believe that the world has been a better place, if only in a very minute way, for me having been in it. I believe that my books, my blog, have aided people in dark times and light. I don’t get any remuneration for blogging and that’s fine because I write it for what I can offer, not for what I can get. Call it a vocation if you like. I earn very little from my books; at one time a year or two back, I thought I might earn, if not a living, then a decent income from my books, but so much has changed and there are so many more authors out there, so many more books, and with a few exceptions, everyone is getting a smaller and smaller slice of the book market pie. I left one Facebook writer group because I got fed up of certain members boasting on an almost daily basis about how many books they were selling and how much money they were earning. Book sales, as part of personal worth, are irrelevant per se. I know some superb authors who sell few books, yet whose work is of enormous skill and is full of soul; the people who are succeeding are those for whom branding and self promotion are not at odds with their ethics and character.
I don’t have any answers. I don’t really have any suggestions. I don’t like complaining but you know what? It’s the squeaky wheel that gets oiled. I might try being more open about how distressing I find life at times and hope that people might cut me some slack and accept that actually, stoicism may not be the healthiest of philosophies to base your life upon.