We’d been living very happily in Cornwall for a number of years, making money writing music and supplementing that by cleaning holiday cottages. We had a great view of the sea, lots of fun times and were surrounded by a friendly community. Then there came a startling revelation. At the time, there was a butter and beef mountain in Europe and as an act of largesse, the top knobs at the EU decided to distribute it amongst the poor.
Graham, being at that time on the parish council was asked to assess, by applying a rather long list of criteria, which the lucky recipients were to be. Lo and behold! It included us. We were so astonished that we went through all the criteria again, scrupulously applying them and found, yes, we were amongst the poor of the parish. It appeared that we were considered, by this simplified calculation to be below the relative poverty line as defined at that time in Europe. It seems we were labouring under “social exclusion”, and showed “deprivation indicators”. Wow! And there was me thinking we were rich.
It really made me think about how we measure ourselves and how we measure status. I don’t think there can be any doubt at all that we humans are competitive by nature and that we are inclined to compare ourselves with others; we are after all social animals just like wolves, whales and meer cats and the like, who in order to fit in smell the same, sing the same or howl the same, whilst it’s still true that the fanciest feathers, the fiercest fighters or the most melodious tune gets the girl or to rule the roost.
As for we humans, you only have to look at the frenzy surrounding the World Cup or the slightly more restrained excitement around my own personal favourite the Wimbledon Tennis Championships to see how much we love competition. We love the gold, silver and bronze of it all. Whilst we Brits are very fond of the underdog – and sportsmanship of course also means fair play – we love a winner too. As for comparison it is only too obvious how much we crave acceptance and being part of the group by looking at our buying habits especially in fashion and home decorating.
All this isn’t in the least surprising since, back on the plains of Africa, we would have used certain indications, such as dress and manners, to indicate we belonged and were part of the group and to strengthen our social bonds, thus avoiding having a well sharpened stick or stone aimed at our suspiciously clad frames as we approached wearing a strangely draped loincloth. Equally, being good at something, like running after antelope, wrestling wildebeest to the ground or gathering berries like a person possessed would earn us status and make us valuable to the rest of the tribe.
I read an article about happiness recently that advocated stopping comparing yourself to others, stating simply that trying to keep up with the Joneses – those ubiquitous Welsh neighbours to be found throughout the English-speaking world – would only lead to feeling discontented. I cannot entirely agree.
First of all, I think that asking anybody to stop comparing yourself to others is like asking us to stop our pupils dilating when we see a picture of Channing Tatum in his swimming cozzie (is there a female equivalent? Imagine your own image, as appropriate). We might not mean to do it, but it just happens, since those pupils have a mind of their own. Whilst trying to keep up with the Joneses may be an endless and futile task if said Welsh neighbours are engaged in winning the consumerist’s rat race, checking how we are doing against some standards isn’t an altogether bad thing – as long as we first carefully choose which standards to use as a personal yardstick.
Can you imagine what a fantastic world it would be if we were competitively compassionate for example, checking ourselves against Mother Theresa and trying to go one better, or, instead of wearing an expensive watch to show the rest of the world how successful we are, we gave time to our local community.
I’d have no problem seeing people wearing T-shirts indicating the number of hours they’d spent helping others; it’s much more impressive than the gold Louis Moinet Meteoris. How about some competitive life greening? Rather than showing off how big your car is, how about shouting about how efficient it is? Of course, to anyone who has read my blog before you’ll already know about my love of the bean-eaters. Big, overflowing buffet? Half a dead cow on a barbecue? How passé!
As Paul Simon said, back in the days of the dinosaurs “Every generation throws a hero up the pop charts”, and how we love to have celebrities to compare ourselves to. Wouldn’t it be fantastic to see Beyoncé sporting an upcycled, organic cotton frock rather than a pair of silicon knockers?
To go back to the beef in the strange, plainly labelled tins – our gift from Europe; we had (quite rightly) been looking outside our geographical place, regional societal norms and perhaps outside our own era for comparison – using our own criteria make a judgement.
The forms we filled in said “You are poor”. The forms were wrong. (And the beef was fatty).