Dec 23, 2010
There is a tide in the affairs of men,
Which, taken at the flood, leads on to fortune;
Omitted, all the life is bound in shallows and miseries.
- William Shakespeare, English dramatic poet (1564-1616) in Julius Caesar.
As we approach Christmas (for Christians) and New Year (for all), we are apt to introspect and resolve to dump our bad baggage and follow the straight and narrow path of virtue and righteousness. One process in this journey is making and sticking to resolutions – especially from New Year. These involve making a clean break from the past and dumping vices.
Talking of vices Alexander Pope, English poet and critic (1688-1744) said:
Vice is a matter of so frightful mien,
As to be hated needs but to be seen;
Yet seen too oft familiar with her face,
We first endure, then pity, then embrace.
Experience since Pope strongly confirms this situation. This is particularly true of the so-called minor vices (venal sins) like drinking, smoking and gambling. What Pope said is a far cry from St. Augustine’s observation, made 1500 years ago, that "We make a ladder for ourselves of our vices if we trample those same vices under foot."
But, what St. Augustine referred to as trampling, is now considered as suppression or bottling up. The reason is not far to seek. Life today is full of competition, stress and strain. The resulting tension is reflected in widespread incidents of nervous breakdowns, high blood pressure, deaths due to cardiac failure and even suicides.
So, modern psychology, and even medicine, prescribes unwinding and letting off of steam (like the pressure cooker) to maintain physical and mental equilibrium in this world of stress and strain. The choice, it is said, is between bending and breaking. And on this logic ride merrily a number of vices. As it turns out, more men than women take advantage (abuse?) of this argument. If the logic holds good, it should have applied equally to men and women. However, it is men who mainly have recourse to this line of argument with a sadistic pleasure. Why not women?
Men are ready with the answer! Women, largely being not in the forefront of life’s battles, are not exposed, unlike men, to the competitive world marked by stress and strain. Besides, when things go wrong for women, they shed copious tears – relieving their stress in the process. Men are not only not given to ready tears themselves, but have to lend their shoulders for their female near and dear ones to cry on. In the process, they absorb the stress of the females.
It is not characteristic for men to cry on women’s shoulders. They have to find their own devices to let off steam. And the well-known devices are minor vices like drinking, smoking and gambling. Looked at from this angle, vices seem to have their justifications and uses. Or, at least, men would like their vices to be viewed from this angle and invoke Shakespeare (in Romeo and Juliet) in support:
Virtue itself turns vice, being misapplied;
And vice sometimes by action dignified.
That is why men resent women who nag about the minor vices they indulge in. Men complain of lack of understanding on the part of women on the compulsions men face.
Yet, is the male logic in justification of their vices beyond question? Swedish diplomat-writer, Gunnar Myrdal, author of Asian Drama, had said that if excuses were edible Asians need not have to starve. Is the choice between bend and break an absolute one? Or, is it just an excuse to cover up lack of discipline and self-control?
Besides, bend or break choice does not take into account anyone beyond self. According to one social observer, what maintains one vice could bring up two children. So, we have to consider the cost of bending. Besides, when men bend, their spouses and children might break. So, the logic of bend or break approach does not take the total situation into account.
To bend without breaking, the divide and rule doctrine of the British Raj is relevant and handy. Vices come in bunches. For instance, when you gamble, say at a game of flush or rummy, you are apt to smoke and you will light up a cigarette if you are dealt a good hand to control your excitement, another to celebrate if you win and yet another to drown your sorrow if you lose a hand. So, you end up being a sitting chimney emitting non-stop smoke. The gambling table also tends to be a bar. Here also you bend your elbow and reach for the glass for the same reason as cited for smoking.
The divide and rule doctrine calls for indulging in one vice at a time and have control mechanisms for each. The end purpose of gambling, if you ignore the phony excuse of time-pass, is getting rich without exertion. Even if God wants you to be millionaire overnight, he should be given a chance. So, it is prudent to buy lottery tickets or play Madka and save yourself the physical tie-up to the gambling table for endless hours – and the temptation to indulge in the associated vices of drinking and smoking.
Similarly, one can divorce drinking from smoking. As to drinking, the sundowner need not commence as the red ball is sinking and can wait for a couple of hours. One can restrict it to certain days in a week, limit it to certain number of pegs (without cheating with Patiala pegs), not drink alone. The last condition may tempt to manipulate visiting friends and guests who, apart from straining the drink budget, might be resented by the Memsaheb as partners in crime. As for smoke, the number can be cut down by resolving not to smoke in bed, or while seated or at home and office This will require outdoor smoking and may be a healthy walk.
Finally, does bending necessarily to be done through the minor vices route? How about yoga, hobby or some wholesome recreation? Our males wouldn’t want these? If these healthy pastimes are accepted, how would men justify their resort to drinking, smoking and gambling? In the final analysis, the issues involved are complex and do not lend themselves to neat answers. The only safe guide is one’s own personal experience, observation and resolve. What is it in your case? Chew on this!
John B Monteiro, author and journalist, is the editor of his website www.welcometoreason.com (Interactive Cerebral Challenger).
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