May you all get what you deserve this year! Is that the fairest wish of all? Perhaps, but it’s a double-edged wish that slides from negative to positive depending on the wisher’s intention. The cheery meaning is, of course, may you get the good you deserve, not the bad you don’t.
As 2016 settles in, now’s the time of tweaks and change, of encouraging the new me butterfly to emerge from its chrysalis of resolutions.
That we embrace and celebrate change shows how it’s embedded in our souls. We are the adaptable ape shaping the future as we go even if it’s not always easy.
As the Roman poet Ovid put it, “I see better things, and approve, but I follow worse.” Commiseration across the ages from a man who lived in a city renowned for excess, about how our struggle to improve can be tough going. He had other thoughts we still use today to help us along. “Pursuits become habits,” he wrote, and then, “Habits change into character.” But more famously, he coined the phrase, “the ends justify the means,” which adds a certain ruthlessness to proceedings. Just do it.
Ovid’s greatest work is Metamorphoses, an epic spread across 15 books. “I intend to speak of forms changed into new entities,” read the opening lines. It was published about the same time as he was sent into exile by Emperor Augustus. No one knows why. The emperor kept it secret. But most likely Ovid was seen to fall short of the public morality which the emperor hoped to restore.
Ovid had become famous in his home town for his book The Art of Love, a manual that, in its celebration of all we do for love, encompasses adultery, obscenity and other fruits of fancy.
This was a time of rapid expansion and change in the empire, peopled by many that we still know today: Augustus, Claudius, Virgil, Antony, Cleopatra, Pliny, Tiberius, and Jesus, who was born, it is estimated, in 5BC, when Ovid was aged 38 (he lived from 43BC to 17AD).
Quite possibly, Ovid wrote his lines about wanting to be better but “following worse” at the start of the year 0, after an almighty new year’s eve. It may have been the same day he decided a giant book on the subject was needed and so began Metamorphoses.
Change is in everything, he concludes, and love is the highest power of all. Timeless stuff we relate to now more than ever. Our age enables change to an astonishing degree. Within twelve months, a person can, if they so wish, swap the continent they live on, the friends they keep, their name, their job and their gender. It’s a wonder anything ever stays the same at all.
We seek change for its own sake too, of course, for the refreshment it brings, the perspective, the need to grow. Or from pure restlessness.
In modern parlance, we give it a maths spin. We live in a zero sum universe, we say. Energy is never lost; it is always converted into something else. Much that transforms around us we can see: water becomes steam; winter turns to spring. At other times it’s more subtle: an itch becomes a scratch; hope flowers into confidence.
And then sometimes, it’s downright deep and metaphysical. For every proverb or Roman poet telling us to do one thing, another says do the opposite. There is a confusion of guidance. Too many cooks spoil the broth but many hands make light work. Do it well or not at all, although half a loaf is better than none. Birds of a feather flock together; opposites attract.
In the end, it seems, anything goes. For all the chaos and theories and signposts, what the universe craves is balance.
So balance is a constant and change is a constant. That’s the paradox. And while it might be true for the whole wide universe, there’s another axis that is of special importance for humans. What we aspire to is rarely the same across cultures.
Beauty and appearance are prime examples. Take skin colour. Pale skinned people will flock to the beach like pink sheep in search of a darker tan, while many dark-skinned people yearn for lighter skin. Corner stores across Asia and Africa sell countless products to whiten, lighten and brighten your life. Never mind the grass is always greener. It’s like everyone’s reaching for one shade of honey.
Or take bums! In London, everyone wants a smaller one. Surgeons can live a good life off it. 75 clinics in the UK specialise in buttock reduction. Meanwhile, over the pond in Rio, buttock surgery is the rage too, but there everyone wants a bigger one. Go figure.
We are all, collectively, returning to the norm at any given minute. And at the same time we want to be different!
May your grass be the greenest in 2016 and may your year be as sweet as honey.
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