(Note – Yes, we know it’s March and the new year is already three months old. Fortunately there are twelve months in a year . That leaves a balance of nine and plenty of time to hone the tips suggested below!)
The New Year draws nigh. ’Tis the season both to review and to resolve, as we put the old year with all its empty vows and failed resolutions behind us, and look forward to a shiny new one, full of good intentions.
Sincerity would traditionally require that we account for our shortcomings in 2010 before committing to a fresh crop of New Year’s resolutions for 2011. And call me pathologically sincere or a compulsive confessor – OK: I admit it already! – but I for one would by nature be inclined to plead guilty on all counts.
Thankfully though, nature can be improved. The modern soul comes bundled with a number of chic accounting app’s that let us sidestep the bitter squall of self-loathing to which really sincere self-examination opens the door.
Using a little Creative Moral Accounting, you too can adjust the year’s losses to your ethical net worth. Hey presto, you will find yourself smiling at a far more pleasant moral bottom line for your 2010 self-report before you can even say “Sincerity, shmincerity”.
So, watch and learn from some creative sleight of hand with the ledger of my own accounts, gentle reader.
On the credit side of my ledger for 2010?
Politically, I fulfilled my citizenly duty to vote in the local body elections. I even read all the candidate statements before rationalising my original gut preferences and/or resorting to a Ouija Board on the really complex STV questions.
Personally, from having literally been the obese elephant in the room, I liberated the small republic of thin people falsely imprisoned inside me and shed 15kg. This brings my BMI to comfortably under 40.
Temptations were resisted. I did not personally invade any small, unarmed countries. I didn’t steal the identity of any dead babies. Nor can I definitively be fingered for either the financial collapse of South Canterbury or the seismic collapse of all Canterbury.
Earning green credentials, I sometimes took a bike instead of a car. In 2009 I had joined Greenpeace and spent an hour one Sunday banging a saucepan lid in a prominent local park with long-haired, gentle people to issue a global wake-up call on climate change.
In 2010, I endeavoured to go vegetarian. The advertising promised it would “downsize my carbon footprint while upsizing my humanity”. So I accompanied a number of the same long-haired, gentle Greenpeace people in loose clothes to mass-purchase a winter’s worth of dried beans from an organic co-op. By co-op I mean a wooden shed amid gardens tucked away unsuspected in a fashionable suburb and freely ranged over by wandering chooks, displaced Amish people and the survivors of some cataclysm that had wiped out barbers and left follicles not merely intact but invigorated.
I donated to the starving child victims of the Pakistan floods, though less than I spent monthly on retraining my gluttony with binges on low-cal peaches and low-fat yoghurt. Only the donations got dropped into conversation.
And on the debit side? What about good old-fashioned sins? Counting up these is when the real creativity begins.
In tallying my misdeeds, I immediately catch myself performing three really neat tricks of moral accounting. You shouldn’t try these at home. Then again, I shouldn’t have either. I’ll call them the Trick of Redefinition, the Trick of the Token Confession, and the Trick of Terms of Reference.
Journalists would self-righteously denounce politicians for performing these tricks, but this journalist at least is well in touch with his own inner politician and would have to ’fess up to identical charges.
The Trick of Redefinition simply means you re-engineer the definition of a sin so whatever you’ve done falls conveniently just outside it. People who “avoid” tax aren’t guilty of tax “evasion”, for example (albeit they may still run foul of a more subtly drafted statute in the fine print). Redefinition, see?
Celebrity exponents of the Trick of Redefinition include Hillary Clinton. Hillary once insisted that she had choppered under fire into Bosnia amid a raging civil war, though video footage suggested butterflies had in fact lighted on her shoulder as multiethnic choirs of children sang her a harmonious welcome in a green and pleasant valley. But she hadn’t lied about it. Oh, no. Hillary had merely “misspoken”. It ran in the family. Hillary didn’t lie in the same way Bill didn’t “have sexual relations” with Ms M. Lewinsky, and the same way that Hillary herself, born 1947, was named “after” the conquest of Everest in 1953 by Sir Ed, where “after” takes on its secondary definition to mean, of course, “before”.
I have often personally snuck through red lights on my bike to beat a traffic jam. The statute book says that’s an offence. My bad. In my own book, however, such actions are innocent because a) no lives were endangered, so b) any crime was victimless, and c) hey, I wasn’t caught.
So, as redefined by me, these apparent misdemeanours were instead a harmless and resourceful use of initiative; a community-minded maximisation of vehicular efficiency in crowded spaces; a model of how to share with care.
See what I did there? If you liked that, you’d love a career in PR. And that’s what self-deception is all about. Selling your shortcomings to your sceptical conscience, which is a notorious tightwad when it comes to parting with absolution.
The second trick is The Token Confession. Strategically offer up a small sin and fall on your sword in what – like repentant MPs or mayoral candidates – you hope is a non-fatal place to satisfy the thirst for blood of the media/your conscience. Then they might not sniff out any uglier secrets you’re sitting on.
It’s like Hitler confessing to jaywalking while forgetting to mention the Holocaust. Or a journalist owning up to prima facie traffic infringements but not letting on that he once stole secrets for the Russians and remains a closet fan of Wham!
The third trick I have named in honour of Ministers of the Crown who want to be seen to be diligently prosecuting error and inefficiency, but predetermine that certain things should not be questioned. They’ll imperiously proclaim a ministerial enquiry, but in the fine print skew their officials’ terms of reference to keep the really embarrassing stuff off the table. Like: “Dear Officials. Ruthlessly investigate my Ministerial travel spending but not my Parliamentary allowance.” Or, “Count up New Zealand’s greenhouse gas emissions but skip agricultural methane.” After all, methane’s only hugely abundant and 25 times more potent than CO2.
Note to self: resolve in 2011 to cut down on personal methane emissions.
This year, like every other year, I’ll take particular care to draft terms of reference that exclude sins of omission from my moral stock-take.
Sins of omission, of course, are the good things that we could and should have done but didn’t. There are always infinitely more things we’re not doing than things we are doing. A decent whack of the undone ones are potentially virtuous, and a fair slice of those are stuff we really should have got around to – in other words, neglected responsibilities.
Such potential neglected responsibilities likewise go on and on. They range from the soothingly remote to the painfully close to home – though it’s amazing what a blind eye needn’t see. But the nearer to our path that innocent victims or good causes happen to lie, the more discomfiting they are for even medium-good Samaritans to pass by. Folk who re-engineer their whole route to actively seek out and help the needy get extolled as saints. I will nod piously towards any saint you care to name, provided such reverence remains strictly aspirational, as they say, thus excusing my total lack of intention to follow suit.
This year I omitted to: bring peace to the Middle East (again); donate my liver; or divert some peaches and yoghurt spending towards keeping starving children alive for an extra month. But who do you think I am: a saint?
Only now have I spotted a fourth trick, so cunning that it lurks in the very pathological nature that I started this article with: Total Guilt, or Compulsive Confession. It goes like this: “Forgive me, Father, for I did burn the toast.” Or: “Dear Council-Controlled Organisation: please cut off my sewage connection for the next decade in satisfaction of my recently deceased parent’s 30 cents of unpaid library fines.”
Plead guilty to a mind-numbing multiplicity of self-imposed charges, and chances are that people won’t call you on the few important ones. Nor will you call yourself on them. If a sympathetic jury/conscience acquits on the patently unjustified self-recriminations, it just might wipe the whole slate. Besides, hearing fretful narcissists beat themselves up for footling irrelevancies is boring. Happily, most bored listeners tune out before I reach the juicy stuff.
Total Guilt also affords a protective paralysis. For it keeps you in such a stew about such an impossible number of imagined crimes that you’re saved from actually having to deal with the real ones. Cool, eh?
Once you’ve deployed my gamut of infantile subterfuges in creatively accounting away your sins, you too will feel quite virtuous enough to commit a whole new batch of starry-eyed resolutions to the fires of disillusion in 2011.
And I still haven’t said “Sincerity, shmincerity.” How’s that for accountability?