Lord, what fools these mortals be!

I have to admit that I’d never heard of cute-aggression until the other day. Or at least, perhaps with my ageing ears, I’d been hearing acute-aggression all this time and assumed it was just anger flaring out physically during an argument -well, something unexpected anyway. But now that it has been clarified, I feel embarrassed at my naïveté. I hate confrontations, but I fear aggression even more -be it acute or chronic. Belligerence in any form is abuse on the part of the instigator, no matter how well matched the opponent.

So I was somewhat relieved when I discovered that cute-aggression was more benign. More loving. It’s apparently the almost overwhelming urge to cuddle and caress ‘cute’ things like, say, puppies, or babies. At first glance this doesn’t seem even the least bit aggressive, but as with all reactions, there is a spectrum of responses – extremes where some of them fall on a Bell curve. The ‘aggression’ part is an attempt to describe the intensity of emotions some people feel when confronted by cuteness: wanting to squeeze, or even bite the object of their admiration.

As unlikely a subject for rigorous scientific enquiry as it sounds, there are few vacuums in research, and sure enough one of the first scientific studies would seem to have surfaced in 2013 at Yale University. The then graduate students Rebecca Dyer and Oriana Aragón actually coined the term ‘cute-aggression’. Subsequent studies have helped to define it further, including a neurological investigation by Katherine Stavropoulos at the University of California, Riverside in 2018. https://www.theatlantic.com/health/archive/2018/12/cute-aggression-its-so-fluffy/577801/ She discovered activity in the neural reward system in the brains of people who say they feel almost overwhelmed by seeing a cute baby or animal.

But, because the expression was only relatively recently coined, doesn’t mean that the feeling wasn’t noticed before. Languages are not perfect; some have distinct words that describe conditions that require others to resort to circumlocution. For example, Sarah Sloat, writing in Inverse:  https://www.inverse.com/article/10043-the-science-of-cute-and-why-you-want-to-bite-this-baby-red-panda  ‘[I]n English there isn’t a word for an aggressive reaction to cuteness, there is, however, one in Tagalong [sic]: gigil. This Filipino phrase essentially translates to a feeling of trembling, or the gritting of teeth, in a situation of overwhelming cuteness.’

In fact, Sloat describes an even earlier study from Japan in 2012 -this time not on the aggression associated with cuteness, but rather on kawaii (a Japanese word meaning ‘cute’) which ‘had study participants complete a fine motor dexterity task before and after looking at pictures of puppies and kittens or dogs and cats. The subjects were more successful performing the task after viewing the baby animal pictures — their attention actually became more focused after viewing the cuter pictures.’

Am I missing something here? I mean I don’t want to seem obtuse or ungrateful, but if I apply even one of the filters of critical thinking, I feel compelled to ask why it is important that I approach the subject of cuteness in this fashion. Further, are its conclusions consequential, or merely data points that have silted around the name – idiosyncratic responses like one might expect on any value-laden emotion, interesting even though they may not be representative of the majority reaction, but otherwise merely Facebook fodder?

Okay, perhaps that is a little harsh. Science is still science when it is not goal-directed -indeed, curiosity often leads in interesting and ultimately significant directions. Discoveries are sometimes more serendipitous than intended.

A few days after my chance encounter with the still puzzling concept, I happened to find myself in what I’ve come to regard as the senior section of one of the larger malls. These are the breakwater seats planted as foils in the middle of the corridor to break up the current of people flowing in either direction. Old people accumulate on them like moss on the grates of drains, and I sometimes enjoy watching the flotsam.

I noticed a middle aged woman who seemed to bubble out of her seat every time somebody pushing a stroller passed by. Dressed in a fading long red coat, a blue baseball cap, and what looked like rubber boots, she would sidle up to each stroller and inspect the contents with obvious delight. Her soprano oohing and singsong greetings ensured the hasty departure of each carriage, coupled with suspicious expressions on virtually every young mother.

But the poor woman seemed either not to mind, or not to notice the rebuffs, and she would return from each foray with a satisfied smile.

After a few of these reconnaissance missions, I decided to talk to her.

“You really seem to enjoy little children,” I started, trying to project some admiration into my voice.

At first she seemed startled that anybody would speak to her, let alone notice her fascination. Then, when she decided that I wasn’t being critical, a little smile crept across her face. “Babies,” she answered. “Mainly babies…” Suddenly, a cloud drifted across her face, and she glared at me. “Why are you asking? You the police?”

I smiled disarmingly and raised my hands in a shrug. “Far from it, ma’am. I’m simply noticing that you are fascinated by the little creatures…”

Her expression softened immediately. “I’m sorry,” she said and then added, “Some people think I’m going to hurt their child… You know, that ‘cute-aggression’ thing you read about,” she added, as if everybody was conversant with the topic.

She scanned the crowd for strollers, and then, satisfied she could continue to talk to me, she explained: “I do it for safety.”

When she noticed my raised eyebrows the smile returned. “I almost lost my baby a few years ago.” She stared at the tiles under her boots for a minute, trying to decide how much to divulge. “Well, actually they did take her away from me when they put me in the hospital.” She chanced a look at my face to see if I was really interested, and then, reassured, she continued. “But Jesse almost died…” Her eyes fluttered over mine for a second, and then returned to her face.

“I was really sick in those days, and I didn’t know it… Well, yes, I did, but…” She sighed and checked the skin on the back of her hands for some reason. “Anyway, I was wheeling Jesse along East Hastings in an old pram that somebody had lent me. She was only 7 months old then, and it was cold so I had wrapped her up good. Only her face was showing, and I remember her eyes were closed and she was quiet… Too quiet, maybe -she usually cried a lot…

“The street was pretty empty, except for the occasional drunk, so I felt pretty safe. Then, I noticed a nicely dressed woman walking down the sidewalk towards the carriage, and she peeked in at Jesse as she passed. But the thing is, she hadn’t gone more than a few steps when she turned suddenly and ran toward the carriage. I could hear her feet pounding on the sidewalk. ‘What’s wrong with the baby?’ she screamed.

“I didn’t notice anything wrong, but the woman seemed to panic and called out for someone to help her. She started to do -what’s it called? CVR?- and the next thing I knew, the ambulance was there. And the police.

“Never did find out what was wrong with Jesse, but anyway, they wouldn’t let me have her after that.”

The woman sighed again, then suddenly noticed another woman in the distance, pushing a stroller towards her through the crowd. She touched me briefly on the arm and waded into the tide of people. “So I have to make sure it never happens again,” she shouted at me over her shoulder, and disappeared in the turbulence, her head just another log being swept away in the current.

I never saw the woman again, but as I sat there, watching the ebb and flow of faces bobbing past, it occurred to me that an over-attraction to babies may not be as anomalous as I had first thought. To every thing there is a season, and a time to every purpose under the heaven.

 

The expense of spirit in a waste of shame

Why do we always think of our era as special, or at least particularly enlightened? Are we really so advanced that all other times are primitive in comparison? Are we actually different from those on whose shoulders we stand? Did the peasants in the Middle Ages have dissimilar genes? Unrecognizable urges? Hormones that were unlike our own?

I have only recently retired after more than forty years as a gynaecologist, but I can still remember one of my first patients after I opened my consulting practice. I was obviously much younger then, and still a bit uncomfortable about delving too deeply into the sexual practices of my patients to address the complaints for which some of them had come to me.

Lenore was having none of it, though. An elderly lady with uterine prolapse -a condition in which the uterus is unable to be maintained in its usual position in the pelvis and so travels down, and sometimes out of the vagina with the slightest increase in abdominal pressure- she was not at all shy about her problem.

“My husband is afraid to touch me anymore,” she explained. “He thinks I’m too much like him now,” she added with a wink. And then she giggled like a little girl. “For god’s sake, doctor, stop blushing. Sex has always been like that; it’s often a fine balance between pleasure and problem.”

Sometimes our view of the past is conditioned by our own Weltanschauung: we are who we are in spite of it as much as because of it. A good example of our naïveté was illustrated in an essay in Aeon by Katherine Harvey, a medieval historian and a Wellcome Trust research fellow in the department of history, classics and archaeology at Birkbeck University, London: https://aeon.co/essays/getting-down-and-medieval-the-sex-lives-of-the-middle-ages

As she puts it, ‘In the popular imagination, the history of sex is a straightforward one. For centuries, the people of the Christian West lived in a state of sexual repression, straitjacketed by an overwhelming fear of sin, combined with a complete lack of knowledge about their own bodies. Those who fell short of the high moral standards that church, state and society demanded of them faced ostracism and punishment.’

‘Many prevailing presumptions about the sex lives of our medieval ancestors are rooted in the erroneous belief that they lived in an unsophisticated age of religious fanaticism and medical ignorance. While Christian ideals indeed influenced medieval attitudes to sex, they were rather more complex than contemporary prejudices suggest. Christian beliefs interacted with medieval medical theories to help shape some surprising and sophisticated ideas about sex, and a wide variety of different sexual practices, long before the sexual revolution.’

I must confess that I had never thought much about medieval sexual beliefs, let alone conduct, until I came across the article -a title like The Salacious Middle Ages coupled with a rather puerile drawing of a naked woman riding a two-eared, grinning phallus is hard to ignore. And as Harvey explains, ‘Medieval people feared death by celibacy as much as venereal disease, and practiced complex sexual regimens.’ Although that sounded a touch New Age to me,  I was enticed headlong into the essay.

But why would we be surprised to discover that they had similar proclivities to our own? Yes, they were wrong about the sexual transmission of leprosy,  but their concern may have stemmed more from guilt than suspicion. And anyway, they did correctly recognize the risks of other sexually transmitted conditions: ‘a set of regulations from 15th-century Southwark banished women with a ‘burning sickness’ (probably gonorrhoea) from the local stews (brothels).’

Actually, physicians of the time were concerned as much about the amount as about the  the act: ‘Conventional wisdom held that several noblemen died of sexual excess.’ In those days, though, physicians saw the world through the lens of humours. There were four of them -blood, phlegm, black bile and yellow bile- each one corresponding to the four temperaments: Blood, or sanguine (social, or active), Phlegm (apathetic), Yellow bile (aggression), and Black bile (melancholy). And the idea was that health required each of them to be kept in equilibrium. Illness resulted from imbalance.

‘Humours were balanced, and good health maintained, through the expulsion of various bodily fluids, including semen. Regular sexual intercourse was thus part of a healthy life for most men, but moderation was key. Too much sex would leave the body depleted; in the most serious cases it could have fatal consequences.’

And women didn’t escape the tyranny of the humours either: ‘According to contemporary medical theory, both sexes produced seed that was necessary for conception – and just like semen, the female seed needed to be expelled from the body during regular sexual intercourse. In a woman who was not sexually active, the seed would be retained within her body; as it built up, it would cause suffocation of the womb. The symptoms of this condition included fainting and shortness of breath, and in the most serious cases it could be fatal. For women, as for men, the best way to avoid death by celibacy was to get married and have regular, Church-sanctioned intercourse with one’s spouse.’

‘For women lacking regular sexual relations, they offered a variety of treatments … Such treatments were particularly suitable for women who were suffering from suffocation of the womb.’ Although I won’t mention all of the treatments prescribed (both for males and females with similar sicknesses), I will say that ‘The 14th-century English physician John of Gaddesden thought that such a woman should try to cure her condition through exercise, foreign travel and medication.’ I think that still works.

So, despite the obvious historical gaps in what and who has been recorded, and despite the many different lenses we have used to understand the past, it’s hard to believe that people have changed very much through the years. Sexual activity of some kind is probably necessary for most adults, and it often continues to wear the same patina of guilt or shame. As Harvey points out, the problem is still how to preserve the vital bodily equilibrium without exposing ourselves to either disease or sin. ‘Discourses about sex still revolve around conflicting demands of health, social pressures and personal inclination. As it was in the Middle Ages, sex in the 21st century remains both a pleasure and a problem.’

A fine balance -just like Lenore said…

Let it not be so, lest child, child’s children, cry against you woe.

I was recently reminded of a seldom-heard song from years ago. Not only is the distance from the immense responsibility of parenting a melody of the past, but so too are the subtle layers of guilt: the silt that accumulates from the leaking floodgates of those early years. I’m not sure why I failed to notice it at the time, although I suppose it was a topic that was seldom broached in those days. It was too shameful to admit to oneself without reproach, certainly too dangerous to confess to anyone else.

Uncertainty and vacillation is frowned upon when it comes to our feelings about our children. ‘As developed by psychoanalysis, ambivalence refers to the fact that, in a single impulse, we can feel love and hate for the same person.’ So writes Edward Marriott, the psychotherapist author of an essay in Aeon entitled When a Bough Breaks: https://aeon.co/essays/we-need-to-admit-that-parents-sometimes-hate-their-children ‘It’s a potent, unpalatable idea; and in the grip of intense ambivalence we can feel overwhelmed and confused, as if a vicious civil war is underway inside us.’

‘[W]e live in a society in which shockingly high levels of violence are inflicted on children… And, if we acknowledge that we, too, sometimes have less than loving feelings towards our children; if we, too, sometimes have the wish to hurt, even if we are able to restrain ourselves, then does this mean that we too could be abusers?’

Part of the pressure is cultural, of course -especially on the mother who ‘is expected to have an uncomplicated and adoring relationship with her baby; who is expected never to tire of playing with Lego.’ And as desperately as a pregnancy may be pursued through years of unsuccessful attempts, or require expensive reproductive technologies, it’s difficult to adequately prepare for the changes engendered by the growing child. Each of us is different.

I am intrigued by the insight offered through an example given by Marriott: ‘The paediatrician and psychoanalyst Donald Winnicott, who spent a lifetime working with children and families, understood why the scales of ambivalence might tip more towards hate than love. The baby, he wrote, ‘is a danger to her body in pregnancy and at birth’, he ‘is an interference with her private life’ and he ‘is ruthless, treats her as scum, an unpaid servant, a slave’. He ‘shows disillusionment about her’, he ‘refuses her good food… but eats well with his aunt’; then, having ‘got what he wants he throws her away like orange peel’. He ‘tries to hurt her’, and, ‘after an awful morning with him she goes out, and he smiles at a stranger, who says: “Isn’t he sweet?”’

And then there is the possible difficulty of the new child on the couple’s relationship -or the hope that a child may heal a fractious partnership. However, perhaps the modern couple may be more aware of the risks, and indeed the Feminist movement of the 1960ies ‘overturned long-held received wisdoms that designated motherhood (in the words of the social researcher Mary Georgina Boulton) as ‘intrinsically rewarding and not problematic’ and refocused attention on women’s actual experience of motherhood.’

But Marriott wonders if we are still blinkered, and ‘we continue to enter parenthood blindly, relieved and proud that our genes will survive, and oblivious to the unrelenting demands ahead, or that we have unwittingly signed up for a job for life, with no training, pay, prospect of sabbatical leave, change of career or get-out clause. It’s a job that will require endless investment and patience and, if all doesn’t go too badly, one in which we are finally made redundant.’

And yet, ‘The problem is not that we feel ambivalent towards our children, but that we try to deny it. If we do this, then before long we cease to know what is appropriate anger towards our children, and what is dangerous hostility.’

Armed with this insight, I thought I might discuss it with the guys at our usual Wednesday morning meeting at the local Tim Horton’s coffee shop in the mall. I figured maybe we could look back on those early days in our lives with the survivor smugness which only age can authorize. We usually just complain about the weather.

But when I arrived, Fred -sorry, Frederic, as he insists on being called- was already bemoaning a family issue.

“Sometimes he’s just rude, you know,” he said, with a little nod to acknowledge my arrival, and a deft pinch with lightning fast fingers to liberate the edge of my doughnut of some icing. “I mean I went all the way down to the museum to meet him…” He glanced at me. “My son, James,” he explained to bring me up to speed.

John’s face puckered into a wry smile as his eyes peeked through the bars of his lashes. “Come on Frederic, you only live two blocks from the museum…”

“Three,” he interrupted, to clarify it for the other two at the table.

John’s smile enlarged and his eyes, freed of the curtains he sometimes pulled over them, seemed to laugh. “I’m just pointing out that you really didn’t have to go very far, Frederic…”

“That’s hardly the point, John. It’s that he didn’t show up. I waited there for almost an hour…” He glanced at the sceptical faces around the table and then amended it to a more precise estimate of time. “Okay, maybe half an hour -or whatever… But anyway, he didn’t show up.”

John shook his head rather merrily I thought, and I could tell he was trying to disguise a little sigh. “I thought you said you were bored at always having to meet him at the museum.”

Frederic shrugged and had another go at my icing. “He likes to go there -he says he’s always been curious about old things…”

“Did he ever explain what he meant?” Andrew asked, barely able to keep a straight face.

Frederic missed the subtle humour though. “I used to read books about history to him when he was a little boy. We used to pretend we were sitting in the throne room of a castle, or watching a battle from a hilltop along with the generals…” I could see his face relax with the memories. He was clearly fond of his son.

And then, as gradual as a cloud floating over the sun, his face changed. “He texted me and apologized the next day -said he forgot about our meeting… texted me, for god’s sake! Anyway,  he asked me if I could meet him there today.” He shook his head in disbelief.

John smiled. “See, he’s trying to make up for his mistake, Frederic.” We all nodded in agreement.

“I told him I was busy,” Frederic said, still shaking his head.

“To teach him a lesson?” John’s face looked shocked, or maybe ‘sad’ describes it better.

Frederic shrugged in embarrassment.

“James is almost forty, Frederic,” Andrew added softly in the silence that followed. “I think you should phone him and meet him there, don’t you? Tell him, you’ve rearranged your day so you could meet after all…”

Frederic looked down at his coffee for a moment and then smiled as he picked it up. “Actually, I waited for a few days to answer… And I finally decided to text him back,” he said, glancing at his watch and then slowly standing up. “I’m already late,” he explained, sauntering unhurriedly towards the door. “See you guys next week, eh?”

As soon as he was out of the door, John began to chuckle. “What a pair, those two. How many times has this happened?”

“Think James will wait for him this time…?” Andrew asked, although mostly rhetorically, I suppose.

We all smiled and tackled our doughnuts as we leaned forward in our chairs. “Hope this rain stops soon,” Pete said between bites, finally coming out of his contemplative silence. “It’s getting rather depressing, don’t you think?”

We all nodded in unison. Some things never change.

Deliver your words not by number but by weight

Even though my periodic conceit is that of a feuilleteur, I find I am still drawn to occasional texting. Sometimes there is simply no need for verbosity -the information that I am late but enroute, does not require an essay to explain. And yet, even the word ‘sorry’ prefixing the text, may fail to express the feelings of regret or embarrassment. Without waxing prolix, how then to express the emotion succinctly?

The usual answer, and the one to which I have usually resorted, is an Emoji (from the Japanese, meaning something like ‘picture word’). Although I confess that I am never totally sure of their meanings, I have tried to err on the side of simplicity. A smiling face, for example, means just that, and the one of clapping hands means congratulations -obvious and unambiguous messages… Or so I thought.

I suppose that most of us get caught up in our own values, though -it’s hard not to view the world through a cultural lens. We sometimes forget that each society sees the world a little differently. Like it or not, we live in a time of different Weltanschauungen -or at least have become more aware of it in this epoch of population displacement.

I did not fully appreciate the effects of the disparity until I came across an article in a BBC Future article on Emoji: http://www.bbc.com/future/story/20181211-why-emoji-mean-different-things-in-different-cultures

It seems that what I had assumed would be universal in its meaning -or at least the emotion would be interpretable in much the same way by everybody- was mistaken. Perhaps I would even have agreed with ‘linguistics professors such as Vyvyan Evans, author of The Emoji Code: The Linguistics behind Smiley Faces and Scaredy Cats, would soon declare to be “incontrovertibly the world’s first truly universal form of communication”, and even “the new universal language”.’ But, as Keith Broni, a business psychology expert explains, ‘emojis do not and cannot by themselves constitute a meaningful code of communication between two parties. Rather, they are used as a way of enhancing texts and social media messages like a kind of additional punctuation.’ Their intent seems to be to substitute for body language, and facial expressions, that might otherwise be difficult to convey in a short text message. So, ‘without the accompaniment of a smile or sympathetic tone of voice, a one-liner message runs the risk of being misinterpreted as negative, bossy or even rude.’

The problem, however, is in the interpretation, and although there is a range of Emoji on a smartphone, mine has no authoritative Oxford Dictionary, or whatever, underneath to mold each one into a universally agreed-upon meaning. So unintended interpretations are possible, depending upon the audience.

For example, ‘While the thumbs-up symbol may be a sign of approval in Western culture, traditionally in Greece and the Middle East it has been interpreted as vulgar and even offensive. Equally, in China, the angel emoji, which in the West can denote innocence or having performed a good deed, is used a sign for death, and may be perceived as threatening. Similarly, the applause emojis are used in the West to show praise or offer congratulations. In China, however, this is a symbol for making love.’

And then there is the smiling face, something I would never have dreamed might not be universally welcomed. Well, in China again, ‘the slightly smiling emoji is not really used as a sign of happiness at all. As it is by far the least enthusiastic of the range of positive emojis available, the use of this emoji instead implies distrust, disbelief, or even that someone is humouring you.’

We all see our worlds through the lens of our traditions -an amazing kaleidoscope of colours and textures paint each facet of our lives. And yet, woven into the fabric is a confusing chiaroscuro of meaning that may obscure the intended pattern.

I have a friend who is equally aged, but perhaps less enthused than me with the digital world. She has a smart phone though -but just for emergencies, she continues to assure me whenever I catch glimpses of it snuggled obtrusively in a pocket.

We meet occasionally for coffee, and since I normally take public transit, there are often unavoidable, and usually unpredictable delays. “Wouldn’t it make sense if I could send a quick signal to alert you that I am going to be late?” I usually tell her when I arrive.

Her eyebrows inevitably head skyward at my not so subtle wish to text. “You can phone me,” she says, shaking her head. “That’s why I carry it -for emergencies,” she adds, making sure I notice the italics.

“That’s difficult on a bus,” I reply. Then, I usually point out how annoying it is to hear others speaking loudly into their phones so they can be heard above the ambient noise.

And that’s where the disagreement sat until one day, the bus was inordinately late and I found her fuming at the restaurant. We sat in silence for a few moments after my abject apology, and then she aimed her wrinkles at me and smiled -but not in forgiveness, more in capitulation. “Okay,” she said through taut lips, “You can text me if you’re going to be late next time.” I could tell she saw it as a major concession, so I merely smiled, and sighed quietly to myself.

And sure enough, the very next week, I found myself standing on a crowded bus caught in traffic -a perfect opportunity for my virgin text. Unfortunately I was being jostled about in the aisle as we stopped and started unexpectedly, so I had to improvise a short, but clever message to let her know I was on my way. ‘Bus caught in traffic. I’ll be there in 15-20’ sounded pithy, yet polite. My time estimates were completely made up, though -I really had no idea when I’d arrive. I pushed ‘send’, and waited for a reply that she’d got the message.

It never arrived, of course, and as time passed and my estimates seemed bound to fail, I thought I’d better send her a follow-up apology. It’s hard to concentrate while standing in a crowded aisle with people bouncing off you, so I improvised and just sent her an Emoji – I used the upside-down face to suggest that things were not as I had hoped and that I was still uncertain when I’d arrive. I have no idea whether that’s what the little face meant, but it made sense at the time.

Suddenly my phone rang, and as soon as I answered it, I could hear her usually soft voice speaking loudly and indignantly in my ear. “What do you mean you’re not coming?” she shouted. “I’ve been waiting here for over half an hour!”

I tried to speak softly, but the noise around me made that difficult, although I found myself trying not to match her volume. “What are you talking about, Judy?” I said, my mouth as close to the phone as I could.

“The face,” she yelled into her phone, and I could see the smiles on the passengers standing next to me.

“What…?”

“That upside-down thing that obviously means you’ve changed your mind!”

I hurriedly apologized, then glanced out of the window and assured her that I wouldn’t be much longer. I’m not sure she caught the last words, though, because her phone went silent before I finished.

I was just putting my phone in my pocket when a young woman standing next to me turned her head and blinked. “I use the upside-down face sometimes -it has a lot of meanings- but you have to be careful who you use it on. The Emojipedia says it can mean you’re being sarcastic, or maybe don’t really mean what you said…” She smiled a helpful smile then turned back to her partner.

I didn’t even know there was an Emojipedia…

 

Oh coward Conscience, how dost thou afflict me!

Every once in a while, buried in all the fake news and confirmation biases, I find something that rings true. Something that transcends the routine moral admonishments that usually find me wanting. It’s not that I don’t aspire to morality, or whatever, it’s just that I’m sometimes not very good at it: I forget things from time to time, and yell at other people, or the dog.

And anyway, being good only exists in contrast to something else so it’s important to keep other stuff around so you know where you sit. I do not know any moral saints, you understand -they must run with a different crowd- but then again, I’m not sure we’d get along as friends. The American philosopher, Susan Wolf, defines these ‘saints’ as people whose every action is as morally good and worthy as possible, and she writes in her eponymous essay Moral Saints: ‘I don’t know whether there are any moral saints. But if there are, I am glad that neither I nor those about whom I care most are among them.’

It turns out that her essay is the subject for another essay, this time by Daniel Callcut in Aeon, rather than The Journal of Philosophy so I felt less of a stranger in a strange land in reading it:  https://aeon.co/essays/why-it-is-better-not-to-aim-at-being-morally-perfect

Wolf seems to be suggesting that the moral saint would likely never give you a break if you weren’t constantly altruistic, so I enjoyed Callcut’s paraphrase: ‘The problem with extreme altruism, as Oscar Wilde is reported to have said about socialism, is that it takes up too many evenings.’

‘If you don’t have enough time for friendship or fun, or works of art or wildlife, then you are missing out on what Wolf calls the non-moral part of life. Wolf does not mean to suggest that non-moral equals immoral: just because something doesn’t have anything to do with morality (playing tennis, for instance) it does not follow that it is therefore morally bad. The point is that morality is, intuitively, focused on issues such as treating others equally, and on trying to relieve suffering. And good things these are: but so is holidaying with a friend, or exploring the Alaskan rain forest, or enjoying a curry. Moral goodness is just one aspect of the good things in life and, if you live as if the moral aspect is the only aspect that matters, then you are likely to be very impoverished in terms of the non-moral goods in your life.’

I am taken with Callcut’s take on Aristotelian ethics: ‘Aristotle most notably, held views of ethics that encouraged neither selfishness nor selflessness: the best kind of life would be concerned with others, and involve pleasurable engagement with others’ lives, but it would not require impartial dedication to the needs of strangers. Ethics is more concerned with the question of how to be a good friend than it is the question of how to save the world. And, as with good friendships, ethics is both good for you and good for other people. At the heart of Aristotle’s ethics is the ultimate win-win. The best ethical life simply is the most desirable life, and the fulfilment of our social nature consists in living in mutual happiness with others.’

However, some of Callcut’s arguments -and especially Wolf’s- go deeper than what most of us non-philosophers would likely accept, let alone understand. What I took from the essay was that ‘a line has to be drawn between what is morally required of you and that which is morally praiseworthy but not morally required… Morality doesn’t require you to have no other interests besides morality.’ And ‘The fact that you are not morally perfect doesn’t make you a bad person.’ Most of us walk the middle ground.

I remember one cold day a few years ago when I was in town -fairly close to Christmas, I think. The street was full of shoppers, charity Santa Clauses, and on every block, Salvation Army volunteers with their little pots slowly filling with money. Unfortunately, the contrast with the street people among them was jarring -especially the old man and his dog sitting on a busy corner. Everybody passed the two of them without a glance. He had no cup, and he looked too cold to leave his hat down on the sidewalk for donations. Perhaps in his sixties, or seventies, he was unshaven and dressed in a torn, mud-stained grey-brown overcoat and was huddled close to his dog, his hands trying to find some warmth in his coat, while his feet sought refuge under the dog. A rumpled blue toque, obviously too small for him, was pulled over his head, but it wasn’t large enough to cover his ears, and he was visibly shivering.

I had just bought a few presents and could feel some change jangling in one pocket, and my conscience in another, so I decided to empty both of them in the Salvation Army pot nearby.

I glanced at the man and his dog as I walked over to the pot.

The volunteer saw me looking at the man. “I’ve tried to convince him to come to the shelter,” he explained, before I had a chance to empty my pocket. “But he won’t…”

“Can he bring his dog with him?” I asked. The dog was obviously important to him.

The volunteer nodded. “But, only to our shelter on the other side of the city, unfortunately -too far away from where he lives in the park.” He smiled at the old man. “He says he’s waiting for some friends, although I haven’t seen them in a couple of days…” We both stared at the old man. “He just got out of hospital -actually, I think he probably discharged himself. He was worried about the dog.”

“But look at him,” I said. “He’s cold now; he’s going to freeze tonight!”

The volunteer sighed. “He refuses to go back to the hospital, so I offered to drive him and the dog to the shelter in my van, but…” He shrugged.

“Let me talk to him,” I said and walked over to where he sat. I started to extend my hand to greet him, but the dog growled protectively.

“Is there anything I can help you with, sir?” I asked, being careful not to approach any closer.

A pair of sad, rheumy eyes slowly emerged from under the curtain of his lids and stared vacantly at me. His thin, chapped lips twitched and I wondered if he was talking softly to me. His skin was sallow and bruised; he didn’t look at all well. “Dog,” he seemed to be saying, although I couldn’t be sure. But even the effort of whispering seemed too much for him.

“Dog…?” I said, to help him out.

His head slowly nodded. “Dog,” formed on his trembling lips, and then his eyes receded again into his skull, and his head fell forward onto his chest.

I hurried back to the Salvation Army man. “He’s really sick,” I said, and dialled 911 for the ambulance. But before they arrived, the dog began to whine and lick the man’s face.

When the paramedics arrived, it was too late -the old man had died, but the dog wouldn’t let them take him away, so they had to call the SPCA to restrain him.

“What will happen to the dog?” I asked as the official bundled it into his van.

The SPCA man shrugged. “Usually put them down, eh?”

“But…” I struggled for words. “Can’t it be kept for adoption?”

“Too many of ‘em,” he explained, his eyes sad. “And this one’s a bit old…”

I stared at him with disbelief. “But… But the last thing he said to me was… well, he wanted to make sure the dog was taken care of, I think.”

The driver was obviously a kind man. “You can donate some money for a kennel…” he said, and produced a card with the phone number. “Who knows, maybe someone will want an older dog… It’s Christmas, eh?”

I nodded and took the card. The man smiled like he was relieved. “I hate it when we have to put ’em down,” he said, closing the door to the van. “Thank you, sir,” he said, getting into his seat behind the wheel. “I’ll tell them you’re going to phone.”

The Salvation Army man walked over to me as the ambulance drove away and the crowd that had gathered, thinned. “You know,” he said, smiling at me and shaking my hand, “That was the most meaningful donation I’ve seen this Christmas…”

And I think it was the most meaningful gift I’ve ever given…