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Why it's never your own stupid fault
At an advertising agency where I used to work, one of the more high-powered account executives slipped, one day, on the stairs coming down from a fifth-floor meeting room and came down several steps rather quicker than she had anticipated, on her backside.
This came as a bit of a surprise to her.
She slipped on those stairs not because she was clumsy, or because she was wearing expensive high-heeled shoes, and certainly not because she was trying to find her wafer-thin cell phone in her oversized patent-leather handbag while not paying enough attention to where she was going, but because of the stairs themselves, which made her fall, on account of being unduly shiny or slippery or something.
She was quite sure of that fact; and if it was also a fact that lots of other people had managed to get down those same stairs on that day in the normal way without any trouble, then that fact was neither here nor there: the fact was that she had fallen. More than this, in falling she had suffered soft tissue damage.
Soft tissue damage might sound like a fancy word for a painful and embarrassing bruise, but it is not the same thing at all. Painful and embarrassing bruises go away by themselves, in the end, but soft tissue damage only goes away through a course of expensive private physiotherapy, the bill for which was duly presented to the managing director some days later.
It's worth knowing this.
I wish I'd known it myself a couple of months before when, at the age of forty-five, I thought it would be a good idea to learn to ride a BMX bike.
There are a lot of things you can do on a BMX bike at my age, besides looking really stupid.
One of the many things you can do on a BMX bike at the age of forty-five, or indeed at any age, is what's known as a manual. A manual is a kind of a wheelie, where you go up on your back wheel. It's called a manual, if you want to know, and not just a wheelie, because instead of pedaling, as in a normal wheelie, you pull the front of the bike up manually, while leaning back and down over the back wheel. So anyway, you do this pulling and leaning until you reach a crucial balance point, riding along on your back wheel, and you shift your weight and touch your back brake to keep yourself in balance. Or at least, that is the theory of it.
What I discovered, in trying to learn this manual thing one lunchtime, is an addition to the theory: what happens if you keep on pulling and leaning back beyond the balance point, while moving fast, and beyond the point at which you can get your feet down on the ground and out of it.
What happens is that you topple over backward. If you topple over backward on a bike with your hands still on the handlebars and your feet still on the pedals, what happens is that you land with all of your weight on your backside, watched by appreciative passersby, and then your bike shoots o. without you and smacks into the side of a parked car, denting it on impact and then taking a big gouge out of the paintwork as it skids away. I also discovered that when you try to get up after something like this, it sometimes happens that one of your legs decides it doesn't want to comply, and you find yourself mouthing the same swear word over and over again to yourself out of pain and humiliation as you struggle to your feet and limp over to pick up your bike. You will experience difficulty in walking for some days afterward, I found, and your leg will seize up if you sit still for any length of time, so that to get up again you have to brace your arms against a table or something solid and pull yourself to your feet. After a few days of this, there will appear what you might take, at first glance, to be the most monstrous black bruise you have ever seen. That, at any rate, was what I took it for; but if I had known then what I know now, I would have known that it was not, in fact, what I took it to be. What it was, was soft tissue damage; and soft tissue damage is something for which someone else is always to blame, and for which someone else ought to have paid compensation.
And this, it seems, is another of the great emerging themes of modern life. If it is true that we worry more and more about bad things happening to us, it is also true that when, or if, bad things do happen, we try to avoid responsibility for them whenever possible. We blame others for getting us into the mess we are in, and we expect others to get us out of it, and make everything all right.
Let me give you some other examples of what I mean.
Imagine that you have booked an exotic holiday to the Dominican Republic, and you are lying there on the white sand beach (or what ever color sand they have over there) on your towel under a coconut tree below the cloudless blue sky, listening to the waves lapping against the shore, or, at least, to the sounds of your fellow vacationers, when all of a sudden an enormous coconut falls out of the tree, as coconuts are wont to do, and lands smack on your chest, or thump-crack on your chest, as the case may be. Whose fault is that, eh? Is it your fault for lying under a tree heavy with coconuts, or is it someone else's? And, in the circumstances, what do you do? What you do—or at least, what one vacationer did, according to a BBC investigation into the "compensation culture" in November 2000—is you blame Airtours, the travel company. You sue them for damages, and you receive a large out-of-court settlement.
Got the hang of that? Another one—an easy one, this time. You are what is referred to as a young person of size, or a "lard-ass kid"—depending on who you speak to—and you got that way by stuffing your face with Quarter Pounders and fries, Chicken McNuggets, and extra-large, extra-thick chocolate shakes. However, for most of your life neither you nor any member of your family had any idea that your size has anything at all to do with the amount of junk food you've been pigging out on. Suddenly, one day, you discover the truth. The scales fall from your eyes. Eating like a glutton makes you put on weight and threatens your health and well-being! Not to mention your ability to walk through doorways without turning sideways. Who would have believed it? So what do you do? Yep—you sue McDonald's. You sue them for millions of dollars, in the hope of outdoing Stella Liebeck, the woman who was initially awarded $2.86 million after she put a cup of hot McDonald's coffee on her lap in the car and then, when it spilled and scalded her, sued and won (although the final, undisclosed amount settled on is still a matter of dispute).
It's quite a fun game, this. You could turn it into a competitive sport for the Olympics, and it would easily hold its head up alongside the likes of synchronized swimming and beach volleyball. You could build a stadium for it, at vast public expense, and then knock it down after the week or so it's used for, and then blame someone else for wasting all that money. The aim of this game, competitive suing, is to give as breathtaking a performance as possible, aiming for the highest levels of audacity and shamelessness you can manage, combined with the lowest possible levels of irony and self-awareness.
You are a teenager and you don't do very well on your exams: you sue your school.
You are a convict serving twenty-three years in prison: you sue yourself for five million dollars for violating your own civil rights and religious beliefs by allowing yourself to get drunk and commit crimes, in the hope that, since you have no income, the state will pay the compensation instead. (This actually happened, in Virginia in 1995. The case was thrown out of court.)
You've got the point now, I think. If I start boring you now by laboring it too long, you can sue me. And I'll sue you back for mental anguish.
I just want to finish this bit with a world-class performance, to show you the sort of thing you should be aiming for.
I want to tell you the story of a British greyhound trainer by the name of Graham Calvert, who discovered that he rather enjoyed gambling. He enjoyed it so much that he went through an astonishing amount of money and then did the honorable thing: he sued the bookmaker, William Hill, for four million dollars for letting him do it. It wasn't his fault, you see: the company had failed in its "duty of care" for allowing him to keep on betting. He lost his case.
That's it for compensation cases, but I want to pick up on this idea about "disorders" and how they fit into a world where people, increasingly, off-load the responsibility for the consequences of their own actions.
Medical-sounding terminology is always a good bet for doing that. It sounds better and less blameworthy to be "dyspraxic" than clumsy, better and less blameworthy to "suffer from depression" than to feel a bit down in the dumps about your life, better and less blameworthy for your child to have "attention deficit hyperactivity disorder" than to be rude and naughty. It makes you sound like a victim of circumstances beyond your control. You don't have to sort your life out or face up to your problems: you can just get a doctor to give you some pills instead.
You're not a spectacularly feckless idiot if you gamble to excess, you see: you've got a "disorder." You're not fat because you eat too much and sit around on your capacious backside: you're fat because you've caught fatness from the "obesity epidemic." Which has about as much medical basis to it as the flared trouser epidemic of the 1970s. Or the opium addiction epidemic in China that miraculously cured itself overnight after Mao Tse-tung isued a proclamation to the effect that anyone found in possession of opium would be shot, and executed a few addicts to demonstrate what he meant. And Dr. Hamish Meldrum, the head of the British Medical Association, was swiftly shot down by obesity campaigners for speaking a few home truths about making "diseases" out of lifestyle choices. "Obese people who are treated as medical patients," he said, "are often just greedy." And, he added, "People like to put fancy labels that suggest things are a medical problem." In fact, he says, they're not. This is not to say that glands and genes don't have a role to play in how much you can eat before you put on weight, and no one denies that some people can eat buckets of ice cream and stay thin, while others seem to get fat just by looking at food, but that's just the luck of the draw. If you've got "fat genes" it's a nuisance, but you just have to eat less.
Sorry, that was a bit of a rant, wasn't it? You can disagree with me if you like. But why not have a go yourself? Using your own skill and judgment, decide how much sympathy you ought to have for former soccer star George Best, a man with a millionaire lifestyle, good looks, a prodigious talent, a string of Miss World-style lady companions, and the adoration of millions, but who, unfortunately, fell victim to the disease of alcoholism. Or else, who foolishly, and in full knowledge of what he was doing, drank himself to oblivion and, ultimately, to death. The choice is yours.
So this is where we've come to, so far: we're getting more anxious, these days, about bad things happening to us, and, increasingly, we seek to avoid responsibility when bad things actually happen. We prefer, instead, for others to take that responsibility for our actions.
Fortunately—or unfortunately—there are people out there, whole committees of people, only too willing to take on that kind of responsibility, and whose mission it is to decide for us how we ought to live our lives, and to tell us which kinds of risks we are allowed to take and which ones we aren't. These people are to be found everywhere, running things. They run schools and they run councils, they run institutions and they run governments.
They are the rule-makers, the experts, the legislators, the authorities. They are the People Who Know What's Good for You.
Excerpted from HOW TO LIVE DANGEROUSLY by WARWICK CAIRNS
Copyright © 2008 by Warwick Cairns
Published in June 2009 by St. Martin's Press
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