Some thoughts on Kae Tempest’s poem, ‘For My Niece’, on giving advice to the young and on the futility of pursuing happiness.

In many cultures, now that I’m sixty-six, I’d be revered as an elder and expected to share wisdom born of experience to guide the young in facing the challenges of the day. But I live in the UK where the old are warehoused and ignored or infantilised and seen as incapable of coping with the modern world.

It seems to me that life here is structured so that the young and old never meet in circumstances that would allow them to swap notes on the absurd behaviour of the generations that sit between them and who believe that they make the world turn.

It’s not that I feel I have a lot of wisdom to share. One of the few things that I’m certain of is that the world that today’s children will have to cope with as adults will have fundamentally different challenges from the ones faced by my generation. Still, it would be nice to be asked if I have anything to offer.

I was muttering to myself about this in my grumpy old man way when I came across this poem by Kae Tempest:

As usual, Kae Tempest made me pause and ask myself questions. Her words are tender and thoughtful, She implies that any advice I might offer the young would be given not to meet their needs but my own. The young, she reassures me, will find their own way to thrive. Then at the end of this gentle, apparently non-interventionist poem, Kae Tempest hangs a hook that I found hard to dislodge from my mind:

“Doing what you please
is not the same

as doing what you must.”

This isn’t advice. It’s a statement but not a neutral one. It feels like a warning, much like Sondheim’s “Nice is different from good”, but a warning about what? I started to see Please and Must as two sides of a scale as I considered how much of my life I’ve spent doing what I please and how much of it I’ve spent doing what I must.

It turned out that that wasn’t so simple a question to answer, even in retrospect. The things that please me have changed over time. Some things that use to please me now leave me cold or confused about why I ever thought they were fun. Some of the things that I think were the best use of my time, things that I would not go back and change if I was given the chance, sit firmly on the Must side of the scales.

Then I realised that the scales image was misleading. It suggests that I should be looking for some kind of Please/Must balance in my life. That’s not what Tempest is saying. She’s just pointing out that the two as not the same. So what is the difference?

Well, not doing what I must usually has negative consequences for me and those around me or depending on me. It seems to me that never doing what I must is a good operational definition of failing at life. Doing what I please also has consequences. Most of us expect that consequence to be happiness but sometimes it brings not happiness but a sense of decadent excess and self-pollution. It seems to me that always doing what I please is a good operational definition of being a selfish, entitled, arsehole.

The more I thought about this ‘one thing’ that Kae Tempest has ‘entrusted’ to her niece, the more I admired her ability to highlight a truth that has consequences without wrapping it in advice.

This brought me back to the question: “What wisdom, if any, do I have to share with the young?’.

The Please/Must distinction got me thinking about what to say to the young about happiness. I came up with this:

It seems to me that one of the things that the old are not truthful with the young about is the nature of happiness. The young are told it is their right to pursue happiness. If you pursue happiness with enough discipline, skill and patience, you will capture it and make it your own. But happiness is not prey to be caught. It is not something that can be owned, contained and consumed. The harder you hold on to it, the faster it fades in your arms.

Happiness does not thrive in captivity.

So don’t hunt it.

Happiness is an emotion that visits me from time to time, like a butterfly in my garden, like sunshine in England, like a stranger’s child climbing into my lap in the expectation of being cherished.

When it happens, it’s wonderful but I am always aware that it will not last.

Happiness is, by its very nature, temporary. It lifts me but it does not hold me permanently aloft.

There are things that I can do to make it easier for happiness to find me. I can teach myself to get better at detecting its presence, to surrender myself to it when it’s there and to be able to cope with its passing.

We need happiness the way plants need sunlight and, like plants, we need to learn how to turn towards it whenever we can.

As I put this post together, I went looking for words on the Internet that make put what I was thinking on a t-shirt. I think this image does the job.

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