Ants in the Leg of a Chair

It was my birthday recently and there was a small family gathering to which I felt it only polite to attend. The assemblage comprised my wife, a quorum of progeny, and Daisy, the family dog. As usual on such occasions a cake was produced and said wife augmented the confection with a modicum of lighted candles requisite to indicate, discreetly and non-specifically, my steady progress toward superannuation. In accordance with tradition I blew out the tiny flickering lights and ‘made a wish’. At similar such commemorations, when present in supportive capacity, it often falls to me to proffer the familiar, last-minute and cautionary exhortation to make that wish. I have given this some thought.

It seems implicitly understood that the wishee’s invocation should stay a private matter lest some dire spirit should snatch it away, but to whom do we direct these wishes? To God, The Wish Fairy or simply to ourselves in some vainglorious mantra to help herald the coming of another year? The follow-up is of course, what do we wish for? An altogether harder question to answer if the prayer for enchantment is to remain a private one.

If perhaps we exclude children and certainly the greedy, we might weed a little of the chaff insofar as materialistic contrivances are concerned; after all, it might be expected that the ‘giving of gifts,’ however humble, accompanies most birthday celebrations and that a corollary of these acts of giving result in wishes anew of a more altruistic nature. Indeed it might even be reasonable to suppose that health and happiness score high on the Top 10 Wish List; let us hope so.

For my part I have the following offering: I am not overly superstitious (though I’m not going to push my luck) and therefore see no pitfalls in relinquishing some past petitions. Subject to revision only once a year of course represents only a limited shelf life, so revealing earlier requests, save for the most recent would seem unlikely to result in future disappointment! Ok, so I’m gently mocking of the ‘wish’ concept. I don’t believe in fairies or, for that matter, in God, but I do think there is some ‘net worth’ in the concept of a wish. By and large we plan for our futures and our children’s futures. We work to provide a stable home and income, for their happiness, health and education – all planned to some extent. However, we get a chance for a pure wish once a year. Trivial as it seems, I have always valued this as an opportunity for just a bit of extra effort, to spend a while thinking about what is really important. We are constantly directed and cajoled into making big decisions: policies, endowments, mortgages, partnerships, insurances – all manner of fear-driven incentives, but how often do we get to consider life beyond these confines? The very act of setting aside some time for clear thinking, untrammelled and unbounded, is surely a form of investment and if we can encapsulate this in a wish then it becomes at once tangible, memorable, and more importantly part of the infrastructure of our ambitions.

My children were born in a five-year period that encapsulated the demolition of the Berlin Wall and the Tiananmen Square protests to Clinton and Yeltsin signing the Kremlin Accords, and Nelson Mandela being inaugurated as South Africa’s first black president; a period I have privately pigeon-holed as the beginning of a new and hopeful political era. Twenty years on and there have been plenty of set backs – in no particular order: Rwanda, Iraq x 2, Serbia, WTC attacks, Afghanistan, Israeli-Palestinian strife, Bali, the current economic crisis, and on and on. When one begins listing things like that it’s pretty clear that the cons outnumber the pros pretty easily. Add natural disasters to the mix; Asian Tsunami, Hurricane Katrina, Pakistan earthquake, Japanese earthquake, famine, global warming, dwindling natural resources etc. and you start to gather plenty of ideas for that wish list. But then, what’s twenty years? My grandfather had a saying that he used once to describe how tiny we [man] are compared with the cosmos, “ants in the leg of a chair”, it’s a phrase that smacks me on the back of the head on a regular basis and has always helped me keep things in perspective. Twenty years of political and social upheaval is then pretty small change when you contextualize it; wheels within wheels, waves within waves.

Perhaps, there is some hope amidst the latest maelström of global issues that trespass and sully our aspirations – a taste of incipient possibilities, a new wave of positiveness; The Arab Spring, an economic crisis forcing a ‘top-down’ rethink of our values and goals, widespread dissatisfaction with Western governments’ proscriptive policies designed to promote fear and paranoia, the beginnings of real political and economic policy regarding climate change. We live in a fractal world – there is an inbuilt inevitability to every aspect of our past, present and future lives; the key is (will be) determining our position and scale within the current cycle.

Fear has become fixed in our culture – fear of financial instability, social and cultural breakdown, terrorism, climate change, disease, healthcare, we can all add to the list but in doing so we begin to lose sight of the detail – we become frightened of fear itself and so the cycle continues. My wishes have of course been influenced over the years by the trends I have already outlined, but also by more personal aspects: love, children, bereavements, estrangements and reconciliations. I have wished for health and happiness of course – how easy. I have wished that my children learn from my multitudinous mistakes, that they also have clarity of thought and presence of mind in trying times, that they find lasting love and fulfilment. But now, most of all, I wish for perspective. Perspective to see politics, economic catastrophe, love, war, and natural disaster as simply part of an infinite scale of events. Perspective to see that by working together people can effect lasting, positive change and that fear is not a driving force for good. Perspective to see that we are simply … Ants in the Leg of a Chair.

Dedicated to my grandfather, William Jesse Johnson.


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