In judgement of humanity

Imagine that humanity was placed on trial to decide whether we’re fundamentally good or fundamentally evil. I’m not talking about nice Mr Jones down the road, or nasty Mrs Smith round the corner. I mean humanity itself – everything we’ve done as a species. All the random kindness and altruistic sacrifice, the feats of engineering and imagination, weighed up against all the selfish exploitation and sadistic abuse, the horrors of murder and genocide. The good, the bad, our crimes and potential, everything we’ve done in the past and everything we might do in the future, decided once and for all. You stand in final judgement on the accomplishments of homo sapiens.

How do you find? Are we basically good, with a few bad traits? Are we essentially evil, with some redeeming qualities? And are we collectively worthy of a pardon, or should we all be condemned?

You might think this is a rather abstract question to ask, but in reality it cuts past all the nonsense and gets right to the heart of who we are. Why do we live? Why do we keep living? Why do we have children? Why don’t we gratify all our desires, irrespective of cost? The answer, inevitably, lies in our beliefs about the nature of humanity – on whether we think people, at root, are good or evil. And only when we’ve made that judgement can we decide who we want to be and how to live our lives.

Is human nature evil?

Before passing judgement, you might consider that the question has been conclusively answered by Western civilisation, which is grounded on the assumption that human nature is evil. Whether it’s art, religion, politics, law, economics, education, industry or simple entertainment, the underlying belief is that, left to our own devices, we would rapidly descend into a hell of rape and murder. If there is one universal belief about the meaning of life, it is that there are beasts in our nature, and we must learn to control them or they will destroy us.

This pessimism about humanity’s worth is embedded in the foundation story of Western culture. Mankind was pure, and innocent, and living in harmony with Nature in the Garden of Eden. But we sinned, and were cast out to a life of toil and struggle and ultimate death. And what happened next? The first child ever born on Earth was murdered by the second. It got worse from there, until God had to destroy his creation with a flood. And we’ve been sinning ever since. The evil in humanity’s nature, and our resulting fall from grace, is the central precept of Christianity, and by extension, the whole of Western civilisation.

This fall from grace metaphor isn’t confined to Abrahamic religion, either. The Ancient Greek poet Hesiod, in the eighth century BCE, told a remarkably similar story. There was first a Golden Age, in which humans lived like gods, knowing no suffering or toil. In the subsequent Silver Age, humans were inferior to the gods, and the men had to work. They degenerated further through the Bronze Age and the Age of Heroes, until humanity completed the fall in the current Iron Age, where people are selfish and evil, and know only struggle and sorrow. It’s the same story: once, we were innocent; now we are corrupted; and there is no going back.

More recently, we’ve tried to rationalise and control the capacity for evil in human nature. In the seventeenth century, Thomas Hobbes argued that in his natural state, ‘every man is Enemy to every man’, and such a life was ‘solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.’ Society, and civilisation itself, were invented to free humanity from ‘continual fear, and danger of violent death’. In his influential model of human nature, knowing the evil we’re capable of, humans voluntarily gave up some of their freedom to belong to a society that protected them from the chaos. The idea of the ‘social contract’ between government and governed had been born.

In the early twentieth century, the psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud discovered (perhaps invented) the seat of human nature, the unconscious mind, or id, a place dominated by the libido and death drive that gives us an innate, insatiable desire to eat, mate and destroy. He saw his job as wrestling with ‘the most evil of those half-tamed demons that inhabit the human beast’, and that was early in his career, before a lifetime of treating patients led him to conclude that ‘I have found little that is “good” about human beings on the whole’.

We are all rapist serial killers inside, so the theory goes, and it is the ego and super-ego that, mostly, keep these desires in check. We learn to suppress these instincts in order to gain the benefits of peaceful coexistence with our neighbours, but they’re still there, just below the surface, always ready to break free, as they did to such devastating effect in the twentieth century.

Any lingering naivety about the reality of human nature was obliterated in the 1960s when Stanley Milgram’s electric-shock experiments famously demonstrated the extent to which ordinary people would murder a stranger in obedience to an authority figure. The Nazis, he showed, were not an aberration of history – they were ordinary human beings, no different from you and me. As were the monsters of Stalin’s regime, and those of Mao and Pol Pot.

So deeply ingrained is this belief in humanity’s innate evil that in 1970, the visionary director Stanley Kubrick could quite openly say that, ‘Man isn’t a noble savage, he’s an ignoble savage. He is irrational, brutal, weak, silly, unable to be objective about anything where his own interests are involved—that about sums it up. I’m interested in the brutal and violent nature of man because it’s a true picture of him. And any attempt to create social institutions on a false view of the nature of man is probably doomed to failure.’

There is a continuous line of thought running from the Enlightenment to today that argues our society is structured to control and punish the evil of human nature, either by social convention or formal proscription. Without the threat of prison, and the controlling mechanisms of society and government, we’d all be a bunch of violent monsters raping and murdering our way across the landscape.

You might think this is an exaggeration, but consider the ways this idea is codified in the widespread beliefs of our society. Under the right circumstances, it is said, anybody can become a murderer, or a rapist, or a drug addict. After all, only nine meals stand between mankind and anarchy. And every school child knows that without external controls, and a reliable food supply, the green and pleasant hills of the Home Counties or New England would turn into Lord of the Flies. Like a murderer in a prison cell, human nature needs to be caged for everyone’s safety.

Even in a society that has rejected religion, the belief in humanity’s essential evil crops up wherever you look. Think about Climate Change arguments, for example. Humanity is a virus that destroys its host, say the activists. No other organism expands beyond an ecosystem’s ability to sustain it. We’ve upset the balance of Nature, and if we become extinct it’s because we deserve it. We have selfishly and knowingly destroyed the planet and our children’s futures for short-term gratification, and we steadfastly refuse to change our habits, dooming us all to destruction. The argument has a beautifully sound clarity: Nature is good, and innocent, and pure; humanity, once a part of Nature, now destroys Nature; therefore humanity is evil. This is as similar as secularism comes to the biblical story of Genesis, though I imagine that, when pressed, most would deny it.

This is the narrative underlying Western civilisation. Some people think being cynical about human nature makes you modern, and edgy, and progressive, but such people have no idea what they’re talking about. Since time immemorial, the great and the good have characterised humanity as evil and the species as being in decline. By this token, we should conclude that human nature is evil, and we should be condemned.

But is that really the case? After all, as Plato argued, ‘Good people do not need laws to tell them to act responsibly, while bad people will find a way around the laws.’

And does this focus too much on individual rather than collective responsibility?

Perhaps we should frame it in another way.

Is human nature innocent, while human society is evil?

An added complexity, and a way of delaying making a judgement on humanity’s good or evil, is to separate individual humans from the mass of humanity, and decide whether humans are themselves evil or merely ciphers for the larger scale structural evils of society.

It stands to reason that no child can be evil, in the same way that no animal can be evil. Children, like animals, don’t have the capacity to make reasoned judgements about their behaviour. Like mankind before the fall, children are innocent, and pure, and without sin.

But as they grow, the world moulds them. Their parents, their culture, society itself, shapes them into something with the capacity for evil. That’s why parents are so worried about messing up their kids. By the logic of this argument, a person who steals, or rapes, or murders, is a victim of their upbringing, a slave to their background. It is not their nature that is bad, but the environment that formed them. Society creates the evil it then punishes, and the person, the individual human, is nothing more than a pawn.

In other words, hate the game, don’t hate the player.

While this might seem like a modern idea, again it is nothing new. This was a hot-button topic in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, as a reaction to Hobbes’ assertion that humanity in its natural state was brutish and violent and needed to be controlled by society. While some glamorised the ‘noble savage’ as a superior being, people like John Locke, Lord Shaftesbury (Anthony Ashley-Cooper), and Jean-Jacques Rousseau argued instead that humanity in a state of nature was a blank slate, neither good nor evil. It was civilised man, living in society, who had the capacity for good and evil, and the verdict was almost unanimous that society tended towards evil. As the immortal opening lines of Rousseau’s The Social Contract declared in 1762: ‘Man is born free; and everywhere he is in chains.’ This in turn led Karl Marx in the nineteenth century and Michel Foucault in the twentieth to argue that human society is an oppressive force, using structural power to dominate, oppress and control.

Proponents of the modern Social Justice Movement owe more to these thinkers than they realise. Propped up by free-market capitalism and the patriarchy, the structure of Western society, they argue, is undoubtedly oppressive and amoral – institutionally racist, sexist, heteronormative, trans-phobic and classist. And it’s no small elite jealously guarding their wealth and their privilege as they fight to keep others down – it’s every man and woman of every race and sexuality and gender identity that accepts and perpetuates and is infected by society. The very foundations of our way of life are evil and must be torn down, to pave the way for more government, more legislation and more control over how we think and behave. It is society, and the evil people in it, who are guilty, not the inherent nature of humanity.

You might be convinced by this argument that people are innocent but society is bad, and it’s certainly easier, and more comforting, to pardon individual humans while condemning human society as an whole, but you have to ask whether it’s really possible, or even desirable, to separate the two. Human society, after all, is a product of human individuals, the sum total of our human nature. And does it really matter if the evil lies in human nature or human society when the end result – human evil – is the same?

Blaming society does not let you off the hook. You have to decide whether the collective endeavour of humanity is good or evil, and there’s no way out of it.

Or is there?

How do we decide what’s good and what’s evil?

You could always sidestep the issue and argue that there is no such thing as good or evil, except insofar as individual societies decide what constitutes good and evil. You might even claim, with some justification, that the world has moved beyond such concepts as good and evil, with their religious overtones and binary positions. This social constructionist approach is very forgiving, and seems reasonable – a religious society will have different definitions of good and evil than a secular society, after all, as will a village in medieval Europe and a city in modern Sweden. But claiming that good and evil are in the eye of the beholder, and that the constraints placed on behaviour are situational – in essence, that good and evil don’t exist – is not only amoral and cowardly, but wrong, from both a philosophical and evidentiary standpoint.

It is a fallacy to suggest, as religious people and many atheists do, that without a divine figure defining good and evil, humans will decide it for themselves. All of the philosophers already mentioned, with the exception of Foucault, while struggling with the nature of good and evil, still believed humans had an innate moral sense, a common understanding of right and wrong that transcends society and is part of our nature. This ‘moral sense’, the source of all goodness, was sympathy, or, as Rousseau defined it, the ‘innate repugnance to see others of his kind suffer.’

Where’s the evidence for this? Probably in a central idea of peoples separated by time, space, religion and culture: the so-called Golden Rule.

See if any of these quotations seem similar:

  • ‘Do unto others as you would have them do unto you’ (Christianity).
  • ‘Love your neighbour as yourself’ (Judaism).
  • ‘As you would have people do to you, do to them; and what you dislike to be done to you, don’t do to them’ (Islam).
  • ‘Choose thou for thy neighbour that which thou choosest for thyself’ (Baha’u’llah).
  • ‘Those acts that you consider good when done to you, do those to others, none else’ (Hinduism)
  • ‘Hurt not others in ways that you yourself would find hurtful’ (Buddhism).
  • ‘A man should wander about treating all creatures as he himself would be treated’ (Jainism).
  • ‘Never impose on others what you would not choose for yourself’ (Confucianism).
  • ‘Regard your neighbour’s gain as your own gain, and your neighbour’s loss as your own loss’ (Taoism).
  • ‘Whatever is disagreeable to yourself do not do unto others’ (Zoroastrianism).
  • ‘That which you hate to be done to you, do not do to another’ (Ancient Egypt).
  • ‘Treat others as you would treat yourself’ (Mahabharata)
  • ‘Avoid doing what you would blame others for doing’ (Ancient Greece).
  • ‘Treat your inferior as you would wish your superior to treat you’ (Ancient Rome).

Even Wicca, the religion of witchcraft, says, ‘that which ye deem harmful unto thyself, the very same shall ye be forbidden from doing unto another’. This is an undeniably conclusive expression of the moral sense that exists in human nature, an injunction of how we should act, and a guide to define good and evil.

It is this knowledge of good and evil, and our capacity to choose how we act, that separates us from the animals. We do not mindlessly follow the dictates of our nature, but decide how we are going to behave in respect to our morality. This is so important that it bears repeating. Without a universal knowledge of morality, and without free will, the question about whether humanity is good or evil would be meaningless, because good and evil would not exist.

Since we’ve established that humanity knows the difference between good and evil – that this knowledge is natural and innate – we’re coming closer to having to make that final judgement on humanity.

Are humans responsible for the evil that humanity does?

Since humans have both a moral sense and free will, does it follow that they are therefore responsible for the evil that they do? Is there a difference between individual and collective responsibility? And why is it that the injunction to treat others as you’d treat yourself is so often ignored?

It could be argued that the Golden Rule is applied much more consistently within societies than between societies. In the case of war, the most obvious expression of individual and collective human evil, a soldier can continue to treat his own side as he would treat himself, and therefore be good, while killing the other side, which makes him evil. That said, the tradition of just war holds that rival combatants are morally equal – that is, the soldier on one side, by engaging in war, consents to kill and risk being killed, and the soldier on the other side does the same, meaning they are treating the other side as they would themselves. Warfare, therefore, does not constitute an evil at the level of the individual – but collectively, there is no denying the evil that warfare inflicts.

It must also be pointed out that while humans, by dint of our reason, are distinguished from Nature, we are still part of Nature. The dichotomy of Nature/good, humanity/bad greatly oversimplifies things, perhaps deliberately so. Nature is not in a state of balance – it is in a state of perpetual chaos typified by the merciless struggle for existence. Nature is cruel and brutal, red in tooth and claw. Warfare is not unique to civilisation or even humanity – the eminent primatologist Dr Jane Goodall was horrified to witness a four year ‘war’ between two groups of chimpanzees, our closest living relatives, in Gombe National Park in the 1970s, suggesting an uncomfortable continuity between our animalistic ancestors and our modern selves.

And what of individual evil? We all see ourselves as moral beings, so how is evil even possible? As individuals, the injunction to do unto others requires that we not only have the empathy to understand the effects of our behaviour on others, but we have to understand ourselves and our own power, which very few people do. Ignorance, narrow-mindedness, misinformation, misunderstanding, and dissimulation – our ability to use our reasoning faculties against ourselves to argue that black is white and white is black – are responsible for far more evil in society than deliberate intent.

There are very few people who choose evil. But that doesn’t mean they don’t exist. It is reckoned that 4% of people are sociopaths, utterly lacking in compassion, empathy or conscience. That 4% causes untold suffering in the world, not least because they exploit the weakness that exists in the remaining 96%. Our moral sense, so obvious at rest, is susceptible to the pressures of our biological limitations, so that when we’re tired, when we’re hungry, when we’re afraid and confused, addled by alcohol or drugs, when we’re in pain and when we’re desperate, we’re less likely to follow the dictates of our conscience. We give in to our primitive needs. We’ve all done things that, in the cold light of day, we know to be wrong. We are all guilty of evil.

Intentional or not, collective or individual, that does not excuse us. We are responsible for our evil, because we know better. It therefore follows that we are also responsible for our good.

And therein lies the key to the whole issue of this debate. If we are to own our evil, we must also own our good. If our evil is diabolical and reprehensible, then our choice to do good is noble and heroic. So how do we weigh up the good against the bad?

Is there good in humanity?

The human capacity for evil is limitless – that is a given – but so too is the human capacity for good. As we’ve seen, there is a Golden Rule governing human interaction, that of respect for others, which is unlikely to exist in a species that is inherently evil. And while examples of evil are daily thrust into our faces by a media industry wedded to pessimism, you don’t have to look very far to find examples of human goodness much closer to home.

The neighbour who takes us in when we lock ourselves out; the boy who helps an elderly stranger put her shopping in the car; the hundreds of thousands of blood donors who sacrifice their time, and submit to pain, to ensure people they’ll never meet have a chance at survival. Every day, a multitude of kindnesses go unrecorded and unremarked, but if you look for them, you’ll discover that they’re everywhere.

There is no greater example of human goodness than the act of parenting. For our children we sacrifice our health, our time, our money, our security, and even our safety – there are very few parents who would not give up their lives to save their children from harm. While it is true that you can find similar altruistic self-sacrifice in the animal kingdom, the difference is that, without free will, an animal’s parenting is innate, and instinctive, and therefore it can’t take credit for it. It is our very awareness of our mortality, it is our conscious choice to sacrifice ourselves, that makes human parenting noble.

There is no reason to have a child. Logically, rationally, using our reason, the benefits to us as individuals of not having children far outweigh whatever benefits we accrue from having them. But we still have children. Why? Because we hope it’ll all work out? I used to believe that hope made the world go round, but then I realised that hope is an admission of helplessness. It’s an expression of futility and defeat. Faith is what makes the world go round. Not faith in a religious sense, but faith that things will be better, that we will overcome the beasts in our nature, and that we will never be defeated by them.

We are told, repeatedly, that we are killers, that we are destroyers, that our nature is violent. We are the worst of the worst. Yet killers comprise such a small fraction of society, it’s hardly even worth measuring. Parents, on the other hand, are everywhere. Every day, everywhere across the face of the planet, ordinary humans take the conscious decision to sacrifice some of their own vitality in order to create something pure, and turn it into something better. We talk about human evil with every breath; but our actions say something different. We believe in human goodness. We have faith in the goodness of the future, or else we would never have children.

That is the truth about humanity. We’re not as evil as we like to think, and we’re a lot better than we realise. We may be in the gutter, but we’re looking at the stars.

So what is the final judgement of humanity?

It’s time to make your decision. If you’re struggling, consider a famous story about this very thing, that of Robert Louis Stephenson’s The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde: ‘In each of us, two natures are at war – the good and the evil. All our lives the fight goes on between them, and one of them must conquer. But in our own hands lies the power to choose – what we want most to be we are.’

Perhaps I should answer first. It’s always easier when someone else leads the way.

Are we good? Yes. Are we evil? Yes. Should we be condemned? Without a doubt. And should we be pardoned? Absolutely.

We are a contradiction as a species. We are part of Nature, and stand above it. We are capable of the ultimate self-sacrifice, and also the most selfish tyrannical abuse. We are neither good nor evil, but both at the same time, and to deny one or the other would be to do us a disservice. It is the evil in our nature that allows us to claim the good; and the good that makes us responsible for the evil.

The evil we do is undeniable and sometimes so overwhelming that we cannot conceive of the good. But as one who came face to face with evil in the Soviet Gulags, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn was under no illusions that we are either one or the other. ‘The battleline between good and evil runs through the heart of every man,’ he wrote.

The true act of rebellion is not to embrace humanity’s evil and give way to nihilism; it is to accept humanity’s goodness. That we are not wholly evil, despite everything tending in that direction, is testament to that goodness. It is our ability to choose to rise above the evil in our nature – it is the very fact that we are redeemable – that gives me faith in humanity.

So how do you find?

The theory that explains Peppa Pig (and Mr Potato is the key!)

I’m going to be honest – I watch far more Peppa Pig than an adult should. Of course, this is because my four-year-old and my two-year-old are obsessed with the little porker, but I have to admit it’s not actually that bad. It’s not as twee as Our Family, not as whiny as Bing, and the less said about Wallybuloo, the better. It’s got plenty of subtle jokes for adults, like when the kids dress up as different UN member states and all end up fighting (‘Is this how you think the countries of the world behave?’), and Brian Blessed as an incompetent sailor-cum-astronaut is comedy gold.

But of course, as an adult, you ask questions of the material that children wouldn’t, and when you do, you start to realise that a lot of it makes no sense. And then, like most people with too much time on their hands, you see if you can come up with a theory that explains all the seeming errors and inconsistencies. And I have.

Don’t worry, it’s not a particularly original or ground-breaking theory, but given that the show was created by adults, I think it provides a coherent cosmology that ties together all the following headscratchers.

1. What exactly are they cooking on those barbecues? Pigs are people in their world. So are cows, and sheep, and goats, and rabbits. Are they all cannibals?

2. Why is there only one set of grandparents? I don’t know about you, but everyone I know has four grandparents. In the Peppa Pig world, everyone seems to have two. Taken to its logical conclusion, that might explain why everyone’s nose is on the side of their head. And speaking of irreparably corrupting the gene pool…

3. Are there laws preventing interspecies coupling? Every adult character in Peppa Pig is either single or married to a member of their own species. Why? Would Miss Rabbit getting it on with Grandad Dog result in stigma and ostracism? Is that why she’s still single and works every single job in town – to distract her from the love that dare not speak its name?

4. Why doesn’t George fit the alliterative-species naming scheme? All the children are named things like Peppa Pig, Danny Dog, Suzy Sheep and Rebecca Rabbit. So why is George just George? They never even refer to him as George Pig. Was he adopted? Is his fixation on dinosaurs because he actually hatched from an egg?

5. Why is Peppa the only one to have a unique name? Given the rest are called things like Edmund, Freddy and Zoe, did the writers invent one name and then get lazy? Wouldn’t it have made more sense to call her Poppy or Pippa?

6. Why do Mummy and Daddy Pig’s friends call them Mummy and Daddy Pig, and not their real names? Did they lose their names when they became parents? Were their identities wiped out at the same time?

7. What the hell is Mr Potato? Talking animals? I don’t have a problem with that. Everyone living on their own hilltop? Unlikely topography, but okay, it’s a fantasy. But a sentient root vegetable? It’s starch and water. How did it grow a brain?

8. How come they have a doctor and a vet? They’re all animals. The job of a doctor and the job of a vet should be interchangeable. (And as a side note, why is the GP called Dr Brown Bear? There’s no Mummy Pink Pig or Grampy White Rabbit, is there?).

9. Why are all the animals the same size? Irrespective of species, everyone in Peppa Pig is one of five sizes: baby, toddler, young child, older child, adult. There is no distinction between an adult elephant and an adult hamster. That’s pretty messed up. Was there some kind of atomic event that mutated these animals even as it wiped out every human being except the Queen?

10. Why are people’s jobs so unrealistic? Mummy Pig simply types on a computer from time to time. The extent of Daddy Pig’s architectural expertise is drawing houses on pieces of paper and occasionally mentioning concrete. Meanwhile, Miss Rabbit does a hundred different jobs, while Mr Bull seems to juggle work for the council with private contracts, ranging from digging up the road to building houses and fixing roofs. You couldn’t possibly run an economy like this. It makes no sense.

 

So how do you tie all these disparate threads together? What’s the theory that explains it all? (Don’t get your hopes up). Here it is:

All the characters are human, and everything that happens is happening in Peppa’s head. It’s not reality but her perception of reality.

Told you it wasn’t very original. In this case, however, it seems to fit.

Peppa is an infant playing a game of make-believe involving the people and situations around her. But it’s not a very sophisticated game, because she’s a kid – she includes barbecues, and doctors and vets, because she doesn’t have the capacity to think through the full ramifications of her fantasy.

The human Peppa whose perceptions we’re seeing is a typical kid, in that she thinks the world revolves around her. She thinks she’s special, she’s unique – that’s why she has an identity (a name) that is different from everyone around her. And, like most kids, she thinks she’s more special within her own family than her siblings, that she is her parent’s proper child (Peppa Pig) while her younger brother is nothing more than an adopted nobody (George without the surname).

As a typically egocentric child, she can’t conceive of her parents having a life outside looking after her. They don’t even have names other than mummy and daddy. And while they do jobs, her interpretation of them is that mummy is playing on the computer and daddy is just drawing pictures, when they should be paying attention to her.

Because she’s a child, her perceptions are black and white, without nuance or subtlety. If her house is on a slight slope, she tells people it’s on top of a massive hill. A muddy puddle is ‘the biggest in the whole world’, while all adults are exactly the same size because they’re all bigger than her. In fact, all adults look pretty much the same to her – every shop worker, bus driver, and ice-cream seller looks like Miss Rabbit, while every builder, handyman or road worker looks like Mr Bull.

Only being able to interpret the world from her own narrow perspective explains why she depicts each complete family unit as a separate species – as a child, the family is her way of structuring the world around her into discrete entities, and she is too young to understand that families can break down and the father from one family (a lion, say) can run off with the mother of another family (a gazelle).

It’s why everyone only has one set of grandparents. Peppa herself only has one set of grandparents, so she perceives everyone else as having one set too, ignoring any evidence to the contrary, as that is how she structures her reality.

And where are Daddy Pig’s parents? Possibly they’re dead, possibly they’re negligent, but possibly they’re simply unwelcome. Given Mummy Pig’s incessant, passive-aggressive belittling of her husband, we might infer that she married beneath her, particularly as her parents are depicted as somewhat posh. Possibly Daddy Pig’s parents were racist lowlifes. The evidence for this comes from the name Peppa chooses for her doctor in her fantasy – not Dr Bear, but Dr Brown Bear. Where did she get that from? Has she heard somebody, her daddy perhaps, referring to their ethnic minority medical practitioner as Dr Brown?

Which brings us at last to Mr Potato, who underscores the entire theory and shows that this is what the creators of Peppa Pig had in mind. Mr Potato has no reason to exist in the Peppa Pig universe at all. So why does he?

Because children can’t differentiate fantasy from reality. As I said, my kids love Peppa Pig, and when we go to Peppa Pig World, they seem to think that the person in the giant Peppa Pig costume actually is Peppa Pig. The same is true of the human Peppa. She watches TV shows depicting anthropomorphic versions of animals, and has met costumed versions in real life so thinks they’re real. In her fantasy, as she makes people into animals, she has to shift the animals one step down the ladder, turning them into anthropomorphic versions of vegetables. That’s why Mr Potato, the fictional TV character in the Peppa Pig universe also exists as a real character in the Peppa Pig universe. The scriptwriters are using Mr Potato to tell us, the audience, that this is not reality: it’s Peppa’s perception, a young child’s perception, of reality.

We could even go deeper. Why has Peppa had three voices during the series? Because the human Peppa is getting older, but still clinging to this comforting infantile make-believe. That’s why early episodes were centred on the town and playgroup, while later ones went to Italy and Australia –  not because the writers were running out of ideas, but because Peppa herself was becoming more knowledgeable about the world. And why is she so desperate to escape into this elaborate world of pretend innocence? How awful is the real Peppa’s life that this is her happy place?

I’m telling you, the creators of Peppa Pig are freaking geniuses. That’s why it’s so popular with kids – it’s their perspective, writ large. That’s why I bath my kids with Peppa Pig soap, dry them with Peppa Pig towels, brush their teeth with Peppa Pig toothbrushes, dress them in Peppa Pig pyjamas, tuck them into Peppa Pig bedsheets, and read them a Peppa Pig bedtime story. For breakfast they have Peppa Pig yoghurt, then they pack their Peppa Pig stationery into their Peppa Pig rucksacks so they have something to do on the way to the Peppa Pig theme park. When we forget to use Peppa Pig prophylactics we use a Peppa Pig pregnancy test. Actually, no, but there might be a day, sooner than you think, that there is no other world outside Peppa Pig.

I’ll say it again: the creators of Peppa Pig are freaking geniuses.

Or am I just overthinking this?

Working on yourself isn’t selfish

Regular readers of this blog will know that I’ve been struggling with mental illness for a while now. Well, all my life in fact, but it’s been particularly severe of late. I’ve pushed myself past the point of sanity, kept struggling on far longer than I should, sacrificing my health, my hobbies, my self-esteem and my dreams in order to be the best father I can be.

And after four years I’ve burned out and can’t give of my best anymore.

I’ve come to realise, as I should have done years ago, that you can’t look after anyone else if you don’t look after yourself. It’s like when a plane is going down and the oxygen masks drop from overhead – put your own mask on before you help the children with theirs, otherwise you pass out and you all die. I thought that being miserable was part of the job, that feeling empty and unfulfilled was a cross that every parent has to bear and I could stubbornly push on and survive on willpower alone. Now I know better.

You can’t be a good parent if all you do is parent. You have to leave the kids, go out and experience all the wonders that the world has to offer, so you can bring that wonder back into your life and give it to your children. Without balance – without time away to gain perspective – you become stuck in unhealthy and repetitive cycles.

need down time, hobbies and personal goals that aren’t centred on parenting. I need to find space for Gillan the man, alongside Gillan the dad.

At school I was told I wouldn’t find fulfilment anywhere outside a university, and they were right. After my first degree, I was strongly encouraged to do a PhD. Instead, I got a second degree and a Masters, after which I was even more strongly encouraged to do a PhD. That was 2015, a few months before my daughter was born and studying had to take a back seat.

Now that she’s started school and my second daughter is two, I’ve decided I want to go for my PhD, and it’s the first time in years that I’ve felt excited about something, where the future seems to hold possibility and light instead of an endless slog of crushed hopes and forgotten dreams.

I’m not unrealistic. With a needy wife and two young kids, I’ll have to do it part time, and without two beans to rub together I’ll have to secure funding, but with a will to succeed I don’t think these difficulties are insurmountable. And as it will make me a better, happier, more contented person, I will be a better father and better husband. To be frank, I’m not good at either right now, and if it keeps going as it is, my marriage is going to fail. I’ve got nothing to lose and everything to gain.

Unfortunately, my decision has been met with decidedly less enthusiasm than I imagined. I’ve been told by various people – people I thought would understand – that I ‘can’t’ do a PhD; that I have ‘delusions of grandeur’; that as a father, with a family to think of, the time and opportunity has passed. The implication has been, almost universally, that to do a PhD would somehow be ‘selfish’, and they think less of me for even entertaining such a notion.

I hadn’t realised that having children means your life is over. Forget having hopes and dreams, forget trying to improve yourself and your situation in life – where you are when you have kids is where you will remain until you die. I should just ‘man up’ and struggle on, I suppose, keep feeling horribly empty, irritable and unhappy, keep failing as a husband and a father, so long as I don’t upset the apple cart. How selfish of me to try and escape that destructive mentality and make something of myself, and in the process become the person I want to be.

There’s nothing noble about sacrificing your dreams when you become a parent. For some people, having a family is their whole life. It isn’t for me. I didn’t cease to be an individual the moment I slipped on my ‘dad hat’. I have many roles to play in this world and I refuse to be pigeonholed into one that is only part of who I am. Turning away from life to focus on on your children makes you insular, one-dimensional, and blind. I’d rather put out my eyes and engage with the world by touch than choose to ignore it.

It isn’t selfish to work on yourself. Nor is it desirable. It’s essential. It makes you a better person and a better parent. Would I want my girls to give up their dreams when they become mothers? No. I’d expect them to take their children with them as they shoot for the stars. And that’s the example I want to give them. Why settle for one or the other when you can have both? Life isn’t about shutting yourself off and staying in the same place, it’s about opening up and going on a journey. This river has been stagnant long enough; it’s time to let it flow again.

No matter what anyone else thinks.

The definition of impossible

Before you have kids, you think of the impossible in terms of massively unachievable goals that affect the very nature of our existence. World peace, faster-than-light travel, a day without anybody mentioning Brexit. You know, big things.

After you’ve had kids, your understanding of impossibility comes much closer to home.

Like, have you ever tried explaining to a four-year-old that the man who lives with Granny isn’t Grandpa but is actually Granny’s boyfriend? What about the difference between a boyfriend and a husband, or why some people get married and some people don’t? It makes faster-than-light travel seem a cinch by comparison.

What about trying to follow the labyrinthine stories they tell through all the twists and turns of pointless details and extraneous information? You might as well try learning ancient Greek without a primer for all the sense it makes.

Have you ever tried fishing poo out of the bathtub without smearing it all over the sides? Or explaining to a toddler that she really shouldn’t poop in the bath.

Why? Why?

Have you ever tried explaining to your kids that Justin Fletcher and Mr Tumble are the same person, or that the distinction between ‘not nearly there yet’ and ‘nearly there yet’ is longer than thirty seconds? I’ve given up trying to make them understand perspective – if they think the moon is chasing the car every time we drive, I’m just going to have to leave that delusion intact.

I’ve also decided not to bother asking what my eldest did at school anymore, because it’s a mystery I will never get to the bottom of. Other than learning that she once saw a pigeon in the playground, whatever happens inside those school gates stays inside those school gates.

And forget trying to get your kid to understand how to tell a joke.

Knock, knock.

Who’s there?

Izzie. Ha ha!

Izzie who?

Izzie. It’s me. Your daughter.

Oh

At least her chicken jokes are getting better, if only because their randomness makes them unintentionally amusing. Why did the cow cross the road? Because it was the dog’s day off at work, ha ha!

Of course, some people out there are going to argue that these things aren’t really impossible, and they’re hardly universal, applying only to me in my very limited family sphere. To those people, I will say that I’ve come to believe there are some impossible truths that cross all cultures and time periods and afflict every parent in human history: the word ‘no’ will never be the end of it; you cannot cut an onion small enough that your kids don’t pick every last bit out of their dinner; and even if you tie their shoes together and lock them in a safe, when you come to leave the house, one will always be missing.

I’ll leave you with this little nugget about the impossible in the life of a parent: it is easier to get an honest answer from a politician than to get your kids to change their bedtime story.

Too young for a sleepover?

My daughter Izzie loves sleepovers, probably because they have been confined to Granny’s house, where she is spoiled rotten, is pampered and protected, and can invade Granny’s bed at any time of the night. I can sleep soundly knowing she’s being well looked after, and that if there are any problems, I will be alerted and can sort them out. Furthermore, being ‘within the family’ means any hiccups – behaviour I don’t approve of from either child or caregiver – can be corrected moving forward.

However, since turning four a couple of months ago, Izzie has decided she’s grown-up enough to have friends over for sleepovers or even go for sleepovers at their houses. I can well understand the thrill and excitement of hanging out with your friend without your parents, staying up late to muck around, and gaining a sense of independence and ownership over your life. But while my wife thinks sleepovers are fine, I am dead set against them because to my mind, four is way too young.

So when is the ‘right’ time to start sleepovers?

She has a friend that she’s known since they were both around six months old. This friend (and, of course, her mother) have been to our house dozens of times, and Izzie and my wife have been to hers probably more than this. They’ve been to parties together, the park, the theatre, swimming – all sorts. I’ve seen how the children interact together, how the mother disciplines her child, and the values and beliefs that this woman possesses. I have therefore, tentatively, agreed to my child going over to her friend’s house for a sleepover, on the understanding that if there are any problems we are to be informed immediately and come and collect her.

My wife unfortunately interpreted this as carte blanche on sleepovers, so promptly lined up another with a friend from nursery, a child I don’t really know, whose mother I’ve only met a few times and whose father, coming from a radically different socio-economic class to us (he’s undoubtedly many, many rungs closer to the Queen than we are), is such an unknown in terms of attitudes, beliefs, behaviours and child-rearing practices, that I’ve insisted my wife cancel.

And therein lies the rub, as my wife now refuses to budge. This is before the first sleepover has even taken place, and we’ve seen whether it was a success or not.

I’ve explained to my wife that I see it as my job to protect my daughter from harm – physical, psychological and emotional – and I am simply not comfortable allowing my four-year-old into a nighttime excursion at a virtual stranger’s house, a place filled with expensive breakables and a father I’ve never met. Her response is that she has met the family a number of times, I’m a control freak and need to learn to let go. Yes, I know I struggle to relinquish control, but frankly the safety of my children, to be looked after within my own home and under my own roof, is more important to me than fostering my daughter’s social connections.

We are therefore at loggerheads, and neither of us looks to back down anytime soon.

So which of us is right? Is four too young for sleepovers? What age were yours when they first slept out? And does anybody have any experiences, good or bad, they’d like to share about sleepovers?

The Dream

The Dream

Since my other site is pretty-much defunct, I thought I’d share some of my writing here at Aspie Daddy. I wrote this story in late 2015 for a competition on the theme ‘heart’. It was about my fears at becoming a new father. I have submitted it to various places and have received much positive feedback. However, several places have said it is too sad for them. I thought it was too good to leave wasting away on my hard drive as it might actually help people in the same situation. Let me know in the comments what you think.

 

The Dream by Gillan Drew

The new parents looked up as the midwife entered the room, the little bundle in her arms wrapped in a white blanket.

‘Here she is!’ she announced cheerily. ‘Who wants to be the first to hold her?’

‘I’ll have her,’ said Stephanie, over on the bed. She wore a light blue dressing gown over her hospital smock – it made her face, pale from blood loss and the ordeal of the birth, look grey in the strip lighting.

‘Be sure to support her head,’ said the midwife, a broad fifty-something with a Geordie accent.

The girl took her baby, careful to place the little one’s head in the crook of her arm, and looked down into her face.

‘Hello,’ said Stephanie. ‘I’m your mummy.’

‘Do you have a name picked out for her?’ the midwife asked.

‘Yes: Cora.’

‘That’s a lovely name.’

‘Tom chose it, didn’t you, Tom?’

Slumped in a chair in the corner, his face as pale as his wife’s and black bags under his eyes, Tom merely grunted.

‘Do you want to see her?’ the midwife asked.

Tom shook his head. ‘I’m good,’ he said.

‘You’re sure?’

‘Really,’ said Tom.

Stephanie rocked the baby in her arms. ‘How much does she weigh?’

‘Eight pounds,’ said the midwife. ‘A good size.’

‘You hear that?’ the girl said, nuzzling close to her daughter. ‘You’re a good size. No wonder mummy found it so hard to get you out.’

It had been a horrible labour, coming on the end of a horrible pregnancy. Nine months of morning sickness and mood swings had given way to twenty-six hours of agony, which culminated in an injection into Stephanie’s spine, followed by a ventouse suction cup on the baby’s head and, ultimately, forceps. She was still numb below the chest, unable to get off the bed.

Looking over at Tom, Stephanie smiled. ‘She has your nose,’ she said. ‘My good looks, of course. She’s the most beautiful thing I’ve ever seen. You need to come look at her.’

Tom shook his head again.

Unfazed, Stephanie pushed up the woolly pink hat on Cora’s head. ‘Dark hair! Like your daddy.’

‘They normally lose that in the first few months,’ said the midwife. ‘Then it grows back the colour it’s going to be.’

‘What colour are her eyes?’

‘I imagine they’re blue,’ said the midwife. ‘They normally are with newborns. Do you want me to have a look?’

‘No, that’s okay,’ said Stephanie. Reaching inside the blanket, Stephanie pulled out Cora’s hand. ‘Look at those little fingers,’ she said. ‘They’re so perfect.’ She looked over at Tom again. ‘I can’t believe we managed to make something so perfect.’

Tom looked away.

‘Please come and meet her,’ said Stephanie, and for the first time her voice started to crack. ‘Please don’t be like this.’

‘You really should come and hold her,’ the midwife urged.

‘Why?’ Tom asked. ‘What’s the point?’

Stephanie let out a sob.

Sighing, Tom studied his feet for a few moments before his shoulders sagged. ‘Fine,’ he said, standing in one swift movement. His legs ached from all those hours standing by the bedside, flitting between hope and despair.

‘Thank you,’ Stephanie whispered, her eyes glazing with tears.

‘I won’t be holding her long,’ he replied. ‘I’m only doing this for you.’

‘You’re doing it for all of you,’ said the midwife as Stephanie eased the little bundle into Tom’s arms.

‘Careful of her head,’ she said.

‘I know,’ Tom replied. He’d practiced for months on dolls and teddy bears and in his dreams – he knew exactly what to do.

He was struck by how light Cora was. Stephanie had put on almost two stone during the pregnancy, and the baby was only a quarter of that. And she was no bigger than a rugby ball, when Stephanie had been huge – still was, he thought, as though Cora was still inside, still waiting to be born.

There was a tight band about his chest and the lump in his throat burned, but he wasn’t going to cry. They were watching him. They were expecting something of him. So eventually he had to look down, had to engage with this, loathe as he was to do so.

Stephanie was right – his daughter was beautiful. Between the rough white of the hospital blanket under her chin and the pink hat pulled down almost to her eyes, she had the face of an angel. Long, dark eyelashes, full lips, and she did have his nose. Her skin was impossibly smooth, free of the slightest blemish. And her purple fingernails, so delicate, her fingerprints, the little dimples of her knuckles – he could have lost himself contemplating the mysteries of how they’d been able to create something so complex, so pure.

The hands those hands would hold, the fingers that would intertwine with hers. The smiles that would crease those lips. The things she would see, smell, touch, taste. The life she would live – what a life.

The ticking of the clock on the wall, the distant hum of the traffic on the spur road, cut into his thoughts. Years later, he would still be haunted by their indifference.

‘Talk to her,’ the midwife urged.

‘What should I say?’

‘Whatever your heart is telling you to say.’

He turned away from the others, gently squeezed his baby girl, gazed into her cherubic face, half Stephanie’s, half his, and he wet his lips.

‘I would have been your dad,’ he said quietly, rocking her softly from side to side. He puffed out his cheeks, fought back the tears. ‘I would give anything to have been your dad.’

‘You were her dad,’ said the midwife. ‘You are.’

‘I would have been,’ said Tom. He sniffed, tried to compose himself. ‘So what happens now?’

‘Well, I can leave you alone with her, if you’d like. There’s some paperwork to be filled out, I’m afraid, but we can sort all of that out later. For now, take some time as a family.’

Tom nodded and the midwife opened the door. ‘I’ll be back to collect her in a few minutes.’ She hesitated in the doorway. ‘The way to look at it,’ she said, ‘is that she was just born sleeping. That’s all. She was born sleeping.’

‘Do you think that helps?’

‘I do,’ said the midwife, and closed the door.

The look on Stephanie’s face broke Tom’s heart, and it was all he could do not to break down.

‘Is it true?’ she asked. ‘Is she just sleeping?’

Tom clenched his jaw. The lump in his throat was choking him. ‘Yes,’ he said. ‘She’s just sleeping. We’d best not wake her.’

Taking a deep breath, he placed Cora on the bed alongside her mother, watched as she gazed lovingly down at the little baby and gently stroked her cheek.

‘You’re so small,’ she said. ‘So beautiful. And mummy loves you very much. I’ll be here when you wake. I’ll be waiting for you forever.’ She looked at Tom. ‘Tell her you love her.’

Wiping his eyes, he managed to say, ‘I love you, sweetheart.’

‘And you’ll be there for her when she wakes up.’

‘My heart will be waiting forever for you to wake,’ he said, before, overcome, he buried his head in Stephanie’s belly, as he’d done a thousand times since they found out they were expecting.

When his sobs had finally subsided, he felt her fingers in his hair. ‘What do you think she’s dreaming of?’ Stephanie asked, so softly he almost didn’t hear her.

He looked at Cora through his tears, so peaceful, so serene. ‘I think she’s dreaming of us,’ he said. ‘She’s dreaming of all the love we’re going to give her, all the things she’s going to experience. We’re digging a sandcastle and she’s decorating it with shells. She’s playing with her toys and laughing because I’m making funny faces, and she’s cuddling her mummy and smiling because she knows she’s safe. She’s dreaming of castles and mountains and forests, horses running across the plains, and we’re always with her. Her heart is full, fit to burst with the love we share.’

He felt exhausted, battling to get the words out against the pain searing in his neck and chest.

‘Her heart is full,’ he repeated.

Stephanie continued to stroke Cora’s cheek. ‘It’s a good dream,’ she said.

‘She’s safe there, and happy, and she never has to grow up.’

Stephanie smiled, though there were tears streaming down her cheeks. ‘Then maybe it’s okay if she never wakes up. She can live forever in her dream.’

‘Yes,’ said Tom. ‘And she can visit us in ours.’

‘Then I’ll never want to wake up.’

‘Me neither,’ said Tom, and lying down on the bed beside his wife and daughter, he closed his eyes to sleep.

THE END

Copyright, Gillan Drew, 2015.

Thank You

After my previous unhappy post, I would to thank all the people who have reached out to offer me love and support. I was in a very low place – I still am – but I’m getting up every day and doing what needs to be done. There are arguments for and against sharing your pain in the internet – for showing vulnerability in any sphere of life – but despite all the trolls and hatemongers out there, I firmly believe the majority of people are decent, kind and compassionate and only too willing to help out a person in need, and your responses are evidence enough.

Love like your heart has never been broken and trust like you’ve never been betrayed. Life is better that way.

Aspie Daddy will continue as before!

Much love,

Gillan