Sunday, 26 December 2010

Turkeys, Hens, Christmas Families and Beware Wise Men Bearing Gifts!

Once upon a time there was a little brown Hen called Jen. On the first day that Jen arrives at the farm she discovers that she is fed at 8am. Being a cautious Hen, Jen doesn’t jump to any conclusions. She makes a series of observations, and records what happens every morning, whether the day is a Monday or a Wednesday, whether there is rain or shine, and so on. Jen finds that whatever the day, or the weather, she is always fed at 8am. And so eventually Jen has collected enough data to infer ‘I am always fed at 8am’. Unfortunately, the day before yesterday was Christmas Eve, and Jen didn’t get fed…

…this is a seasonal tale often told by philosophy lecturers to their new students when discussing predictability and logic. Usually Jen is a turkey and not a Hen. Whether it is Turkeys or Hens, the moral remains the same. It doesn’t matter how much evidence we might accumulate about what has happened in the past, such evidence absolutely cannot provide us with any logical guarantee about the future.

Actually it was Bertrand Russell who is credited with the original telling of this story, and he did use Hens as his example. The contextual anchor of Christmas Eve is my addition to the story. Whilst Russell, a philosopher, mathematician, social critic and Nobel Prize winner, was an important contributor to our understanding of life, the universe and everything, it is his protégé Ludwig Wittgenstein who comes to my mind when thinking about Christmas.

Over Christmas people are often forced to spend longer periods of time together. Perhaps as a consequence of this, more than 1.8m couples in the UK contemplate divorcing their partner during the Christmas period. Relate, the UK's largest provider of relationship support, said the trend to start divorce proceedings in January follows a 50% surge in the number of calls over the festive period. Arguably, many of these problems have their origins in people’s early life experiences – and Wittgenstein was no exception.

Whilst he was undoubtedly a huge influence on philosophical thinking, his personal life and background were tortuous. He was born into one of the wealthiest families in Vienna at the turn of the century, yet he gave away his massive inheritance and first worked as a teacher and gardener. He was homosexual, at a time when homosexuality was not tolerated and three of his brothers committed suicide. Both Wittgenstein and his other surviving brother contemplated suicide too. His Father was a harsh perfectionist who it is said, lacked empathy, and his Mother was said to be anxious and insecure, and unable to stand up to her husband.

In 1908 Wittgenstein came to Manchester to study for his PhD at Victoria University of Manchester, staying at the Grouse Inn, near Glossop during this time. Clearly there was room for him at this particular Inn. What wouidn't be available to him however was any form of support for people struggling to deal with the stresses, strains and troubles of everyday life. Today, the Samaritans provide confidential non-judgemental emotional support, 24 hours a day for people who are experiencing feelings of distress or despair, including those which could lead to suicide. However, the Samaritans are also available to talk to everyone who is worried about something, feels upset or confused, or just wants to talk to someone – they can be contacted on 08457 90 90 90. 

Yesterday many of my family came to celebrate Christmas and we had a great time. Possibly we all ate and drank too much, but there were no disagreements or stress, just good cross-generational fun. It was lovely to see the expression on my eldest granddaughters face as she got her first bike and even the missing Brussel sprouts didn’t dampen spirits. From the early morning walk in the fields covered with snow to the last malt whiskey drunk before bed, it was a wonderful day.

Interestingly, my eldest daughter is called Jennifer, but yesterday she was constantly called Jen, even by me on one occassion! And as for Bertrand Russell’s Jen the Hen, she was probably right when she said, beware the [wise] man who bears gifts, after all, chickens are for Christmas, not for life! Enjoy the holiday, and live every day as if its the first day of the rest of your life.