Belfast Telegraph

Friday 28 November 2014

Experience often contradicts our cherished values

Later this month, I hope to lift a glass of champagne (or elderflower spritzer) with a friend whose divorce is due to come through just before Christmas.

She has yearned for this divorce for some time, as she has had a very unhappy time of it, but it is always a complicated business disentangling material assets.

If the wife has more assets, earned by her own hard work, than the husband - however unsupportive he may have been - she may be forced to share them.

Life is full of paradoxes. If you live long enough, you will find that events happen which go entirely against your beliefs and principles.

I would have said that I was basically hostile to divorce: it can be rotten for children and it often leads to poverty and loneliness. There's a self-help book I admire, called Feel the Fear and Do It Anyway by Susan Jeffers. It's got a great message: don't look on yourself as a victim. Whatever calamities occur in life, tell yourself, "I can handle it".

Jeffers had an inspiring attitude to managing personal difficulties, but a depressingly throwaway attitude to marriage. She called divorce "moving on".

How about "stick it out"? How about "show some staying power"? How about children, duty, the wider family circle?

And yet, for all that, I find myself celebrating a particular divorce. I am glad my friend will be unshackled from a situation which has brought her much grief.

There is an exception to every rule, although that doesn't necessarily make a rule wrong.

Most of us think it is wrong to steal, but there could be a time and a circumstance when you find yourself murmuring 'necessity knows no law', as, perhaps, you withhold a little something from the taxman.

We all moralise about truth, but most of us tell lies; without polite fictions, civilisation would collapse.

If a family member asks you on their death-bed if you love them, do you answer, truthfully, "I've always had some difficulty with that", or "of course I do"? This is no time to stick to strict rules of honesty.

I know people who are against abortion and yet, when a daughter was disastrously pregnant, took her to an abortion clinic.

I know people who are pro-choice, but were devastated when their only offspring chose to terminate a pregnancy.

I know someone who campaigned for the ordination of women in the Anglican Church and, when women priests were indeed introduced, promptly joined the Catholic Church, with its all-male priesthood.

I know plenty of middle-aged - and older - men who are homophobic; although they don't like to admit it. And I know one, in particular, whose life was saved by a visibly queenie flight steward, who acted bravely and swiftly in an emergency in the South Seas. Since then, the former homophobe has had nothing but praise for gay flight attendants.

Experience seldom matches principles, or, maybe, prejudices. It is life's way of teaching you a lesson that you needn't be so pleased with yourself about the certainty of your opinions.

There are pacifists who find themselves stirred by an event that spurs them on to a more hawkish attitude to war.

The late Christopher Hitchens, life-long Leftie, discovered in middle age that his mother was Jewish and it changed his entire approach to the Middle East. He shocked friends by supporting George Bush's war against Iraq.

Yes, experience often contradicts your most cherished values. That's why we should be ready to have our cherished values challenged by experience.

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