As the Christmas season looms, I find that my number one goal in December is to not lose my mind, and I certainly struggle to achieve this no matter how attentive to my To Do List I try to be.
Hong Kong, in all it’s efficiency and profit driven productivity, perpetuates the false notion that frantic activity breeds happiness, a notion that we seem to be preoccupied with in an age of competitive achievement. At no time does the Hong Kong busy mindset become more apparent than during the lead-up to Christmas. It seems that if we are not doing something, we must therefore be doing nothing, which on the face of it is not an efficient use of our time. Constant busy-ness has become an indication of how motivated (or dedicated, assertive, focussed) we are, but is it really a true indication of how successful we are at achieving our goals?
You don’t have to live in Hong Kong to experience the tyranny of the To Do List. The To Do List, often exalted as the path to happiness and general wellbeing, is a common tool we use to organise our thoughts, prioritise our activities, and generally get things done. However, when the To Do List becomes an unachievable behemoth, tormenting us with its girth and length, leaving us only with the burden of guilt about those things that we ought to have done, it ceases to be of any use whatsoever. And here in Hong Kong, where an entire community lives far away from immediate family, Christmas is a time when delicate preparation is required in order to ensure a smooth ride over the festive season. In such times, the To Do List is vital to survival.
Firstly, due to geography and circumstance, our Christmas comes early. Many of us head back home – or elsewhere – for the two week Christmas break that the schools afford us, so by the 24th of December Hong Kong is a much quieter place. This means that the Christmas Season moves forward by a good two and a half weeks so that expat families can experience festivities with friends and colleagues before repeating the celebrations once again in whatever destination they have retreated for Yuletide. School Christmas parties, Charity dinners, Christmas Carol services, Christmas fairs, Christmas lunches, Christmas office parties all need to be diarised in the calendar, executed with military precision and rigorous attention to detail to avoid scheduling conflicts. These all occur, if you are lucky, somewhere between the 1st and 15th of December, but experienced and aggressive planners will schedule Christmas events even before that, to ensure maximum attendance. Bearing in mind of course that each of these activities will have a To Do List attached to them, especially for those foolish enough to put themselves forward on some sort of planning committee. At the very least, mince pies will be required, and at the very worst you could find yourself committed to standing behind a stall of homemade Christmas decorations, or turning the music pages for the pianist at the School Nativity.
If you are not planning an annual pilgrimage home, then there is the added burden of Guilt to add to your List. Whether driven by yearning, obligation or filial duty, Christmas presents will need to be sent to family and loved ones. An entire sub-list needs to be created to accommodate the Christmas mailing deadlines. Which of course, brings the Christmas shopping schedule forward by about four weeks, which is perfect timing for the shops who are more than willing to throw open their doors to a captive market, windows fully decorated and Christmas muzak blasting from as early as end October.
And let’s not get started if you have been tempted to actually host people for any kind of pre-Christmas before-we-all-go-away get together in your home. That, my friend, will require a new break-out list of home improvements and Christmas decoration projects before the date, not to mention food and drinks. And on it goes.
I am reminded of a little book, So Few Of Me (Peter Reynolds, Candlewick Press ), a delightful picture book for adults, illustrating quite effectively our obsession with generating work for ourselves. The more work to be done, another one of ‘me’ appears and generates yet more work culminating in so many ‘me’s’ frantically generating exponential amounts of work, the infinite number of tasks never getting accomplished.
I can illustrate Mr Reynolds’ point quite effectively from my own experience.
A task on my To Do List is ‘write poetry for Advent Calendar.’ This item originated as a solution to a conundrum from years ago: my eldest son, on his first Christmas, received a beautiful wooden Advent Calendar with tiny wooden drawers for each day of the month, shipped from New York to London, making it impossible to replicate. When our second son arrived, the advent calendar had to be shared, but there was no room for two of everything in each drawer. Refusing to part with this family tradition, in my infinite wisdom I decided to write a small ditty on a piece of paper rolled up and stuffed into each drawer – a sort of scavenger hunt clue to find something hidden in the house. This is now a work-generating obligation, and my husband often finds me, in the early hours of the morning before the children have woken up, madly scribbling at the kitchen table, audibly swearing under my breath about why I ever started this madness in the first place. But the relative pleasure that my children derive from it and my desire to instil it as a Christmas tradition each year, compels me to keep it up even though it is an entirely self-generated job.
I recently listened to a podcast (BBC Beyong Belief) on the subject of mindfulness – a hot topic these days and a vetted cure-all for the ills of modern life, extracted from the Buddhist tradition (together with meditation, a practice I have yet to attempt). An extremely simplistic explanation of mindfulness is taking time to exist in the present. If I look for a connection, I see that the act of writing my small verses should in fact be something to enjoy in the present, not something to curse about at six in the morning, which is much more easily imagined than done.
The BBC panel discussion on mindfulness continues to point out that often people see themselves pre- and post-events, spending an inordinate amount of time obsessing over what went down yesterday or what might be the outcome of their actions tomorrow, but never really living in the present moment. Put into the context of the Hong Kong Christmas madness, the lead-up to the event with the busy-ness of the To Do List becomes much more consuming than the event itself. At times we become so preoccupied with how to get to the finish line, that once we are there, we are too exhausted, too utterly spent by the worry and effort of getting there, to appreciate why we made the effort in the first place.
That being said, the turkey is never going to manifest itself onto the table, the Christmas tree won’t walk in the door and decorate itself, the presents are not going to come down the chimney of their own accord and you are not going to get to your family 8000 miles back home without some sort of planning and action. And truthfully (let’s be honest with ourselves for just a moment) no matter how much you try to break away from the enslavement of our modern day consumerism, telling little Johnnie and Arabella that this year they are just going to get the gift of nothing for Christmas because mummy was ‘living in the present’ isn’t going to cut the mustard, is it? But surely, there is a middle ground, somewhere between our overinflated expectations of what we can achieve and the chaos and disappointment that would issue if we just threw our hands up in the air and said ‘Enough!”.
Perhaps if we want to cull the list we could ask ourselves the question ‘why?’ Why is this particular item on the To Do List important and what is the consequence of not getting it done. If we reflect on how vital it is to our own gratification compared to how important it might be to someone else’s happiness then we might be able to make some cuts. Mindfulness assumes a certain amount of altruism and kindness. When I look at my own To Do List, it is a mixed bag – a sort of crazy stream of consciousness – but there are definitely things on it which satisfy no other person around me but myself. Is anyone else really going to notice if the cranberry sauce is homemade or not? Is it necessary to have the lime green and fuchsia decorations this year for a satirical twist on the red and green theme? I am OK with letting those ones go. There is one thing however that is time consuming, possibly a burden, but no matter how much time it takes I will make myself complete the task. I can feel the early-morning muse of verse beckoning me now.