There are those things in life that you wish you could stop doing (like eating and drinking too much) and those that you wish you could start doing (like keeping in touch with friends or keeping fit). In moments of weakness or alcohol-fuelled introspection we sometimes resolve to do something about these errors and omissions. However, this only amounts to needless self-imposed suffering, since we know such half-hearted attempts at reform are doomed to failure.
This is particularly true of those resolutions made at the New Year. Here in England, January is the coldest, darkest, longest, grimmest, most impoverished month of the whole year. No month is less suited to giving up any small and habitual comfort, or taking up anything remotely virtuous, than January.
So why do we do it? In one word: guilt. Self-denial is the same thing as self-punishment; giving up things we really like doing is the 21st century equivalent or scourging or flagellation. Similarly, starting to do something we have successfully avoided doing for years, is rather like volunteering to be an eternal guest at a polite drinks party in the company of people with whom we have nothing in common.
We think that the state should intervene in this annual misery and wish to put forward a modest proposal or two. The first is a similar scheme to that operated by the NHS by which nicotine patches are issued to those who wish to give up smoking. Greyhares proposes that hare shirts be made available to members of the public who are thinking of making any gesture of self-denial or needless virtue during the winter months. These shirts are to be worn inside out, will be obtained on prescription from your doctor and must be worn until the feast of St Ursus of Aosta on 1st February, or for 30 days whichever is the later. As most people do not habitually wear such shirts, this will result in a genuinely new “discomfort experience”. The treatment has the particular advantage of allowing wearers to be miserable for a month, whilst continuing to do the sorts of things that cheer them up and/or avoiding those things that don’t.
We have also considered a kind of guilt-trading scheme that would allow, for example, people who routinely write to their aunt to trade penances with those who feel they ought to write, but never do. A person addicted to chocolate could trade with somebody who would be quite happy to give up chocolate for a month in return for having their aunt written to. However, we recognise that such a scheme may be difficult to administer and will concede unnecessary chunks of the moral high ground to teetotallers, who are very much in demand at this time of year.
Whatever scheme you choose to adopt for yourself, always remember that doing nothing most certainly is an option.