Break a leg

Break a leg

Break a leg. Actors about to take the stage are traditionally told ‘break a leg’. The origins of the tradition are obscure. It may be a corruption of a Hebrew blessing, or an exhortation to put in an energetic performance. Or possibly an attempt to avert bad luck that may be attracted by wishing for good things at a critical moment.

In most animals a broken leg is a harbinger of death. Few recover sufficiently to avoid predators or hunt, and most starve or die of infections – unless a handy human vet is nearby. Some do manage to recover and literally limp on, but serious breaks in long bones rarely bring good outcomes.

Civilisation and broken legs

The traditional views on the origins of civilisation are mostly based on technological developments, or the beginning of farming, or some other invention of a thing.

Yet, according to the archaeologist Margaret Mead, the beginning of civilisation can be traded to a 15,000 year old human bone that shows the sign of a serious fracture, that then repaired. This indicates nursing, food and care for the injured one as the femur takes weeks to repair.

History textbooks with their seemingly inexhaustible bias towards war, conquest and technology, have brainwashed us into forgetting that civilisation begins when we are willing and capable of taking care of the vulnerable among us.

Arguably it ends when we are not longer able to do so.

The blitz spirit

From conversations with my grandparents who actually lived through the blitz in a highly bombed area and my parents, I was often told the reason why people had such nostalgia for the terrifying death dealing experience that most of us would seek to avoid today, was simply the feeling that ‘everyone was in it together’. Huddled in an Anderson shelter, you lived or died according to whether you got a direct hit. There was no distinction between the occupants.

The faux summoning of the blitz spirit today as a token of nationalism is an entirely different thing. Far from a shared experience it thrives on separating communities from each other, and individuals from their communities, and encouraging the worst in each of us.

Shortages and the end of civilisation

Recent shortages, however caused, show us that we are allowing civilisation to wane. Each time we fill up and take a tank full of petrol ‘just in case’ and deprive a key worker from being able to get to work, each time we buy all the food, all the toilet rolls, all of anything, we show our lack of civilisation. And to do it in a violent, aggressive or abusive way doubly so.

Our world is ending – not because of climate change (though it is changing many things) or Brexit (though that has its own agenda entirely) but because we are unable to take care of each other and nurse each other through difficult circumstances.

The poor boy with the broken femur 15,000 years ago would be treated (eventually) in over stretched and over worked hospitals and then left to compete with the rest of us for food – often on tight finances such as SSP or universal credit.

And those who exhort us to remember the blitz, will cheer and jeer as they crush the weak and vulnerable and promise us that our nation will rise. Presumably on the corpses of all those who have died, and those who will die in the world they are so gleefully creating.

Break a leg

When I ask you today to go out and break a leg – I mean it in the sense of put your best efforts forward to help avert this. Help someone, let someone go before you in the queue. Do not use or buy what you do not need right now. And teach your children, by setting an example, how it is that a civilised person behaves.

“We are free to choose our paths, but we can’t choose the consequences that come with them.”

Sean Covey, The 7 Habits of Highly Effective teens

We are witnessing an extraordinary outburst of teenage behaviour amongst people far older who once may have been expected to be wiser.

From Brexit, to Covid vaccinations, from food hoarding to global travel, the watchword of the day is the exercising of personal freedom – coupled with a fair degree of paranoia about what ‘they’ want us to do. I cannot vouch for who they are, or what their agenda might be. It seems to vary from person to person. 

But what they all have in common is that the mighty ‘they’ are taking away free will.

People feel coerced, even imprisoned by situations in their daily life. The consequences of simple decisions appear to be punishments administered by a mysterious ‘they’ rather than the natural consequences of choice and decisions.

Why do we believe so passionately that everything that happens to us is done to us by some conscious agency? Why is it so difficult for us to see that mostly we are the agents of our own live and our own decisions take us from one place to another?

On the one hand many of us are like toddlers, believing we are omnipotent and all important and that our slightest whim should be instantly indulged regardless of the cost to others (or even ourselves). On the other hand we are capable of instantly changing over to believing that we are the victims of conspiracy, oppression, or government and that if our ‘free choice’ were restored we would be able to carry on as we will without unpleasant consequences. Our attempt at growing up seems to have only progressed as far as teenager – blaming our psychological parents for giving us tummy ache when we have eaten things we were told not to eat!

“There are in nature neither rewards nor punishments — there are consequences.”

Robert G Ingersoll

Break a leg.

Into this strange psycho-drama step the exploiters and abusers. They use our teenage-style sulking to persuade us to take more unwise decisions, to get ourselves into more of a tizz and to be unbalanced for longer. When we are reduced to children needing comfort, they then sell us fake comforters and tell us all will be well if we exchange our hard earned money for their cuddly toy or dummy. But it is no longer a cuddly toy but a shiny car, an expensive holiday, an expensive pair of shoes. We are pacified, but only for so long before that turned around, off balance feeling starts again. We need comforting once more.

We are being lulled into the idea of consequence free decision making. That like mini-gods we can have temper tantrums and decide without consequences for ourselves or others. But there are no consequence free decisions. Our desire to comfort and be comforted and yet remain free and not responsible makes us all the prey of anyone with a better strategy.   

Unless we soon step into an adult and responsible mode of being, we will not like the consequences of our behaviour. We delude ourselves into thinking the consequences of our choices affect others, but not ourselves. There is some harsh learning going on teaching us that this is not so. It really is time to clear up our room!


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