- “I don’t have time.” We all have 24 hours in the day, seven days in a week. Unless we’ve got a debilitating illness – apart from the obvious, terminal, one of life – the only thing that determines what we do or don’t do is how we order our priorities. What we really mean is “This particular thing is not high on my list of priorities.” Which is fine, but it’s not the same as not having time.
- “I’m useless at maths.” Nobody says “I’m useless at reading” yet being bad at maths is almost always said as a boast. What we’re really saying is “I’m a caring, feeling person, not a geek who cares about numbers more than people.” Scientists, doctors, nurses, engineers and nuclear physicists all have to be good at numbers. We could all benefit from trying to be better at them; instead we cover up our laziness by telling ourselves it’s beneath us.
- “I’m a people person.” My favourite cartoon quote of all time is from a character (can’t remember which) in Schulz’s Peanuts cartoon strip: “I do love humanity: it’s people I can’t stand.” Judging by the number of times it’s quoted on Facebook and elsewhere (do a Google search) it’s a lot of other people’s as well. Somebody also said “If everybody knew what everybody else said about them there wouldn’t be two friends left in the world.” How true. Most of us aren’t people people at all. We like some, befriend a handful, get irritated by many. But all people? Just look round the average railway station.
- “I’m a shy person.” Unless you’ve got a true psychological problem this is almost certainly rubbish. Even I find myself saying it from time to time, which really is rubbish. What I really mean is “What if I go and talk to that person and they run a mile?” Most of us can’t bear rejection so instead of risking it we tell ourselves we’re shy – for which read “humble, gentle, non-intrusive, sensitive.” No: read “self-conscious, self-centred, fearful and lazy.”
- “It’s better to give than to receive.” This must be right. Jesus said it. Didn’t he? Paul says he said it (albeit in slightly different words: “It is more blessed to give than to receive” – Acts 20:35) but there’s no evidence in the Gospels that Jesus actually did say it; not in so many words. It must be better to be generous than mean but giving and receiving is a tricky business. We feel good when we give something, vulnerable when we’re at the receiving end. Otherwise, why do we always – but always – feel we have to give something in return? Why is it so hard to ask somebody to do something for us, and why does it feel so good when somebody asks us? Because, quite simply, it makes us feel needed and valued.
- “I’d rather be happy than rich.” As if the two things were mutually exclusive. We probably also add: “Money doesn’t make you happy.” We like to think that rich people, however they’ve come by their wealth – the sweat of their brow, or inherited from daddy – must be suffering as they wallow in their gold-plated baths. We love the image of the poor little rich girl: the celebrities who have everything but whose marriages still break up. But I’m pretty convinced that for every celeb whose marriage ends in misery, there are 10 poor people whose relationships founder on the rocks of mounting bills and unpaid rent. I’m pretty sure most of us wouldn’t rather be happy than rich: we’d rather be both.
- “I don’t watch television except for wildlife documentaries.” When Elsie Tanner died (who doesn’t know who Elsie Tanner was?) there was a Bryan McCallister cartoon in The Guardian. Two people standing at the water cooler and one is saying -“That’s the trouble with pretending you don’t watch the Street. You can’t talk about Elsie’s death.” Amazingly, these same people who claim only to watch David Attenborough, are frequently to be heard saying “I just happened to catch the tail-end of . . . ” or “I came into the room while so-and-so was watching . . .” and then proceed to tell you the entire 20-year back story of Eastenders or Corrie. Come to think of it – that is wild life. Or at least, life on the wild side.
- “I never voted for Margaret Thatcher.” Well, somebody did. She won three successive elections and when she resigned in 1990 she was the longest-serving prime minister for 150 years. Yet I’ve never met anybody who admits to having voted for her. Except me. Yes, I actually did, in 1979. Even though I was a paid-up member of the Labour Party.
- “I did it my way.” The Frank Sinatra hit. Could anything be further from the truth? Nobody, but nobody, does “it” – by which is meant “life” – their way. Of course we like to think we are people of total integrity: honest, true, incorruptible, brave in the face of adversity, stubborn in defence of what we believe, willing to go to the stake for those beliefs. The truth, I’m certain, is that we spend our whole lives compromising, telling half-truths to protect our own reputation or others’, pleasing other people rather than ourselves, because we want – pathetically – to be liked, not realising our dreams, not putting our lives on the line. Certainly not doing it “our way.” In other words, making the best of this gargantuan struggle which is called living. Come to think of it, if we all did do it our way, the world would be in an even bigger mess than it is.
- “I love gardening.” Yeah, right. OK – I concede that for a lot of people this is true. But for me it means “I love my garden. Will somebody look after it for me please because if there’s one thing I hate more than cleaning the lavatory it’s digging up worms and getting soil under my finger nails.”