Holidays are over. Back to the grind, school, work, uni, the girl locked in the basement. With summer, lazy days, late rising and endless sunshine, all still fresh in the memory, the misery of the graft is all the more obvious, the contrast more jarring; the post-vacation life is a depressing bitter pill we all swallow. Unless you’ve got yourself a doctor’s note – in which case enjoy a few more days of the holiday vibe.
For some, the note will become permanent. Not because they’ve been sacked or contracted a terminal illness, just because the back-to-work shock was too much. If you’re going to make a life changing decision, to jack it all in and pursue your dreams, it’s the second week after the holidays in which you’re most likely to do it. You’ve had just enough time to think (and not enough time to think again): bugger the drudgery, what’s the point?
So I’ll tell you about Sammy. At school Sammy had it made. We all envied him. When we were splashing through freezing slimy puddles, spattering our legs with foul smelling mud, Sammy was warm in the library clutching his “note”, his cherished paper prize that perpetually excused him from the cross country. In fact, having been diagnosed with mild dyspraxia, Sammy’s note was continually updated by his concerned parents, who excused him from all sports for his entire school career.
Today though, the envy has gone. You see, Sam has lived his life as if he always had a note excusing him from any of its potential adventures. Pushing fifty now, his circumference has been multiplied by pie; chronically obese, he suffers from continuous vertigo, countless phobias and, for most of his life, desperately unhappy singleness. Had he been born twenty years before, or to a less privileged class, his dyspraxia would have just been called “clumsiness”, for which there was no known note, and he would have been plunging the puddles with everybody else, or at least behind everybody else.
This could just be the old nurture/nature debate. If you’re a nurturist you’d argue that: had Sammy got in the habit of exercise, and practiced some coordination exercises, at an early enough stage in his life, he might have been spared such a waisted life. Or if you’re a naturist, put some clothes on, it’s getting chilly.
It’s always possible that Sam was genetically “programmed” to end up as he did. But I have a terrible feeling that it wasn’t his genes or his dyspraxia that did for him, it was his “note”.
I honestly think we all have, or long for, our own notes. The desire to have some way, some thing, that excuses us for behaving the way we actually do – rather than the way we know we should – seems an almost quintessential human urge. So many advances in the human sciences get redeployed as steps towards that Holy Grail: The Universal Excuse Note.
From Humanism to Phrenology, social theories and the genome project, we have quickly hijacked each philosophical, sociological or scientific breakthrough to furnish more excuses for our own uncivilised conduct.
My own “note” lurks somewhere in the back of my head, waiting for the moment I’m caught being me, and not being the someone I know I really ought to be:
“To whom it may concern.
Please excuse Marius’ thoughtless borderline racism today; he suffers from the chronic social pressures of his white middleclass background. Please will you also excuse him from any punishment for cheating on his wife – I’m sure you understand that he is merely a hostage to his selfish genes vying for survival. Lastly, if you catch him picking his nose, please will you excuse him as he is, after all, only a slightly evolved chimpanzee.”
In the last few years, with advances in electroencephalograph (EEG) scanning, the brain and its workings have become the latest fodder for our universal “note”. The Scientific American publishes a monthly magazine devoted to the brain, the Science and Self-Help sections of bookshops are bursting with brain books and you can tell when a subject has become truly ubiquitous – there’s a “Rough Guide” to it.
As our understanding of the workings of the “normal” mind, and the chemicals that are released in the face of various stimuli, improve, lawyers – and parents – are armed with an ever more sophisticated arsenal of mitigating and evidential factors. Today, a murderer influenced by the brain-chemical surges of pre-menstrual tension, despite it being an apparently “natural” part of body function, is not a murderer. Or, as I may once have explained to the parents of two of my son’s school mates, “He’s not actually an aggressive bully who enjoys sticking smaller boys heads down toilets, he’s suffering from melatonin underproduction and struggling to manage his teenage testosterone spikes.” And I could tell from their contrite gawping that they truly understood that he was just as much a victim as their own precious offspring.
But, if we cannot control the chemicals and processes of our minds and bodies that effect our behaviour, are we actually responsible for anything we do?
At what point might we be forced to recognise that “my” brain, “my” rushes of adrenalin or floods of pheromones, is “me”? If, when healthy, we can’t or won’t, take responsibility for our own brains – and by association our own minds – then aren’t we in danger of losing our identities, our individuality, ourselves?
Perhaps the question shouldn’t be “why are we looking for excuses?”, but “why do we feel so guilty in the first place?” Before humanism, we saw evil, or vanity, or stupidity, we did awful or idiotic things, but we had the ultimate “note”, “The devil made me do it.”
Now, although we’re still reaching for excuses, albeit more “scientific” ones – so that we can act like the venal selfish animals that we actually are with some impunity – the very fact that so many of us are looking for a “note” means we also recognise when we fail to be what we aspire to be: better. We know we need to evolve and evolution requires constant failure to recognise the virtue of success.
Unfortunately, the danger of the “note” will always be if we start to believe it and allow ourselves to stop striving; as Sam did.
Sammy’s parents, concerned for their child, gave in and encouraged Sammy to do the same. Dyspraxia is, after all, a neurological disorder. Had they looked deeper at neurological findings, they would have discovered that brains, especially young ones, have a phenomenal ability to “rewire” themselves through familiarity and conditioning. It’s called “learning” or, if you prefer, “the process of creating new synaptic pathways in the brain”.
It seems counterintuitive to take the punishment, to run the race, to pound through the stinking puddles rather than find an excuse, but tearing up your own “note” might just be the best thing you’ll ever do.
A version of this article first appeared in