When “never say never” appears in The Pickwick Papers by Charles Dickens the meaning is generally considered an optimistic one:
Nothing is impossible, anything can happen.
Christine is a 45 year old intelligent woman, a university lecturer. Good looking, elegant, organised, well-spoken and rather careful. She comes to see her doctor for a prescription of the contraceptive pill, but never mentions partners. When asked, she says: “No, I haven’t had sex for years, but I am taking it just in case.”
A belt and braces woman, because she added “Of course, I would use condoms, too.”
When she was young, Christine had an alcohol problem. A severe one. After a while, she stopped drinking. She has not drunk for twenty years. In her late thirties, she wrote a book about “How to stop drinking and never start again”.
So far, so good.
But last week, for no apparent reason, she bought a bottle of vodka in a supermarket, went home, and drank it all. She fell, broke three ribs, was sick on her carpet. She called her daughter from her mobile phone.
Her daughter found her covered in blood, mumbling nonsense in slurred speech.
In casualty, they stitched her head wound and gave her painkillers.
She was sober when her doctor offered help, the local Drug and Alcohol centre, AA, counselling.
“I don’t need anyone telling me.” she said. “Thousands of people stopped drinking with the help of my book.”
She went away determined never to drink again and convinced that she will manage. Will she? I am not that sure.
Of course, addictions are like this: Smoking, where ex-smokers have that one cigarette in a pub and start smoking again. Or eating, those patients with yo-yoing weight, always starting and breaking various weight loss plans.
Gamblers that have just “one small bet”.
But Christine made me think about those times I said “I will never do this again”.
The times when I was doing something which had an ill effect on others – being caught speeding by a traffic camera, driving carelessly and hitting posts or other cars, being unfaithful to my partner, unkind to friends or relatives, the times I shouted at my children….Or those times when I did things harming just me- lending money to an unreliable friend, having people behave badly to me because I let them.
Tolerating my husband’s affair with another woman for years as if I did not deserve a faithful husband.
All those resolutions of:
I will never do this again!
I will never let so-and-so do this to me again!
Is this different to Christine? I don’t think so. The denial of a problem is the same. We all seem to think we are learning from our mistakes, but are we?
Of course, some people do learn. They get fired from one job and then act differently on their next job. They fail exams at university then take the course a second time and pass in the top of the class. They have a business that goes bankrupt but succeed with the second one.
But sometimes we just keep repeating the same mistakes again and again. Sometimes big and serious mistakes, but sometimes little ones that can be annoying. I will not talk about the serious ones, we probably all know them.
Here are some little things:
I am thinking about that famous sentence from the AA meetings.
“Hello, my name is (first name) and I’m an alcoholic”
We could say things like:
- “Hello, my name is (first name) and I’m letting people give me unsolicited advice and treat me badly because I am worried that if I said something, people would not like me”
- “Hello, my name is (first name) and I shop too much, buying things I do not need and cannot afford”
- “Hello, my name is (first name) and I gossip about my friends”.
- “Hello, my name is (first name) and I am always late.”
- “Hello, my name is (first name) and I have a tendency to nag”
- “Hello, my name is (first name) and I don’t pay enough attention to what my partner says or does.”
- “Hello, my name is (first name) and I flirt with other people when I am out with my partner.”
- “Hello, my name is (first name) and I do not keep my promises.”
- “Hello, my name is (first name) and I tend to not reply to texts and emails from my partner.”
There are thousands of mistakes we keep repeating. Despite that “never again”.
Maybe we should have our own personal AA sessions. Once a week, alone in our bedrooms, we could say a mantra:
“I will never do …. again”.
Maybe when George Santayana said: “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it” he didn’t just mean world history, but our own personal histories as well.