When I was a child, I thought that adults could do just as they pleased, that no one ever told them what to do and what not to do. 'Don't do this' and 'do that' were terms addressed only to children, I thought.
How wrong I was! Now that I am an adult, I find that no matter where I go and no matter what I do, there are words (written very often in more than one language) and/or symbols that tell me what I should/should not do.
When I am driving down the road there are lights that tell me when to stop and when to go. Symbols tell me when I need to stop because there is a pedestrian crossing (and this time there isn't a coloured light to guide me), that I need to slow down, that I must not sound my horn, that I must not turn right/left, that I can only turn right/left...
When I've reached my destination, I need to park my car. Again, signs tell me where I can and where I can't park my car. OR, that I can park in a particular place, but only for a limited period. OR, I can't park at all, and if I do, my car will be towed away. OR, I can park my car but at particular times the cleaning truck will come by to do its job and at those times the whole area has to be empty of cars.
And once I've parked my car, I take to the pavement. Here too, I am told by lights when to stand still and wait and when to cross the road. Other signs tell me that the part of the pavement I am on can also be used by bicyclists. Signs on gates inform me that the area is under video-surveillance and that there is a ferocious dog within.
So: I drove my car, I had to follow Do-this-don't-do-that. I parked my car, ditto. I walked, ditto.
What about when I am not on or around the road?
I go to a supermarket. A sign tells me that dogs are expected to wait outside and must not enter the premises. (I have even seen a sign that said “Domestic animals not allowed.” What would they say, I wonder, if I casually sauntered in with a python wrapped around my shoulders or with a tiger on a leash?) Everything that I buy tells me something that I should/should not do. There are foods that tell me to cook them before I eat them. Others give no instructions as to the food itself (except the date before which I should eat it); they do tell me, however, not to throw the container carelessly anywhere, but to make sure I put it in a dustbin. Toys tell me that they shouldn't get into the hands of anyone under three years of age, while packets that the said toys come in remind me that they themselves are not the toys and should not be played with.
I finish my shopping and come out of the supermarket. I go to a park to enjoy some greenery – and I immediately see a notice that tells me not to walk on the grass. And look! There's a whole list of "Don't" symbols up by the gate. I am not supposed to: pluck the flowers; play football; ride a bicycle/motorcycle; leave my dog loose; throw rubbish, in the park. A separate sign says that should my dog produce anything in the park, I must immediately collect it (preferably while it is still warm) and deposit it in the apposite container.
I sit on a bench (thank God I'm allowed to do that!) and think about all the places we go to and the signs that make us toe the line. At the zoo they tell me not to feed the animals. At the library I am told to turn off my mobile phone and maintain silence. At museums and exhibitions, signs tell me not to take photographs and not to touch the exhibits. I have seen signs outside tourist-visited churches telling me that I will not be allowed to enter if I am scantily dressed.
In banks, post offices and railway stations – or anywhere that one has to queue – a sign tells me to wait my turn at the line. (That's a polite way of telling me not to crowd up near the person who is transacting his business at the counter, or rather, not to be nosey.) And, assuming that I have bought a train ticket and gone onto the platform, a sign tells me to make sure to stay on the correct side of a yellow line that runs along its length and absolutely not to cross the tracks.
And then, inside the train, on each and every window, there is a sign – written in four languages! – telling me not to throw things out! As if I would! The door, not wanting to be left out of this "don't-don't" bombardment, tells me not to lean against it.
In buses they often have a sign that tells me not to talk to the driver. On the rare occasions that I have tried (don't misunderstand me, I only wanted information, I had no intention of getting into a chat), I have failed – the driver was too engrossed in chatting on his mobile phone to pay any attention to me.
The best example of "do-this-don't-do-that" is to be found at a world-famous chapel that I visited not so long ago. As I was taking in the beautifully painted walls and ceiling, a voice kept breaking in on my thoughts; this voice told me – very firmly and in several languages – not to use a camera with a flash, not to snack, to sit up straight, to try not to blink so much and for heaven's sake to stop picking my nose! At least, it sounded like that. I could hardly concentrate on anything because of this constant do-do-do-do-don't-don't-don't-don't.
I go home. I turn on my computer – and what do you know? It starts telling me that there are programs that I need to update. So I get fed up with it and turn it off – and then it tells me not to turn it off because it has – unasked by me and without my permission – started updating something and is in the middle of installing the third of seven components.
Right, let me take a shower. At least I am the boss in my own bathroom. In there, no one tells me what I should or what I should not do. And after I shower, I decide to wash my clothes. Aha! Instructions again! Every item of clothing – human or bedding or other – tells me: whether it can or cannot be machine washed, at how many degrees, whether it can be ironed; in addition, some tell me that they cannot be bleached or that they should be dried flat in the shade.
The washing machine, too, tells me that there is a series of programs that I can choose from. What are my clothes made of? Are they very dirty? Will they fill the washing machine or will they only make a half-load? Are they all white or are they coloured? Do I want to wash them in hot water or cold water? If hot, how hot? Do I want them spun very fast or only moderately? Do I want to use a lot of water or do I prefer a more ecological approach? I have to answer all these questions before selecting the right program.
And I used to think that the adult world was an instruction-free world!
The brighter side of instructions is that some of them are truly ridiculous. I once saw a woman wearing a T-shirt that said “Kiss me”. Would she really like it if some unknown person stepped over and gave her a kiss? And the strangest one ever: on the wings of aeroplanes, there is a painted line and along this line is written, “Do not walk beyond this line.” I have met thousands of people, but not one has ever shown an urge to walk on aircraft wings, within or beyond lines. Then there was a sign I saw written largely on a wall: “DONT URINATE” Did they really want people to stop urinating altogether – to give it up as one gives up bad habits? Or merely not to do it in that particular place?
Jokes aside, what I am getting at is this: we're not free, are we? We're not slaves, yet our every movement is curtailed and controlled in one way or another. We're not children any more, we're adults. We wake up in the morning to do things that adults do – go to work, look after our children and our homes. We read the newspaper and criticise the Government's policies. We're adults but we're still children – children of some Higher Adults that are always anonymously telling us “Do this,” and “Don't do that.”
Years ago, when I read George Orwell's 1984, I thought it an absolutely impossible situation. Mankind could never allow such a thing to happen, I thought. Perhaps I thought this way because the year 1984 had already passed (the book had lost its power as a prophecy of things to come), or because I was at the peak of my youth – full of physical, mental, emotional energy, ready to fight all battles, mine as well as others'. Looking around now, I realise that what we live in is not far from the 1984 situation.
But we're happy, and that's what counts, isn't it? There's a new mobile phone on the market; 1,248 people queue up all night to be among the first to own it! All with happy, smiling faces. Thousands of others buy it over the following weeks – all happy. New ring tones, new ways to communicate with people at all ends of the world (people whom we've never met, people who might be suffering from halitosis and hyperosmia for all we know), new devices filled with thousands of pieces of music...new this, new that, new new new new.
That's the way the Higher Adult keeps us happy – just the way I see many parents keeping their child from bawling and throwing a tantrum in public – by giving us something new, something nice and shiny, something that makes us feel special.
We're happy as a sand-boy, and that is what is really important, isn't it? Whether we are in 1984 or 2012, if we're happy, do we need to ask for more?