The most important item is not on the list. It’s one of the features of lists that most frustrates the list-making classes. Weeks ago you started making a list of everything you wanted to take on your holiday to Switzerland, only to realise today, three in the morning on the border at Bern, with the appropriate office quite understandably closed, that you forgot to get that sticker thingy you need to drive on Swiss roads. It’s going to cost you a very expensive hotel room, if you manage to find one at all.
This isn’t the first time. There was your friend’s wedding, where your best man skills were demanded and evident, but preparing a speech did not feature on the otherwise excellent column of things not to be forgotten. Then there was the shopping list for your girlfriend’s graduation party that included every imaginable cheese, but was significantly light on baguettes. Or the list of procedures for guests at your cottage in Norfolk that neglected to say where the stopcock for turning on the mains water in winter could be found. There was also the famous list of favourite books that left off ... your all-time favourite book, which would not normally have been that serious a blunder, if the author hadn’t been a close friend of the family.
I learned something long ago about lists that I have only recently fully integrated into my thinking. At the time I was receiving some tips from a professional soldier on the art of standing sentry duty at night. This was during my school days, when we were all expected to play at being officer cadets twice a week and occasionally got sent off to various camps to give us a taste of the “real thing” and stiffen our morale. This soldier told me that I should not look directly at something that might have moved in the dark, but rather to relax my gaze and look in as unconcerned a way as possible slightly to the left or right of the suspicious area. Any anomaly would more likely appear again when not
being concentrated upon. List-making is like sentry duty. You should not
concentrate your mind on making a list, but rather get yourself into a mental place where the list and its purpose are of little weight and then simply note down anything and everything that comes to mind; some of which will be relevant, some not.
Lists also frequently fail to distinguish between the urgent and the important. This is the bane of everybody’s favourite standby, the to-do list. You’ve read somewhere that ‘life coaches’ always advise us to start off on an easy gradient. So you will tend, in obedience to so much sound advice, to choose the softest option on the list to do first, ignoring something urgent enough to cost you a reminder charge or a fine for being overdue. Or you will fixate on the urgency of something relatively trivial and miss an all-important deadline that might have influenced your career curve. When failure to distinguish the urgent from the vital becomes tangled in the over-controlling underbrush of compulsive ‘listeria’ and the absent item of my first sentence also kicks in, well then, Houston, we have a problem.
A further feature of lists, at least as they impinge upon the public mind - the year’s best films, hundred top albums of all time, five best symphonies, ten best holiday destinations, top twenty best beach books, six best guitar solos ever, ever, ever - is that they are only likely to please two parties: the one that drew up the list and the one that made it to the top. Everyone else is going to be either slightly miffed, disgruntled, deeply disappointed, frankly embarrassed by the company they suddenly find themselves thrown into, made positively green with envy or even livid with murderous intent. They may bear a grudge for decades and regularly take it out on you with lists of their own, upon which you and anything you stand for are conspicuously absent. One of these rosters might turn out to be entirely the wrong kind of ‘hit’ list.
Meanwhile, the people most likely to read your list will themselves be inveterate listers, all of whom are going to disagree with most of your choices. Out of a recently published BBC list of the top 100 books, I found that although I had read 70 of them, several of my chart toppers in various categories got the cold shoulder. How could a list that includes Philip Pullman not include Mervyn Peake? Where was “The Railway Children” in the children’s lit section? I could write a better list on a beer-mat. Well, maybe not ... Because I’d probably leave off most of what I wanted to list, ending up with a full mat, but not much substance to show for it. As for shopping lists: forget them, because you probably will anyway!
What is it that drives us to listing stuff? Is it a simple desire for order or a deeper evolutionary imperative. Our lists reflect our character and our world view. They mark territory as sure as pissing on a tree. They are also a personal statement of our priorities and our feelings towards certain facets of life: literature, music, film, desserts, brands of beer, dumbest things to say on a first date, what to take out of a burning house, things I do not want to happen at my funeral, etc. Lists seek to impose our own order on how others see a subject, while in reality only explaining our narcissistic nature to ourselves, much like a mirror. This is why we might list what we look for in a partner (thus ensuring that we never find one) or the required qualities of the prefect job (meaning the job that considers me the perfect candidate ... another good way to stay on the shelf). The evolutionary imperative might also be our animal desire to avoid risk, to ensure our genes are given the best possible opportunity. But the result may well be the opposite: a whole world of pain and chaos can open before your feet merely by not ticking the right sequence of boxes on your own parade of options and preferences.
A woman I know recently said to me: “I could never consent to share my life with someone for whom I was not the first choice”. I wisely said nothing. But what I thought was: how conceited, how vain and foolish. Quite apart from the fact that MY first choice was a little girl whose name I have long forgotten and whom I tried to get to marry me - with a brass curtain ring - when we were about six, so that any other pretender to the throne of my heart, at least in terms of precedent, was always going to be second best. But the real reason is another: if I am not someone’s first choice, it merely means that someone else has refused them. Why should I feel slighted by that person’s error of judgement? If the runner before you falls, does that make you less of a winner? If the fates have winked at another, but end up smiling at you, should you begrudge yourself the joy of feeling special, of feeling chosen?
Maybe your wife was not jilted by George Clooney before she picked you, but nonetheless, if HE had asked HER first and SHE had refused HIM, you’d feel pretty good about it, right? So why should it be so different if George, or anyone else, turned her down? Do you really think she’s going to love you less for it? Let’s look at this soberly. There was a list. George and Johnny and Matt and Brad and a whole lot of other guys were on it before you, but, guess what, they didn’t turn up on race day and you did. So don’t be churlish about a victory by default. Just remember - even setting evolutionary parameters aside - THE MOST IMPORTANT ITEM IS NOT ON THE LIST.
© Edwin Drood
, February 2013
llustration: "Frigga Spinning the Clouds" by John Charles Dollman (1851–1934).
From Myths of the Norsemen from the Eddas and Sagas
by H. A. Guerber (Hélène Adeline).
George G. Harrap & Co., London, 1909. At archive.org