Wednesday, April 11, 2012
Making sense of our lives
• How can we make sense of the life we lead?
• What is a good life?
• Can we learn from those who live a good life?
• How can we best remember such people – and what they stand for?
My father, for example, led a very full and “good” life - so did other, public-spirited people I worked with in Scotland in the 1970s and 1980s. When they died, they were sorely missed by thousands of ordinary people whose problems they had dealt with – in my father’s case as a Minister of the same Church (“charge”) for 50 years.
I was disappointed, however, to find that they had left behind few (or no) personal reflections on the dilemmas they had faced and lessons they felt life had given them. My father’s weekly sermons may have shown patterns of concerns (even if they were not exactly personal notes) but he seems to have thrown them away on his retirement (at age 75). On the other hand, bookstore shelves groan with biographies and autobiographies of the Great and Not So Good – mostly exercises in self-aggrandisement.
For years, I’ve been worrying about this apparent bias against the modest, self-less servant we find at local levels. I became cynical about the British Honours’ system largely because noone nominated or accepted my father for such recognition; whereas I knew many on high salaries in public service who were avid for an Honour and whose patience and avidity duly paid off. Arise Sir Robert!!
We Brits are not very good at remembering the dead. In Bulgaria, they have the custom of posting a sheet with details and a picture of a deceased person on the door of their building and church. It remains there until the ravages of time erase it.
In Romania, ceremonies are held at set (lengthening) intervals from the date of the death.
My father got a Memorial Service – but then silence. The website of the church he nursed for 50 years had its centenary celebration recently – and its website did not even mention him. The Museum/library complex he served as (a very active) Chairman for many years has been absorbed within the town’s municipal services – although its curator remembered him fondly when I talked with her some years ago about possible ways to commerate him. An annual Lecture? An annual award?
I dithered and took no decision.
And even when a rare book gets to be written about one of these self-less servants (eg Geoff Shaw who died in 1978) it tends to be read only by the faithful and has no internet profile. That’s one aspect of the internet I have seen little discussed – that it whitewashes people of my father’s generation out just as mercilessly as Stalin did.
In the meantime I am a child of my immodest age and fill the airwaves with papers and blogthoughts. Overkill! Search for the nuggets! I readily admit that I use writing to explore my uncertainties.
And yet theree is an arrogance there as well whcih seems to know no bounds – I have even been contemplating a Trust to be established after my death to help pursue some of my concerns!
And here we get to the heart of this post. I know that I have done little in my life that is in itself special. But I am very much a man of my hubristic times – who absorbed the critical optimism of the developing social sciences in the 1960s. But someone with endowed with enough self-confidence to admit ignorance and doubt; with wide reading; and with no little luck. I was lucky enough to hold a senior (but background) political position at an early age. And also lucky enough to be able to reinvent myself at age 50 as an international consultant. I have, therefore, been priviliged to have
• seen politics and policy-making in action from upclose in different countries for forty years
• had access to the academic literature on the subject
• viewed it all through a sceptical and vaguely anarchistic prism
Surely, I like to think, this combination of praxis, knowledge and reflection (and of international experience) has given me insights others (more specialised and focused) don’t have?
We are all, of course, different – in the cards fate deals with us; and in what we make of them. Perhaps, therefore, it is utterly unrealistic to imagine that we would do anything differently from the mere fact of reading how a wiser and better person had tackled an issue. I will never forget the written response of a Hungarian official on the proforma I had given those who made a study-visit in the mid 1990s - "the one thing I have learned is that there is nothing to learn from other countries"! And the same message was in the poster I had in my office in the 1980s - "In my next life, I will make the same mistakes - but earlier"!
Of course, case-studies are an iportant part of MBA studies. And, in my field of government and policy-making, we still need more flesh and blood cases. There is still too much abstract theorisising - too much aping of a discredited 'economic rationality' model.
We all seek for meaning in our lives - its perhaps difficult to accept that everything is accidental and random!.We are all more interesting than perhaps the normal rules of conversation allow us to demonstrate. Some years ago, we were all being encouraged to write (short) autobiographies setting out the key time-lines in our life and then exploring questions such as –
• How did your upbringing affect your life?
• What do you consider your greatest achievement?
• Your greatest failure?
• Your most noble failure?
• Your most interesting experience?
• Your greatest passion?
• Your most challenging project?
• How would you like to be remembered?
Perhaps we talk too much. Writing is a tough master – it exposes the fallacies and gaps in our thoughts. Have any of my readers tried out this sort of autobiography, I wonder? Was it useful?
In conclusion - I have to confess that I don't actually know where all this takes me in my own question about what I have learned from my various political and project experiences which is worth passing on!!