Thursday, January 06, 2005

A hand reaches down the years 

My paternal grandfather died when my father was only a few years old, at the time of (although not as a result of) the First World War. As the elder brother, growing up in the lean years between the wars, my father took on the mantle of head of household even while still in his teens. He became chief breadwinner and decision maker, learning always to make decisions based on the good of the family as a whole, finding that in seeking a balance between his own needs and dreams and those of the family, more often than not he would end up putting his own wishes in second place below those of his mother and younger brother.

My father was a man of strong principles; during the Second World War he knew would be more than simply unwilling to kill another human being; he would be physically being unable to do so, even when ordered, even if his own life depended on it. His beliefs simply would not allow it, and his beliefs had total authority over his actions. He offered to be trained as a battlefield medic - probably just as dangerous as being an infantryman - but there was no place in the army for a soldier who refused to carry a gun, so the only course left open to him was to register as a Conscientious Objector and join the Non Combatant Corps.

I guess it was these same principles that led him, paradoxically, away from following his dream. He had married just before the war in 1939, and by the time he was discharged from the army he had a young family of his own. For a while he and his wife - my mother to be - entertained a dream of becoming wardens at a children's home, but the pay would have been poor, and with memories of the hard times of his childhood and the sense of obligation he felt now to three generations of the family, he chose to play safe and go for a job that was secure and steady, if rather dull. Before the war, both he and his brother had worked in a local branch of one of the major banks, so it seemed a natural step to take a clerical post in the bank's London head office.

By the time I was born, ten years after the war ended, he was well embedded in that job. His primary purpose in working had always been to support his family, and over the years I guess that became work's only purpose for him. Probably it became too painful to remember that there might ever have been any other purpose, and so I grew up with the clear notion that that was all that work was about – doing something that was essentially dull and monotonous, in return for a wage that allowed one to pay the bills and live with one's family in security and moderate comfort. As my awareness of the wider world grew and I discovered what parents of school-friends did for a living, I can remember a certain sense of injustice that our family's life was as it was, yet somehow I never quite escaped the grasp of the underlying principle, a principle that seemed to go right back to the origins of humankind, reflected in the words of the Biblical Genesis legend:
"To Adam he said,
"Because you listened to your wife and ate from the tree about which I commanded you, 'You must not eat of it,'
Cursed is the ground because of you;
through painful toil you will eat of it
all the days of your life.
It will produce thorns and thistles for you,
and you will eat the plants of the field.
By the sweat of your brow
you will eat your food
until you return to the ground,
since from it you were taken;
for dust you are
and to dust you will return."

"…through painful toil… by the sweat of your brow…" - there was a time when those words seemed to sum it all up for me. Not as divine retribution, simply a statement of the way things are. We might reduce the pain a little, make the toil a little less physical, but essentially life's hard. It just never really registered that life could be anything different.

Why bring all this up now? The power down the years of parental influences has been a topic of some recent email conversations; it is truly astonishing just how much influence parents can have, even throughout our own adult years and beyond.

I nearly fell into a trap once again yesterday, a trap which has it's origins in my father's youth; the trap of believing that it's wrong of me to have any expectation other than that life’s a bitch, then you die. I've still been having counselling, and yesterday was the first session since mid-December. By what right, I thought, do I spend good money on airy-fairy activities like counselling, chasing some abstract delusional notion of self-actualisation, looking for meaning, looking for purpose? Straining after the most stratospheric levels of Maslow's hierarchy? Especially now, at this time when so many are struggling to keep a foot on the very bottom rung of life's ladder? And so I went into yesterday's session with every intent of calling a halt to the whole process there and then.

But I didn't. Not yet. Cold, logical, rational self said end it. But another part of me, hidden for many weeks now, made itself heard, said no, and refused to let go. It was quite a struggle; maybe I'll write some more about that later, but I’ve written enough here for now - in writing this I wanted to become clearer about of one of the factors that wouldn’t allow me to do something for myself.

I still have huge difficulty accepting that I'm spending money on myself which could be going to relief agencies. But I know a line has to be drawn somewhere. I could for example sell my house and move somewhere smaller, and the proceeds would probably pay for temporary shelter for thousands. But I'm not going to do that. Neither, I guess, would you. So there is a line, and once there’s a line, it's position can seem arbitrary.

Anyway, if I stop counselling now, I stop one step short of something that may be just as vital as gifts of money. I stop short of rediscovering the capacity for love.

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