Prompted by the death of my dear brother a few days ago, I have been musing on the past, paying my respects to a man who was a constant and gentle presence in my life, even when we did not see much of each other. He was a proper big brother to me; made me my first bicycle from scavenged parts of other machines. He was a quiet person who led the best life he knew how without making a fuss. Yet his achievements can be counted amongst the most important of any man on the planet, for his children are wonderful and caring people and no one can do more.
In all the musing and sorting out, I came across the following. It was written quarter of a century ago. I would probably write it with less flourish now (although it was originally part of a talk given at a Green Party a.g.m.), but the sentiments are still valid.
So, in memory of my brother:
Winter is a time of physical pause, a time to rest the body. Growth ceases, and we seek shelter to wait out the storms and the darkness. It is a time for patience. And in such times, it is only natural, prompted by the lengthening nights and the ever-colder days, that we should slow down, draw closer to the hearth, and turn more to our thoughts than to our actions to keep us occupied. It is that part of the annual cycle when we can look to the coming year and consider which paths we should best follow into the future.
To do this most effectively we should turn our thoughts in the opposite direction. This is not done out of perversity, or out of a fear of the future, but simply to maintain the balance. For winter is a time also to look back. For this is part of the circle – we look back to see forward and we look forward to see back. More practically, no one can look to the future with any clarity or purpose, or choose their paths into the future with any sensibility until they have taken stock of the routes by which they have travelled to this point. We can never be sure of the future, that is, until we are sure of the past.
That does not mean that during each winter we should pick over every detail of what we have done in the last year. There is nothing to be gained from such mawkish vivisection of the self. What is meant is that we each need to be able to still ourselves and take stock of our progress to date.
Every journey consists as much in its pauses and rests as it does in its movement. The value of movement to a journey is self-evident. The value of periods of rest is much less so, but is, nonetheless, of equal worth. Periods of rest give the self – body and soul – opportunities to recover from the exertions just passed and a chance to generate new reserves of energy to cope with the exertions to come. They also provide the opportunity to take a broader view.
Whilst standing still, we need have no worries about the uneven surface of the path at our feet. We can, without danger of stumbling, look back at the terrain we have come through and we can look forward on to what the choice of paths before us will take us. To worry about the details of the path when we are stationary, particularly that path whose pitfalls we have already negotiated, is to miss the broad scope and the unity of all things, and the humbling impact on our being of seeing all things as a whole. And, if we have spent our time up to now walking in calm, sunny water-meadows we know, when we turn to the snow-misted mountains before us, that we will have to change either our route or our methods of travelling if we are not to perish.
The need to pause is essential. If we do not do so occasionally, then we will not know if we are moving in the correct direction or are using right methods until it is much too late. We have to stop every so often and enjoy the view, take pleasure in what we have accomplished; recharge our selves; survey the past and the present; look on to the future and then, and only then, decide which paths, which courses of action, and which stances – personal, political, and spiritual (if there be any difference between them) – that we feel to be the best that will enable us to cope with what we believe to be ahead of us.
We cannot, of course, move forward alone. Whatever road we each take, we take with companions and each step has consequences for others. Our right to self determination has clear, concomitant obligations and responsibilities. We all of us have to find a way that is best suited to our selves. A way that, by its nature of being a gift of and from the true self, is of equal worth with all other such gifts. Yet, to make that gift, each of us must know what sort of person we are; else the gift is false and grudgingly given. To know our selves, we each have to pause and look back – not only at our personal pasts, but also at the past of the ideas and concepts in which we, as persons, believe.
So, our concern must be with the past if we are to make anything sensible of the future. We need those times in our lives when we not only review the pasts that reside within us and in which we reside, but also sit still by the fire with no care for anything while we recharge our energies. And these activities should not be seen as mutually exclusive. Far from it. If we follow a right and good course through life, then such activities serve to generate each other. For, it is in both our personal and social past that there are achievements from which we can draw much inspiration and energy – energy that can then be used to produce new achievements. There is, in stillness, a deep and refreshing well.
Finding stillness, identifying such achievements – these are no easy tasks. The search is difficult, but not because there is little to find. The difficulty resides in two problems. First, despite any belief we may have in the cherishing of the whole person, there is still a sense of guilt attached to right pride in achievement that needs to be dispelled.
Second, many achievements (past and present) are consistently and systematically taken away from us, denigrated, buried, or so vastly distorted that even those who were directly involved forget, or at least begin to doubt, that such things ever were achieved.
Such burial of achievement is not new. It is not always consciously done. There is unlikely to be any sort of conspiracy (those involved are too self-centred) – just the momentum of that self interest.
It is the everyday experience of us all – and has been so for countless generations. As a means of preventing real progress in the escape from repression, it is exceedingly effective. Each generation is forced to rediscover itself, to break free of the suffocation of the status quo, and to formulate its own metaphysical stance. All of which achievement is once more buried. Thus, each and every generation has been forced to waste time and effort, and has been forced to suffer heartbreaking agonies in an attempt to establish concepts, ideals, facts, courses of action, and so on, that already exist. It is, however, something we can obviate. We can comb the past for the words and the actions of those foremothers and forefathers who have been buried, and in so doing we can find a vast wealth of knowledge, of understanding, of energy, and of strength.
The same is so for individuals. If an achievement does not conform to the standards set by society (be it school, work, state) we are expected to belittle what we have done and consider ourselves unworthy. But there are other ways of viewing ourselves – ways that derive not from the status quo of the last few centuries (a short time in the history of humankind) but from an older tradition. This tradition of thinking and of viewing the world that can be traced into prehistory when the female principle of divinity, if not dominant, was at least in a state of equipoise with the male principle. It is a rich tradition that has, generation after generation, been denigrated, censored, and buried. It is a tradition that we must needs rediscover rather than, as the greedy patriarchs would have us do, think it all out for ourselves yet again, wasting precious energy we cannot spare and time that the planet no longer has.
We should search our intellectual treasury, much of it conceived by women, and construct the foundations of our selves of the strongest materials. No use to build on sand or on shallow foundations. “When we build, let us think that we build forever.”1 Any less than that is not good enough. And, thus, we must build what is true; a truth that we must take to all people; a truth that we must proclaim in a loud and clear voice. And not just a voice that is word of mouth or word of page, but also, at one and the same time, a voice that proceeds from the practising of what we preach. Exercise of the intellect is not a necessary prerequisite of action any more than it is of greater value – despite our culture’s insistence that it is. But then, neither is the opposite true. They are – the workings of mind and body – the simultaneous occurrences of personal being. To deny the importance or the function of either aspect is to cripple the self.
In just the same way (that is, through the medium of our personal being), our path into the future is inextricably linked with what we know of the past. Our past. It is our past, be it personal, political, philosophical, or cultural. And not only is it our past in a passive sense. We can make the past active by understanding it. It then becomes ours to command and to use to our advantage, rather than just acknowledging what has been and then allowing it to be buried. But, as I said, we must understand it; we must listen for and strive to know the confused and confusing echoes that reach us from the past. And we must do so in order that we can make ourselves heard and understood. And make no mistake – it must be both. We must be heard. We must be understood. And we must never again allow our voice, or our achievements, or our long tradition to be hidden away.
1. John Ruskin - The Seven Lamps of Architecture