A meditation on Christmas Eve 2016
All I ever wanted was to love and be loved. Love has been the most important force in my life. I have sacrificed, but also gained, so much in being able to give and receive love.
Looking over a few of the comments following my recent writings it is apparent that some of my readers consider me to be an uncompromising radical. A cold intellectual. That is so incongruous.
A love of humanity is one thing. But I sometimes question whether I have loved adequately as a son, a husband, a father and a friend. Perhaps I could have avoided a few missed steps in life’s dance had I been prepared to love just a little more.
In times past I made a few people happy through my music. Healed a few souls through compassion. Gave others reason to hope, and to feel good. But these days it is a different story. All I seem able to accomplish is to provoke estrangement and frustration – outright opposition coming from those who are not ready for uncomfortable ideas, studied indifference from those who plough their own furrows, and embarrassed silence from one or two of my friends and children who discount the wisdom of age and see no hope for me, or a career they had seen wind down long ago. I still have more than a few devotees. But as always in these situations it is the few exceptional cases that tend to get under the skin and fester.
On the odd occasion, when the rains arrive out of a clear blue sky and emotions threaten to engulf me, I yearn to be cradled in my mother’s arms. In times of seclusion I still find it difficult to believe that I am supposed to act like a mature adult, with adult responsibilities. Is it always thus? Why do I feel so unformed and adolescent – unlike those around me who seem so capable, so grown up? I wonder how much of who we become later in life is just debris from infancy fused into the masks we all learn to wear. Those more expert than I would probably suggest it is greater than any of us care to admit.
As a writer and observer of the human condition my themes are boldly stated; my anxieties invariably on the record. But I have only ever held a few of the more obviously fragile shards of my personal life up for public scrutiny. There are good reasons for this. None of us like to be thought ineffectual or delicate.
I was bullied cruelly as a youngster. My school mates ridiculed me more than they played with me. Each day I attracted the disdain of others, including my teachers and those in our village, who took strange delight in teasing me until I cried or crumpled into a cocoon of muteness. And as a shy but brainy type, I regularly suffered from name-calling and vicious slurs that made me cower in fear.
My teachers did not appreciate such sensitivity in a boy. Miss Allen, in particular, was fond of caning me across the hand in an effort to make me tougher and more obedient. She instructed me to ignore verbal assaults. Sticks and stones can break my bones, but nicknames cannot hurt me. I would intone her rhyme over and over. But it didn’t work. Words hurt. Spiteful torment is deliberately designed to inflict pain, and the name-calling penetrated my mind like a hot needle. There was no defense and certainly no escape from the brainless insults I endured every day. I wanted to melt in the rain. But we can only hide from the world for so long. Eventually we all have to face our own demons.
When my father left my mother for another woman the barbs and insults got worse. I was seven years old at the time and my world had collapsed. My father had been my hero in every sense. I loved him like I have loved nobody since. He had been the first to smile with pride at my small triumphs. The first to hoist me onto his shoulder to avoid the rush of a rogue goat. The first to pick me up and brush me down when I fell. He was everything a dad should be – until that fateful day.
Meanwhile barely-disguised malevolence continued unabated – only targeted at my new vulnerability. He comes from a broken family, neighbours would whisper to complete strangers, in tones just loud enough for them to witness my pained reactions. They took joy in my sorrow, which I would never understand. My family was not broken. It was cudgeled by guilt, carved quietly into pieces, stuffed into a sack, and thrown over a cliff. I am still falling.
The pain of our loss would prove irreparable. My personal instinct was to power down. As shock sucked the oxygen out of me I took sanctuary in absolute silence, emerging only after several weeks into a gauche normality, flecked by ordeals that could be brushed aside and that slowly diminished over the years.
But my mother lived with the stark pain of his betrayal each day of her life. Towards the end, a couple of days before her 92nd birthday and almost half a century after he turned his back on us, she confided in me. After all those years, she still loved him. She had loved no other but her Jack. She was devoted to her memories of him, and nostalgia for a life that had once seemed so full of joy. Her bereavement had been agonizing and total. Raising me proved to be a struggle. It meant she had to work three jobs six days a week and do without a holiday. Yet I never heard her complain.
I suppose my mother led an uneventful life. My own journey has been similarly unexceptional. Our experiences were not in any way unique – they will have been shared by countless others over the centuries. Of course we find it almost impossible to forget and forgive the personal wrongs wrought on us, although the memories eventually fade. But we forget so easily what it means to be human, and why brutality, intimidation, and oppression of all kinds is so vicious and intolerable.
In that regard I often think of my privileged upbringing, and that of my children, in stark contrast to the children of Aleppo and the countless tiny, innocent, victims of other wars. Their haughty bullies are often half a world away. Their everyday lives are choked by the scream of jet-fighters tearing the acrid air razing whole townships, destroying relationships as well as entire communities. Their shock is a profound numbness echoing into the void. The horrors we visit on them amount to a cold-blooded ruthlessness that is barely imaginable in a civilised world. And for what? What do we gain if we lose our humanity?
For the truth is those child victims are my children too. Their parents are my parents. Their brothers and sisters my own siblings. We humans are family. To forget that is to squander the most precious gift we are given at birth. The power to love and be loved.