There is no doubt in my mind but that we are all seeking some form of wisdom in the best way that we can, through any means which are available to us. That wisdom could be the highest plane available, on the meaning of Life, on Truth, Justice and Virtue, or it could also be wisdom in everyday matters, at work, in relationships. There is not, to my way of thinking, just one form of wisdom, of enlightenment, but many which impede, influence, even restrict our daily lives. Some claim that knowledge alone is wisdom, but I tend to disagree: knowledge is the basic foundation of wisdom, but is useless if we do not think and work through that knowledge to find more, to advance, to understand what this snippet of knowledge means and where it can lead us. It is also said that the highest level of wisdom, of understanding, comes at the moment of death, and that is why it has never been imparted to those still living. So there are some who can gain all the knowledge that they need, and work through that knowledge until they reach a higher level of wisdom over one or more subjects, and that without getting outside of their box. And there are those who are not content with the knowledge they have, as they see it spreading out into so many other facets of life, so many other strands of our daily existence, and then they travel further, break down the walls, and seek an even higher level which, as you can imagine, is far harder to achieve, far less likely to be achieved. Perhaps, though, they are happier as a result of breaking down social and environmental walls and exiting their own limited area; perhaps those who remain within their box, who do not seek a higher enlightenment, or broader knowledge on related subjects are, in the limited scope of their knowledge more content.
He tries his wings in short excursions
So Virgil, and it is these short excursions, brief moments when we explore and see what is there, which can change a person’s life and understanding. It is also often said that a person does not need to gather all the knowledge in the world, they merely need to know where to look for an answer and this, I believe, is a far better means. We are allowed the short excursions to explore, and then return to safety where we might think, and learn.
Not everyone can do this. Many people succumb to a fear of what might be, what they could be confronted with, or the fear that they will lose their comfortable, secure lives in a tumult of what is new and challenging. While others feel that their excursion takes them into places they do not belong, that they are imposters when they stay there, when they use the knowledge they have gained. The Imposter Syndrome has also been a subject of some very strong discussion of late, but has brought out the best answers too: are we more or less of an imposter in our field of study or knowledge than those around us? It is like an actor going onto the stage: butterflies, an unsettled stomach, worries that what they are about to do will go wrong and they will end up embarrassed, ashamed, downtrodden by those who know better, who can do better. And then they stand on the stage, in the lamplight, and allow themselves to be overtaken by this other character, the persona they have become to play this part in life. Michel de Montaigne manages to summarise this search form knowledge, this feeling of the imposter syndrome, very succinctly when he compares the Aeneid with Orlando Furioso and writes:
We see the former on outspread wings in lofty and sustained flight always pursuing his point; the latter fluttering and hopping from tale to tale as from branch to branch, not trusting his wings except for a very short hop, and alighting at every turn for fear his breath and strength should fail.
And it is fair to say that both of these works, which have survived many changes in our world over the centuries, succeed; neither one, despite the different styles of writing, of telling, has failed in its task. So it is not the manner in which we seek out knowledge, or wisdom, that makes a difference, more the way in which we use it, in the way that we think, adapt, move on to the next point.
Perhaps this feeling of being an imposter, not just because there are other people out there who could know more, could know better, is that we fear we have not thought everything through, have not yet processed the knowledge we have already gained to its ultimate conclusion. Perhaps it is because we have become too comfortable where we were, and not yet managed to get to know those people, those forms of knowledge, which reside outside of our comfort zone. A great journey, as you know, begins with the first tentative step.
Is it wrong to return to a comfort zone, to hurry back to where we feel safe and at home? As far as learning is concerned, be it on a social or knowledge-based level, I don’t believe so. I am convinced, for myself, that there are places and environments which are conducive to thought – or to reading, to writing and many other activities – where other places simply do not work as well. I can sit in my small library and write letters with a feeling of security, without distraction, that is not present elsewhere. I can cut out the entire external world in this room, and concentrate on the task at hand. This, for the pleasure of putting pen to paper, is my small box, by cocoon. I sometimes feel the same when reading: yesterday I went to the cinema and tried to read a periodical while waiting for the main feature to begin. The unusual sounds around me, the unusual surroundings themselves, were unsettling enough that I could not concentrate, and so I abandoned my attempt. This is perhaps more because, in a cinema, people are much closer to one another. We sit in densely packed rows, straining to hear, turning to talk, taking in and commenting on all around us. We cannot come to any form of peace and quiet, which is just as bad during the film, as I have discovered on several occasions, when people still hold a conversation in loud whispers. That is not to say I cannot read and enjoy a book or periodical in any other place than my library, but the circumstances and conditions are different, hardly ideal.
I’m not one to judge a person for what they believe, so I would not wish to pass comment on your roommate and this hatred of all things German. I can say that I experienced it myself, was brought up in this manner throughout my youth, at a time when the Second World War was much closer to home than it is now. I still see it in the news reports every day, when people are claiming that they wish to get Britain back, to wrest it from the control of the Germans, or of the European Community which, for some, is the same thing. This is the manner in which they have been raised, this is what has been impregnated into their minds by an older generation which, perhaps, is still one generation removed from the real life experiences of those times, but learned from them, and is passing that form of knowledge-belief on. Isn’t it the same between India and Pakistan? We are all the same, effectively, but differentiated by the accident of birth, by the place we happened to be born in and the society which was given the task of raising and educating us. I find it amusing – if it weren’t so sad – to experience the change in attitudes to myself when people discover that I am English, having assumed me to be German. I also find it amusing, and this is an experience from a few days ago, when I am congratulated for the quality of my English speaking, and those who make the comment then change their attitudes as they discover that I am English, and change them again, slightly, when they discover I am also German. Confusion reigns.
If a man does not first unburden his soul of the load that weighs upon it, movement will cause it to be crushed still more, as in a ship the cargo is less cumbersome when it is settled.
We can all make assumptions; few of us are open enough to revise our assumptions and leave the burden of presumption and prejudice behind us by learning, by gaining knowledge. A person whose only travels are through watching National Geographic or the Discovery Channel cannot know the first thing about the places they have seen. They only experience that which someone else has decided to show them, and then only in a straight line of view, not to left or right, and without the chance of going back and capturing a different impression. I could feel sorry for a person who hates an entire people, accidentally born where they were, because they were born there, and writes them off through hatred, perhaps even bigotry, without taking the chance of having their worldview destroyed by personal experience.
And yet, even with this new worldview, something remains, as you know yourself from personal experience, from recalling your home life and the society you left, but didn’t leave. Persius writes:
“At last,” you’ll say, “I’ve snapped my chains.” A fleeing dog may well have snapped his, at great pains, yet dangling from his neck the greater part remains.
What we have learned in life is still very much a part of us, we cannot shake it off completely. And perhaps this is also a good thing: fear of the unknown is fine, but fear of what we know is also good. It is better to be cautious, through a form of prejudice, than to be too trusting.
Do we ever belong to a group we join? Are we ever a full member of that group, when we come from outside? I have had the privilege of creating several groups where I feel completely at home within that group. I have also had the pleasure of joining groups of the same people, but not felt the same way about being a member. The ideals and manner of the groups are exactly the same, but I was not there from the very beginning, and that makes a difference to my mind, to the way I feel about the group. It already has its ways, customs which I did not help to form; I have to catch up, to insert myself, and constantly have the feeling I have not quite managed to assimilate myself in the same manner as those who were there earlier, or from the very beginning. De Montaigne, commenting on the words of Persius, says:
We take our chains along with us; our freedom is not complete; we still turn our eyes to what we have left behind, our fancy is full of it.
I cannot claim to have divested myself of all the chains of my youth. Yes, the country I was born is, the city I lived much of my life, has changed beyond recognition, but it is still there inside me. I still feel a slight affinity to England after all these years, but it dwindles each time I read of what is happening, of the changes which have been forced through by the few, at the cost of the many. And, of course, a great deal of sadness that the many, for whatever reason, have not taken their power and removed those who would suppress them by the means available. The people who are within their boxes, do not see the problems of others, and write them off as so much propaganda, as fear mongering. The chain, though, gets weaker by the day. And I certainly do appreciate the differences of experience which you mention, having gone to a private school and not seen, been cosseted from what was going on around me. I see photographs today, and hear stories, of poverty in the same area as I went to school, next to the area that I lived in London, and did not experience them myself. My worldview of my own youth has been changed as a result – far too late to do any good, perhaps, but not too late to learn, to seek out the truth and gain knowledge from it for the future. And I also know many people who stick to what they know, who eat the food of their homeland, who mix in circles of their former society, who have problems learning the language of their new home. There are areas here, too, where communities are made up of a certain ethnic origin, as in London in the Sixties and Seventies. There is a certain level of security for these people, in having what they know all around them and not being confronted by a new society – be it of their own choice or not – all the time.
It is still common, here in Germany, for Turkish children to be sent back to the homeland of their grandparents to seek a marriage partner. It is still common to hear of arranged marriages between someone – almost exclusively a woman – here in Germany and a family from Turkey. It is even used as a threat for those who dare to venture out and make friends, intimate or otherwise, with a German man, that they will be sent back to Turkey and have a real man designated as their marriage partner by the family back there. Second and third generation citizens expect to be returned to Turkey for burial when they die, even if they were not born there.
I am not a fan of arranged marriages. I see no reason for them today, especially as they are often used to ensure a woman is put into her place within a patriarchal society. Everyone wants the best for their children, and there is nothing wrong with that, but we should never confuse what we believe to be the best for our off-spring with what will do the family name good. It has a historical context, of course, but we have moved on from the days when families – especially those of the upper levels – needed to protect their line, needed to ensure that the name was carried on with all honour and claimed position in society. I do appreciate that a couple brought together can, slowly, come to love one another, but I am not sure that this version of love is the same as one where the man and woman have chosen their own partners, where they have gotten to know one another and found that they can work, live and love together as a whole, and not simply adapt through necessity. I would also hope that we have progressed, across the world, to a state where the marriage of two people is not merely there to ensure peace between two tribes, two villages, two countries, as was once the case.
I can still remember, and it was one of the things which made me afraid of a relationship, when it was expected that a prospective groom approached the father of his prospective bride and asked his permission to marry. More than that, asked permission to court or even see the woman of his choice. Women were paraded, in the higher levels of society, at balls to show them off to prospective husbands, and only the better situated families were invited to attend. We still see reports of eligible bachelors to this day, and we most certainly see reports in the media of the suitability of those who have made their choice one for another, according to their position. The vicious and unwarranted attacks against a certain new member of the British royal family are not things of the past, they are happening today, in our modern, enlightened society.
We should all be allowed to make our own mistakes, and not be forced into a mismatch against our will which, once we are in, is impossible to get out of. We should be allowed to show we are old enough, wise enough, to make our own choice; to look to the future in a world which we are forming, and not rely on a tradition which has served its purpose and is no longer relevant. On the other hand, we all tend to know ourselves far better than anyone else – at least, I would hope so. All of us have many secrets of character and interests which we hide from those around us, which need to be taken into consideration before any major change in a life is made, and who better to take them into consideration than we ourselves? I also do not see a time limit on making that choice. Marriage is not just about populating the world, if a person even decides that they wish to go that way, it is about a community of two people, living and loving together, at the highest level. The decision to expand that through offspring is also one that they should be allowed to make for themselves.
Enlightening because you see what others have done and are doing, and can relate to that. Alienating because it is completely different to the manner in which you were raised, educated, to the society that you knew in your formative years. We all go through these periods in our lives many times, sometimes in such a manner that we are forced to stop, to think, to re-evaluate, sometimes where we simply switch because it is so minor, and seems perfectly correct to do so.
A small example, which gave me pause for thought many years ago: how do you eat a sandwich? Now, I was brought up to eat a sandwich, suitably cut when in company, with my fingers. Much the same way as many people eat a hamburger today: carefully held so that nothing spills out and, again, according to size and company, with the right hand. No company, or a hamburger, both hands, and the sandwich was not cut into dainty little triangles. In Belfast I met a woman who ate with a knife and fork. She spread her slice of bread the same as I do, then took up her knife and fork, and ate the bread as I would eat a normal meal. It was the way she had been taught to do it, and was perfectly normal for her. Now, having lived in Germany for many years, I also do this in certain company. What was fascinatingly strange back in the Eighties is, for me, now something quite normal, because I see so many other people also eating their bread in the same fashion. I should add, however, that sandwiches are a relatively new thing in Germany: we have always had bread rolls, fresh from the baker each morning, which are taken up and bitten into. The evening meal for many, however, has always been bread adorned with cheese or meat, and eaten with a knife and fork. Lunch is the main meal of the day, and even the baker closes at lunchtime so that the employees can eat their meal in peace.
I cannot say, in answer to your question, whether I believe it is worthwhile leaving people behind when you move. With modern technology we are not really leaving them, in the sense that we have almost instant contact with our home whenever we wish, we are only physically not present. There are many people in my life I am glad to have moved away from, whether it be in a physical or a social context. I see things, perhaps, in a different life as the older generations of my family no longer exist, so there can no longer be a familial tie there. Those of my generation were never close, as we lived in different cities and experienced very different social circles, and so the break from them was not even noticeable. The generations after me I am close to, in a manner of speaking, but we do not live so close as to be a single family unit. I am not surrounded by family and, in effect, never have been. I could, perhaps, relate to leaving behind friends and acquaintances from my working life, but each period within this life has also been relatively short. In the army I moved with great regularity, or those around me moved. Since coming to Germany, and leaving the army, I have moved five times in twenty-four years, but three of those were moves within the same town. The bulk of my friends, however, do not live in my town, they are several miles away in Bremen and Hamburg.
There are times when we have to move, if only to keep our sanity, and that involves leaving everything that was in our lives behind us, at least physically. The possibilities to remain in touch with people from the past, who we wish to have in our present, have greatly improved over the last few decades, so I am not sure whether anyone can say they are leaving people behind. For me the question would be more whether these people from the past are relevant to me in the present, whether the connection that I had with them can adapt to the change, if there is any need for adaptation at all. Is it worth taking a chance, leaving that which you know behind you, and trusting that what is to come will be either equal or better? Is it possible that a person can simply outgrow what was there, and have a need to expand toward new horizons and new relationships?
In the end we all make our own choices, and you have seen that your choice has taken you out of a world you now consider restricted, and into a world where people are still restricted. In many ways we restrict ourselves by wishing to remain in that situation which we know, and not venture out into a new area, not explore, not learn from other experiences. We would still lose people, in this safe environment, as they move on, as they leave for whatever reason. You, and I, are restricted according to what we decide is right to do, and what is right for us. We set our own barriers and obstacles, limit what we wish to do, where we wish to go, who we wish to see, what we wish to eat. Life itself is one constant restriction, as is the body we inhabit, the land that we live upon. We learn to move within those restrictions, learn to push them a little further away, or to circumvent them – hopefully not being caught if we’re stretching the laws of the land, the social customs of civility and society. For me, stretching and challenging those limitations, the restrictions that society place upon us, and those which we place upon ourselves, is a matter of course. I gain great pleasure from having people look at themselves and consider what they have always thought is set in stone from another angle, a different perspective. Cicero, quoting Balbus, wrote:
For whom then shall a man say that the world was made? Naturally, for those souls who have the use of reason. These are gods and men, to whom certainly nothing is superior.
Are the losses greater than the gains? The world would be a far better place if a few more people allowed themselves to be more introspective, to sit down and think over that they have achieved, what they have experienced, to consider, to compare. The results may well shake you to the core, turn your world upside down, for a while, but the wisdom that comes out of that knowledge, from the experiences of life, set us up for the next great revelation. And so we grow.