This week, we have had a biographer in the house. As we write this blog, he is buried in the archives of his subject’s home city trying to piece together the details of a life from newspaper articles, archival resources, and conversations with curators of collections who may provide a vital clue. It is slow, painstaking work. Almost archaeological in nature. Hours spent following leads which may yield very little. And then, he hopes, that fragment of evidence, that document, that moment when suddenly the colour of this life sharpens. Another shake of the kaleidoscope and a clear pattern emerges, the essence of a life shows itself…he hopes!
Our two eldest grandchildren are involved in a similar process from the inside! Our grandson’s current obsession with football is not that unusual for a ten-year-old boy but he too, is assembling a life, trying it on for size maybe. He can supply you with all details about the current state of the Premiership. He can offer a profile of Messi, Ronaldo, Rashford and others you might name. He’s a pretty slick footballer himself (but that is not his picture above!) He watches videos on footballing trickery online and tries to copy his heroes. Even at this age, he is slowly defining the essence of who he is. It’s an important part of human development. As is discussing his thoughts with his mum and dad – and, if we’re lucky, with us. Would he like to become a professional footballer? He’s considering that as a possibility. But he has values! He already understands that being paid exorbitant sums of money is not what it’s sometimes cracked up to be. He is not sure what he would do with ten high performance cars in his garage! And, after a while he might just tire of ‘putting the ball in the back of the net’. We enjoy watching him working it all out.
His elder sister, now a teenager, is working through her own process of self-definition. A few years back, she loved nothing better than ‘making a video’ in which she starred as an announcer and continuity person while her younger brother contributed cameo performances. She was very good at improvisation, never short of a smart comment. When we found some of those videos recently, we asked her, ‘Do you think you would like to read the news?’ She had reasons for her answer: ‘Nah! It’s boring and you have to get up too early! She’d obviously considered the possibility!
The process of self-definition does not stop. Even into old age we must figure out, not only what our life has been about, but what it is about now. This also involves hard graft, perhaps of the sort imposed by aches and pains, decreasing agility of body and mind. It may involve facing some unpalatable realities.
The ’work’ of our grandchildren and our biographer friend and all of us require the slow distillation of the essence of a person amidst all the detail. It is difficult to do. It requires careful reflection alone and with others. It demands the making of judgements. And it also requires of us a level of self-knowledge and honesty which makes both the living and the writing more arduous but eventually more worthwhile.
One thing is certain: we cannot let other people ‘write’ our biography, we cannot allow other people to define who we are. Unless we want to be stereotypes or carbon copies, each of us needs to do the kind of inner archaeological work that brushes away the layers of culture and other people’s expectations and seeks our own wisdom, our own values. As our biographer friend would say, it’s a lot of work but it can be fun!
(Library Picture....not ours!)