Saturday, January 14, 2012

And what's it all about, anyway 5?

Knowledge is the Key

Self as student, having just grown a beard!
As I intimated in my last post I had a relatively happy or content childhood, even though we were quite poor by any monetary standards.  However, poverty in material things need not necessarily be poverty as such.  After all we only need a certain amount of the world's goods to survive anyway.  However, we in the West have been brought up with an obsession with things, with having material objects, with amassing a collection of X, Y or Z.  It would seem that the vast majority of us in the West have swallowed whole this lie, bought into it and have based the trajectory of our little lives upon it.  However, there are riches which cannot be accounted for in the numerical sense.  These, I believe are spiritual values, and I use spiritual here in its broadest and most holistic sense of connecting with the inner self, with others and with some meaning in life which draws us ever onwards outside our egos.

When I was young, both my parents believed in the value of education.  Neither of them had attended secondary school, not because they did not so wish, bur simply because their parents had not the money to send them, and anyway they had to go to work to support their younger siblings.  This was the norm in the late twenties and early thirties when my parents were growing up.  They both desired that their children would do better than them in life and so we went both to secondary school (which by then was free in Ireland) and on to third level (for which we had to pay).  It is a truism, almost a cliché now, when we use the following saying: "Give a man a fish and he will live for a day.  Teach him to fish and he will live for a lifetime."  Quite simply education is the key to power over one's life.  That's, in part, why I became a teacher.  I am teaching in a working class school in the north inner city of Dublin, and I see myself very much in the role of enabling and empowering young boys (I teach in an all-boys school) to take their lives in hand and reach their full potential.  That's the greatest gift one generation can give to the next - that is to empower them through education.

The Love of Books: Bibliophilia

Self at Máire Duffy's debs, 1977
In the last post I mentioned my obsession with books.  I suppose that today modern youngsters have the Internet and a plethora of video games and what not to keep them amused.  They certainly have more of the world's goods than we ever had when we were their age.  My friends' children often leave their bicycles behind them, not alone at school, but on the local green of their housing estates.  Indeed, one man's young lad did this twice, and on both occasions, needless to say, the bicycle was stolen.  For our youngsters, it would seem material things come very cheap.  We have taught them that having is more important than being, about which I will say a little more further down.  Books are never really stolen, are they?  Unless, of course, they are rare books which carry a monetary value beyond their literary or information merit. 

However, be that as it may, there are some few diligent readers among our boys at school.  They have a rare gift, which I believe will stand them in greater stead than an obsession with computer games.  One boy whom I teach told me lately that if he had children he would call them after characters in some computer game or other.  Now, I smiled and said "great," as I noticed he was deadly serious.  When I was young my mother bought us a huge dictionary, which I still possess, that came in weekly parts - The Webster Dictionary.  I still use it sometimes, believe it or not.  She also bought me - again in weekly parts - a wonderful encyclopedia of science called All About Science.  Once again, these books still adorn my bookshelves.  They carry within their covers not alone knowledge, but rather articles my young mind read as well as the love and concern my mother had for our education.  Again, she gave me more than just the physical gift of a book.  With a mother's love, she bought these books, which came in weekly parts each week unfailingly.  Indeed, that's what any mother, or indeed father or guardian should do.


We all know that competition is no bad thing.  When I was in primary school I fifth and sixth class I normally came second place to a guy called Liam Coffey who has long left Ireland.  He was and is a genius and according to my researches on Google he is a Associate Professor of Physics at the Illinois Institute of Technology. (see IIT ) That he achieved so much does not surprise me as he was a brilliant student and a nice guy.  Anyway, I only say this as when I got into O'Connell's secondary school I always then came in the top 10 students or so, never again achieving a very high place in class, that is in the top three or four.  Anyway, that does not disappoint me at all as I have always achieved what I was capable of - in other words, I achieved my potential, not what X, Y or Z or even Mammy or Daddy wanted for me.  I achieved what I wanted for me, and that was and is enough for anyone.

However, healthy academic competition amongst us as young lads led to our achieving better results all along the way.  Needless to say, competition can also be singularly unhealthy if it is obsessive, and if my self-esteem is only based on achievements either on the sports field or on the academic front.  If you are constantly comparing yourself to another or to an idealised other (after all, good psychology teaches us that virtually all others are idealised in our little minds which project these images out onto them!) then you will end up very sad and disappointed, rather like how Shakespeare felt in his famous sonnet Number 29:

When, in disgrace with fortune and men's eyes,
I all alone beweep my outcast state
And trouble deaf heaven with my bootless cries
And look upon myself and curse my fate,
Wishing me like to one more rich in hope,
Featured like him, like him with friends possess'd,
Desiring this man's art and that man's scope,
With what I most enjoy contented least;
Yet in these thoughts myself almost despising,
Haply I think on thee, and then my state,
Like to the lark at break of day arising
From sullen earth, sings hymns at heaven's gate;
For thy sweet love remember'd such wealth brings
That then I scorn to change my state with kings.

Having and Being

It is to Erich Seligmann Fromm (1900 – 1980) that we owe a debt of gratitude for his drawing the important distinction between having and being.  He was a Jewish German-American social psychologist, psychoanalyst, sociologist and humanistic philosopher. He was associated with what became known as the Frankfurt School of Critical TheoryFromm used an interesting word, or indeed neologism, coined by himself called biophilia, that is the inherent psychological orientation within any human towards humanity and nature in all its splendid diversity. For example, in an addendum to his book The Heart of Man: Its Genius For Good and Evil, Fromm wrote as part of his Humanist Credo:

I believe that the man choosing progress can find a new unity through the development of all his human forces, which are produced in three orientations. These can be presented separately or together: biophilia, love for humanity and nature, and independence and freedom. (See here: EF )
Now biophilia as a characteristic of the human person is an orientation which renders the person happier when s/he is in a state of just being themselves.  Somewhere or other Erich Fromm wrote the following which I believe contains no little wisdom, and I'll finish on this quotation because I thoroughly subscribe to its import: "If I am what I have, and I lose what I have, who then am I?"  Now, that's a good question, is it not?


And what's it all about, anyway 4?

Little Boy Lost

Self, around 6 or 7 years of age
The tenor of this series of notes, dear reader, is existential.  What I am doing here is attempting to get in touch with the lived experience of being human in this oftentimes sad world of ours.  I always return instinctively to literature for inspiration, solace and no little comfort.  Poetry is often a refuge I seek out.  I find a lot of inspiration and comfort in the lines of that wonderful pre-Romantic poet, William Blake.  Like all good poets, he seemed to cut through the superficial and hit the "human" nail on the head as it were.  As a young boy I often felt lost, and indeed I was literally lost on several occasions as a little boy in the frightening crowds of Dublin city.  Here is a very relevant poem which sums up neatly how I experienced my lostness then as a little boy:

Little Boy Lost

“Father, father, where are you going?

O do not walk so fast.

Speak, father, speak to your little boy,

Or else I shall be lost.”

The night was dark, no father was there,

The child was wet with dew;

The mire was deep, and the child did weep,

And away the vapour flew.
(William Blake 1757–1827)

A Personal Memory

I attended a primary school called St Canice's primary school on The North Circular Road in Dublin which was run by The Irish Christian Brothers.  For the most part, it was a good and humanising establishment and not a place of physical or sexual abuse as far as I was aware anyway.  I was happy there, if lost as I have explained in my opening lines.  I am talking about the dreary and poor nineteen sixties in a working class community in north inner city Dublin.  The only bright light in our lives was our education.  I entered St Canice's in September 1966 at the age of 8, having spent two happy years in North William Street school run by the French Sisters of Charity (Sisters of St Vincent de Paul).  I often think that we can be singularly lucky or unlucky in the teachers we have at school.  I count myself fortunate to have had several wonderful teachers.  As it happens these teachers were coming to an end of long careers in the teaching profession.  My first great teacher was a Mr Murray who taught me both in class 3B and 4B.  He explained things so clearly that I always understood everything on first explanation.  I never remember having to work very hard, even though I was a diligent student.  Things were seemingly very easy.  Under Mr Murray's good care I came first place in my tests at Christmas and summer over the two years I was with him.  I remember him calling me up at the end of fourth class to tell me that there was nothing more he could do for me, and that I was now ready to be transferred up to the A stream class.  After that I was always in the A class right up until I left school at eighteen years of age.

However, it was the habit of reading that Mr Murray inspired in us children that left an indelible mark on my young mind.  The prizes we received for doing well academically in those years were books for the most part.  I remember getting Daniel Defoe's novel Robinson Crusoe for one of those prizes in class.  I was really delighted with myself, and ever since then I became hooked on books.  Since then, this obsession with books and with reading has never left me.  It was as if there was a whole world of delight to be discovered within the covers of a good book.  As I have already intimated, I in no sense experienced a childhood of poverty or deprivation as we always had enough to eat and enough clothes to wear,  and got a least a week's holiday back in Tipperary each year, outside that we just played football in the local park and on the streets.  My brothers and I read to escape into the wonderful world of the imagination.  We were, looking back on it, escaping from relative poverty.  Indeed, again in hindsight, I realise that we were rich in imagination as a result of our love of books.  Now, while my parents were readers of newspapers and magazines they were not book readers as such.  It was rather the schoolteachers and the local libraries that encouraged reading in us youngsters.  I always loved going every two weeks to the local library to take out yet another two books to read.  Hence, I have always believed that not to give a young person "the gift of reading" by either example or encouragement or by buying books for him or her is almost tantamount to neglect in my book, to use a rather  pun-like cliché, but let it stand.  To this day I love bringing some of my small resource classes to the local library to explore the shelves and dip into whatever book strikes their fancy.

Always at Home

Self on left with my father (before he got polio) and my brother Gerard

In my last post I wrote about Peter Berger's definition of "the homeless mind," and I proposed my own concept of a healthy mind as that which is essentially always at home and comfortable with itself.  If one is comfortable in one's own mind, then one is essentially happy, or at least relatively content.  I have also always loved the concept of "mental furniture" which I found mentioned many times over the years of reading all types of books devoted to good and clear thinking.  I also loved such phrases or descriptions like: "He or she was/is possessed a well-stocked mind."  The image of one's mind being either a book-lined sitting room or a book-lined study I always found highly appealing and indeed highly satisfying and even relaxing.  Good books and good literature are great companions.  As I am growing older, I find that the number of books about me are expanding almost exponentially, although that is, of course, a gross exaggeration, but I'm sure all book lovers will forgive this excessiveness of description on my part.  Write it down to passion or to love.  I was struck recently when struggling with some article or book by the contemporary Canadian philosopher Charles Taylor that one of the faults he finds with modern civilization is its singular lack of passion.  I'm heartily in agreement with the learned gentleman.  The passion here, of course, is a passion for truth - as opposed to some doctrinaire or dogmatic sense of the Truth in  capitals - by which I mean the personal truth of integrity, wholeness, congruence and authenticity.

Friday, January 13, 2012

And what's it all about, anyway 3?

A Child's Innocence

Post Office where my father worked - Roscrea
I suppose, if there is one attribute of childhood that we wish to protect, it is that of its appropriate innocence.  Undoubtedly, there comes a time when innocence must be sloughed off in a timely and natural fashion akin to a snake its old skin.  However, every child, we believe needs its appropriate innocence protected, and when those barriers are breached by abusers of one form or another we are justifiably outraged and we punish the offenders in accordance to the severity of their crimes.

However, we live in a world that all too often forces children to leave behind their natural innocence all too soon.  Often, because of unsupervised access to media, children become sexualised before their time and their innocence can be lost.  As a teacher I have long believed that it is here that parents should and must play a more active and "hands on" role.  It is not the job of teachers to dictate to parents how to bring up their children.  With the decline in the influence of religion, which did/does set moral parameters, more parental moral education is required.

The Fragile Mind

I suggested in a recent post that one possible answer to who we are may be the formulation that we are a compendium of our memories.  Who we are is a question that has preoccupied humankind for as long as it has been self-conscious.  Indeed, it is our self-consciousness or self-awareness that marks us out from our fellow animals.  Not alone do we live, but we know that we live.  Not alone do we have experiences, but we can reflect on those experiences.  Not alone do we know, but we know that we know.  Indeed, not alone does humankind suffer but it knows that it suffers.  Indeed, we all know that we will inevitably suffer even if we are not suffering now at this moment in time.  As well as that, we are aware of our past and our future as well as our present.  We are also painfully aware that our dying and our death are inevitable.  Knowledge is a great thing indeed - it gives us a certain limited power over our destiny, and I use the adjective "limited" purposely here.  However, with knowledge also comes the price we pay for experience and wisdom, namely the knowledge of our own eventual personal extinction.

What the mind is has always interested every thinking person.  Our concern with our identity, that is with the question, "Who am I?" has long been a central concern for us human creatures.  In a sense our cultures in all their multiple layers of customs, traditions and values are attempts to help the human person identify themselves as groups primarily and secondarily as individuals.  Indeed the concept of individuality only came to the fore with and after the Enlightenment.  Before that the individual's identity was subsumed within that of the group.

In those last 300 or so years when humankind has turned its attention to the concerns of individual identity, it has invented the new sciences of psychology, sociology and psychiatry, among others, to try and pin down that identity somewhat more objectively.  The science of psychology, which takes its etymological roots from the Greek word "psyche" which means "mind," has attempted to define what "mind" means and indeed what "personality" is.  Questions of interest here are: What is the mind?  Is it the same as the personality?  Is it what the ancients understood as the soul?  Does it dwell solely in the brain?  Was Descartes right when he suggested that the mind was sort of a ghost within a machine (i.e., body) Does the mind cease to be when there is much brain damage?  Is there a sense in which the mind can be said to be more than co-extensive with the physical parameters of the brain?  Or a question, which hit me like a hammer over the head when I had a mental breakdown when I was 40 years of age - a topic I have discussed many times in these posts over the years, and have since called my mental break-through - Am I just a psychopharmacological or even a pharmapsychological entity or a mere biochemical substance as such - is that all my personality is?  After all, those psychopharmacological interventions at the time seemed to suggest that this is so?

The Fragile Mind of the Child

If an adult's mind, as I well know, can be so fragile, how much more so must that of a child be.  As a teacher I am constantly reminded of this when I interact with my students, some of whom come from very unstable home situations where mental health problems abound.  That their sensitive minds are formed or ill-formed by these genetic and indeed poor social circumstances is beyond doubt.  These children are often tormented souls in their own way. 

When I was about 3 or 4 years of age my father contracted poliomyelitis which necessitated his having to leave the small town of Roscrea where I was born and where I lived with my family until I was 6 years of age.  Without a doubt, I can say that the phenomenon of the absent father had a lasting effect on my life.  Thankfully, my father was not too badly paralysed, losing only the use of his left arm and hand.  There were many other victims of the polio epidemic both in England and Ireland who lost the use of their legs and even some ended up in the horrendous "iron lung" machines which enabled them to breathe and stay alive.  However, after some months in hospital he managed to get a job as a security man in the Central Post Office in Dublin. I can remember going with my mother and brothers to the local railway station to bid goodbye to my father after he had spent the odd weekend with us in the country and was on his way back to his job in the city.  For years after I always found railway stations to be very lonely and sad places.  I don't now, of course, because having long ago traced the origins of those feelings to their source led to their eradication.  But our young minds are sensitive and are formed and shaped by our experiences.

Being at Home

Main Street, Roscrea, Co. Tipperary where I was born
One of the most traumatic experiences in any one's life is to be made homeless.  There is nothing as sad and as depersonalising as being left without a home.  Home is more than just a roof over one's head.  It is more than just a place where one lives.  It is the place where your loved ones live with you.  It is also a place where one can feel safe and untroubled; safe and protected from the alien outside, and often hostile, world.  It is often a place to which most of us at some stage in our lives like to escape.  One of my favourite Romantic poets and philosophers is Samuel Taylor Coleridge who argued that the Enlightenment thinkers had "untenanted" creation of its God, a marvellously powerful metaphor.  In like manner the sociologist Peter Berger argued some two centuries later that the modern secularised mind of the middle twentieth century was one which he dared called "a homeless mind," one which was bereft of meaning, thrown out from home on to the meaningless streets of modernity.  He argued in a book of that name that the scared canopy of religion no longer offered the security of home to modern minds.  They were literally cut adrift on the modern sea of chaos and meaninglessness.

However, I believe that there is no little truth in Berger's contention here, but I also believe that we can use Berger's metaphor in another and more personal sense.  I believe that the truly integrated person (Dr Anthony Storr), the truly individuated human person (Dr. Carl Gustave Jung) or the truly self-actualized individual (Drs. Kurt Goldstein, Carl Rogers and Abraham Maslow) is a person who is at home in his/her own mind.  I will repeat here what I said above about home: Home is more than just a roof over one's head. It is more than just a place where one lives. It is the place where your loved ones live with you. It is also a place where one can feel safe and untroubled; safe and protected from the alien outside, and often hostile, world. It is often a place to which most of us at some stage in our lives like to escape.   In like manner, I firmly believe that my mind can become my true home.  In a sense our loved ones also live therein.  It is also a place where we can feel safe and sound.  It is also a place where we can escape in the safety of our own imagination.  In  that sense, we can never be alone when we are truly at home in our own minds.  In that sense also, we can never be lonely when we travel, because quite simply we are always at home.

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

And what's it all about, anyway 2?


Many people become observers of life in order to answer the question posed in our title.  There is so much happening right before our very eyes to keep us busy indefinitely.  That's why most people love teavelling - wanderlust brings with it an ever-increasing canvass of activities to observe.  Then, different races and peoples, even communities, do things differently.  To my mind, the Northern Irish poet Louis McNeice put this beautifully and aptly in his poem Snow:

World is crazier and more of it than we think,
Incorrigibly plural. I peel and portion
A tangerine and spit the pips and feel
The drunkenness of things being various.
(You can read the poem in full here Snow ) 

I have often crossed O'Connell Bridge in my native city here in Dublin, Ireland, and mused on the sheer variety of the incredibly numerous lives crossing all about me.  Why all this activity?  Who are all these people?  Where are they going to?  Where are they coming from?  That's why, I suppose, I was always smitten by the short definition of philosophy which says that it begins in wonder. Plato in his Theaetetus wrote that: the origin of philosophy is "wonder." However, this is not the wonder of the poet, as we have, say, in Patrick Kavanagh's wonderful poem, A Christmas Childhood.  Rather, the wonder here spoken of is 'wonder' in the sense of 'puzzlement' or 'perplexity,' not in the sense of 'awe'.  For me, my sense of wonderment here is of the philosophical, or of the Platonic, rather than of the poetic kind.  Having said that, I must admit that the wonderment expressed by the Anglo-American poet T.S. Eliot in a section of his great poem The Wasteland, lines 60-68, is also of the Platonic rather than of the poetic sense of wonderment as expressed in Kavanagh's lines.  These lines of Thomas Stearns Eliot always get me thinking, and have for many years rattled around in my mind:

The Halfpenny Bridge, Dublin
Unreal City,
Under the brown fog of a winter dawn,
A crowd flowed over London Bridge, so many,
I had not thought death had undone so many.
Sighs, short and infrequent, were exhaled,
And each man fixed his eyes before his feet.
Flowed up the hill and down King William Street,
To where Saint Mary Woolnoth kept the hours
With a dead sound on the final stroke of nine.

One can literally feel the burden of life as it weighs on both the people's shoulders and the poet's as they make their way across London Bridge.  To put this in existential terms I can feel the angst of these people - the very burden of the human condition.

Why is there something rather than nothing?

This is a question I have long been concerned with?  Why does anything exist at all?  Needless to say, it is cognate with the overall title of these personal musings on the trajectory of that little life that happens to be this writer.  I remember years ago a rather learned old De La Salle Brother, named Patrick - I forget his surname - who lectured in the Philosophy of Education in St Patrick's College, Maynooth, always quoting this philosophical question for us as young students: Why is there something rather than nothing?    It was one, he said, that Martin Heidegger posed throughout his life and whose work was an attempt to answer that question.  And Bro. Patrick maintained that this was the ultimate question for a philosopher. As a good Catholic Christian he would have said that, anyway, you reply.  Indeed, it is more of a metaphysical question, than a philosophical question in the narrow sense of that term where some philosophers would rule such questions out of court completely as not belonging at all to the field of philosophy.

Why is there something rather than nothing? Well, why not? Why expect nothing rather than something? No experiment could support the hypothesis ‘There is nothing’ because any observation obviously implies the existence of an observer.  However, I still feel this weighty question posed by my learned teacher and by thousands of others over the history of time needs to be asked.  Why?  Well, we are essentially and indeed existentially questioners.  We reflect on our lives and especially on all the joys and pains we experience during the course of our little lives.  In other words, we try to make sense of what's happening to us, try to put a pattern and shape on our experiences.  In short we are meaning-makers and pattern-shapers.

There comes a time when we grow tired of cerebral questioning, that is, questioning things in a logical way all the time, because such is so dry, so life-denying, so soul-destroying - a machine-like approach to life.  This is not to say or deny that we don't need such a cerebral approach to life to tackle X, Y, and Z problems.  It is to say that pure logic will only bring the human animal so far.  We need to come to grips with our emotions and feelings as well as with our ideas and thoughts.  Likewise, we need to come to grips with how each one of these phenomena affects the other.  I remember years ago when I used to look at snooker on the T.V. and when Steve Davis, the wonderful snooker player, was at the top of his form and simply kept winning national and international competitions year after year people calling him "The Machine."  For us humans, machines while they may produce the "goodies," are heartless and soulless.  We want heroes who cry, who have a little chink in the armour now and then, who break now and again, but who generally win. And yet we know, in the game of life, there are no winners as none of us gets out of life alive.  We all have to die in the end.  We all have to lose the game in the end in other words.  And that's why meditation as advocated by Buddhists, Hindus, Christians and other more enlightened agnostic philosophers and psychologists is so attractive and life-enriching - it takes as its province getting a handle on life and death and on death and dying not as the end of life but as part of life.

The Crunch of Gravel

I can even hear this sound in my ears as I type.  This aural image of gravel being crunched by black shoes - always black in my mind's eye - is part of me.  It brings me back to the Churchyards and graveyards of my childhood.  It was the crunching of the gravel as those great black newly-polished shoes of the mourners made their way up to the graveside.  This is where life touches us - at our very heart's core.  As I write these lines I am transported back into the graveyards where we buried my uncles, aunts, cousins and my father over the last forty or more years.  Dying and death are the shadows which we seek to repress at our very peril.  They are so much part of us that the only healing thing to do with them is acknowledge, accept and incorporate them into the overarching pattern or shape or form or meaning we construct for our little lives. 

Once standing by the graveside as my Uncle Pat's coffin was being lowered I spied a small white coffin down among the rotten timbers and lumps of clay.  To my boy's question, my father replied, "that's your older brother Thomas who died many years ago."

The above gravestone is a family one, weathered by the passing years in Roscrea Graveyard, Co. Tipperary.

Sunday, January 08, 2012

And what's it all about, anyway 1?

Street artist, Taormina, La Sicilia, Agosto, 2006
That's the question I was posed many years ago when I began my working life as a brand new, very much "green about the gills" teacher.  And the poser of that very relevant question was a man called Ger Smith, another teacher, dead now for over twenty years, RIP.  I don't know what I said by way of answer to Gerard on that particular morning, but I'm positive that it was a vacuous retort as I am never the sharpest in the mornings.  The same could be said for these postings in this blog here - that is, what are they all about?  As I review the six and a half years I have been writing in these pages, I can ask the same question of myself with respect to the musings that make up this blog.  In othe words: What am I all about?

Like everything in my life. I seem to have just stumbled upon blogging totally by chance and then grew addicted to it!  Why? A good question, that, but so is the question, Why not?  I suppose no writer really knows the exact answer to these questions, because the task of writing is itself the answer, if not the therapy, the very shaping and moulding of one's own soul.

And has it been worthwhile?  Another good question.  Definitely, yes.  It is also quite humbling to know that there are others out there, practically all personally unknown to me, reading these meanderings as indeed, that is what they actually are - literally my mind wandering here and there all over that rather interesting patchwork quilt which anyone's life seems to be.  Indeed, there has been no plan with these posts outside I suppose getting to know myself (cognitively) and getting more acquainted with the deep down inner self (a conative or an affective knowing in this case) which resides within.

Looking Back

For most of my working life I have taught the Irish language (mostly) and Life Skills and Religious Education (to a lesser extent).  As a young man I sat my Intermediate Examination through the medium of Irish (Gaeilge), but sat my Leaving Certificate through English because the school I then attended did not offer that examination through the medium of ou first language.  Be that as it may, a language contains so much of the culture of which it is an expression, as well as being one of its communicative mediums, that I have always carried deep Gaelic-Celtic sensitivities within my heart.  When I was growing up for instance when a native speaker would ask your name they would often use an expression like "Cé díobh thú?" which translates literally as "whose are you?"  So if I were to reply, "Is Tadhg Thomáis mé," they'd know not alone that my name was "Tim," but also that Tom was my father.  This was and is the way today in most Gaeltachtaí,"  that is regions in Ireland where Gaelic (Gaeilge) is spoken as a working language.  What I am getting at here is that I was and am very much my father's son and indeed he was his.  Obviously, I could say the same with respect to my identity and its relationship with my mother.

And who are you, anyway, little boy?

This is a question that has rattled around in my mind ever since I was lost as a three year old in Rosemary Square in the small town of Roscrea, Co. Tipperary where I was born on January 5, 1958.  I remember a stranger's strong manly arms around me trying to stop from running out into the square and his kindly voice asking the question that forms the title to this paragraph.  And in a way, I have been attempting to answer that question since then - over the past 51 years - in various ways.

Who am I now, or who are we now?  And in that first person plural I include you, dear reader!  In a sense we are layers and layers of memories laid down upon one another in our brains.  In other words, perhaps we are just a compendium of all the memories and of all the people we have met and all the experiences that have gone to make up our own particular lives over the years.  The sort of wisdom behind this speculation, which, while I subscribe to a certain truth in it, is not obviously our full identity.  However, having visited my mother (who is practically 100% demented of recent months and is almost 95) and having witnessed that horrible, gradual diminution of both her memory and cognitive skills over those last ten years, I am often convinced that that's all we are, merely a large memory chip which will eventually be wiped clean one way or another.  This is more an existential feeling than an argued philosophical point, I admit, as this is the result of reflecting on practical lived experience and the concomitant pain.

All Biography is Autobiography

I have heard the expression that forms the above subtitle many times in my life, and it is true indeed.  After all, we do see the world, and all the people in it, including the subject of any biography, not as it is in itself, but rather as we are.  Philosophy and indeed lived experience have taught this writer here that it is an almost impossible task to be objective as my lived experiences, including all my presuppositions and indeed prejudices keep dulling my vision.  The challenge always is to question my objectivity about X, Y or Z and indeed to question sharply and critically my motivations  in doing actions A, B or C.  Not alone is all biography autobiography,  but all creative writing, in a very special sense, is, too.  After all, the experts tell would-be writers to write about what they know, to mine their own experiences, to reflect on their own lives and find plots and characters there.   In a sense, also, all literature is biography.

Learning How to Die

I remember reading a book entitled On Literature  by Umberto Eco wherein he opined that the function of stories, as indeed of all literature, is to teach us how to die.  It is hard to disagree with this contention.  Having experienced the deaths of several uncles as a young boy, I was well accustomed to the profound mystery which death, and indeed suffering, pose for every thinking person.  Luckily enough I never experienced hugely tragic deaths in my younger days.  Readers of these pages will be familiar with the fact that I am a lover of general and popular psychology and read widely in both those areas.  Freud had said that sex with many of its associated desires were the ultimate subjects or indeed objects of repression, but with Irvin Yalom I thoroughly agree that death and dying are now indubitably the modern repressions par excellence.  In coming to grips with the profound existential questions that dying and death pose of the human animal, the ground breaking books of Sogyal Rinpoche, The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying, Elizabeth Kubler Ross, On Death and Dying and Death The Final Stage and Dr Michael Kearney's wonderful Mortally Wounded, all of which I have mentioned at one stage or another in these pages, are must-read books of pofound influence.

We are Story Tellers

The Irish have always been good story tellers.  Having studied and taught Irish language and literature, I have long been aware of the oral nature of many of our greatest legends and folklore stories.  We identify ourselves through the stories we tell.  Mary Robinson, the first woman president of Ireland pledged herself to listening to the stories of others in her inauguration speech, and true to her word, that she did do.  Everywhere she went she listened in solidarity.  After having spent one term of office (7 years) in Áras an Uachtaráin (as our President's residence is known in Gaelic) she went on to listen to the stories of the poor, the starving and the suffering all around the world in her role as High Commissioner for Human Rights.  That our stories tell a lot about who we are is a truism if ever there was one.  That your unique story tells a lot about you is similarly true.  That we can learn to creatively tell our life stories is also true.  Each one of us is a project or work in progress.  Each one of us is a person in search of a unique identity and in search of an original way to tell the story of that unique identity.

Who can tell the Singer from the Song or Dancer from the Dance?

In the eight and final stanza of Among Scool Children, our great Nobel Poet Laureate William Butler Yeats wrote:
Labour is blossoming or dancing where
The body is not bruised to pleasure soul.
Nor beauty born out of its own despair,
Nor blear-eyed wisdom out of midnight oil.
O chestnut-tree, great-rooted blossomer,
Are you the leaf, the blossom or the bole?
O body swayed to music, O brightening glance,
How can we know the dancer from the dance?
There are times, and we all know this, when our very identities become fused with our activities or functions.  Sometimes the dance dances the dancer, the song sings the singer and the poem writes the poet - all creative artists have stated this phenomenon in some words or other.  Our identities are often fluid realities, deep and intricate, always in the making and far from any defined or precise formulation of it that the all too recent phenomenon of individuality would have us believe.

To be continued.