Here you go Timmy – an Iguana !

Here you go Timmy – an Iguana !

Words change their meaning over time and there is nothing we can do about it. We can’t stop it and we shouldn’t try. The original meaning of prevent was simply to come (vene) before (pre) something,  a synonym for precede,  as in “I prevented the dawning of the morning, and cried.” (Psalm 119:147). The word no longer has this meaning except in that it carried the idea of something preceding a potential event and stopping it. To use the archaic meaning today  could cause problems, what would the police make of the statement “I prevented the burglar entering the house” ? I doubt it would help communication. Words change their meanings and we adapt and use them appropriately.

However, it is important to know that these changes are taking place as sometimes they also signify a significant change in society as well as vocabulary. I though of this while watching television adverts for potato products. Adverts about families are very keen to stress that “families come in all shapes and sizes” and that the old idea of mother-father-children is archaic and redundant. I wondered if this was true. It is true that dogs come in all shapes and sizes (from chiwawas to great danes) as do cats and other types of animal.  But what is it that makes a dog a dog and and  a cat a cat ? Are they all just animals and it is unimportant ? Will Timmy, with his heart set on a puppy for Christmas, be over the moon with his Iguana – animals come in all shapes and sizes ?

What is it in a family, whatever form it takes, that makes it a family ? Why are a group of workmates not a family ? Why is my estranged brother still family even  though I don’t see him ? Why is my best friend, who I see daily and has supported me through thick and thin, not my family ? I think there are two factors.

Firstly there is the biological relationship.  We are genetically linked to our family. My brother and cousins share a genetic closeness with me that others do not. The same applies to family trees in animals. Two dogs, no matter how different, are more alike that a dog and a cat no matter how superficially similar. This relationship by blood is very important. I watch on the farm as animals maintain their family groups for life despite the hurdles that are put in their way. Humans are no different, and the maternal and paternal bonds are the most obvious sign of this blood relationship. The feelings of parents for children are very special and lead to very special behaviours which nurture and protect children as they grow. It is one of the core values of the family both to the individual child and to our society. This blood relationship is half of the answer, but only half.

Parents are not blood related, this would be a very bad idea. Their linkage is purely personal and social. It is a choice commonly described as based on ‘love’. But what makes this bond any different to any other ? I think there are clues in two common sayings. Firstly we believe “You can choose your friends but you can’t choose your family” and secondly we often hear crime syndicates, such as the mafia, described as the family because “nobody leaves the family”. I think the second bond that makes families different is that the bonds are binding and life-long. Once you enter into this relationship it is difficult, or impossible, to leave. I have my suspicions that this enduring closeness, this living together through good times and bad, is actually what creates love. Attraction brings people together, love develops when we travel through life with a companion, when we share our life with another person.

This combination of blood relationships and life-long commitments have been a boon to humans, and other animals, in creating stable social structures in which to grow offspring. It is true that today we feel we have evolved beyond the need for these traditional structures  but the evidence would not tend to support this belief. Our statements that families ‘come in all shapes and sizes’ is more a statement of hope that the way we live now is as effective as the old family based on consanguinity and permanent relationships. Time will tell.

Family now has a new meaning as a ‘collection of people who elect, for the time being, to live together in some arrangement’. We should be aware of this when we use the term today, as we can no longer make the presumptions we formerly did. Family no longer means we can presume constancy, the presence of parental love, the likelihood of altruistic behaviour, and so on. It is a word so diminished of meaning as to have little value (though it does help sell chips on television adverts), it might mean mum, dad and the kids or it might mean two dads and no kids or a kid with two mums and one dad. It starts to be able to include a dog, or a cat, a budgie or an iguana. Not only is it not helpful it might also impair communication as people think it still has its archaic meaning. They may make unwarranted assumptions based on their past associations of the word ‘family’.

Let’s leave family to its new meaning and try and find a new term for the families animals, and increasingly fewer humans, live within. A word to describe a unit formed for the duration of the life of the members, usually in order to  bear and nurture children. Perhaps another archaic word could be brought out of retirement and pressed into service, what about either of ‘kith and kin’ ?

 

The Love Songs of the Elderly.

The Love Songs of the Elderly.

As the relentless march of time carries me ever onwards towards my demise I find, perhaps as a useful reminder, that I spend increasing times at funerals. It seems that each month I am on a pew listening to the service, recalling the life of a friend or acquaintance. Each time I am aware at how increasingly close to my age they were when they passed. I listen to the services and to the stories of the lives of my friends and find it very comforting that everyone gathers together to remember the departed and to show respect for their life.

This respect is real. It doesn’t depend on the person having done anything spectacular or unusual it is simply respect for a life well lived : a parent to brought up children, a spouse who supported their partner, a neighbour who played a part in the community. It is respect earned by living a good, normal life. However, it is not shallow respect or deference, this is respect that was earnt as it came by the passing of time. It came by being a good person day in and day out for years. It follows from raising children to their maturity. It is respect when a spouse helps through the thin times as well as the good. It is respect that is often earned in those times at the end of our lives when illness and infirmity make our lives harder. A partner who sees beyond these elderly problems and gives support and love despite them certainly deserves anyone’s respect.

We often talk of love in our teenage and early adult years when we are setting out on the road of our lives. The songs we hear are about our love being as deep as the oceans or as wide as the mountains. We will face and conquer all for the person that has conquered our heart. But how little we know. In many developed countries the average length of a marriage, until separation or divorce, is a little over 10 years. The romantic songs of our youth often profess undying love but for many a decade is the length of eternity.

At these funerals I hear the tales of marriages which have lasted decades. Stories of couples who, split by death, lived longer together than they ever did apart. Stories of children bereft of parents who have always been part of their lives. It is clear when you listen to these tales of normal life that there were good times and dark times, but the latter were faced down and defeated. It is clear that, it is the sharing of these difficulties that is important in the person’s love, probably more so than the simple sharing of enjoyment. During these years families and couples grow into each other and grow deeper in love. Like watching a vine growing over the years round a tree, in time the vine supports the weak and broken branches; were the vine not there neither would be the tree. Pleasures are important, and obviously enjoyable, but it is the facing difficulties together that tempers love and makes it stronger. The more problems you solve together the deeper is your attachment and affection.

“For age is opportunity no less
Than youth itself, though in another dress,
And as the evening twilight fades away
The sky is filled with stars, invisible by day.”
Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

A love that cannot overcome difficulties is a weaker thing, these elderly couples demonstrate that their love was so strong that, ultimately, only death could break them apart and, even then, could not break their love. These eulogies of the bereft are the love songs of the elderly and they remind us that love can last for ever. They sing not of the possibilities of love but of the proof of enduring love over time. They also remind us that working to stay together can strengthen and deepen love. We should be wary of viewing love through the eyes of the young and foolish, looking only for pleasure and joy. No-one’s life can be unalloyed joy we will all need to face difficulties, dangers and disappointments. If we have a family these dangers will be multiplied (although so will the joys). Finding someone who cares about you enough to stand by you throughout is a remarkable feat and should demand that you are steadfast in return. If both of you can do this, you will have found something the young can only sing about.

“Grow old along with me! The best is yet to be,

the last of life, for which the first was made.

 

Our times are in his hand who saith, ‘A whole I planned, youth shows but half;

Trust God: See all, nor be afraid!”


Robert Browning

Boys will probably be boys.

Boys will probably be boys.

I am obliged to go against the current cozy consensus, to say something different to the accepted viewpoint and, in the process, lay myself open for criticism. I am going to say something that is shocking, probably heretical, and in the current climate may lead to my being ostracized. I am going to say that there are differences between women and men, between boys and girls, which are not socially created but relate to our biology. There are innate differences in a some of our behaviours, our drives and our instincts which arose after millennia of evolution as a species. There, I have said it, let the heavens open. This is simply a fact, although unusually for one of my opinions, a fact with which most of science agrees.

Why have I found myself spouting heresies today ? Well, it all has to do with a racing car driver. I can confess that I actually felt rather sorry for Lewis Hamilton today. Why do I feel sorry for the handsome, wealthy, skilled and famous car racing star ? I felt sorry for him as he was forced to make an apology for a piece of playfulness with his nephew which revealed he did not toe the party line. In a piece of family banter, in a jovial mock-angry voice he said that “boys don’t wear princess dresses” while teasing his nephew, who seemed to be enjoying the attention from his famous uncle. Cue synthetic shock and horror from the social media watchmen who called out his “horrific” “transphobia“. After a short period of sustained attack, Lewis Hamilton came back with the required abject grovelling apology. However, it seems that this may not have been an adequate Mea Culpa as he is now being criticised  for inadequate sincerity in his shame. The intolerance of the social media clerisy is quite remarkable, they will not tolerate any views which deviate from the current accepted norms, no alternative views will be brooked.

Now I think Lewis Hamilton was wrong, of the things which might be social constructs I am pretty certain that styles of clothing is amongst them. In different cultures, and across different times, that which is suitable for girls and boys to wear has varied; style sense is not inherited (Although I can’t think of a culture promoting princess apparel to its boys). But it does not matter that he is wrong. He expressed his opinion and he has hurt no-one. He should be free to do this without the fear of mock outrage. Further, it is the family’s role to rear children and to instil values and attitudes in them – nobody else has that right. I disagree with many religions but believe that religious parents  have the right to instruct their children as they wish. I disagree with my conservative voting neighbours but do not feel that I have any right to stop them passing their opinions onto their children. Indeed, as long as they are not harming their children, I want families to instruct their offspring as it is them who teach the young how to be good, how to be moral, how to be a good man or a good woman. Sometimes their views on morality and goodness will not concur with mine, but these differences are the grit in the oyster of our culture which generates discussion and change. Tolerating these differences is one of the hallmarks of a civilised and open society. Watching people publicly shamed for unfashionable opinions is reminiscent of the stocks or the show trials and should cause free thinking people to be concerned.

The rights of the individual are closely allied to the family unit. The family unit allows us to act and exist outside of the state and the state has, for a long time, had an ambivalent view of the family : positive in that it cares for the young and the sick, negative as it may instil ideas of which it disapproves. It is still largely within the family that we develop our moral compass although the state’s roles in education and healthcare have reduced this somewhat. Capitalism sees less need for the nuclear or extended family, from the market’s viewpoint the more people producing and the more people consuming the better. Traditional families are perhaps inefficient in market terms in the developed west, the family model works best as a unit of production rather than as a unit of consumption. Socialist thinking has been more generally hostile to the family, it recognised that the family is a place of education and instruction which is not under state control and therefore potentially problematic. In 1920 Alexandra Kollontai wrote the set text on family organisation under communism. She wrote :-

The old family, narrow and petty, where the parents quarrel and are only interested in their own offspring, is not capable of educating the “new person”. The playgrounds, gardens, homes and other amenities where the child will spend the greater part of the day under the supervision of qualified educators will, on the other hand, offer an environment in which the child can grow up a conscious communist who recognises the need for solidarity, comradeship, mutual help and loyalty to the collective.

 and promised that :-
She need have no anxiety about her children. The workers’ state will assume responsibility for them
The woman who takes up the struggle for the liberation of the working class must learn to understand that there is no more room for the old proprietary attitude which says: “These are my children, I owe them all my maternal solicitude and affection; those are your children, they are no concern of mine and I don’t care if they go hungry and cold – I have no time for other children.” The worker-mother must learn not to differentiate between yours and mine; she must remember that there are only our children, the children of Russia’s communist workers.
Unfortunately it seems that this attack on the family where different opinions might flower continues. If we allow this censorious and intolerant development our future abilities to recognise and defeat authoritarianism will be sorely damaged.  Policing the family has always been a priority for authoritarian regimes, recall the importance given to the Hitlerjugend and the Komsomol in Germany and the Soviet Union, and remember that these were very early developments of fascist societies. A society which will not allow dodgy joke between family members is treading a dangerous path.