I became a grandfather for the first time last Friday night, and had the opportunity to welcome grandson number one Elijah Fenn to planet earth. One of the happiest moments of my life. It mattered to me in ways that may not make sense to others: my father never lived to see any of his grandchildren; his father never lived to see any of my siblings. My mother’s mother didn’t live to see me or my siblings either. There was, for many years, a fatalistic part of me that felt that I wouldn’t live long enough to see my grandchildren.
And so it mattered to me.
I felt blessed to have been beside my wife at the birth of all three of our children, to have been able to hold each of them in my arms shortly after birth. I felt blessed to have been able to walk my eldest child down the aisle at her wedding in 2013.
And I felt blessed to have been at the hospital shortly before Eli was born, and to be able to see him and hold him in my arms. Not every gets these opportunities in life. And I remain intensely, immeasurably grateful for them. [I write this with a wry smile as I hear Eli give his lungs a workout downstairs].
At a time like this, it’s not surprising that I find myself reflecting on the world Eli will inhabit, the world my children inhabit today, and how it differs from the world I came into more than 57 years ago.
Every generation has its wars and its peaces, its political and social and economic triumphs as well as its disasters. Every generation bears its trophies and its scars from such times. Every generation has its reasons to rebel and its ways of rebelling, in appearance, in art and culture, in habits and in fashions. Every generation has its legal highs and its places to inhabit away from the rest of mankind. There is something cyclical about much of this, something that each generation will face for itself.
There are things that remain constant in each generation, even if the words change, even if the context changes. Those are not the things that concern me as I reflect.
What concerns me is to do with the things that haven’t stayed constant, where the change is material in itself.
We’re living longer. We’re growing fatter. We’re consuming resources less sustainably. Inequality is increasing. People polarise more quickly and more extremely. Intolerance is growing.
And we’re becoming more alone.
If there is one thing I would wish for Eli, for his siblings-to-be and for his cousins-to-be, if there’s one thing I wish for his parents and for their siblings (two of whom are my other children), it is this:
Be not alone.
I left India in 1980. I was 23 then. In all that time I’d never even heard of an “old people’s home”. The India I left had a different word for it. Home. With family. First the parents looked after the children, then helped with their children, and then it was time for them to be looked after by their children.
By the time I was 15 I’d met one divorced person. Just one. And when I left India that number had grown out of all proportion. It had doubled. To two.
I knew a few people who lived on their own. They were bachelors. Yes, all male. Mainly between 21 and 30. There was one exception, my next-door neighbour, who was in his sixties.
I left India at a difficult time, leaving family behind, believing that what I was doing was best for me and for my family. For a few years it was hard. But I’m grateful for how time and distance have been headed off at the pass, how I feel close to my mother, my siblings and my extended family, as close as I’ve ever felt.
Be not alone.
Regular readers of this blog would know that I’ve stayed close to my schoolmates, many of whom I will have known for 50 years by this time next year. We’re spread out all over the world, and I’ve had the privilege of meeting perhaps 25 regularly, and another 40 or 50 occasionally. There’s a smaller group of us who went to university together, and social networks have helped us re-engage at greater levels. When we meet, the years roll back as if they were but seconds.
With the advent of tools like Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn, the networks that were spawned on e-mail have strengthened. It now means that I’m in touch with a good number of my colleagues, people I’ve worked with sometime over the past 35 years. We meet occasionally, and yes the years roll back.
Be not alone.
When I moved to London for the first time, I was mortified to see that some people didn’t even know their neighbours. The closer to central London I got, the more this happened. In contrast, the last time I went to Calcutta with my family, I spent time with neighbours I’d grown up with, whom we’re still in touch with. We were in a group that spanned age and creed and time; yet somehow we found ourselves celebrating Christmas, with a large roast ham, with Hindu and Sikh family and friends, hosted by a Jewish family. Yes, that’s Calcutta for you.
We were in Goa just before Christmas, and the daughter of one of our other neighbours turned up there; she knew my sister would be there. They’d grown up together. It meant something. I’ll probably be in NYC in a week’s time. And I’ll be spoilt for choice if I get a spare evening. Schoolmate? Tick. Neighbour? Tick. Erstwhile colleagues? Tick.
Be not alone.
No man is an iland intire of itselfe. I read advertisements on railway stations telling me that there are people in the West who go weeks on end without speaking to anyone. And it saddens me. Over the past decade, I’ve seen more and more reports about possible connections between Alzheimer’s and loneliness. And it saddens me. We don’t know much about depression or other mental illnesses, but what we do know points towards the role played by loneliness.
Settlement man lived and died within a short distance of where he was born, and this has largely been the case for millennia. Migrations happened, but they tended to be involuntary: there were climatic, environmental, economic or political reasons, and even then the migrations happened in groups, more exodus than exit.
The Industrial Age demolished migration costs, and for the last 200 years or so man’s ability to migrate has increased unrecognisably. It became “normal” for people not to know their neighbours, to want to live alone, to live “secret” lives, with no accountability to anyone. One-person dwellings became more common. One-person anything became common.
Then the Information Age came along and demolished connection costs, and we’ve been in a renaissance ever since. People are rediscovering the social fabric that was torn beyond belief during the interim.
Vint Cerf has been warning of a “digital dark age” where many of the artefacts we trust computers to look after disappear.
Leonard Nimoy’s last tweet, not long before he died a few days ago, is already the stuff of legend:
Perfect moments can be had, but not preserved, except in memory. Whose memory? The memory of our families, our friends, our colleagues, the people we live in covenant relationship with.
We live in times when the art of conversation could itself die out, when some of the practices that made us human fade away. Practices like the oral passage of knowledge and history and values from generation to generation, via stories on your grandparent’s knee or by the fireside or underneath the stars.
I’m having to learn a lot about what it means to be private in a public world, what privacy means in today’s age. Reading the work of people like Sherry Turkle and Daniel Solove and danah helps me understand some of it. But I spend as much time as I can seeking to understand community rather than solitude. I enjoy solitude. But that’s quite different from loneliness.
Be Not Alone.
That’s what I wished for myself when I was in dark times. That’s what I wish for those close to me, my wife, my children, my family and my friends.
That’s what I wish for my grandson. And for the generations that his arrival signals.
Be Not Alone.