Last year I had a sabbatical leave; —a really great privilege. It was a time of renewal for me as a teacher, and even more so as a person.
Unlike previous times of ‘study leave’, this time I really did allow myself the opprtunity for a rest. That meant, more than anything, allowing myself to do nothing.
Scholars, along with almost everyone else today, are driven by the demand to perform. Our worth is measured by our output.
Well, not for me this time.
One thing I did quite intentionally was to re-read a few books which I’ve kept for 30 years, books I studied at school and which shaped me very deeply.
My wife marvelled and laughed, as I handled these
books with yellow pages, the binding gone, pages falling out, and yet
here I was lovingly engaged with these stories and their wisdom which
has made me, enriched me, inspired me all these years, without me even
That’s why I have gone back to them.
I am who I am, in part because of D H Lawrence’s Sons and Lovers.
That book is about me, about a boy in a coal mining community, with
sensitivities his mother sensed but did not understand, which his
father probably did know about but could never let on, and his family
and local community unable to provide him with the scope, the stimulus,
the nourishment he needed.
There is such insight, such incisive telling
of the human story, in these novels.
Thomas Hardy’s The return of the native was a special delight. I had forgotten just how insightful it is.
I’d like to share a few of its gems. The background is a rural community in nineteenth century England.
Clem Yeobright, indeed the most bright of the young men of the district, had gone away to Paris and made a great career; yet suddenly came home to stay, with no apparent purpose.
He declared: ‘I’ve come home because, all things considered, I can be a trifle less useless here than anywhere else. But I have only lately found this out.’
Yeobright intended to create some kind of school, to help his fellows find a better life, because (as Hardy puts it) he had the conviction that ‘the want of most men was knowledge of a sort which brings wisdom rather than affluence.’
Much later, as Yeobright’s life has collapsed into tragegy, Hardy asks whether he was crazy. This well-intentioned, but perhaps naive man: was his mind ‘well-proportioned’?
Hardy’s response is brilliant, and is worthy of reflecting upon today. ‘No. A well-proportioned mind is one which shows no particular bias; one of which we may safely say that it will never cause its owner to be confined as a madman, tortured as a heretic, or crucified as a blashpemer. Also, on the other hand, it will never cause him to be applauded as a prophet, revered as a priest, or exalted as a king. Its usual blessings are happiness and mediocrity. It produces the poetry of Rogers, the paintings of West, the statescraft of North, the spiritual guidance of Sumner [yes, all people of whom we have never heard!], enabling its possessors to find their way to wealth, to wind up well, to step with dignity off the stage, to die comfortably in their beds, and to get the decent monument which, in many cases, they deserve. In never would have allowed Yeobright to do such a ridiculous thing as throw up his business to benefit his fellow creatures.’
Perhaps today we do not suffer from the nineteenth century desire for ‘balance’. Yet we still seem to lack the prophets and leaders with courage to be out – standing.
We seem only to admire those who conform to a fictitious image of success, which includes having no outlandish ideas – other than how to make more and more money, paying less and less tax.
Is it true, that ‘from the deserts, the prophets come’?
Are we not in a desert now, a desert devoid of the living flows of leadership, insight, compassion and effective policies to enable community?
And we place even less value on any kind of knowledge, other than that which will get you a ‘good job’, meaning a high salary.
The return of the native: indeed, what will bring ‘him’ home, to help his fellow-humans?
Hardy’s novel asks the question of how humans can receive, and participate in, any kind of redemption: or do we in fact again and again run down any who seek to help us, and reject those who would offer us another way? Are we inherently so small minded?
(So many Australian novels today are asking the same question. Is there redemption for the guilty, or for those who have lost their way in a world devoid of values and meaning?)
Fact is, the story teller (including this one) would not bother with such a bleak tale if this was the only message: if there is no prospect that we learn anything, no chance of progress, why bother with the story?
No, the telling of the story is a whisper of hope too. Isn’t it?