When I wrote the book, The Growth of Love, I had no idea how it would end. As a boy I was an avid reader of Agatha Christie, and I guess that she, like all good crime fiction writers, worked the other way round: from the end to the beginning. In my case I knew the five themes that would form the heart of the book: security, boundaries, significance, community and creativity, but was not sure how they combined to convey an integrated practical concluding message.
It turned out that the final chapter was called Of Villages and Compost Heaps. If we leave compost heaps well alone for the purposes of this article, then we can concentrate on villages. What I concluded was that for children to thrive they needed to live in some sort of ‘village’.
By this I meant not that they should all live in rural areas, but that they needed to live in a social context where there were lots of informal and formal interconnections, with relationships interweaving between gender and class, culture and religion, work and play, and different ages.
No person is an island, and there is no such thing as an independent individual. Life is not like that: we are interconnected and interdependent. Well-being is related in large measure to the quality and texture of these social relationships. If you want a slogan, then you could say that it takes a village to raise a child.
One of the functions of the village is to preserve memories not only of the village as a whole, but also of the people whom it comprises. And this is where modern organisations and cities are so poor. There is a loss of collective social memory, and little human record of the stories of the ordinary people who make up the organisations and cities.
By way of contrast ‘villagers’ will typically take time to get to know each other and the stories will be held (archived?) in a range of different ways, minds and settings. (I still hear people who have visited Ireland talking about the way in which people seem to have so much time to stop and chat.)
I argue that we are all potential villagers in the lives of some of the children that we know, and that one manifestation of this is that we will get to know something of the life story of a child, who in turn gets to know something of our story. This may sound simple and relatively unimportant, but in my view it is of the utmost importance in the developing sense of belonging, identity, and self-esteem of a child.
Cookery and memories
Here is a simple example of what I mean. About six times a year I see a young person whom I will call Nigel. We see each other not because we have planned to do so, or have any direct formal relationship, organisational or biological, but because I am working with his grandfather writing a book. For 24 hours every other month I stay at the family home and work for hours at my laptop: and from time to time I happen to see Nigel, because it happens to be where he lives.
This is what happened the last time I was there. His grandfather was out at a meeting, and his grandmother was poorly, so when he came home in the early evening from watching a film I offered to help him get a meal together. Neither of us was very proficient in the kitchen and so it was fun trying to work out which knobs on the microwave performed which functions, and how long it took for chips to turn brown. In the end we had produced a rather good, if unambitious and not particularly nutritionally correct, meal.
But it took more time to cook than I had anticipated and so we had time to chat. I made a chance remark to the effect that while I was teaching the week before in Malaysia there had been several members of the college who remembered him as a young boy. He had been with his grandparents during a conference in Penang, and had joined in one or two of the social events during the week, including a boat trip to Monkey Beach (which, as a matter of fact, you can reach by boarding a local boat at a place called World’s End).
When he heard this he immediately left the kitchen and went upstairs to his bedroom, coming back with some shells that we had collected on the beach in June 2002 (almost exactly six years before), and it wasn’t long before we had identified twenty different species on the kitchen table. (Let’s not go into hygiene in this column!) As we were setting them out, we continued to chat about all sorts of things and people in some way connected by the shells and our (limited) contact with each other. This included the crabs that had cartwheeled on the beach, the monkeys, the barbecue, and several things since, including model aircraft and a day we had in North Wales together…
They were beautiful shells that I had managed to clean sufficiently for them to be carried home from Malaysia (shells can smell a bit, in case you didn’t know), and he had stored them carefully in a special container. The next day, when he had gone to school, his grandparents told me that as far as they knew he had not opened the container once in the six years: that night in the kitchen was unique.
Without effort or intention we had reinforced and remembered aspects of our life-stories, and I had confirmed that he was not forgotten by several of the people who had met him only once on the occasion of his visit to Penang. In fact they had wanted to hear news of him since.
The child in the midst
And in essence that is one aspect of what villages and villagers are all about: it is not that they do everything intentionally (for example, you learn history and geography at school, and go to a psychologist if you want to talk about yourself), but that shared experiences form the basis for mutual understanding and affirmation.
As it happened, the conference in Penang was a very special one that launched a worldwide movement called Child Theology. It’s a new way of doing theology that starts with a child in the midst placed by Jesus. This is not the time or place to say more about it. I leave that for another day. But all over the world the phrase is being used, and there is a report of the very first consultation. It has photos on the front and back covers, and one of them is of Nigel: right in the middle. All around the world people have seen this “child in the midst” without knowing his name.
I doubt whether the fact of the photo and the international movement will mean much to Nigel, but there is little doubt that our conversation preceding chicken nuggets and chips was part of a process in which he gained (however unconsciously) a sense of his own worth and life-story. Of such connections and memories does love consist, and the growth of love.
And that is the conclusion, unglamorous, but in my view true, of the little book that I have written. Sadly, we tend to offer all sorts of other things in organisations and cities that only a village and villagers can represent and communicate. But if only we have eyes and ears to see, we have in the most tenuous of everyday contact the potential to validate and affirm each other. Is there anything more important than this in midst of childhood and the process of the emerging self?