So yesterday my mind was on a life of simplicity having, perhaps obviously, to start in one’s own life, heart and home.
Once it’s got a grip though, it begins to radiate outwards and the question “Why are we doing this?” begins to assert itself irresistibly in the mind in group settings.
We were chatting about this in our household by the fire the other evening. Some of us were reminiscing about their schooldays. I’d started it by talking about charities, and how ambivalent I feel about them. “Pleeeease donate, so African children can afford a uniform and be able to attend school!” What? There are children who want to wear a uniform? Who want to go to school? Why should they have my money to ruin the life of an African child? School already ruined my childhood, why should I want to pay to interfere with someone else’s? It’s hard to say which I hate more, school or uniforms.
Okay. If you are searching for the comment box to explain to me why it’s all different in Africa and children really value formal education, take a pride in their uniforms and rely on schooling to make a way out of poverty – I do know. The Badger has been paying really quite a lot of money for a very long time to educate an African child through school and college. She has just graduated from her degree course. I do know. I’m just telling you what started the conversation about schools.
So then one of us said, I guess in Africa everything’s still at a more basic stage. They haven’t got to the stage yet of cruising round all the kids saying “What are those earrings? Studs! You’re only allowed studs! Those are not studs, those are hoops! Take them off! Give them to me!” She laughed. “Why do they do that?” she said.
Good question. I said, I think they do it as part of a display of power and control. The people in charge get to set arbitrary rules as part of a power ethos. It helps in the crowd control which is one of the main things running in a school. If you set up a pointless rule and make people obey it, force them to hand in their belongings and generally humiliate and subjugate them, well, that’s all part of controlling them.
An incident from my own childhood comes vividly to mind. My friend Helen (who was tiny, five foot nothing) had a huge mane of wild curly hair. One morning she’d spent a while pinning it up into a hairdo similar to the kind they had in ancient Greece. A bit like this. In our maths class, Mrs Morris the maths teacher surveyed us all sitting patiently in our desks waiting for her to begin, then silently walked across the classroom, took a hairpin out of Helen’s hair, and reinserted it elsewhere in another bit of her hair. What’s that? A power game, nothing else.
Similarly when I was an undergraduate at York university reading English, I recall one of my end-of-term reports in which a tutor surprised me by saying “she undermines all my didactic techniques”. I didn’t know then, and I still don’t know now, what he meant. But I think whatever phenomenon he had in mind possibly explains why, in a seminar with a different tutor, where I was wearing a pair of long Indian earrings, after I had made a critique of the text we were studying the tutor sought to discredit it by making a scornful and sarcastic remark about my “chandeliers”. A power trip. It worked. At the age of eighteen a personal humiliation of that kind in a public setting is annihilating. He apologised at the end of the seminar, having seen how much it upset me. Too late.
But in every kind of institutional setting, as part of the hidden agenda of subjugation, power and control, artificial meaning is injected into pointless things so that the power elite have a means of humiliating the masses and keeping them compliant.
Part of simplicity is honesty. Simplicity relationships are as clear as a dewdrop. In a house where simplicity is practised, the phrase “Because I say so” has no place. Everything is done for good reason, and the parents take time to explain the reason when the child questions.
In a family practising simplicity, the relationships are like a circle around a centre of truth, love and security. Each person counts the same as each other person. Father is not more important, not exalted above everyone. Father is no more important than the smallest child. But nor is he less important. Each person’s needs, desires and preferences are considered and met in balance with those of everyone else. And everything is discussed and shared so that the children understand the rationale underpinning the decision-making, and see the necessity.
An example. In the town where we live, the pavements (=sidewalks US) are narrow and uneven. Laid in the Victorian era, the flagstones no longer sit straight, and it’s easy to trip on them. The roads are narrow and congested with cars. When my children were small (I had five children in 6 years), when we went out the youngest sat in the pushchair (=stroller US), the twins had to walk either side of the pushchair holding the handles, and the two older children had to walk along behind me each holding my skirt. Why? So I could either see or feel each child. Why? Why couldn’t we just hold each other’s hand, or run chaotically along ahead like other people’s children? Because not so very long since one of the dustmen (garbage collectors) had been killed in our town, He lost his footing on the kerb and slipped behind the reversing dustcart. The machinery is so loud that the driver couldn’t hear him cry out, ran over his head and killed him. If a child, running ahead, slipped on an uneven paving stone (like that one there, look), she would fall headlong. Depending how and where she fell, she might in exactly the same way fall with her head under a reversing car. A mother’s first responsibility is to the smallest, weakest, most helpless and vulnerable child – so I couldn’t abandon the baby in the pushchair and the toddlers holding on, to run after an older child who had fallen – and in any case I might be too late. Don’t want your head crushed like the dustman? Walk close, and hold on so I can feel you are there, you are safe. That’s the kind of rule and explanation we had in our house when the children were small. They were never sheltered from truth (the story of the dustman was very gruesome for a small child to hear), but they were very obedient because they understood the reasons for everything they were asked to do, and trusted their parents only to ask of them what was reasonable.
It was also the case that if a child requesting a change in the way the household ran could come up with a more compelling reason for change than the parent’s reason for the status quo, then we listened and we changed.
Power games, intentional humiliation, “because I say so” authority, and the artificial injection of meaning into pointless rules have, no place in the life of a household committed to simplicity, because honesty and transparency form an integral part of simplicity.
One thing I would change if I could go back. I have never been in favour of spanking/smacking or any kind of hitting. But I did spank my children, as a last resort, when they were seriously out of line. It was my view that I was their safety. My authority was their security. If they were seriously lippy, rude or badly behaved, or if they did something really wrong, then they might be spanked. What do I mean by really wrong? An occasion that comes to mind is when one of them appeared with some jewellery which she told us she had found on the school playground at the bonfire night party – she even took the deputy headmaster to show him the exact spot she had found them. Then a few days later a discreet enquiry from the mother of the best friend of one of the other children made it apparent that the jewellery in question (we are talking about family heirlooms made of gold, not sparkly bits from Accessorize) had mysteriously vanished from her bedroom (where no visiting child had any business to be) around the time our small burglar had visited that home with her big sister. And yes, all hell was let loose when I discovered this.
Looking back, I’m not quite sure what I could have or should have done, what alternative path I should have followed. A severe telling-off and a spanking seemed reasonable to me; I am a fairly traditional woman.
But my second daughter’s insistence that no child should ever be spanked has won me over. I think I was wrong. I know that if a child was spanked in our household there would be hardly a household in the land where the parents would not have been pushed to the same actions. But if there is one thing in my life I could go back and change, it would be that. I no longer believe spanking children is acceptable. Understandable, yes. Acceptable, no.
Anyway, I’m digressing. Tomorrow I want to give some thought to the misgiving I feel about the extensive and ubiquitous injection of artificial meaning in the life of the church.
This rubber stamp says “om mani padme hum,” which is Tibetan. It had been hanging around in my drawer for sometime but never used. I got it for a specific purpose that never materialised. I gave it to a friend who is a Buddhist of the Tibetan variety. He studies with Sogyal Rinpoche in London.