Two things juxtaposed this week, giving me food for thought.
A prominent politician, Charles Kennedy died unexpectedly aged 55 having recently lost his seat in the General Election. In Parliament this intelligent, witty and honourable man was given the sort of cross-party eulogy rarely heard these days. I didn’t necessarily agree with his politics very often but as the then leader of the Liberal Party back in 2002 he was the only party leader to say our involvement in the Iraq war was wrong. He won my next vote with that speech. He was consistent, forensic and compelling. He did not give in to the Siren voices that closed their minds to both sense and reality. He was the sort of politician I admire. He was also an alcoholic who fought his own demons with the same openness and honesty he brought to the House of Commons.
Yesterday I attended a writer’s group, having written a post about my upcoming book in which I explained my difficulty in describing myself as a writer let alone an author. We talked about this, about other people’s reactions if we called ourselves writers and laughed at some of the responses we have received. It put me in mind of a gentle complaint the Textiliste used to make when asked what she did for a living once she had left the world of insurance. I, she pointed out, could call myself ‘lawyer’, and if I wanted to refine that I could say ‘City lawyer’, ‘real estate lawyer’ or if my ego was feeling particularly frisky that day ‘partner in a law firm’. She, in contrast, having stopped paid employment, had become the general factotum and polymath that was running the family office with all the multi-faceted and wide ranging skills that that role required. There was no easy label for her, no headline from the CV? Her default résumé was ‘housewife’ and it failed to do justice to the skill set and energy needed to cope with all that was thrown at her.
When finally I gave up the law I found the same issue and with my reluctance to say ‘writer’ I became just as frustrated by the constant need for labelling and pigeonholing that other people seem to require. We, as western societies are obsessed by economic factors, wealth generation so in the Top Trumps of people- categorisation we give top spot to the dollar earning power rather than the more nebulous but far more important qualities that a person displays: their kindness, grit, compassion, dedication, effort, love.
In the speeches in Parliament no one spoke of Charles Kennedy as a man who earned X. They spoke of the man’s qualities, not the jobs he has held.
I came across this Ted talk which captured the essence of my point and neatly labelled (ha! Hypocrite me) this seeming catch-22. I don’t go big on the sin and faith bits but the essential message is pretty universal. Kennedy by his efforts and actions was ‘eulogy ready’ and not just, as so many of us spend all our sweat and effort trying to ensure, ‘résumé ready’.
When we are gone we will be remembered if at all for our qualities as people not our pay rises, the cars we bought or the stuff we owned. It is as well to remember that fact both as we try and claw our way up the grassy pole of ambition and especially when we meet someone new at a party and ask them ‘and what do you do?’.