Sunday, May 5, 2013

Journal of a Soul 17

O'connell School, mid 1950s

A few minutes ago I was happily and nostalgically surfing a site for past pupils of my old alma mater - O'Connell School, North Richmond Street, Dublin, 1.  Old memories came flooding back when I was viewing some old pictures thereon.  As I sit here typing these thoughts, I am caught in a web of nostalgia, literally being "brought home" ("nostos") or back to a place that contains many happy memories for me. The second Greek word from which the compound "nostalgia" derives its origin is "algos" which means pain or ache.   And when we remember this or that person, this or that event, long since past, we are both happy and sad at one and the same time, hence the sense of ache or pain. 

I recall many years ago my Uncle John Saunders from San Francisco and my father Tom sitting at the kitchen table way back in the early 1970s polishing off a bottle of good Irish whiskey and their both weeping into their drinks with nostalgia for the old days when they were boys growing up in Roscrea, County Tipperary.  We all have such moments, because memory makes us who and what we are.  Without our memories, who or what are we at all?  That is why Alzheimer's and Dementia are such curses to humankind as they begin to wipe away our memories bit by bit.  Another way of putting this is that these dreadful diseases begin to wipe out inexorably the personality or true identity of the individual.

In fact, we could argue that memory makes us who we are.  It gives us our hold on life; defines us; identifies us; gives us a strong sense of our selfhood and roots us in a certain place, in a certain country, with certain people and particular events and so on.  We mull over ideas in the present with our short-term or working memory - all the things we are able to do and keep in our mind to perform our everyday functioning. However, we store past events and learned meanings in our long-term or episodic (or semantic) memory.  Moreover, the psychologists inform us that memory is malleable - and it tends to decay with age. Indeed, often our imaginations add in little extra details and colourings that were not part of the original remembered event or happening.

I have just resumed this post some twelve hours after I last wrote the preceding paragraphs.  At this juncture, I have just returned from visiting my 96 year old severely demented mother.  In fact she is physically quite good, but her memory has been almost wiped 100% clean, except for a few random words and a lot of garbled sounds of words and non-words crashing into one another.  And yet she smiles and seems happy.  In fact she ate two small yogurts for me and drank a half glass of orange juice. Other than that, I sat by her side reading my latest copy of Philosophy Now.

The nineteenth century theologian and Catholic apologist, John Henry Cardinal Newman (1801-1890) used say that how we believe is a s much a s mystery as how we remember.  Cognitive scientists would most likely say that our memories are sparked off by some image or word or feeling we associate with something or someone we encounter, and that the whole thing is as simple as cause and effect or stimulus and response.  And yet it is more.  I am very much a Gestaltian in tendency and see things in wholes and patterns and overall shapes.  For me, and I am sure that for most of you reading this blog entry, the whole is always greater than the sum of the parts.  Whatever moves us is deeply rooted in who we are, in our identity as a person, in our very self or soul.  We simply believe (perhaps just like to believe) that we are more than a random collocation of atoms, or organs or whatever.

O'Connell School today
And life, what is it at all?  Just a small question that never ceases to cause us to ponder deeply on our human condition.  As I type these few words I remember back to 1980, some 33 years ago.  My memory carries me back to the staffroom in O'Connell School where I had just become a teacher.  I was teaching Religious Education and Mathematics at the time, though my timetable was made up of most of the former.  One winter's morning I arrived in somewhat early and found Gerard Smith sitting beside the electric fire.  He greeted me and asked me "What is it all about at all, at all?"  I replied that this was a very heavy question to be asking me at that hour of the morning.  I deliberately did not answer him, as I simply couldn't. However, I knew that that question had come from the depths of Gerard's being.  To make a long story short, Gerard, unknown to any of us his colleagues, had a congenital heart disease from which he was to die sadly some years later.  Another one of his great friends on the staff, Gerard Donnelly, who joined us in 1982 as a Science and Maths teacher died all too young two years ago from cancer at the young age of fifty. I remember this second colleague of mine being very upset at the other man's demise.  And so these memories come.  They are not random memories but extremely focused ones.

We are left with the mystery of who we are, of what the whole point about life really is, of how does it add up at all.  Then there is that wonderful question which runs: Why is there something rather than nothing?  What is nothing?  Can nothing exist?  What does it mean to be conscious anyway - what is consciousness?  If a tree falls in the wood and there is no one there to hear it does it make a sound? What is knowledge?  How should we act towards others?  What is right and wrong? Why is there Evil in the world?  Why do we die?  Why do we suffer?  Why do we live at all in the first place?  Why do we exist? and so on and so forth.  There are, of course, philosophers who declare such questions meaningless as they see such questions as essentially ones based on bad logic and very poor reason.  Such metaphysical questions are beyond the scope of their type of philosophy.  And yet, we experience ourselves as persons who search for patterns and meanings, who are enthralled by the mystery and wonder of the universe of which we are such a minuscule part.  We can rightly wonder at our small role in that one great mystery.  After all, philosophy, and all good art and all good science, begin exactly there - in wonder!!

And so whether I am weeping nostalgically into a shared drink with another human being, perusing a past pupil website of my Alma Mater, discussing a crisis or problem with a friend or spouse, writing a poem, singing a song, remembering my school days, visiting the graves of relatives and friends, reading a good novel or poem, viewing old photographs, reading old letters, visiting old haunts, I am doing things that essentially make me human, that confirm me in my identity as of such and such a family, as coming from this or that town or county or country or continent, as being really the stuff "on which dreams are made" as Shakespeare so sublimely puts it.

It's time to go an have a nightcap - a nice glass of Irish whiskey - A Jameson preferably.  Good night and sleep well.

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