I just finished Traveling with Pomegranates by Sue Monk Kidd (author of The Secret Life of Bees) and her daughter Ann Kidd Taylor. It’s a mother-daughter memoir where chapters alternate their perspectives. I enjoyed reading it very much and related to it quite well. In the book, Sue is dealing with the changes that are happening in her own life as she ages into menopause. She is also trying to understand and adapt to the change in the mother-daughter relationship that will allow her to “let-go” yet stay an important person in her daughter’s life.
I can relate to so very much of this.
But reading this book was a jumping off point for me to wonder about something else, and that is our society’s emphasis on the self.
In one part of the book, Sue mentions a workshop she co-led called Maiden, Mother, Crone. “It wasn’t about chronological phases in a woman’s life,” she writes, “but about an internal process of becoming.” She mentions that she invited her mother to the workshop. Which in turn, made me think of my own mother and that started the ball rolling in my mind, like a game of mousetrap where one unrelated action eventually leads to a series of others.
Traveling with Pomegranates is about finding a “self” or re-acquainting with a “self,” both as it relates to a young woman about to embark on a marriage and career, and an older woman facing her mortality. I’ve read a lot about this in menopausal literature—rediscovering your self. And I’m not criticizing the concept. I just wonder, when did my mom have the time or the chance to do this? My mom went from maiden to mother and basically got stuck there for 51 years taking care of Annie. There was no journeying back to her “self.” Then when Annie died, Mom became a full-time caregiver of my dad whose needs were escalating because of Alzheimer’s.
I think it’s worth noting that our civilization did not always place an emphasis on individualism, or talk much about the self. That’s a fairly new concept that showed up around the 19th century. One of the most interesting things I did while earning my English degree was take a required series of four “Age” classes. Beginning with the Age of Faith, then the Age of Protest, followed by the Age of Ideology and ending with the Age of Uncertainty, this series of classes looked at philosophical ideas and historical events that were the cause and effect of each other and that influenced the progression of Western Civilization from the beginnings of Christianity through modern times.
For a while Christianity was the center of everything in Western Civilization. You don’t have to take my word for it, just go wandering through an art museum sometime. This reliance on faith was shaken after the 15th century when religious, intellectual, and political protests erupted. The void in ideology these protests created resulted in an age of ideology where different world views were tried out: liberalism, nationalism, and communism. But none of these filled the void of a unifying ideology that had been in operation during the age of faith. So civilization entered into an age of uncertainty. This age, exemplified by people seeking power, was destructive and dehumanizing, as evidenced by the two world wars, the rise of Facism and the Holocaust.
That’s a quick little history/philosophy review for you according to the Age classes. But the point I’m trying to make is that individualism hasn’t always been an intrinsic value of human civilization. It showed up sometime around the 19th century. We highly value individualism today. We have book shelves lined with self-fulfillment guides. We have bucket lists. We emphasize the “self.” In some ways we live in a “it’s all about me” society even though we criticize people who act like “it’s all about me.” I don’t know that I fault this drive to find, understand, and cultivate the self. I’m just not sure that it is the place where our main focus should lie.
My mom was never given the opportunity to search for her self, like Sue Monk Kidd does in Traveling with Pomegranates. It’s not like Mom ever chose to be a caregiver her entire life. It was the life she was given and she rose to the occasion. What I wonder is, how does all this emphasis on individualism and self have any significance in the life of a caregiver, other than to cause a sense of frustration that something is missing?
My mom’s life has never been about “me.”
Here’s the thing. I’m not sure all this focus on the “self” has really gotten us that far as a society. Road rage and drug addictions come to mind. Are we really happier and better off as people?
One thing I know is, when I’m down or depressed, helping someone else or doing something for someone else helps me.
Maybe it’s not about self at all, maybe it’s about the other.
And maybe we, as a civilization, will get there someday.