I worked in different departments there over the course of time, but mostly with the youngest children, aged between 6 or seven and about 11 or 12.
Some of them could speak, some could not, and I was interested to realise that I had to stop and think for a while before identifying who could and couldn't speak — because their personalities and communicative power were in every case so clear and intense., regardless of their powers of speech or their cognitive status.
In later years, working with people at the end of life, some of whom could no longer speak, it again struck me how clearly their personalities shone through.
Oliver Sacks wrote something that connects with this in his excellent book about Parkinsonian conditions, Awakenings.
"In answer to questions about the existence and integrity of the self in severe mental disease, I believe that though one can be 'beside oneself' or 'lose oneself' for years on end, the Self itself is still present, always present, intact, entire — however withdrawn or buried it may be. I think that all psychotic distortions and splintering of the self are relatively superficial, even though they may dominate the clinical picture. I think the ravages of physical and mental disease are both superficial; that there is something unfathomably deep beyond their reach; that this is the best and strongest thing we have; and that once upon a time this was called the soul."In ageing, I have found in myself, and seen in others, a process of intensification, clarification, of the self becoming more and more evident even as faculties and attributes diminish.
I have noticed a rapid atrophying of the ability to comply or to pretend, in others and in myself. There's the thing we know about synapses in the ageing brain scuppering our inner editor's best efforts, but that's not quite what I mean. I'm not talking so much about a decline of inhibition, more about an intensification of core self.
In general, I prefer to comply, and I find it comforting to be accepted. Offending others creates strong anxiety in me. It takes me days and days to get over any kind of confrontation or conflict — sometimes even months and years.
So I have found very disturbing the steady decrease of my ability to simply fit in. It's not so much "won't" as "can't".
I find this particularly difficult in group situations (obviously), which in my life translates as church.
The church operates according to categories, like all institutions. In the Methodist church, I at present am categorised as a Local Preacher, and there are certain requirements made of those who are in that category. But I find as I get older that my selfhood asserts more and more strongly, in a kind of arm-wrestling contest with the expectational imperatives of social belonging. Increasingly, as I go to satisfy expectations and fulfil expectations, the counterpoint of my authentic reality constrains me like a band of strong, thick elastic: I can't do it. I can neither do nor be what the category demands of me. I can't just fit in with the institution. I need the group to express and respond to the people. I can adapt to the other people, but I now also need them to adapt to me. And the church, at the organisational level rather than the congregational level, doesn't work like that. Oh dear. There may be trouble ahead . . . Already this year I've parted company with one Christian publishing house who required me to actively conceal truth from its readership because it ran counter to established expectations. I wouldn't, couldn't, do it.
So, intensification of self and the strongly elastic assertion of personality seems to be a characteristic of ageing. It is, I suppose, part of the pre-cursor of dying. When we arrive here at birth, we are all of a piece, our soul and body firmly integrated. But as we age, we start to climb the ladder up out of the earthly house of the body. We are coming loose, we are getting out, we are leaving. The soul, as it gradually emerges out of its context, is increasing clear to see.
It is, to me, a source of regret and embarrassment. I try to hold on, to be what others need me to be, to fulfil expectations. And I am increasingly less successful in this endeavour.