To hold his gaze for longer than half a minute or so would have been improper, but she had time to imagine, in the condensing way of thought, what he saw in the chair by his bedside, another grown-up with a view, a grown-up further diminished by the special irrelevance that haunts an elderly lady.
This is from a novel I just finished reading, The Children Act by Ian McEwan. Fiona Maye, the 59-year-old protagonist, is a High Court judge in London. Here, she is visiting her 17-year-old bedbound client in hospital.
This line certainly gave me pause. Really? Am I ‘diminished’ by the special ‘irrelevance’ that ‘haunts’ me as an elderly lady? Perhaps I am, in the eyes of some. But, somehow, the question of my relevance itself seems irrelevant.
I chose to retire early from work. I was tired of the hurly-burly of life. I felt depleted; I had nothing left to give. I just knew I had to call it a day. Besides, I had never had a burning desire to be relevant to the running of the world or its institutions – ‘brighten the corner where you are’, that beautiful old hymn, was more my thing.
When she resigned last month, Jacinda Ardern said she no longer had “enough in the tank”. She said, “We give as much as we can for as long as we can and then it’s time. And for me, it’s time.” Two days ago Nicola Sturgeon said she knew “in my head and in my heart” this was the right time to step down as the first minister of Scotland.
As many have said before, life is like a river, and the way of life is to go with the flow. A river cannot have the energy of a noisy little brook bounding cheerfully down a mountainside, plunging into ravines to create waterfalls, then racing into the next valley . . . A brook has a long way to go before it grows into a river, while a river remembers being a brook once and is happy to watch the progress of the bubbly brook, the way we watch our children’s progress with pleasure.
A river flows somewhat sluggishly when it nears the sea and the last part is only about meandering or forming a sediment-filled delta or a marshy estuary as it gets closer to the sea. But it is still a part of the Water Cycle, it supports life in many ways, it is still as relevant as grandparents!
I was once on a ship that sailed up the Mississippi river to New Orleans. The mighty river was as still, flat and featureless as a vast lake. There was no wind, no waves, no spray, no swell, nothing. It was as still as Coleridge’s ‘a painted ship upon a painted ocean’. A river at this stage of its course can be that calm and peaceful, its waters unruffled by passing traffic.
Being a relevant agent of change in the world is transient. Today’s relevant people are replaced in less than two decades (very conservative and generous estimate!) by another batch of relevant people. They wait in the wings, then take centre stage to perform their part, move into the wings again, then step down from the stage to make place for the next troupe. To the constantly changing audience they are relevant only for the time they see them on stage. This is what we call Samsara, or flowing on.
With relevance comes responsibility. It’s horrifying to think that the views and diktats of people like those who declared Galileo guilty of heresy four centuries ago were relevant at one time! Today, governments and corporations are most relevant to the management of the world and its resources, and I’m not sure they realise what an enormous responsibility that is.
At times, being told we are irrelevant is a justifiable rebuke. When the 25-year-old New Zealand M.P., Chloë Swarbrick, brushed off a senior parliamentarian during a discussion on climate change in 2019 with “OK, Boomer”, we deserved it.
Often, something you knew almost nothing about becomes extremely relevant all of a sudden. Last year, that something was cancer for the non-medical people in my family. Today, reading the statement posted by Bruce Willis’ family about him – “frontotemporal dementia is a cruel disease that many of us have never heard of” – my heart goes out to them.
To get back to The Children Act, Fiona is mainly relevant in her roles as a High Court judge and as a wife. Relatives sometimes visit or stay over on holidays and then she’s a warm aunt, or whoever she’s required to be, going back to being mainly Judge, her dominant identity, after the interlude.
However, when she stops at a grocery store once, she briefly sees herself through the eyes of the boy at the checkout counter:
She bought a frozen fish pie. At the checkout she fumbled with her money, spilling coins onto the floor. The nimble Asian lad working at the till trapped them neatly with his foot, and smiled protectively at her as he put the money in her palm. She imagined herself through his eyes as he took in her exhausted look, ignoring or unable to read the tailored cut of her jacket, seeing clearly one of those harmless biddies who lived and ate alone, no longer capable, out in the world far too late at night.
Sure, the boy might see her in that light, but how does she see him? As an Asian bagboy, someone who is too unsophisticated to appreciate the elegant cut of her jacket, someone who spends all his waking hours bagging groceries for customers and has no other life. That is how he will live in her memory. Irrelevant. Diminished. So it works both ways.
Seen cross-sectionally, people appear only as their current role. Their relevance lasts only as long as the interaction does. We would see them differently if we were to take the long view and see their lives as videos rather than as snap shots. But that would be overwhelming! I guess that’s why it’s reasonable to take people at face value in short transactions.
In general, people have doubts about their own relevance, their place and role in the world, without being made to feel irrelevant by anyone else.
All day I think about it, then at night I say it.
Where did I come from, and what am I supposed to be doing?
I have no idea.
My soul is from elsewhere, I’m sure of that,
And I intend to end up there.
I’m like a bird from another continent, sitting in this aviary.
I didn’t come here of my own accord, and I can’t leave that way.
Whoever brought me here will have to take me home.
– Jalaluddin Rumi
Many patients who seek treatment for ‘depression’ come from a place of feeling invisible, unheard, unloved and disrespected – basically dismissed as unimportant and irrelevant – with a need to have their relevance to the significant people in their life restored. It’s hard for people to value themselves without some validation from people who matter to them.
Sometimes people are too depressed to wait for ‘whoever brought me here to take me home’ and might decide to find their own way ‘home’ if they feel they are not needed.
Going back to Ian McEwan’s observation, ‘a grown-up further diminished by the special irrelevance that haunts an elderly lady’, an elderly lady is like a matryoshka doll and carries the lessons of decades within her. She can hark back to any age and draw on her experience of being that age. She can read an “O.K., Boomer” subtext in someone’s look and decide if it’s worth thinking about.
The important thing to remember is that relevance is relative: relevant to what or whom at this stage of your life? If the answer is clear and pleasing, nothing else matters!
6 thoughts on “relevance”
Nice write up!
Good, indepth article
beautiful write-up.. I can f..e..e..l… that thought…
Often … I look up at the night sky and see those beautiful stars … trillions of them teeming… and wonder how relevant am I….. in this vast existence … the only answer that comes to mind… is that ‘I’ am not relevant to anything… except in my own mind… if ‘I’ am not there… something or someone else will be there… so all I have to do is take the ride… and go through wherever it takes me…. 😇
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Shyamala, I wonder why it is 2 female PMs decided to call it quits….how often (almost never) do male politicians do this. what were the stressors in these 2 people’s lives? How did they seem to see the light when most don’t? Interesting to have a very frank conversation with them…… Amita
Well written, Dr Shyamala – thought-provoking indeed.
I guess that it is important that we take a good look at ourselves and find that right and correct balance and be comfortable with our own assessment.
Relevance is relative, it is transient and ever changing. Lovely insightful article….Thank you..