A memorial to my younger self
I still have the ruck sack I bought when I was 18. It is looking pretty tatty these days and in some ways I feel a little self-conscious about using it since it has all the hallmarks of an excitable teenager setting off to conquer the world and everything in it. Most strikingly it is festooned with badges and flags, testifying to the world where I have been and the incredible things I had done (up to the age of about 28). After getting married and settling down, my wife Jill, to some degree replaced my rucksack, in so much as she became the repository of all my hopes, dreams and memories. When she was on form she could speak far more eloquently and in far greater detail of my achievements and greatness. A portable ego booster – you see the similarities between a rucksack and a wife I hope? As a side note Jill has a beautiful skill and ability to pop my balloon in private helping me to maintain at least a reasonable balance between self-worth and humility. She can shoot me down with the force of a howitzer cannon in the look of an eye and ironically I love her for it.
Back to the ruck sack. In a desperate and feeble attempt to hang on to the me of ages past and to preserve something of my youthful legacy, I have been trying for years to get Joshua, my son to accept the bag as his. Obviously a mistake of grand proportions. He already thinks I am an idiot, out of date and fairly irrelevant though he loves me as much as I love him and I am always good for a loan now and again. Joshua is currently collecting and displaying his own ‘virtual’ badges and happy to do that for himself.
So what of my ruck sack now? What of my youthful legacy? What of the me that once was? I often use the well-worn idea of writing a ‘letter to my youthful self’ to encourage any younger people that I may meet on my travels to more readily accept me for who I now am. Yes, I am now older and very much less relevant but I once was trendy, outgoing, handsome, interesting, dashing and worth chatting to. Nevertheless, I am getting increasingly fed up with young people and their innate inability to engage with me on an equal basis. It appears necessary in the ‘letter to my youthful self’ to basically denigrate myself one way or another; to insist that I would have found myself unacceptable, irrelevant, stupid and out of touch. But this is not the real truth. I have thought about it recently and to be honest I would love the chance to sit down with the youthful me and to engage in conversation; to mentor, advise, energize, encourage and admire each other.
On my last tour of duty in the Lebanon, I came across a newly recruited engineer. I talked to her and rapidly found her to be engaging, passionate, intelligent, committed and an all-round good egg. Instead of a sit down interview I took her round the building and onto the roof where she showed me all the snags, faults and terrible concrete work. Clearly a consummate professional. A week later our team, including this female engineer went to the field to ‘meet with the people’. A very social exercise and one which required patience, empathy, understanding and a different set of skills. She failed dismally to engage. No longer in her comfort zone she buckled under pressure and went off, a solitary figure to physically count houses, measure lengths, probe depths and create ‘accurate maps’ while we messed around creating ‘social maps’. Rather autistic I thought and I spent time explaining this to her. I also felt great compassion for her and told her that without a doubt I could see the old (well younger) me in her. But more importantly I could help her out of this malaise. She was willing to try. We did and slowly slowly and with great effort she moved into a different space. I hope she continues to grow, otherwise it would be the waste of a great and burgeoning talent.
So back once again to my ruck sack! What should I do with it? I have been carrying it around with me across continents waiting to see, hoping to find someone who could take forward my legacy, carry on my mantle and accept it as theirs. A sacred task only to be entrusted to someone very special. Well no; I realize finally that that is just daft, a whistling in the wind, something that would rob another of their self-worth and their God given chance of finding themselves and enjoying their own life to the full. I am essentially an island like everyone else.
So ‘what of my ruck sack’ I hear you scream. I think I shall start to cherish it again. I will keep it and look after it. I will revive it and start to add more badges to it. I will revive my little secret and hide coins or mementoes under each badge and I shall simply enjoy it because it is a part of me and I have carried it with me like a talisman. Yes, an ostentatious, rather large talisman and not one to be hung discreetly round my neck but one that is purely mine, for me to enjoy and believe in. Fellow travelers may imagine me to be an ageing hippy, an idiot with a childish attachment to a silly collection of badges pathetically proclaiming a list of destinations easily reached and explored by the average school kid or gap year student who will no doubt think ‘grow up granddad and get a life’. Well for your information it is not about that. It is about me and the fact that I like me (most of the time). I am comfortable with me and have been for a long time. I have my God. I have my family. I have my work to do, and finally I now have my ruck sack back! What more could a man want?