Just last week I saw a conversation on twitter in which people were discussing the old chestnut about whether teaching pupils knowledge was as important as it used to be now everyone can just google everything.
I’m not going to go into the well understood technical fallacies of such thinking and, instead, want to write something more personal.
My favourite poem for a very long time has been Ithaka by C P Cavafy. For as long as I can remember it’s been up on the wall of my classroom or office and I’ve lost track of how many times I’ve shared it with a new Y7 class or with Y11 leavers.
It’s about not getting so hung up on wanting to reach a destination that you forget to appreciate the journey, and it reminds us when we do get somewhere it usually doesn’t feel quite the way we thought it would. Achieving an ideal is rarely as satisfying as what we imagined and the pursuit of a dream at the expense of everything else can make its realisation feel strangely hollow – a little like that weird anticlimactic feel experienced on the first day of the summer holidays.
I understand this part of the poem really well. That’s the part I’ve always emphasised when I’ve spoken to others about it.
But there are lines in the poem that – for a long time – made less sense to me.
Here they are:
wild Poseidon—you won’t encounter them
unless you bring them along inside your soul,
unless your soul sets them up in front of you.”
I have known these lines off by heart for a long time and sort of got them but didn’t really get them.
Intellectually I always knew they meant to be wary of our fears but I didn’t feel this in my heart the same way I did the rest of the poem until just recently when I was talking to someone who I’d just met about my daughter who has Williams’ Syndrome.
The person was delightfully interested and curious. They wanted to know more. They didn’t go weird, or say anything remotely hurtful or insensitive.
And afterwards those lines about Laistryonians, Cyclops and wild Poseidon popped back into my consciousness and stopped me in my tracks.
I realised then that the internal anxiety I carry about how others would react to my daughter at the moment is not borne out by what I have experienced externally, at least so far.
In over two years – ever since her diagnosis – only one person has said something upsetting to me.
Every other person has reacted entirely appropriately, respectfully and kindly; the most common reaction by far has been a sort of shrug and a comment along the lines of “well everyone’s different aren’t they?”
But despite this still I carried my monsters.
Still my soul set up internal anxiety in front of me, made me wonder and worry about what people really thought, made me wonder if all the wonderful people I’d talked about Bessie with were really just good actors when of course I know they are not. It made me adopt what I’d heard others have said about other people as things that had happened to me.
So I will banish the Laistryonians, Cyclops and Poseidon. I will not bring them along inside my soul. I will not let them make me jump at shadows or move me to anger or make me slower to smile. I will not let them fill me with dread or stop me enjoying all the stuff about my life that make it joyous. Those angry beasts will not ruin my journey.
None of this – of course – is to say that life’s troubles are all imaginary. I am no fool and know that the years ahead will bring difficulty, as they do for us all. I am not naive or myopic and will not dismiss what others have experienced.
Just because something has not happened to me does not mean it hasn’t happened to someone else.
But I don’t think Ithaka really means any of that at all.
I think what it is really saying is that the things that damage us most, the things that really have the power to bring us to our knees and to despair are not external slings and arrows. Any ill-considered or unkind comment someone might make does not have the power to hurt me unless I let it.
I could not have learned any of this from google.
I had to have Ithaka always somewhere in mind, like a waiting prism, ready for the light of new experience to ajust and transform it into something brand new.