Who we are

Many years ago I was invited to join a discussion group in Stellenbosch, the very picturesque South African town where I had studied philosophy. The other members were all, like me, young professionals at the beginning of their careers, and some of them had been classmates.

We were looking forward to some seriously philosophical discussions, and I gladly drove the sixty kilometres once a month from Cape Town where I was working as a fiction editor.

First order was to introduce ourselves. The discussion leader, who today is a professor of philosophy in Amserdam, suggested we start off by each telling the group a little about ourselves so that the discussions to follow would not take place in a personal void but be rooted in who we were.

That was a wise idea, although its consequences could not be foreseen.

A young woman – I forget who – volunteered to begin. She passed swiftly over the business of where she came from, what she studied and what she was doing now, and then she paused. Was that an adequate introduction of herself, I imagined her thinking.

Then she started opening up a little more to put across who she was in relation to these basic facts of her life. How her hometown had shaped her mind, what her parents had built in her, why she studied the course she had, and what the significance was of the job she was doing.

Well, the floodgates opened. Other members interrupted with questions or comparisons to their own lives. As these CV points of one life were opened up and examined and expanded and infused with real life experience, it seemed as if the universe could be contained in one person’s life in a play of connections and disconnections with that of others.

The introduction of that one person became the entire discussion for that first day. The next month the same happened when the next person introduced himself. And the same happened the month after that. In fact, for the six months or so of that group’s existence, all we did was introduce ourselves.

After that the group somehow lost steam and petered out. Members had to be away on business, or had moved away, some found the meetings difficult to keep up in their busy schedules. Then it became an as-and-when arrangement, and then it stopped.

Was it the intensity, I wonder, of the meetings that caused some kind of collective burnout? For they were very intense indeed. There were tears on occasion. Under the corrosion of open exchange people realised things about themselves.

It might have been that, or it mightn’t. It remained, throughout all that time, a safe haven – which is exactly why the conversations ranged so widely and went so deep.

Perhaps it felt, after we had all had our turn, to some extent conclusive. Of course, this could not have been absolute, for we were young and our lives had yet to unfold. This we knew. But there was an element of business done, thanks, I think, to that exhaustive probing into ourselves.

I fear I have not stayed in touch with any of the discussion group members. We each followed our own trail of pebbles into the forest and hopefully out again. Life changes for us, and life changes us. In our country, South Africa, there is a line that cuts so definitively through history that we talk of the predemocratic and the democratic era of 1994 as one does about BC and AD in world history. Our group lived in the dark time of apartheid. What, and where, we are now has been radically changed by events.

If I should meet again with any of them, after exchanging pleasantries, I’d imagine we would ask each other about where we are now in our lives, and how we got there, and why. And how much has changed and how much not – and again why. And I suspect the answers would draw as much on our inner lives as on external circumstances – from the most intimate circle around us to the biggest events on the world stage.

Indeed, I would expect that conversation to range as widely and plunge as deeply as the ones we had a quarter of a century ago when we first introduced ourselves. For when we truly talk – and talk truly – about ourselves, we talk about the world and everything in it, no?

Categories: The Talking Table

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