I was in London the other day. Not that remarkable, I was joined by 11 million others, but I’m not a regular visitor. I happened to be crossing Westminster Bridge and thought of Wordsworth doing just the same in 1802 or so. Our passages over the river could not have been less similar. The vista has of course changed beyond all recognition, but that is to be expected. One thing that might have arrested the bard and urged him to rethink ‘“a sight so touching in its majesty” might be the number of people obscuring the way taking selfies.
In many ways, Wordsworth’s reflections on what he experienced as he crossed was the 19th century equivalent of the selfie. He composed lines to capture the way he felt or was encouraged to feel as he made his crossing. His instinct and the instinct of those who stopped to photograph the scene are quite alike. Who among us has not stopped, found themselves arrested by the beauty of a location and gathered self and loved ones the better to hold the memory? Our collective living room cabinets and consciousnesses are stacked with those objects of association that lead our thinking to the moments and people we value, often because they are in close proximity. Unless of course reader you are disposed to travel with those to whom you have personal antipathy, I should think at least that is not how the journey began.
I think however that there is one significant difference and a difference that is worth setting in front of you. I mentioned earlier that in the act of reading the lines or reviewing the photographs, we are remembering the events we engaged with. The very act of doing this is effectively to bring back to our minds an event we actually experienced, we were present in the moment and conscious that the moment is ethereal and passes. We try to still time, to arrest the passage of significance because we wish at some time in the future or in some way to bring them back to our consciousness.
Wordsworth certainly does this. As I paused to observe what was going on around me, I did wonder if I was alone in doing so? It seemed to me that in the frenzy for the selfie the moment was lost. The snappers were certainly on the bridge, but were they in the moment? It might be, cynically, that they did not care to gaze at the brown ooze pouring beneath the bridge or the ebb and flow of the current of commuters, the vaulted domes of modern arcadia at Charing Cross or the river’s celebration as it passed Festival Hall, still less the gothic aspect of Pugin’s creation shrouded in modernity and the demands of democratic debate.
The city did not wear “the beauty of the morning; silent, bare”, but it still held the “ships, towers, domes and theatres”. But the scene I experienced is a scene pictured in a myriad of locations and experiences. So keen is the rush to capture and so immediately accessible is the device to make it so, that I suspect the moment is lost. What then is on ‘film’? What is captured? An experience akin to washing one’s feet with one’s socks on, the nearly man. ‘I was there but…’ I see the same approach in school sometimes.
Part of what I am commenting on here is about being in the moment. How many of you have sat with a child who is worried? Their experience is the same as an adult but without the life experience that can offer the comfort that comes with knowing that all things pass and this too will pass. We all worry at some point, it is a perfectly routine aspect of our human experience, I don’t say normal because I haven’t the faintest idea what that looks like in an individual.
Children can worry or not about coming to school, they worry about their work, their friendships and about being accepted. Adolescent children are going through this as they go through the period of transformation into adulthood and into an acceptable version of themselves. Heraclitus could have been writing for them when he wrote that all is in a state of flux. But theirs is not the objective change and dispassionate commentary of events that the pre-Socratics imagined.
There is no silver bullet for this worry and no easily accessible antidote. Being with them, listening and being patient help, though for us as parents it seems as if we are helpless. Talking with school and letting us know early on allows us to work on engineering approaches to help, even if it does not mean implementing direct solutions. I say that because where the concern lies ‘within’, the solution is not often if ever found ‘without’.
Parents in talking with us find their own comfort, they find the companionship that alleviates the solitary woe and the illusion that you are alone in dealing with a worried child or the convenient and ubiquitous mistruth that no one else is going through the same and that somehow you could have done better by your child.
It is not a selfie moment in the conventional sense. It is however the moment of touching ‘self’ in those that are going through the process of becoming that transforms that becoming. It is the moment where in their concerns about the future and what will be, they have the reassurance of what really is. It is beyond capture with a device, beyond reproduction, but the one where by being in the moment with a worried child and being genuinely present for and with them that reveals a soul which Wordsworth would agree to be “touching in its majesty”.
Cliff Canning, Headmaster, Hampshire Collegiate School (@HeadmasterHCS)