The Daffodil

The Daffodil, or more classically and correctly the Narcissus, perfectly captures my week. 

First my daughter. Three years ago when she started school, I sometimes thought of her as a little snowdrop, a tiny beautiful flower, but gently bowed and diffident. She cried all the way through her first school play, reached out to me with beseeching arms in her second, slightly self-consciously danced a solo in the third; and belted out a song, whilst whipping others into line, in this year’s Christmas special. 

Caring teachers and a lovely little school have straightened her stem, burst open her petals and encouraged a more confident little trumpet in the middle. In recognition, and ending months of parental anxiety, this week she won a place at a super new school. Like the picture above she now has more of the ‘Narcissus Geranium’ about her than the original snowdrop. It’s lovely to see.

The second set of flowers came at work. I found myself talking to a roomful of our people from Alexandria and Cairo (despite the unrest at home), Abuja, Beirut, Abu Dhabi, Lahore, Recife and the UK about our Prime Minister’s recent speech on Multiculturalism. I said I think it’s all about how petals and centre – or stigma – relate in the national flower. I drew three flowers. One with petals and no centre, one with a huge centre and ‘teddy bear’s ears’ petals and the last with daffodil-like proportions.

I said, in my view, if there is no shared centre, just independent and separate ‘petals’ of separate cultures who never mix, a society will have tensions. Similarly if the centre is so large that the central culture dominates and excludes ‘outsider’ cultures, beleaguered, excluded groups will live unhappily. What’s needed – and substantially what I believe we have in the UK – is a good balance of centre and petals; things in common and things on which we live with and benefit from difference. 

What was interesting for me was when the woman from Brazil stood up and said, for her, there was a fourth option. Her picture was petals within a circle. That’s how she feels about Brazil, their culture is the sum of their petals. I guess a lot depends on the balance of ‘new’ and ‘old’, ‘migrant’ and ‘indigenous’, ‘history’ and ‘present’. A daffodil culture works for me.

My final Narcissus blossomed in a rich conversation over fish, chips and peas on the balance of Kierkegaardian ‘ethical roles’ and the central self. My interlocutor has impressively re-asserted her central self, to rebalance her life and lessen the competing and narcissistic demands of all those making a claim on her.

This set me thinking, and, as I said, once again the daffodil strikes me as the ideal flower. The ‘daffodil life’ wins over everyone with its ramrod straight ethical stalk, a healthy petal spread of life roles. But, it’s the vivid central trumpet of the self that ‘makes’ the flower – just like my little girl. 

Passing a florist today, me and my boy bought our first daffodils of the year after his Birthday lunch. They are a joyous symbol of spring. A wonderful thing the daffodil.

Weird

If every person is valuable and every person is different, then trying to understand one another is both important and hard. Important because everyone’s point of view matters, hard because though we’re all wired the same, everyone’s inputs – in terms of experiences – are different. And not just our specific experiences, but also the collective norms or culture we absorb.

So I was surprised to read in the New Scientist that people like me are the oddballs internationally, not the norm. The acronym WEIRD, stands for Western, Educated, Industrialised, Rich, Democratic, and being WEIRD certainly makes you odd by world standards.

Whilst I’m persuaded that the Ancient Greeks still have plenty to tell us on how to live our lives, you have to admit they are a bit off beam on facts and evidence sometimes. Aristotle is unmatched on ethics and a painstaking collector of evidence on nature to match Darwin. But some of his conclusions which blend observation and assumption on, for example, physiognomy don’t pass muster in this era of evidence based psychology. For example:

“He that hath but a little beard, is for the most part proud, pining, peevish and unsociable… Great and thick ears are a certain sign of a foolish person, or a bad memory and worse understanding. But small and thin ears show a person to be of a good wit, grave, sweet, thrifty, modest, resolute, of a good memory, and one willing to serve his friend.”

Having examined my ears thoroughly I’m going to forgive myself for developing some theories which experiment and evidence may subsequently prove wrong.

What interested me the most in the studies on WEIRDness was the finding that an ‘egocentric’, highly individualistic, analytic and reductionist worldview is unusual. Talking to a friend today, we concluded it probably started with the Greeks, via Ptolemy and the Enlightenment.

Much of the world is on the contrary holistic, collectivist and allocentric – i.e. orientates by reference to objects in the world instead of describing the world by reference to our place in it. 

Much of this I’m sure is due to the removal of nature from our industrialised lives. But as I said to someone at work today, with India and China rising to global leadership, more of what makes the world turn in future won’t have WEIRDness driving it. Or will it?