Biographical connections

By Stefan Grosse, August 2021

The best way to investigate it is through our own biography: if you look back at a period of your life a little more thoroughly and try to classify events, you will usually have the feeling that things fit together, that it is coherent and makes sense, that there is an “Ariadne’s thread” running through life. Biographies are complex works of art structured in multiple internal relationships. They have a theme, a motif and a goal. The least part of them is subject to a purely biological causality and biographies are certainly not sequences of random events.

One of the most obvious internal references in a biography is the one between the end of life and childhood, when the long-term memory of the elderly person is intensively occupied with the early events of their life. This bond is also effective across generations, e.g. when a grandmother tells her grandson fairy tales. At school, a similar connection is noticeable when older teachers immediately win the hearts of young pupils because of their jovial, age-wise manner. And then it may well happen that the same teachers who find access to the youngest ones with so little complication can no longer speak and comprehend the language and thoughts of the upper school pupils quite naturally – and vice versa. Older pupils and younger teachers often find each other more easily, which is a third internal reference in the biography. Here too, as in the first example, it is applicable both within a biography and across generations from one biography to another.

Childhood and adolescence are thus divided into three stages: early childhood up to the second dentition, schoolchildren up to adolescence, and adolescence up to adulthood. In the first years, an active – not conceptual – connection with the world dominates.

The younger schoolchild absorbs it in feeling reflection, whereas the upper school pupil develops their intellect, their powers of judgement, in order to grasp the world. Will, mind and thinking develop in succession.

Let us look at the person who has passed mid-life, who has reached senatorial age and is in the third third of their life. Here, too, the stages of life are divided into three phases. The person over forty, who acts in society with energy and creative power, develops willpower; the somewhat older person, who gradually withdraws from the hustle and bustle and surveys events with wise composure, lives more strongly in their mind; and the person who is still a little older, who looks at their life with recognition and remembrance, lives in their thoughts. In this three-step process we also encounter the same sequence as in youth: will – feeling – thinking.

Let us now take a look at the connections: the old person finds immediate access to the pre-school child: in this relationship, the child’s will forces meet the old person’s memory and imaginative activity. In the school child, who finds harmony with the older teacher, young, expectant forces of mind meet with forces of age, and in the upper school pupil, who finds their contact in the younger teacher, the ideals of the young person come together with the will to create of the adult.

So far, the first and last biographical thirds have been considered, and in doing so, we have avoided assigning precise time limits to these phases, as it is more a matter of grasping their different qualities, and in their sharp contouring the essentials of the matter are quickly overlooked. But now the question of the middle third of life arises.

In the middle: finding one’s life’s motif

During this time, a person often finds their life’s motif and realises their impulses, comes freely to what is inherent to them. In childhood and adolescence, the younger we are, the more strongly we are bound into what is set by the family. In old age, we are bound by the consequences of what we once laid down ourselves in the past. However, the middle years are not only the time when we finds ourselves but also the phase of life in which we have to make sure that we do not belong to those who mainly count the dwindling of the years, who “turn into petty philistines”, but to those who “make something of themselves”. But the older you get, the more of a challenge this becomes: whatever hunches you have, whatever impulses slumber in rather hidden corners of your soul, whatever night thoughts you have inside you, you have to awaken, capture, hold on to and realise, otherwise they will pass by and be lost. Two biographical sketches illustrate what is meant here.

The gynaecologist and Nobel Peace Prize laureate Denis Mukwege grew up in a Christian mission as the child of a priest in Bukavu, Congo. On Sundays after the sermon, he liked to accompany his father on home visits to parishioners. So they once went to see a sick boy. His father consoled him and prayed with him. After father and son had left the house, Denis asked, “Will he get well now through prayer?” The father had to admit that prayer alone was not enough, that a doctor still had to help.

This conversation planted the seed in the child for his later decision to become a paediatrician. After a childhood and youth marked by war-related violence, he finally came to Kinshasa to study medicine. But he was told that the country needed engineers, not doctors, he could become an engineer. And if he studied hard, he could go on to study medicine. He completed the unloved engineering course in record time with top grades.

Now he was told that an engineer as brilliant as he was could not become a doctor. So he left home and studied medicine in the neighbouring country of Rwanda under academically less favourable conditions. He returned across the border to his nearby hometown of Bukavu for a clinical internship. He had hardly taken up the post when the head doctor left for his holidays. On the very first day, he was forced to perform an emergency gynaecological operation without any practice. In the weeks that followed, he became acquainted with the misery of women giving birth far too young. Quite a few dragged themselves with their last ounce of strength to the hospital after walking for days, the dead child between their legs.

This hardship was compounded by the suffering of those mutilated in the war, as it was a declared tool of the guerrillas to use rape and genital mutilation as instruments of war. Mukwege decided to become a gynaecologist. In Angers, France, he wanted to train as a specialist. After a short time, his money ran out. He was forbidden to work part-time, except as a doctor in the hospital. For night watches and emergency services, he would have needed a car to be on the spot quickly. Since he did not have one, he had to give up his studies.

In those decisive days, the cashier at the supermarket pressed a card for a prize competition into his hand, which he completed and submitted. A short time later he was informed that he had drawn the main prize: a car. He was able to take up the job at the hospital and finish his specialist training. During this time, he brought his family to France, the children went to school there, they settled down in the county. And then came the decision: stay or go back to Congo. And Mukwege went back. He was 34 years old. He remained true to his life’s motif.

Another Nobel Peace Prize winner: Muhammad Yunus. He was 36 years old when he founded the Grameen Bank for microcredit. Born in 1940 as the son of a jeweller, he went to school in Chittagong, a city of over a million people then still in East Pakistan, where he stood out for his special intellectual abilities and received several coveted scholarships that ultimately enabled him to study in the USA, where he became a professor of economics.

When East Pakistan became Bangladesh in 1971, he went back home to help build the country. He became a professor in Chittagong. Abject poverty had always been pervasive in the country. So it was not surprising that he lectured on theories on poverty alleviation – in air-conditioned lecture halls for the children of the rich. As he walked home after one such lecture, he stumbled across a starving man who had died on the steps of the university. He had literally come face to face with reality – and no longer wanted to avoid it.

Instead of theorising, he went with his students to the nearby slums to talk to the inhabitants. He got to know a system of dependencies that trapped the poorest in a perpetual vicious circle that could only be broken by initial independence. In most cases, this would have required a small loan. The sums involved were so small that no bank was willing to go to the trouble of administering them. And the usual collateral could not be deposited either. Yunus, however, had experienced through his encounters with people in the slums that there was indeed collateral, and it was provided almost exclusively by women: honesty, a deep longing for a dignified life and the unbreakable will to care for their children.

These experiences and insights gave birth to the Grameen Bank for microcredit, a bank that can operate with one of the lowest default loss rates in the world. Yunus seized and held on to a latent impulse – researching theories of poverty proves this – that was suddenly brought sharply into focus by an external event, and in this way found his life’s motif.

Both examples make it clear what mid-life is all about: taking up and realising life impulses that push the limits of the seemingly impossible.

About the author: Stefan Grosse  is a class and religion teacher at the Esslingen Free Waldorf School and board member of the German Association of Waldorf Schools.

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