Now and then through my life my Dad would mutter at me Bertrand-Russell-cousin-your Great Grandmother. And I always whatever-who-cares back at him. Until a few months ago, during a particularly slow night shift in the library and after I had exhausted every blog, news service and hobby I could think of, I finally googled the name.
Two things shocked me. First, some of the photos of the great man showed some resemblance to my Great Grandmother. Second, was his long list of achievements, connections, and honours. Since I was already in the library, I popped into the catalogue and noticed that not only did we have a few copies of his works, but some of them were checked out! Others, we held as e-books. To me, this means that folk are still interested in what this man had to say, despite how long ago he said it, and how far away he was at the time.
In my break, I grabbed a copy of Russell’s work that included a couple of autobiographical essays and started to read. I felt an instant sense of connection with this slightly pompous (to my Australian ears) but clearly warm and witty man. It was somewhat like listening to my Pop, or my Great Gran speak (Oh! She was a tiger!) And my Dad too. I was in the company of a sharp intelligence, one that has considered a topic, thought about it from many angles and now has a clear confidence, (despite a hint of self-depreciation and doubt) in what is being expressed. It was also somewhat like listening to myself, in a depressingly rare moment of eloquence, the kind where my mind is slow and certain and clear enough for my tongue to keep up with.
So, the next day I rang Dad and told him all about it. He was circumspect … Oh your Great Grandmother’s mother was a Russell and I’m not sure how close the connection might be, but she was very proud of him. Then it dawned on me that Dad had whatever-who-cares his Gran (the tiger) about Bertrand Russell. So I got to babble for quite a long while about the Russell Tribunal, and a Nobel Prize, and holding true to his beliefs, despite imprisonment and the terrible impact on his career and reputation.
But what does it all mean, really – this tenuous connection? Nothing at all – and yet – something. When I think of it I feel somehow comforted, somehow more at peace with myself than I was before, somehow safe. I have always spoken up at meetings to say what I think needs to be said, even though I struggle with the vulnerability of that, and my voice does shake. Now I sense that I have more substance to draw on – I perhaps give myself a little extra room to breathe – and continue on. I am, just perhaps, in part, a Russell, and this is what we do.
Being in contact with Russell’s philosophy has made a bigger difference to how I feel about myself though. Time you enjoy wasting is not wasted time. It has almost totally banished my feelings of failure. Somehow, I am enough. My struggles and my accomplishments are enough. I have not wasted my life by not following the prescribed path. When I removed the guilt I felt toward my ‘wasted years’ when I did ‘nothing,’ I could – and can – acknowledge that during this time, I got to know myself well, and to develop substance and courage enough to be able to make some difference in the world, even though I am scared. And that this is no ordinary thing.
I think I even feel proud of myself. I do. I do feel proud.