Sigrun and her granddaughter
Before Alzheimer’s, my mother used to be able to speak 4 languages: German, her mother tongue, English, learned in school and later from her husband, and French and Spanish, also learned in school and during travels to her much loved countries of France and Spain.
Sigrun has visited many cultures, but at her core she will always be German. Depending on your own background, this statement may produce a myriad of images in your mind: From Colonel Klink in Hogan’s Heroes to Volkswagen’s Fahrvergnuegen commercials, from Oktoberfest to pretzels and brats. (German culture has had a curious impact on American culture!) In any case, learning that somebody is German most likely will prompt you to have certain expectations of your interactions with said person.
As an example, if a person encountered another person with large ears, the German would probably state the fact that the person had large ears. It wouldn’t be meant as an insult, merely an attempt to make contact. The American, made uncomfortable by the large ears, would probably comment on the person’s lovely eyes, or hair, or clothes. Again, this also wouldn’t be meant as a deception, but an attempt to connect.
An American may think of German directness as rude. Yet, when we look West (say, towards Japan), it is our American culture that is more direct, and often considered rude. So, it helps to remember that cultural traits are rarely absolute. They are rather a matter of perspective, and shouldn’t be judged out of context.
In my mother I see loyalty, directness, and a critical mind as reminders of her native country.
In dementia, I’ve found that often times people become more direct. It seems that carrying on protocol and pleasantries gets more and more difficult. So directly saying what you think allows the demented to communicate.
When I first moved to the US, I much appreciated how we as Americans like to couch our comments, be politically correct, not offend.
Now, with political correctness run amok and true information being exterminated by infotainment, I sometimes long for German directness. That’s when I love visiting my mother’s reminiscence unit. Before they lose control over their language, most residents say no when they mean no, even if it offends. They refuse the food when it doesn’t taste good, and they don’t participate in games that don’t interest them – no matter how much effort was put into the planning by caring staff. Even without words, residents will find ways to make it known that they disagree, are not happy, or want to refuse something. (see previous blog posts)
Whether it’s in politics, social interaction, or journalism, I believe our society would do well to discover the German or the direct Alzheimer’s patient in us, discover and discuss facts without spin, call that proverbial spade a spade, and shift away from the individual-centered lifestyles, back to a sense of community.
When asked what he thought about newly emerging digital communities, Wendell Berry, one of my favorite authors, cautioned his audience to realize that when speaking of a digital community they are speaking of a metaphor. He reminded us of Aldo Leopold’s understanding of community as the people, the place, and everything in it.
“We abuse land because we regard it as a commodity belonging to us. When we see land as a community to which we belong, we may begin to use it with love and respect.”
from A Sand County Almanac by Aldo Leopold
I belong to a very digitally focused generation. Of course, I am writing these lines on a weblog. How much more digital – and somewhat impersonal – can it get? I love connecting with long lost friends on Facebook. And not a day goes by that I don’t use e-mail for work or play. I do research on the internet, find answers for my children’s questions through Google, love traveling to foreign lands and use my cell phone to talk to coworkers, friends, and family too far away to be considered my immediate community.
Yet that is exactly what I (and I think many of us) need: an immediate community. I believe that cultural exchange in most forms enriches most communities; but in order for a culture to exist, a community needs to be in place – and not one of those metaphoric digital communities that allows you to remain mostly anonymous and without accountability – a community that takes care of its members, but also doesn’t let them get away with murder (or pollution, or exploitation).
I can’t help but wonder, if BP CEO Tony Hayward lived in a beautiful country cottage near Barataria Estuary, whether this oil spill would ever have happened, and, if it had happened, whether the solutions now would be different. And, of course, right now we all love to be angry with BP – as we before loved to hate Exxon. However, there will always be corporations out there that will abuse our people, our places, and everything in them, because their bottom line is profit.
Communities, true immediate communities – when was the last time you chatted with your neighbor? – will hold its members responsible while supporting them. My much loved digital friends can give me tips and suggestions, but they cannot help me take care of my mother or raise my children.
And I know it is difficult to let go of the safe individuality and anonymity provided by our ever-growing cocooning (my mother used to say she didn’t want the neighbors looking in her cooking pot), but the price we pay for the loss of community, and with it the loss of culture is far greater. So, be your community German, American, urban, rural, or suburban, join me in jumping over the boundaries of your individual culture and ask your neighbor how you can help them.