Mr Lockwood stumbles into our consciousness in Wuthering Heights proclaiming himself a misanthrope and finding that his soon to be neighbour takes that to another dimension. Over the several weeks of lockdown and absence from the physical building of school, much the same reflection visited itself on us. Lockwood by contrast actively sought out that which he thought himself destined for, only to realise that he was not at all that which he thought. In our context nothing could be further from our imaginings nor our desire. The enforced distance and remote learning drove us all into an unnatural misanthropy and an unwelcome one.
Writing in week four of our return, it feels as though we never had that period of separation. The routines are not natural but human nature makes its accommodation with this and staff and children get on with life as we now experience it. Thinking back over the last term, it all seems a very long time ago. I was talking with a colleague and it gave me pause to consider the effect of the lockdown on us all as individuals. She reflected on how glad she was to be back, how insular the experience of being at home was and how disproportionate issues became because her frame of reference was her front room and garden. The narrowing of our external horizon pushes us to create horizons within. It seems that there is something about the human spirit that is restless.
Maybe I need to widen my circle of friends and colleagues, but I have yet to hear a voice proclaiming that the social distancing and isolation was welcome or easy. There is a sense that we all endured it but the degree to which it wore down a nation’s morale may be evident in the numbers who congregated on the beaches of the south coast at the first opportunity. Of course, there are mixed reasons for travelling. I did wonder when I saw a train leaving London destined for Brighton with people crammed in cheek by jowl, how effective social distancing was relegated to the need for a new horizon, view, experience or perhaps companionship.
The discomfort felt by those who took the risk to travel points to a very basic and neglected driver in human understanding, the need to belong and the need to self-actualise, “to be free to be”. Ordinarily this compulsion is in opposition or at least tension with forces in society of propriety or convention that would direct that existential quest. The lockdown frustrated that by obvious social and physical means. But I think there is another dimension. The existential desire “to be” is not played out on a blank canvas and away from the influence or support of others. Indeed the realisation of the self is probably only effectively achieved through interaction with others. I am who I can become in company with others maybe even because of their company.
The character distortion we see in Heathcliff is wrought by his own self-imposed misanthropy and refusal in the end to allow the salve of companionship to ease the sting of his perverse rejection of human society. To be fair, he learned early and well that he didn’t belong and that he had to be content on the fringe. This education served him poorly in understanding how to navigate success beyond the material. The reward for his particular success left him chasing at ghosts. In this is a lesson for us all. That we are what we can become through the interactions we have with the world that is busily shaping us whether we like it or not. Our choices create actions and leave marks that form the content of our character and that the outward isolation of lockdown is salved by the promise of return and the rebuilding of community. We saw that joy in the faces of the Prep school children in July, we saw it in the Senior School and continue to see it every day as I see them coming to handwash stations. In the midst of change and uncertainty is choice. It is ours to respond or retreat. Heathcliff exercised just this choice, but so too did Hareton and Cathy to a very different end. I think we can all appreciate and understand Mr Lockwood’s retreat.
Cliff Canning, Headmaster, Embley (@EmbleyHead)