The Art of Being a Couple: Theodore Zeldin (Full Transcript)

Full text of Oxford scholar Theodore Zeldin’s talk titled “The Art of Being a Couple” at TEDxOxford conference. In this talk, Theodore discussses how some couples can have long loving relationships.

Listen to the MP3 Audio here:


Theodore Zeldin – Oxford scholar and thinker

I am talking about the subject which neither this university nor any other teaches: The Art of Being A Couple. Because it is one of those subjects which, to which there’s no easy answer, and no formula. And therefore, I am not going to tell you a quick solution to the problems in your life.

But I want to take this, because it is one of the biggest problems of all, and it’s going to get a bigger… becoming a bigger problem, because we are going to live for 90 years or 100 years now. And women are becoming educated and no longer willing to shut up and do what they’re told.

And we’re faced by people from many different countries and civilizations, and everything is changing. And so, I would like to just suggest, what I am trying to do, which is not to provide an answer, but to explore.

And if you ask me who I am, I would say I have become… I have… being an academic and so on, an explorer… an explorer of what we can do, which we have not yet done. And let me give you a way of starting this.

I had a conversation once with one of the senior ayatollahs of Iran. And for an hour, he was furious with me, and he shouted and said, how angry he was with the Americans and with the British and with the West, and how they didn’t… were insulting him and so on.

And then after now, suddenly, his anger vanished. And he smiled. And he hugged me. And he said, I want to come again.

And I said, why?

And he said, because you listened to me.

And the question is, do we listen to each other? And I think we have never been taught to talk to each other. Because in the past, we were taught rhetoric, which was how to persuade other people to do what we wanted, and how to talk beautifully and conventionally.

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But now, we have to know not only how to listen to others, but also to fight the obstacle which our human nature places in the way of understanding what others say, because when I listen to someone, my brain immediately rejects everything which seems irrelevant, and only absorbs what I agree with.

And it requires great effort to find meaning in what people are saying, and that means that we have to train ourselves to communicate with others in ways which we have not been accustomed to. Because in the past, the important thing in a conversation was to say what people expected you to say, not to offend them, and so on.

And I’ve been devoting most of my life, just to listening to people, and listening not only to the living, but also to the dead. Because one of the snags of being a modern person is a modern person is supposed to forget the past, and think only how one can improve on the past.

But the very latest scientific work on the memory reveals that you cannot have ideas about the future unless you have rich memories. Your memories… the extent of your memories determines how much you can imagine about the future.

And if you get dementia, or you lose your memory, you can’t think about the future. But the 20th century has bequeathed to us this idea that you should concentrate on the memories of your own childhood. And I feel that if we want to know about the future, if we want to have an idea of what we would like in the future, we need to expand our memories and discover the memories of others.

And so, I spend my time discovering what people have in their heads. And the great mystery of our time for me, is what goes on in other people’s heads? And how can one discover this?

In ordinary lesson conversation, people do not say what they really think; in business, you’ve got to conceal as much as to reveal. And you’ve got to keep up your reputation. And it is particularly difficult that men do not seem to be able to talk very well with women.

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And women are constantly complaining that there are subjects men don’t listen. And so, we have to reinvent the way we talk, and instead of talking to just the people who are around us, I think the first introduction to it is to talk to complete strangers, because with complete strangers, one can in fact, say things which one wouldn’t say to others.

And so, what I’ve done is, as you may know, I’ve been organizing conversations, in which I give people a menu, which has 25 questions, and which gives you subjects to talk about and these are the most difficult subjects that can be thought of: what have been your priorities in the past? And what could they be in the future.

Now, this requires a lot of thinking, what to be afraid of, and this requires a lot of thinking, because fear is something that we have been unable to liberate ourselves from.

It is all very well for politicians or theorists to say, man is born free. No, no creature is born free from fear. And how do you overcome fear? I think this is the great challenge, which we have. And for me, the way to overcome fear is to take fear, everything one is afraid of into little parts, and look at each part separately, in the same way, as a physicist would take apart the objects in the universe and look at small things, and therefore becoming… looking at the world in a microscopic way.

And in the natural world, we have done this, we now say this is not a chair, this is made up of electrons and molecules and so on. And so same with all the thoughts that other people have. And when looks at people as being made up of a massive different element, those elements become interesting, instead of being a menace.

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And so, I put people, I invite people, I invite you to come and meet, and I’d say, do you know this person? No. All right, here’s your partner for the next two hours and here are the things to talk about, and it is amazing.

The reactions that I’ve had from this, and people say they are hungry for proper conversation about the serious subject, and the pub is no good. Because not only the inquiries about pubs, people say that and punchy talk about nothing in particular. And really, you talk in private, to your partner most openly, but even there, it’s difficult.

And I recall doing this, I’ve done this with organizations, companies, universities, homeless people, every short, and I remember once doing it to the police, and the police invited all their members and they were the leaders of the community. And the chief inspector… Superintendent of police said at the end of it, that he talked to somebody who he’d known for 20 years, because they worked in the same office in the same place. And in these two hours, he learned more about him than he learned in 20 years.

In other words, we are moving around in a world we don’t know. And that is why for me if I asked myself, you know what is the purpose of life, you know, this impossible question, but I conclude for me, it is to discover the world. To discover what it is that I can give the world which it doesn’t have, doesn’t have already.

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