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.
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.
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.
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.
And in order to discover the world, I need to talk to as many people as possible and then I need to see as many as possible. And I have been doing this, and as I say, with the past, as well as the present, in order to see that we do not devote our lives to just to repeating the mistakes of the past.
And what is the biggest mistake? The biggest mistake is that we have now reached the stage where work no longer suits us, we educated, we have greater ambitions to see the world and to discover what life is about.
And work is becoming more stressful. And many, I think almost most occupations are in crisis and they don’t know what to do with themselves. And people are unwilling to work harder and harder. The more you climb up, the more you work. And therefore, my ambition is to see how we can reinvent new kinds of work and this is not a mad idea, because every time the world’s population has exploded, humans have invented a new kind of work, they invented agriculture, they’ve invented industry, when there are too many people in agriculture, they invented the service society, they invented public employment.
And now we have to invent a new kind of work for the billion people who are coming into the world, and who either don’t have jobs, or don’t have jobs, who would use all their talents and give them everything they would like in order to become fully alive instead of 20% alive, 50% alive.
And I’ve been doing this by having experiments, I explore, I go into a super market. And I say let us turn the supermarket into a cultural centre that is introduced, and I’ve done this.
So, let us give lessons… to music lessons to children who come shopping, following their parents, let us give English lessons to migrants who can’t speak the language, let us have conversations among the customers, we never speak to each other.
And I go into… I get invited to places like insurance companies, the last place you think that anything can be changed, and I want to say that insurance is about fear. Now how can we assuage your fears? And how can we increase your fears so that you ensure even more and more things?
And what people really want from insurance is opportunity. And all the people who insure themselves have got things they have got to say, they have things they’ve said which they could give to young people.
And so, I’m talking about opportunity insurance, rather than catastrophe insurance. And I’ve been into hotel chains, and in hotels, women who come to us, chambermaids are often from other countries, they want to learn a language, why can’t a hotel be a place which is also a language school? Why can’t it enable its customers, its clients to meet people in the city, instead of just watching CNN on the telly.
There are all sorts of changes which are possible to invent in the way we work. And this is what I would like people to collaborate with us and see whether in that particular employment, there is a little part which can be devoted to research and development of how work can be made to suit us rather than to suit industrial purposes.
This, I think, is the big challenge and revolution we can imagine in the next 50 years. And it’s one which we can stimulate because young people are going to be increasingly reluctant to work for jobs, which are not appealing, and that this is an alternative to talking about the alternative life instead of going to the Hebrides and living as one did in the 10th century.
This is an opportunity to try something out and fail and when I talk of myself as an explorer, I insist that we can’t expect experiments to succeed. When this electric light was invented, it took 1000s of failed experiments before we invented electricity. Why are we not inventing things and accepting that they will fail?
And so, what I want to do now is to invite everybody not only to talk to someone else, but also to write a little passport, showing what they want other people to understand about them.
I believe that very few people, in fact, almost nobody feels they’re properly understood. And it is very difficult even to understand oneself. And at present, you’re being urged always to know yourself; I think it’s impossible to know oneself. I think there’s much more interesting to know others, I’m quite bored to know who I am, and I don’t know who I am.
And knowing others is what life is about. And I see us doing in effect what something like, what William the Conqueror did when he came into England, he said let us know who owns the land in England, because land was the only thing that mattered in those days. And I would say we need a new Doomsday book now. Who is it to inhabit the world?
Tell me who you are. And we can only tell it in interaction, in conversations and we will record what you say. And we will put it up if you like anonymously. But in order because the one thing that you have is a personal experience, you can see the world as no one else does.
And what I see is not what you see and it is by the conjunction of all what each one sees that one can discover something like the truth. So, this is how I see what… how I would like to spend my life: discovering the world and then seeing what I can offer.
And I would like to know what you think. And it is my belief that is no good me having a desire if all of you don’t want to do this. And if you find there are all sort of obstacles but we can try. And if you will now tell me what you think that would be interesting.
Resources for Further Reading:
- Agoraphobia: The Fear of Fear – Linda Bussey (Transcript)
- Why Politicians Shouldn’t Appoint Judges: Aziz Huq (Transcript)
- Human Complexity Simplified: Jennifer Sorensen (Transcript)
- How Sci-Fi Informs Our Climate Future — and What to Do Next: Zainab Usman (Transcript)
- Phobia Relief: From Fear to Freedom – Kalliope Barlis (Transcript)