The Growth of Privacy; Day 16 -Unheard Voices
FEBRUARY 19, 2020
My father is a great man for relations; if there is a line I’ve heard once I’ve heard a million times it’s: “he’s a cousin of your own, boy!” Growing up it seemed everyone in West Cork was related; perhaps they are.
A number of years ago my father went to work on compiling a family tree in earnest. It was a huge undertaking and while it was one in which he made huge advances, he was always a little frustrated that he could not do what he felt was justice to it.
I find it a simply marvellous thing of wonder as I am completely crap at all of that, in truth I have little interest and so can’t retain even the most simple connections. So he ends up having to explain relations and family connections to me over and over again, which in fairness he does with admirable patience, and I am sure a little despair.
One of the things I find fascinating about the family tree is the forks and branches. Binary events, the occurrence of which are not meant, makes the difference in the existence of the whole lines of people that follow that branch in the tree.
Of course, branches only occur if a further generation issues forth. Many branches in the tree end where that individual had no issue; no descendants.
It is said that we die three times. First when the body ceases to function. Second is when the body is placed in the grave. Third in that moment, sometime in the future, when your name is spoken for the last time.
Those names at the end of the branches of the family tree; who would continue to speak their names? What did they have to say? How might their voices be heard?
My grandparents on my mother’s side had a daughter who died shortly after birth, she was certainly never forgotten to them or to their children, her siblings. But on the record of genealogy, her line ended far sooner than it should have done, and what potential was lost because of that?
Growing up I had an older cousin John. He was only a couple of years older than me but always seemed much more grown-up. He lived just down the road from my grandparents on my mother’s side. When we would go to visit my grandparents we would regularly meet John.
My memory of him from these times is of someone reading the paper.
The paper, or De Paper, at the time, was The Cork Examiner; what else could there be. I could not for the life of me understand how anyone could possibly sit down and read the paper. It was so incredibly boring. Apart from the comics at the back or the new cinema listing on a Friday, there really was nothing in the paper worthy of one’s time and attention.
How could anyone spend hours reading it from cover to cover; yet John did. Every day.
I mean, had he not seen cartoons? Because I had and I knew well that they were far superior to anything that could possibly to be found within the covers of The Cork Examiner.
As we grew up John and I drifted apart and had very little to do with one another. Until I moved to Dublin, where John had been living for a while. We met up for a drink and it turned out that we both ended up living just a few doors from each other, and so we became regular friends and spent a lot of time together during those Dublin years.
John was always more like an uncle than a cousin, a role in which I think he was far more comfortable. John was always ready to launch into a lecture of advice whenever something arose on which he felt he had the seniority and authority to hold forth, which was many things. We would take the piss out of him as a result and he was always a good sport about it; we laughed a lot together. John was a confirmed bachelor, in the most old-fashioned, and indeed, best sense of that word. He really seemed of a different age at times; more like a direct reincarnation of my grandfather than anything.
My wife and I had lived together in Dublin throughout our time there and John had been a central, and very fond, part of our lives at that time. After Mags and I got married we decided that we were going to move back to my home in west Cork. We told John that we had some news.
He told us that he had some news too.
He had decided to become a Benedictine monk, in Glenstal Abbey in Co. Limerick.
While this news came unexpectedly, it was unsurprising and we were as delighted for John as he clearly was in his own decision.
Interestingly, the decision to enter into the monastic life is not one that you are allowed to rush into. You must first go through a number of years to prepare and to confirm if that life is really for you, after which you must divest yourself of all of your worldly possessions and commit fully to the monastic life.
When John came to make that final commitment I had the honour of assisting him. He had been successful in life and had a house and property; the normal things one accumulates as one goes along in life. These all had to be given away. The house had to be sold and the property realised and distributed. It was like administering the estate of someone who has died, and I felt like his executor.
Yet it was a joyous task; or at least one that arose in the happy circumstances where he was making a very positive change in his life.
I must say I envied John, on the one hand, he was giving away everything he had, but on the other hand, he was achieving a level of simplicity and peace that I could hardly conceive of. We don’t own the stuff; the stuff owns us.
Anyway, we completed that task and it was a special moment in Glenstal Abbey when it was my privilege to be present to see John take his solemn profession where he finally became a full member of the monastic community there and became Brother Matthew.
John, or Brother Matthew, was obviously incredibly happy and fulfilled in new life and, as someone still part of the material treadmill that he had left behind, that contentment struck me as something that we often speak about wanting but make difficult or impossible for ourselves to attain by the lives we create for ourselves.
And then a few short years later I found myself back in Glenstal Abbey for the second time ever. But this time it was to attend John’s funeral. He had died peacefully and completely unexpectedly in his sleep in 2012 at the age of just 43. Apparently, he had had some unusual heart condition that had never been diagnosed and which killed him instantly and painlessly while he slept; in many ways it was the perfect way that anyone could wish to die, it just happened 40 years too early for John.
But yet there was a sense of peace about it; or at least I felt that John was prepared for it in a way that so few of us could ever hope to be. He had stopped worrying and caring about the things that didn’t matter years before; he had done what so many of us are afraid to do and followed a different path and spent the precious time he had here doing something that was really important and meaningful to him.
John became one of those nodes on the family tree that ended far too early without any physical branches through which he might continue and his voice might echo; but, for what it is worth, his name will continue to be spoken and his memory will endure at least as long as I do.
Meanwhile, I still feel compelled by circumstances to live in a very material world full of stuff that owns me and that preoccupies me constantly.
I have described previously how I came to privacy and data protection from a place of fear; it was the fear of loss that brought me to it.
Not loss in the important way that we lost John, but rather a very material loss; the potential loss of the ability to do things in the way that we had gotten used to doing them. To be able to market our businesses the ways that we had become accustomed to; in ways that worked and were profitable.
What would happen if we lost all of that? If we just couldn’t do that anymore?
It was a scary thought.
But then, just like the way John achieved a sense of peace by giving up everything he had to move on to what was for him a more important and fulfilling future, what if in giving up those old methods, those old marketing assets, we did so not out of fear but from a place of power? To go deeper and achieve something far greater.
What if we actually transformed how we marketed our businesses from something that sees compliance as a nuisance to be gotten around to something that places respect for the data protection and privacy rights of our prospective customers at its core and makes the whole process far more powerful and sustainable as a result.
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