‘Don’t be too forward,’ was advice I was often given as a child. I grew up in a part of the world where we thought the English were brash and assertive, and where ‘whatever you say, say nothing’ came naturally. This cultural reticence was often compounded by a working class culture that thought it wise to allow others to speak first, if only to let you know what was expected. Waiting to be asked was not only polite - it prevented any idea of boasting or public humiliation. Both culture and class conspired to leave me with an often chronic lack of self-confidence.
Education, travel, living in a different culture, faith, have all played their part in helping me to see the limitations of my upbringing. I not only learnt, by careful observation, what cutlery to use and which way to pass the port, but also the rules of engagement in public discourse. I found my voice and, through pulpit and politics, learnt how to use it. I discovered a sense of confidence that helped others to feel comfortable in my company and confident in my abilities. And yet …
They say that, when you cut down a tree, you can tell by the rings which have been good and which lean years. The width of the ring will tell you a lot about how the tree flourished each year. I wonder how wide the rings from the early years would be? John Prescott, the Labour MP and peer who became Deputy Prime Minister and a praiseworthy Environment Secretary, says he has to ask Pauline, his wife, to enter a restaurant ahead of him, because of his lack of confidence. A man who embodies social mobility and became one of the most powerful people in the country carries with him a lack of self-confidence from earlier in his life.
For the tree, the wider rings give it a healthier appearance and a strength to withstand the elements. I have noticed in others how attractive external confidence can be. It is often said that a private school education gives students the edge not because of academic prowess but a confidence in themselves that allows them to take risks and put themselves forward. If state education could bottle that confidence and give it to brighter but more reticent children, our society would be much more equal.
It is still possible for people to confuse confidence with arrogance or entitlement. For those of us who struggled as saplings but have become stronger in the latter years, there is a still a residual fear from those times that a serious storm will uproot us or bend us to breaking point. My own mental health challenges sometimes heighten that sense of fear and it takes time to recover a picture of reality.
Malnourishment of the soul - which is what I see those thin rings representing - is as dangerous as physical deprivation. It creates a weakness that becomes part of your lived experience, a twinge or worse, that results in a loss of balance. Those rings cannot be widened, nor the years they represent repeated, but the new rings being created, year by year, ca