Mental Health Monday: Fifth Business and Second Childhood

fifth-business-npr-orgThis morning I finished reading an interesting book—Fifth Business by Canadian author Robertson Davies (Viking Press, 1970). I’m not going to explain what “fifth business” means (well, here’s a short video that explains it) or do a book review here. It’s a complex book—one that I read on the recommendation of a friend and mentor.

You_Are_Fifth_Business_by_PervsIt’s not a book I would have ever chosen to read on my own, and at times I grew weary of it. But the payoff near the end was worth the read. (And I’ve just discovered they made a movie of the book, which I’d like to see.) Okay, here’s an interesting illustration done by a student of the book.


The protagonist/narrator, Dunstable (Dunny) Ramsay, is talking about himself and his boyhood nemesis, Boy Staunton who grew up to be a friend and supporter of Ramsay’s in their adult lives. Their relationship was fraught with a tarnished history and ongoing conflicts. Near the end of their lives, Ramsay reflects on Boy and himself:

As a boy he had been something of a bully, a boaster, and certainly a bad loser. As he grew up he had learned to dissemble these characteristics, and to anyone who knew him less well than I it might have appeared that he had conquered them. But I have never thought that traits that are strong in childhood disappear; they may go underground or they may be transmuted into something else, but they do not vanish; very often they make a vigorous appearance after the meridian of life has been passed. It is this, and not senility, that is the real second childhood.

I’ve been wondering if those childhood traits in my own life have “gone underground” and whether or not they are beginning to make an appearance now.  Ramsay goes on to speak of his own shortcomings:

I could see this pattern in myself; my boyhood trick of getting off good ones that went far beyond any necessary self-defense and were likely to wound, had come back to me in my fifties. I was going to be a sharp-tongued old man as I had been a sharp-tongued boy. And Boy Staunton had reached a point in life where he had no longer tried to conceal his naked wish to dominate everybody and was angry and ugly when things went against him.
As we neared our sixties the cloaks we had wrapped about our essential selves were wearing thin.

quote-the-old-are-in-a-second-childhood-aristophanes-302990I can see the cloaks I have wrapped about my essential self in an effort to cover my own insecurities over the years. And I can see them wearing thin as “the meridian of life” has more than passed for me at age 63 (I’ll be 64 in a few weeks).

But where I want to question the narrator’s conclusion (and he was a man of faith who wrote and published books about saints) is on the issue of whether or not people can change. This is a subject I return to every few years, starting back in August of 2010 when I wrote this post, “Can People Change?”

And again in April of 2013 when I penned this one: “Can People Change, Revisited.”

I’m wanting to reconcile the spiritual and psychological concepts I embraced back then with this different way of looking at myself which came at me in Fifth Business. It is another writer, my friend Neil White, who bridges that gap for me in his wonderful memoir, In The Sanctuary of Outcasts. His words, which I quoted in my blog post back in 2010, are circling back to me today:

But I knew my essence had not really changed. I would always be the same person. Same skills, same personality, same character traits.

I didn’t need to be a new person. I needed a new purpose…. Live simply, hide nothing, help others….

What a good reminder. I don’t need to be a new person. It’s okay if I have to live with the same character traits—even the undesirable ones—from my childhood. It’s okay so long as I have a new purpose:

Live simply, hide nothing, help others.

Thanks again, Neil.

4 thoughts on “Mental Health Monday: Fifth Business and Second Childhood”

    1. Hi, Jerry. Have you read Fifth Business? I’m new to Davies. And yes it’s all about the rock:-) Thanks so much for reading and commenting.

  1. Wow Susan! Once again, great words of wisdom.. thank you! As one who has also passed that meridian of life, I tend to agree that the traits never leave. They mellow and get put away. They may be so deep in our psyche that we never become aware of them, (except perhaps in fleeting moments) but they are always there. Do people change? of course; however, I think that we do not “change” in as much as we take on new and more desirable traits as we move around and toward the 4th quadrant of life. More awareness, more introspection, more of letting down our guards and walls and becoming our true selves. After all, some of those lesser angels of our nature were/are merely coping strategies of our childhood. Thanks again.

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