Opinionista Mark Heywood 5 January 2015

Living in the 21st century: A letter to my children, and yours

The growth spurt in the world mirrors the growth spurt that happens to children in adolescence. It is necessary for elders and parents to think about and guide behavior in this spurt. Hence this letter to you, the children of today’s world.

The world you live in is a complex, diverse, beautiful, dangerous, enticing, alienating, soft and brutal place.

It is the biggest living organism of all and in ways that are both hidden and known, has an influence on the way we all behave.

The natural world is never still. Just listen to the birds at dawn or look at the activity that fills an invisible square you can draw in a patch of garden.

Look up above you to the skies and see the movement of the clouds.

Yet in the midst of all the intense movement, up until now, large parts of the world’s physique have endured, unchanging through time. Just think of a range of great mountains, like the Ukhahlamba-Drakensberg, whose paths and peaks, streams and caves we know so well. Consider that they have stood there through all ages, mute witness to centuries of change.

But while much of the natural world holds its ground, we human beings are ever changing, every busy, ever thinking, ever inventing.

The marks that we leave on the earth we call our history. History is something you should take time to study because without knowing it you will never understand or appreciate the present. You will live on a surface and be more prone to damaging it.

There is so much more that can be said of your world. You can find it in books, in poems, paintings and songs.

But my reason for writing this letter is because I have a heavy sense that during the years in which you are growing up, human experience, heavily influenced by the relentless drive of ‘the market’, by science and new technologies, is going through a growth spurt that can free or fettle the world. Human society goes through times of slow, incremental development. But it also goes through periods when lots of parts of the past come together and propel it into spaces and places where human beings lose control.

At the moment there are signs that we may be careening out of control to a disaster that will affect your lives and those of generations to come – if we are not more conscious of it.

The growth spurt in the world mirrors the growth spurt that happens to children in adolescence. It is necessary for elders and parents to think about and guide behavior in this spurt.

I do not write this letter in order to lecture or as a nostalgic elder resistant to change. One day you will discover that you grow younger as you grow older. As the natural limits of life begin to impose themselves on you, you thirst more to immerse yourself in all that is possible.

I am a person whose youth and zest for life grows the more I experience it. But I am also one protective of the quality of living, equality amongst the living and increasingly of the environment on which human life was given a trillion-in-one chance to evolve.

Through living half a life I have started to learn certain things. Here are some tips:

Live every moment.

I have not lain in bed missing the moment. Every second can be filled and filed.

Step outside your comfort zone and you will find a world to wonder at.

Never cease to wonder and wander.


Your brain is an intricate circuit for the imagination. Somewhere I remember that Leon Trotsky, the ever-restless Russian revolutionary, wrote that the ability to imagine is what said distinguishes humans from all other animals.

In The Brontes, one of the most articulate and encompassing biographies I have ever read, their biographer Juliet Barker tells of how the three young Bronte sisters, Anne, Emily and Charlotte, and their brother, Branwell, all of them under 12, whiled away time during dark cold winters on the Yorkshire moors by composing mini-novels whose characters interacted with each other. That was in the 1830s – long before electricity, television, radio. Despite what we would consider deprivation, they were able to create worlds of colour and emotion with the imagination alone.

When the Brontes grew up they became amongst the most beautiful novelists of all time.

In this regard, I have to warn you: be conscious of the dangers of digital and electronic technologies that have become so dominant in your world. These devices create fabulous possibilities. As Anne Nelson, a writer friend of mine says, once upon a time the greatest repository of knowledge in the world was in the library at Alexandria in ancient Egypt. It was a great store, but inaccessible to all but a few privileged people. Now all the knowledge that was once stored in Alexandria – and centuries more – can literally be pulled down from space with the tips of your fingers.

But as well as bringing possibility and plenty, the internet may also contribute to a deadening of the imagination. Immediacy can also create distance and disassociation that can kill empathy. The endorphins of the brain created by the violent flickers of imagery and colour can create tolerance of the intolerable, and cloud the quest for real knowledge and experience. As the same friend said, these devices allow someone else to colonise your mind in ways that George Orwell foresaw in his beautiful novel 1984, but with means that even he could not have imagined.


I fear the decline of reading. The death of reading amongst millions should haunt our thoughts because it marks the death of exchange of human thought.

Human thought is infinite. It has not found any limits. From the earliest times of our existence thought has been captured with words, bound into books which have been transported across ages and lands. A book endures for all time, disseminated across the world, hidden in innumerable homes, so even if dictators bomb the libraries it will survive. Reading a book in the old fashioned way, quietly and without disturbance, is a key to empathy and solidarity. It will teach you to value our human race and the civilizations it has constructed. Once you value humanity you will realise the need to fight for it.

Take care of your body.

But don’t wander only in books!

You are born with a mind and a body. Do not take your body for granted because if you keep it in good working order it can take you to places and spaces where cars, aeroplanes and the internet cannot reach.

For example, last year on one cold, grey afternoon in Bellagio, Italy, I fought off the inclination to do nothing. It had snowed the night before and swirling grey cloud threatened rain in the afternoon. Nonetheless I took a bike and rode it high up a snaking mountain pass above an ancient town called Varenna. Eventually, as I stood above the snow line, witness to a heaven of sorts, I was glad that my body could still carry me to such heights.

There, atop a mountain, the mutual effort of body and mind fused in a few moments of wonder. There I came across centuries-old churches tucked away in time-resistant valleys, places where nature and human imagination transferred into architecture combined perfectly to illuminate each other. One reflects on  human capability. Also on the infinite diversity of matter and form.

That is why it is tragic to see children who are sedentary by sixteen. One day visitors from a more rational planet than ours might question why we permitted private companies to make vast riches from poisoning people with fatty foods, sugar, tobacco and alcohol. Today we cannot stop these companies from existing, although we try to mitigate their harm with laws and regulations, but it is up to each individual to outwit them.

Seek love

It is strange that the most complex and enduring of human emotions is not taught at school, even though you will stumble upon it in literary studies and may way well hit it in your own experience at an early age. Love is still terribly misunderstood, mixed up in pseudo-moralities that human beings should have shaken off centuries ago, confused with marriage. It may not come easily or quickly. There may be false starts. But if and when you find it with another person it is the most electrifying, quickening and intense of emotions that infuses and makes meaning of all other experience.


Write letters, diaries, poems, notes … Write, because writing opens the road to thinking. It is the place where you concentrate and concentration on words may help you to see things that may be in front of your nose but somehow hidden. Writing is where you follow connections, discover clues and find paths to other people’s thoughts and writings.

Fight for justice and equality

I have now spent 35 years in the quest for justice. I think it started when I felt the blows that rained down on Steve Biko, captured in a book by Donald Woods. You see, books again. Without Donald Woods’ writing many of us might never have visualised and felt the assault on Biko. But in essence, struggling for justice is an expression of your humanity and everything I have described above. It proves you see your connectedness to others.

Fighting for equality can lead you to some dark places. It can even end your life. But it is a daily reward that makes you utilise all your faculties, your imagination, your passions, your intellect, your energy and ability to endure, your capacity to take setbacks. In return it brings you to the best people in the world.

Today we may be facing the dusk of democracy. The road to the restoration of humanity lies through its people. The power of the collective resides in each individual stand. DM