The Dutch Uncle

Bill by L. G. William Chapman, B.A., LL.B.

Some truths are by nature unmerciful and therefore hard to withstand though their communication to the affected party is as often both necessary and preferable.  The same however does not hold so readily for the truths of the Dutch uncle.

Lately I was addressed by such a person, the so-called Dutch uncle, that aberration of the traditional avuncular kind, intent not upon indulgence of one’s personal quirks but rather upon administering some harsh (though quite possibly well-deserved) medicine.  Pointedly the skirmish was introduced by a puzzling enquiry about whether the practice of caning was extant when I was a Prefect in prep school some fifty years ago, but the discussion quickly turned to an intent cerebration of my personal problems. The encounter being quite unexpected and not exactly a slap on the back (which like anyone I would have much preferred) was initially somewhat distressing.  I mean to say, I fashion myself rather a private person and therefore unaccustomed to round conversation which comes annoyingly close to the bone.  And even if it were true that from time to time I have openly confessed such failings to those I account among my dearest friends, I am not yet convinced that I welcome others so enthusiastically embracing the intelligence and taking up the standard to lead the charge for purposes of my own vilification notwithstanding the educational value of the comments.

Yet as I say these were only my first and largely unconsidered impressions.  I knew of course better than to contradict the smear as that would only feed without much difficulty a subsequent accusation of denial.  Indeed I went so far as to congratulate my mentor for his unsparing severity and frankness as I acknowledged the troublesome feature of anyone having to do so.  I laid it out how easy it is for others simply to ignore a condition which cries for attention and therefore how gallant it is by comparison that one prefers instead to engage is some critical though ultimately encouraging assessments.  When this tact appeared to meet with substantial approbation I thought I may as well continue the zestfulness by dilating further upon my own many short-comings, an indulgence which met with additional approval.  We therefore concluded the congress with a good deal of fraternity.

Latterly I have had my own further reflections upon being spoken to by one like a Dutch uncle and I regret to say that I am less inclined to be so magnanimous about the treatment.  The rhetoric which is attributed to the Dutch is for example not limited to an illusion to their sternness and sobriety, characteristics which I suppose are sufficient licence to say just about anything to anyone. There is on the other hand a line of thinking which suggests that the Dutch, not lacking in self-esteem, are caught up in a cycle of endless envy and always speak their mind bluntly, metaphorically thriving on “shaking their fingers at and scolding each other”.  Naturally I do not for a moment believe it is possible to speak so generally about the people of any nation; these observations are made only to illustrate the alternate view of what might otherwise be characterized as well-intentioned admonishment.  If nothing else it highlights the precarious nature of such a predisposition and the unusual way in which even the best motivations may become distorted.

However one views the actions of the Dutch uncle, whether as practical or as thinking one is always right, the remaining issue is whether one should ever canvass the project of weighing in upon the conduct of another.  Some for example adopt the position that no one can tell anyone what they should do, that improvement must always be self-motivated.  Others say that standing by idly while another withers on the vine is inhuman and uncaring. Somewhere down the middle of these two avenues is the further debate which is quite apart from the utility of the action; namely, whether one should ever take the liberty of commenting upon another’s furnishings.  Some things are just too personal and in the end the auditor may not give a pinch what you think.  This I know sounds harsh and unfeeling (and maybe even more than a bit testy) but I speak in generalities only.  To be honest, the allusion to my particular circumstances by my Dutch uncle has been nothing other than salubrious (quite literally as the thrust of much of his comments related to my need to lose some weight).  Besides I consider it quite flattering that one such as my esteemed advisor cared to take the time to say so.