Grandpa Witkin’s memoir offers sage advice for any generation
A zaida’s wit and wisdom, the measured acumen of a South African private equity pioneer, and the strength-in-vulnerability of a cancer survivor are some of the formidable facets of Arnold Witkin.
Now, they have culminated in the business icon’s debut book, It’s not a Big Thing in Life, which offers “strategies for coping”. Although framed as “considerations for my adult grandchildren” they are, in fact, universally applicable.
Nevertheless, Witkin’s grandchildren, ranging in age from seven to 16, while still too young to fully imbibe his insight and delight in the wonders of life, are the inspiration behind the work that awaits their perusal.
As Witkin’s eldest grandchild recalls, “When I was a very young child and living in London, my grandpa and I would sit in these big chairs in his and my grandma’s house and ‘contemplate the universe’.”
Witkin, currently based in Cape Town, expresses his enjoyment at being able to engage with his grandchildren in debate and conversation as they find their emerging voices. “We are able to have that kind of relationship where we can really talk about meaningful ideas,” he says. Yet, this is counterbalanced by their hunger for tales from his own experience, “always asking for stories of what happened to me at different ages”.
It’s from this combination that Witkin, aged 76, takes inspiration for the book, which blends personal anecdotes with his musings on various topics. It’s peppered with illustrations by Dov Fedler, and includes an array of references from Great Expectations’ Miss Havisham to Kahlil Gibran and the late Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks. At times, the book even offers some key ideas in list form, something which Witkin decided was suitable after realising that even the ten commandments were in bullet points!
Witkin says he has always written notes to himself and as such, the book was essentially decades in the making. However, he did use the time spent in lockdown, when he couldn’t play his beloved golf three times a week, to focus on the project.
The dozens of topics in the book range from success, work, and money, to coping with problems, making decisions, and love, relationships, and sex. The latter, says Witkin, was the hardest section to write as a grandparent. Yet, he felt that it remained a key aspect of experience and as such, to “not say something would be to slice out a gigantic part of people’s lives”.
Witkin also offers much practical advice – one of his proposals being a return to the lost art of letter writing.
He illustrates his point with a poignant story of an interaction between himself and Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks. At the time, Sacks had been at the centre of controversy following a misleading article published by The Guardian. Via a friend who knew them both, Witkin heard that Sacks was depressed about the matter, and he decided to write him a letter in spite of the two never having met.
After receiving the letter, Sacks wrote back expressing his gratitude for the gesture. Three years later, they met at a function, and Witkin introduced himself, mentioning he had once written the chief rabbi a letter.
“He said, ‘I remember it well. I filed it in my ‘good news’ file. Whenever I get a bit low, I open the file, and page through it.’”
Witkin says he remains deeply moved by this example. “Sacks could have walked into his library, opened the pages of hundreds of books, and got divine inspiration. But he was so human.” This is the power of letter writing: “Just the words of strangers can move you.”
Ultimately, Witkin hopes the core message of his books is distilled as an understanding that, “You are responsible for yourself.”
With the exception of a criminal act or extreme tragedy, “Whatever happens to you, you can’t blame anybody else. If you’re in a situation in which you don’t know what to do with your career, relationship, or living situation, you can get help, but you are responsible for getting the help. Moreover, you can have expectations if you want, but you may be disappointed. Ultimately the only question facing you is, ‘What are you going to do now?’”
Even what looks like inaction is a “decision until you change it. There is no such thing as nothing.” This viewpoint helped put life in perspective, says Witkin, pointing out that he has come to realise that most things in life aren’t “a big thing”.
Yet, “If a very big thing happens, acknowledge that it’s a big thing in life. But then, how long does it stay a big thing in life?” is his next question. The answer to this remains a choice. Here’s where his literary example, Miss Havisham – a woman who after being jilted at the altar, spends the rest of her life waiting in her wedding dress, overseeing the rotten remnants of her wedding feast – becomes a critical point of contemplation.
Witkin has tackled some struggles himself, having undergone five operations in the past 18 years following prostate and thyroid cancer. “The definition of inner conflict is when your body and your mind aren’t in the same place. Now [with cancer treatment], my body was here [undergoing an operation in hospital] and my mind was saying, ‘My G-d. I wish this wasn’t happening.’ So, to get my mind to where my body was, there had to be acceptance. There was nothing I could do about this situation, so I had to get on with life.”
For example, after one operation, Witkin was left in immense pain for weeks. He decided to plan how to cope with this reality. One of his strategies was to tell himself, “I love you exactly as you are.”
“‘I love you’ are powerful words. Most of us don’t think we love ourselves. So, to say this to yourself, at a time when you are feeling miserable and sorry for yourself and looking terrible, it makes you feel protected. You are both being loving and being loved.”
His reflections in the book are combined with humour. For example, following an operation that affected his vocal cords, Witkin lost the use of his voice for some time. During this period, he would open business meetings by declaring, “don’t let the softness of my voice detract from the seriousness of my purpose”.
Indeed, Witkin’s hypothesis is that the barometer of any relationship should be how often you share a genuine laugh.
As to his best witticism, it comes down to wordplay: “What do you call an inexplicable phobia of intricately designed groups of buildings?” he teases.
“It’s called a complex complex complex,” he offers with a hearty laugh.
- Details on where to purchase Witkin’s book can be found at www.arniewitkin.com
Witkin shares a mantra that he uses to cope with difficult situations:
• Stay calm.
• I’m safe.
• I’m in good hands.
• Surrender to the process (let go).
• I’m strong.
• I will get through this.