Along the way of human history, quite recently in fact, we’ve forgotten the extent to which our own personal, family and community capacities stretch, especially in the domains of health, economic development, caring for the environment, our children, older people and people with very specific support needs. We have developed a global amnesia around our own resourcefulness in the face of natural disasters, the production of education, building community, deepening democracy, social justice and ultimately, changing the world.
But also, our individual and collective capacity to remember other important points of facts are in jeopardy, such as how to co-create a good life using people power where we live. On Saturday I was mowing our front lawn when a neighbour of mine – a lady in her 80s, who I know quite well – came to the garden wall and said “welcome to the neighbourhood. When did you move in?” I concealed my surprise, thanked her, and gently commented how things have changed a lot since we moved in four years ago. We exchanged pleasantries but it was clear she did not remember that we are actually well known to each other, that is to say she did not recognise ‘me’ or the ‘us’ we co-created over the last four years.
She headed on to the shops at the top of our road and I went inside to tell my wife what happened. Later she passed again and seeing my three-year old son with me she smiled and recognised me, in a way that seemed to leap-frog over the last conversation we had had, she knew me now as her neighbour of recent years, not as someone who had just arrived, that she had never met. Clearly, she is forgetting some things, but having said that, she still remembered to welcome me; to engage, and because of her love of children, I suppose, her memory was activated further during our second encounter together, to remember me as Isaac’s Dad, and Colleen’s husband. She could situate me, not an easy thing to do given how much I travel!
In a very real way, my neighbour reminded me of how communal the act of remembering is, and the importance of remembering together that together we remember. She also reminded me that memory has more to do with inspiration, intuition, context and connection than it does with recall of facts. We were the same people in both conversations.
In the years since she came to live on our street – she and her husband came to live there in 1955 (she now lives alone) – her chances of seeing children at play with each other, let alone doing little chores with their parents, has diminished greatly. In many other imperceptible ways the natural occurring memory aids, and conversation ramps that helps her say things like ‘ah you’re Betty’s son, have you changed your hair style, you look different from the last time I saw you?’, or ‘ah Cormac, I didn’t know you without your son, he’s the image of you by the way’, are hard to come by these days.
I’d very much like to do something on my street about the fact that more and more people are living lonely lives, and that more and more people around me are forgetting. My sense is the best thing to do is to start building more connections at street level.
My motivation is four-fold: i) I care for the people around me, not just my family and friends, ii) I want my family and I to enjoy a connected community, iii) my wife and I plan to grow old together on that street and if we want to age well we better get on and do something about it, iv) I have a sense that I have something of value to offer the endeavour, my ‘gifts’ if you like.
Here are the assumptions that I’ll operate to; they’re pretty much identical to the one’s I work to in my professional life:
- When we lose the ability to care for our neighbours, we also inadvertently chart a course towards a future wherein that carelessness becomes our inheritance.
- Inclusive practice must involve supporting communities to welcome isolated people back into community, and supporting isolated people to make the journey on the premise that we can not do without them. Resilience is not an adequate measure of the strenth of community, strong communities have the capacity to welcome back the stranger at the edge, and the stranger living in our midst.
- Building communities of hospitality is the single most important objective of our time; currently, it is also the most neglected. Achieving momentum on this objective will return dividends in our economic, health, democratic and environmental wellbeing. Achieving goals towards communities of hospitality with isolated people will however require Governments and their agencies, along with the institutions of the marketplace to learn to become less controlling and self-centred, and communities to become more competent in the domain of care and mutuality.
- Hospitality is not a heroic virtue, its commonplace, hidden in plain view. However we don’t see that which we don’t look for, and that which we don’t tend to, withers. Hence a re-awakening is called for. The seeming absence of hospitality for isolated people, should not be misconstrued as the actuality of things, but rather as a reflection of the untapped potential of things, and the consequence of a crucial mass of us making the assumption that when it comes to caring for our young people, older people, people on the margins, ‘it’s someone else’s job, someone with the right qualifications’.
- When social justice becomes an extraordinary act of extraordinary people its promise comes to nought. Social justice is the daily job of ordinary people, not modern day Messiahs. Getting to this new norm in large part calls us to actively turn our back on patriarchal styles of leadership, and to replace current styles of leadership with stewardship.
- The act of hospitality – opening up space for people who have been excluded – is a way for people to exercise personal agency and stewardship, and so it liberates the host as much as the one who is being hosted. True hospitality is reciprocal, and not an act of charity.
- The work of building community requires everybody’s contribution, a community that does not have space for labelled people, has space for no one.
- Social service systems are masterful at setting rules that break relationships. Tragically the absence of such connections breaks people. The time has come to actively move away from service provision as the sole offer and towards a more balanced offer with community building at the centre of our efforts at helping.
- A significant amount of the money spent attempting to help people with ‘needs’ and ‘problems’ has prevented them from sharing their gifts and living a life of their choosing. Hence denying them of their most basic needs for belonging, autonomy, competence and security, and creating far greater impenetrable problems than they originally presented with.
- Returning disabled people to communities doesn’t make the need to spend money go away. For many having a paid full time care attendant is not a luxury; it is a matter of life or death.
- Of course like the rest of us, disabled people, people with mental health issues and other labelled people need help; but that help should not control their lives, or decommission their personal, family and community capacities and resources.
- There are limits to what people can do using people power, often they require outside non-governmental, government and marketplace supports, in the shape of additional expertise, and financial and other resources. Indeed there are many things that institutions need to simply get on and do unilaterally, but institutions should never do for people what they can best do for themselves; where co-production is possible it will always lead to better outcomes and outputs. Where communities cannot produce or co-produce products, solutions or conditions for a good life, institutions, while functioning unilaterally, should do so in service of people as citizens and not as clients.
- The most important question a professional can ask themselves is: ‘What is it I can NOT do – to be helpful?’ Institutions need to ask themselves the same question at a corporate level.
- Our strengths and the assets around us are not there to mask or correct our fallibilities and imperfectabilities. Our fallibilities are a defining and joyful expression of our humanity, they are not meant to be fixed by others or hidden behind the veil of shame and secrecy. To do so is to close the surest route into a community of genuine belonging where reciprocity is the norm. We each have a full half and parts that need to be filled, we need both to be human together, that is to say we need each other to get better and stay well on our street and in our world.
As I mentioned in my previous blog here, I’m working at getting better at being human and remembering that one of the best ways to do that is together with those a door knock away from the place I call home.