Simon Duffy

Thoughts, Bemusements & Arguments

Tag: gift

On the Mountain – Roles or Relationships

Today the theme of second day of We Chose to Climb was clear and strong – not power – but relationships. The event itself was full of wonderful content – stimulating and moving – and again and again the presenters made the same point: what makes a positive difference is the reality of the relationship between two people.

And, after all – as Nick Andrews said: Who is helping who?

  • If I am Nadia’s personal assistant, am I helping her to get about and to communicate, or is she helping me to learn more and to earn a living?
  • If I am a social worker trying to establish a fair individual budget for Nadia, am I helping her or is she giving me an important paid job and the opportunity to develop?
  • If I am a senior manager organising disability services, am I helping her or is she giving me the means to have status and influence?

The answer is obvious – both are true – we help each other.

But actually that is not the critical question. The critical question is: Do we each behave as if we know that both are true?

I am afraid I have used this quote before – it is one of those observations I find so powerful:

He [Rebbe Shmelke] said: “The rich need the poor more than the poor need the rich. Unfortunately, neither is conscious of it.”

That is, interdependence is the only human reality. But if we don’t see our relationships as interdependent then we run the risk of creating a sense of worthless dependence on the one side and prideful disrespect on the other.

Of course good practitioners and professionals avoid this trap – everyday – they work with proper humility and respect – they understand the value of the other human being – in any circumstance.

What I think Self-Directed Support offers us is the opportunity to be more explicit about the true nature of that relationship. It does not aim to give the people who need assistance undue power over those who support them; instead it is as an effort to ensure that, when you need assistance, then you know that you are entitled to receive it and direct it. Receiving assistance should not feel like getting a charitable gift where the assistance is defined and controlled by someone else.

Rights are not at war with relationships – rights can restore us to proper relationship.

Self-directed support might be said to rebalance power relationships. Or perhaps better, self-directed support gives us the chance to build new forms of power together – in a relationship of equality.

But this is only the first step.

It is the human quality of that relationship that matters.

Sarah Taylor cited Martin Buber, one of the key thinkers of the twentieth century, who proposed that we can distinguish two radically different ways of relating ourselves to others:

The world is twofold for man in accordance with his twofold attitude.
The attitude of man is twofold in accordance with the two basic words he can speak.
The basic words are not single words but word pairs.
One basic world is the word pair I-Thou.
The other basic word is the word pair I-It; but this basic word is not changed when He or She takes the place of It.
Thus the I of man is also twofold.
For the I of the basic word I-Thou is different from that in the basic word I-It.

What Buber argues, in his classic I and Thou, is that there is all the difference in the world between seeing another person as just an object (may be a clever, active or pleasant object) and seeing them as a true person. For Buber this is connected to a theology that sees an element of God in everyone. But, even the non-religious, might recognise that, when we really connect with another person, we must be open to the power – the light – that burns within them.

This may seem a long way from the day-to-day realities of self-directed support, social work or personal assistance. But, up on the mountain, is this not the critical factor:

  • Can we rely on each other?
  • Do we trust each other?
  • Can we listen to each other?
  • Will we look after each other?

As Jamie Andrew explained to us this morning – the mountain can be beautiful, but it can also be a very dangerous place. You can die on the mountain. So – we need each other. But our pre-defined roles and expectations, our processes and our regulations, may simply not hack it on the mountain.

The only true security lies in our relationship with each other.

Diverse People Need Diverse Communities

Then he [Charles Martel] again: “Would man not be worse off
Below if he were not a social being?”
“Yes,” I replied, “and here I need no proof.”

“And how could that be so, if men on earth
Did not live diversely with diverse functions?
It cannot if your master [Aristotle] writes the truth.”

So he continued logically like this,
Then he concluded: “Now it follows that
The roots of your effects must be diverse:

So one is born a Solon, Xerxes one,
And one, Melchizedek, another he
Who, when he took to flying, lost his son.

Whirling nature, who puts her seal upon
The mortal wax, does her work well, but favours
One lodging no more than another one.

And so it comes about that Esau is
Estranged from Jacob in the womb, Quirinus, [Romulus]
Although base-born, is thought to come from Mars.

Those engendered would have to take the road
Taken by those who have engendered them,
Did not divine provision override.

Now that’s before your eyes which was behind,
And so that you may know how you delight me,
Here’s a corollary to wrap you round.

Face any nature with discordant fate,
And like a plant outside its proper climate
It cannot fail to yield a poor result.

And if the world down there only paid heed
To the foundations which are laid by nature,
And built on them, then people would be good.

But you’re perverting to religion such
As are born fitter to gird on the sword,
And fashion kings from men who ought to preach:

And so you wander off from the right road.”

Dante, Paradise VIII

I suspect Dante is not to everyone’s taste, but he is to mine, and this thought is one of his most important. At its heart is this simple but profound point – we are all made different. And this means that what we need to thrive – to make the most of natural talents and needs – is also going to vary.

However if we don’t recognise this simple truth then the dangers are great. For people will be mismatched in their work or their other roles.

Of course we cannot know, just by looking, what someones’s nature demands. The process of living is the process of finding out what does and does not work for us. But if we care about our own development, or the development of those we love, or the development of our fellow citizens, then we must care profoundly about the opportunities that society creates that allow people to explore for themselves what is the role for themselves.

But this requires two things – freedom and diverse communities.

I think this is a much healthier way of thinking about that rather dubious good – ‘social mobility’. Too often social mobility is defined in a class-bound and hierarchical way: how do we help people go upwards? (although defined in this silly way it must also logically mean: how do we help people go down?).

Dante offers us a different challenge: how do we build a society where everyone’s talents are recognised where there’s a positive role for everyone?

Do You Deserve Your Gifts?

quis enim te discernit
quid autem habes quod non accepisti
si autem accepisti
quid glorias quasi non acceperis

Who made you special, who gave you your gifts? And if your gifts were given to you why do you behave as if you’d given them to yourself?

1 Corinthians 4:7 [Vulgate and my translation]

I have noticed that people have a very inconsistent approach to entitlements: what I get I deserve, but what you get I’m not so sure about.

For instance, at a conference in London at the RSA, I heard a professor, and senior government advisor, speaking to a room of civil servants, academics, politicians, think-tankers and public service managers:

“The welfare state is how we take care of the poor.”

I’m afraid I was unable to resist pointing out that it was a bit rich for people who were all paid indirectly or directly by the tax payer that they were somehow doing a great favour to the poor. As far as I could see they were all making a very good living from the welfare state.

It seems that we think: what I get is an entitlement; what you get is a handout.

I am sure many would argue that they deserve their salaries, expenses, pensions and perks because they are so clever. But who made them clever? Not them.

As St Paul says, we didn’t give ourselves our own gifts. We didn’t make ourselves clever; it’s an undeserved gift. And if we have such underserved gifts we should be happy to have the gift itself – it gives us no reason to expect other benefits, like money or power.

We might say cleverness should be its own reward – except that its not a reward – for you didn’t really do anything to win it.

Of course the clever may have to work hard at being clever – it’s not always easy – it takes time and effort to learn, to think and carry out complex tasks. But then lots of other people also have to work hard, for low wages, carrying out tasks they don’t like, just to earn enough to look after themselves and their family. They do not get to enjoy the perk that the clever enjoy – of working hard at work that is also intrinsically enjoyable.

Our gifts should not be the cause of self-congratulation or an excuse for greed – our gifts were given to us to share – to convert back into gifts for others.

Making Citizenship Real

Although we can call someone a citizen and say we wish to treat them as an equal it turns out that there are some very real things we need to do in order to make such a claim real. Stigma and pride take hold so easily, and so societies must learn how to clothe each other in citizenship.

My own account of the keys to citizenship is rooted in the practical work of supporting people with intellectual disabilities to build good lives for themselves. You can read more about these ideas and their practical consequences here:

Keys to Citizenship

There is a philosophical logic to my presentation of these elements of citizenship, but each element is distinct and can develop somewhat independently of the other elements.

In my account of citizenship we can identify seven keys to citizenship:

  1. Purpose – we live a life of meaning
  2. Freedom – we can pursue our purpose
  3. Money – we have the means to pursue our goals
  4. Home – we can belong in community, but also protect our privacy
  5. Help – we can offer others opportunity
  6. Life – we can contribute in our own way
  7. Love – we can build relationships and new life

A distinct sense of hope and purpose in life turns out to be critical to self-respect and to the respect that others give you. If we meet someone who is adrift, in a life without meaning or purpose, we struggle to respect them. If we meet someone who has a sense of purpose then it becomes easier to engage with them as a distinct equal. Notice however that uniformity of purpose is not helpful and does not stimulate respect. You have no reason to respect the purposes of people who share exactly the same goals as others or yourself. In a strange way such uniformity breeds contempt.

Beyond a sense of purpose people need to be free to realise their purposes. If someone is utterly under the control of someone else then their dreams and plans lack integrity. It is only when we see that someone is free to follow their purpose that we can respect them as a free individual. In the same way, our self-respect is diminished if we are imprisoned – even when that prison may be provided by the love and care of others.

In the modern world our active civic engagement also requires sufficient money to make our purposes meaningful. Although it is possible to imagine a world where there was no money it is uncomfortable to realise that this would mean that people would only do what you need them to do from either love or fear. Money makes possible free exchange, specialisation and a plurality of useful opportunities for contribution and employment. In passing it is also worth noticing that, from the perspective of citizenship, the right to money ceases when someone has sufficient money to be able to enter into and engage in citizenship – freed from gnawing poverty. However the super-rich are also at risk of leaving the realm of citizenship.

The fourth key to citizenship is a home – a physical location where one belongs, where one can retreat to in privacy and which one can leave to enter the public realm. Over exposure to the public realm or severe communality is a threat to citizenship. The private nurtures the capacity for self-development and offers a haven to families.

The fifth key to citizenship is the need for assistance – help. This is one of the most important, but most frequently missed, aspects of citizenship. A citizen who has no need of anyone is not a citizen. They offer others no opportunity for contribution – they are a ghost amidst the living. The balanced position is to avoid undue dependence, where the need for help leaves one in servile reliance on others. We can need the help of others, and yet still maintain our independence – our freedom.

Citizens recieve, and citizens also give, and while there is no virtue in achieving some perfect balance – that would be both impossible and meaningless – contribution is vital to citizenship and the self-respect of the individual. And we contribute by living – by joining in, working, caring and taking care of each other. Life can only develop though our active contribution to community.

Finally the fruit of citizneship, and its ultimate source is love. Love is of course a greater force than citizenship – nevertheless it does relfect successful citizenship. This is all forms of love: agape, storge, philia and eros.

This account of citizenship is offered as a bridge. Political theorists rarely think about disabled people or others who can experience severe disadvantage because of the prejudices, barriers and structures imposed by the majority. Disabled people have been developing interesting accounts of social value and social justice – but often cut-off form mainstream thought. I have developed this model of citizenship to demonstrate how relevant are these experiences and theories to mainstream political thought.

If our society is not aiming to be a community of citizens what is its goal? If theorists are not advocating citizenship for all, what are they advocating?

There is Humility in Us

We do not have to acquire humility. There is humility in us – only we humiliate ourselves before false gods.

 Simone Weil from Gravity and Grace

How well this point is put. We worship what we lower ourselves to obtain:

  • Money – doing a job we dislike, but which pays well.
  • Power – pandering to our political bosses, even when they ask us to do things that are dishonest.
  • Fame – drinking in the successes and failures of celebrities, even when we know its all empty.

We are creatures who pride ourselves on our autonomy, our creativity and our many gifts. We resent the thought that all those gifts are simply gifts from God and that they can only be respected by being returned to God in service.

Our Gifts Are Just Loans

The Pharisees were people who relied on their own strength to be virtuous.

Humility consists in knowing that in what we call ‘I’ there is no source of energy by which we can rise.

Everything without exception which is of value in me comes from somewhere other than myself, not as a gift but as a loan which must be ceaselessly renewed. Everything without exception which is in me is absolutely valueless; and, among the gifts which have come to me from elsewhere, everything which I appropriate becomes valueless immediately I do so.

Simone Weil from Gravity and Grace

Weil is always profound and challenging. Here she is challenging the very notion that the self – in any respect – can even take its own qualities for granted. When I say ‘this is me’ or ‘this is mine’ I kill the very thing I try to hold on to.

This thought has both political and spiritual consequences.

If I accept that what I might take to me mine was in fact given to me, then I realise I can only use it by also giving it away. I cannot hold on to anything and I cannot look within me to find more. Everything comes to me from outside, and it can only be properly valued when we give it back again.

This is also relevant to our social thinking. Some people claim that I am entitled to keep what I earn, what I own or what I am given. But of course I am entitled to nothing; we are given everything: our characters, our opportunities, our energies, our judgement. To claim, for instance, that I am entitled to more than some one else because I am cleverer than them is – from this perspective – perverse. We wrongly try to claim ownership of our intelligence as if that wasn’t in fact also a gift, and then we also want the further gift of more money and power than someone else.

This is what Weil means – by appropriating our gifts we make them valueless – they are just loans and they die if we do not give them back.

This thought is also found in the Georgian, Shota Rustaveli’s words:

What you’ve given away is yours.

Life is a Gift

The Wise Men will unlearn your name.
Above your head no star will flame.
One weary sound will be the same –
the hoarse roar of the gale.
The shadows fall from your tired eyes
as your loan bedside candle dies,
for here the calendar breeds nights
till stores of candles fail.

What prompts the melancholy key?
A long familiar melody.
It sounds again. So let it be.
Let it sound from this night.
Let it sound in my hour of death –
as gratefulness of eyes and lips
for that which sometimes makes us lift
our gaze to the far sky.

You glare in silence at the wall.
Your stocking gapes: no gifts at all.
It’s clear you are now too old
to trust in good Saint Nick;
that it’s too late for miracles.
– But suddenly, lifting your eyes
to heaven’s light, you realise:
your life is a sheer gift.

1 January 1965 by Joseph Brodsky

I love this poem. I am sure most of us have felt the way he describes.

The epiphany at the end of the poem is tough. He realises that life is a gift, not just despite the pain, misery, fear and loneliness – but because of it. The gift of ‘sheer life’ is distinct from the many joys of life – and it is a gift we can lose sight of when we are full up with things – when we are happy, busy and in company.

When we reach ’empty’ – we may finally realise that there is something else – something that should be filled – sheer life itself.

God does not give us the right to exist – life is sheer gift.

What will we do with this knowledge?

Difference evokes Meaning

The philosopher, and disabled activist, Judith Snow tells us that disability is a gift.

Disability is a gift because all of our distinct features – everything that makes us different and unique – is a  gift.

Of course this statement can only be made as an act of faith. Clearly differences do not always feel like a blessing and they may not be treated by others as a gift. But she is asking us to have faith in the possibility that another person will exist who, at the right time, in the right place, will be able to receive that gift.

This may not be an empirical statement – but that does not matter. The demands of faith are central to our approach to the world. Judith Snow is telling us how to approach the world – not predicting that we we will do so.

She is also calling us to recognise the central importance of difference to a life of meaning. Getting back what what we’ve already got is an unsatisfactory experience – without meaning. Difference stimulates, provokes and creates the possibility of meaning.

However to experience this meaning, through difference, also demands that we share in a common world that makes meaningful exchange possible – inclusion.

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