Self and others

Brian Gannon

I was sitting in the pale winter sunlight on Sunday afternoon reading some Fewster.  I love reading Fewster because he constantly tosses up a googly* or startlingly rephrases a familiar idea to remind us that it still has value  “or doesn–t.  And, because it was out on the lawn on a Sunday afternoon, I forget the reference, so forgive me, this is only a rough translation.  But he said something like this:  the only external validation or external reference that we have for our own lives is someone else, other people.

If I, for some reason, am unable to represent myself, to explain myself, to validate myself, I must rely on others.

The idea brought into sharp relief for me the African concept of ubuntu  “that I am a person only in relation to other people.  Or I exist as a person only because others exist.  Previously this was to me only an aphorism, a sociological concept, one of those illustrations one uses to make a moral point about altruism and generosity. Fewster restated it.

What do other people know of me? What sort of a “self” would they be able to portray from their own knowledge of me? How would they really know my deepest values, the things I am most proud of (and most ashamed of), the depths of my loves and passions and interests? What I’m good at and what I am lousy at? How would they know what I need  “and what I want?
If I am known by just one other, that person will likely know more than anyone else about me  “but even then just a fraction, a two-dimensional black-and-white image, no shades of grey, no subtleties, while vast tracts of who I am will remain obscure, unknown. If I am known by several others, their combined knowledge may be wider, but shallower, less detailed, more blurred.

How fragile is our identity. How fragile when we are away from the few who really know us.

My mind turns to a new kid admitted to a residential, group or secure program, away from family and home  “whatever the circumstances there might have been. How precarious the person, the self, the identity of someone must be when being moved into a new physical and social milieu!

We were once held spellbound at a conference when a speaker demonstrated the care we must exercise when transplanting a human life. She held her two hands, one beneath the other in a begging position, and asked a delegate to pour some water into her hands which she then tried to carry across the room without spilling any. “That is how careful we are to be when we hold in our hands another’s life,” she said. We are not to be distracted from the seriousness of that task, even if the distraction comes from the person him- or herself.

The task is essentially one of respect. We may be working in all sorts of programs, from easy to difficult in terms of physical context and staff workload, but we receive into our safe-keeping a human soul who is managing as best he or she can  “and we maintain as best we can the integrity and safety of that person.

It is easy for us to receive newcomers carelessly. A cursory greeting (however friendly) as we disappear through a door to do some urgent thing; an army-type admission as we “provide” the blankets and linen, cupboard space and physical necessities; or a brief introduction to the geography of the place before we go off duty for 24 hours! These are not care-full admissions. Any newcomers to our kind of milieu must have the opportunity to hand over to those in whose care they will be the essential things he or she want us to have: some idea of who they are, some history, some of the people in his or her life, some questions, some personal habits and hates ... their stuff  for safekeeping.  These things have a way of getting into the files of the preadmission process as tasks done (according to the rules) without ever being real human and humanised experiences.

Another lonely threshhold which many youth in care must cross is that from program into emancipated life. We are good these days at arranging accommodation, jobs, “life-skills” preparation and good advice, but many of our kids leave us already more than averagely unprepared, unconfident and unqualified “and then unaccompanied through this next transition. The frail “connective tissue” which they have collected through our corroborative association with them, our knowing and confirming of them, is easily broken, lost.

How fragile is our identity. How fragile when we are away from the few who really know us. How important for it to be known that I take two sugars in tea and love rap music as I set up in this place the stall of my presence and personality as they slowly accrete a few three-dimensional characteristics which I know you value as much as I do. How important for me to know that someone holds and builds that external validation and external reference for the me-inside-here while I am in this place “and for as long as I need when I go.

The train has to stop at the station to let joining passengers aboard. So the daily routine of our program has to stop to let the newcomer come aboard. Another human being (not just a roster, not just a slogan on the wall, not just a rule book) has to be there and to make time to receive the new resident, to admit what Beedell would have called “the whole child or youth”, to our program. Welcome, come in, bring it all with you, good and bad, bring who you are and who you have been and who you want to be  “so that I can know you. 

And the train has to stop at the station for leaving passengers. So the daily routine of our program has to stretch. Another human being (not just a going-away rite, not just our good wishes, not just a prescription for “independencing–) has to be there to make time to pass on to others the externally referenced and validated self. Go forth, who you are and who you have been and who you want to be “tell people we know you. We are part of your story, and you of ours.

* A cricket term which refers to a turned ball but bowled with reverse finger spin to look like a leg-break that should move across and to the off side of the batsman, but actually moves in the opposite direction, i.e. towards the leg side of the batsman like an off-break after it bounces.  (If you don’t know the game of cricket you will be none the wiser!)

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