Last rights

26 07 2013


We are living in a social age. Never before have we had so many opportunities to connect with others. Daily through an ever-increasing range of media people enjoy making links. Even something as inconsequential as ticking a ‘like’ box is a show of approval, a tiny endorsement. A smiley face at the end of a directive email can act as a small encouraging cheer to help to brighten the trawl through the imperative inbox.

We are good at the social niceties. The sparkle dust of social media can be sprinkled around quite liberally, and it makes us feel as if we are in touch with each other. Social media taps into our innate need for connectivity, and simultaneously gets us off the hook of really taking the time and trouble to actually be with someone.

I’m not attacking social media. Blogs are a wonderful way of reaching out to people around the world, and I feel a thrill each time I discover a new reader in India or Iceland. Social media is part of the new world we have created, and it is going to take a while before we really understand the best ways to use it. For now, it still feels to me a little like a delightful new toy that we are slightly obsessed with – the old favourites: hand-written letters filled with news; calling each other for hours on the phone; long lunches that become supper, maybe they will make a comeback once we’ve had our digital fill.

This week as preparation for a series of social philosophy seminars I’ve been reading Social Intelligence by Daniel Goleman, the follow up book to Emotional Intelligence. As is often the case with books that make me think differently, I’ve noticed its central theme cropping up everywhere.

According to Goleman’s research, ‘neuroscience has discovered that our brain’s very design makes it sociable, inexorably drawn into an intimate brain-to-brain linkup whenever we engage with another person. That neural bridge lets us affect the brain – and so the body – of everyone we interact with, just as they do us.’

In other words: we are always affected by other people, for good and for bad. Intuitively we know this. There are people who nourish us just with their presence, and people who bring on an anxious knot in the pit of our stomach. There are conversations that leave us feeling enlivened and valued and those that bring us down and leave us feeling worthless. There are touches that help us to soften and touches that cause us to bristle.

It is clear that we know how to be sociable- we can’t help it, being sociable is a large part of what makes us human – what matters more, though, is an attention to the quality of our social interactions. Of course this has wide implications, especially when it comes to caring for each other. It is not enough to build hospitals and fill them with patients and care staff. It is not enough to design care pathways, as the case in Liverpool has shown. Staff won’t care about their patients unless they feel a connection with them. If patients are presented to staff as out-of-date commodities on the conveyor belt of life they will be treated without respect, denied basic needs such as a sip of water to moisten parched mouths or fruit to take away the gnawing hunger pains. One man spoke of his father, a victim of such ‘care’ as looking like ‘someone out of a concentration camp.’

The question, as I see it, is not how can we get staff that look after the dying to care more, but how can we get them to connect with the other human beings around them? There should be daily reminders in all care homes that the most important thing you can give to someone is not your rushed efficiency, but your time and your attention, not your detachment, but your engagement.

Poignantly, the other evening I was given a lesson in taking the time to care by a group of horses. As intensely social animals, horses develop strong bonds with each other and help each other out. During these hot days my two horses will stand nose to tail, flicking flies from each other’s faces, or one will position himself so as to shade the other. They will eat from the same feed bowl and share a stable. In the paddock next to us is an ancient horse of forty or more, who has bonded with them, and comes into graze with them sometimes.

It is rare for horses to reach forty and the thin old horse is at the end of his life. He is half blind and deaf and unsteady on his legs. Some days when he gets down on the ground to roll, he groans deeply, and his head droops between his splayed legs. More than once I have stopped whatever I’ve been doing, convinced that I’m about to witness his last moments.

The old horse has appreciated the social time with his new young friends and when he returns to his paddock, he is more rested and a wonderful sense of peace passes through the whole herd. The other evening one of my horses spent a good forty minutes gently grooming the old horse, nuzzling and licking his poor old ribs with such tenderness it brought tears to my eyes. The reverence shown to that old horse was joyful to watch. When he returned to his paddock, he felt so light he was almost weightless. Instead of his usual deep groans, he gave a long relieved sigh.

If it is so natural for other social species to care for their elderly, why I wonder is it so difficult for us?

Nietzsche and the scarecrow

7 07 2013


Nietzsche has been much on my mind this week, specifically his call for a revaluation of our values. The old system of good and evil, Nietzsche declares, is outdated and what we need is a new way forward so that we can rise to noble values, such as courage, feelings of fullness and ‘overflowing power.’

If Nietzsche were alive today he would be a leader in the new enterprise culture. His originality of thought, his provocation, his challenge never to accept the status quo, belong to the current age of uncertainty. In order to thrive in a world where there are no jobs for life, we need to be bold and we need to be innovative. We need to move beyond comparison and resentment of those of higher status and into a different sort of pride that allows us to be generous. In this new Nietzsche-inspired moral landscape, self-deprecation causes confusion. Instead of putting ourselves down, Nietzsche would argue, what we must do is to be honest and to share our best creative efforts.

Nietzsche’s aim for humanity was a form of ‘self-overcoming.’ According to his assessment, discrimination between the rulers and the ruled had created a master and slave mentality that in turn led to a morality based on resentment of the strong by those in subordinate positions. This unhealthy power structure still dominates many institutions today. I gave up taking breaks in staff room because of it. Griping is part of the curriculum in every school I’ve worked in.  If Nietzsche were still around to see what we have done with our magnificent education, I have no doubt that he would be appalled. So many brilliant minds creating so many meaningless work sheets and teacher tasks.

Of course, not all of what we have done to education is wrong. Many young people thrive under our current system, but few who work in education truly believe that we have the best-designed schools and programmes of learning. Anyone who has ever worked in a school could come up with at least one idea of how things might be done either more thoughtfully or imaginatively. Schools still tend to value efficiency over innovation. And sadly schools still tend to promote what Nietzsche called the ‘herd’ mentality. Speaking out, standing up for what you believe in, taking risks, is still seen in many educational establishments as, well, just too risky.

Nevertheless much of Nietzsche’s philosophy just does not work for me. His attacks on the philosophers who came before him, notably ‘old Kant,’ are juvenile and much of his writing is clever-showy and attention-seeking. If he had resisted his own resentments and his tendency to hurl grenades at previous moral thinking, he would be worth listening to. Much of what he says is a rant, interesting and exuberant, but still a rant. In style, Kant cannot be compared; he is no brilliant essayist, but in his series of critiques he does the hard spade work of thinking through morality and leaves us with far, far more than we need: an entire ethical system based on treating each other with respect.

This leads me to my photo of the scarecrow. This afternoon I stopped my car on a narrow lane to take the shot of my first encounter in years with a real scarecrow, by which I mean one put into a field to actually scare things rather than one featuring in a festival. Lifting my camera, a white van came storming up the lane straight into my view. I went over and politely explained that I wanted to take a photograph and I didn’t want the van in the shot.

The white van driver’s response was: ‘And I don’t want to stop.’

I had a choice. I could have switched off the camera and got back into my car. There was no passing space and so the white van driver would have had to wait for me to reverse all the way back up the lane. Nietzsche whispered in my ear: ‘Tell him he’s an arse.’

Kant stepped in to prevent me from getting punched: ‘Oh, that’s really not very generous of you. I only need five minutes to take the picture.’

The white van driver squinted down the lane: ‘Five minutes?’

‘Less, in fact I could probably do it in three minutes.’

The white van driver’s features softened. I saw that underneath his scowling impatience he was really quite pleasant and I smiled.

Two minutes later, I had my scarecrow shot and in true Kantian spirit to acknowledge the van driver’s respect, I decided to do my duty and reverse back up the lane. He waved and I waved and we both went on our way.

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