Tuesday, 5 July 2011

A Real Human Being

What a strange day yesterday was.  A dear friend of mine came round, someone who is entirely trustworthy and straightforward, a person who has over the years become friends with his GP and barber and house sits for them and their friends from time to time.

My friend, lets call him Jonathan, brought round some vegetables that a one-time employer of his had been unable to sell and needed to get shot of. Jonathon doesn’t like courgettes or lettuce all that much so he brought them to me. We sat, enthusing about how our small networks function, how kind people can be and the basic generosity of the world. We drank elderflower cordial that I’d made from the late spring abundance of the wasteland up the road enjoying the warm feeling of relaxation, company and having enough.

In fact, Jonathon doesn’t have enough and never has. He lives from dole cheque to dole cheque with small bits of occasional cash in hand work on the side, around £30 a month. He has kept it together sufficiently so that he doesn’t have to pay the highest possible utility charges by being on the wretched pay-as-you-go gas and electricity and his standing orders consume his entire – his entire – dole payments. Which is to say that he has no money for food.

Once every 7 years or so he’ll pack up his minute council bedsit saying that he just knows someone will want to exchange this time and if he prepares for it, offering change no resistance, then it’s all the more likely. When he unpacks he rationalises his lack of movement to something entirely reasonable: Christmas being so close that no one wants to move, or the school holidays or an economic downturn or upturn. Yesterday we spoke about this phenomenon again and I believe I saw the first small cracks in Jonathon’s’ belief. 

He’s nearing 60 now and has been waiting 40 years for an exchange. Jonathon has never been to a counsellor; he’s never felt the need for one. His way of being in the world has always been positive and optimistic and I have no sense of him wanting or needing to explore his life in the kind of depth that many counsellors work with. There’s no searching for meaning, he’s logical and charitable when differences between him and others happen – which is by no means often – he’s busy, productive and talented. What’s more he follows his talent and produces very beautiful paintings which, like so many artists, he finds he just can’t bring himself to sell.

To all intents and purposes, Jonathon is a terrible failure. He’s not married and has no children. He sponges off the state as a lifestyle choice as well as defrauding it and lives in a fantasy world while freeloading off his friends. And I love him and so do his other friends who respect his way of being as authentic and valuable. Jonathon isn’t some winsome halfwit, he speaks several languages, can turn his hand to most practical jobs and his mind to philosophical problems. But he just can’t do the 9 – 5 or sit in a packed train for 2 hours a day or phone people up out of the blue to try and sell them something they don’t want and be resilient to being endlessly told to fuck off. He’s a fully functioning human being, one of the few I know, and because of that he can’t do the same meaningless thing, endlessly.

Yesterday afternoon, perhaps I saw Jonathon look to the future. To be sure, it’s grim for the majority of us whether we’ve paid into a pension or not, and Jonathon won’t be able to escape the possibility of losing his very meager and therefore very precious possessions to submit to the terrible endurance that is an old peoples home.

I believe I saw Jonathon just begin to give up on a dream and face, very briefly, the possibility of an old age eating dog food and sitting in the dark. We’ve known people for whom this has been an absolute reality, people who had no family, whose support networks had also grown old and moved or died.

What do I want to say to Jonathon? Nothing, really. He is well past being able to do a nice little part time job; though he can work regularly and well routine is death to him. He’s old and wise enough to look some sweet 35 year old coach/mentor/advisor in the eye and wonder why she needs to be so driven, and possibly remind her of her own dreams of authenticity, lost to presumed material need and status anxiety.

Richard Carr Gomm walked across Europe at the end of WW2 and came to live in London where he saw his elderly neighbours in need and helped them out. In time, four of them moved in together and Richard looked after them. He repeated this with a number of other elderly people, setting them up with housekeepers and creating the Carr Gomm charity. 50+ years on they’re now very well organized and professional. Amongst other things
We also offer opportunities for people to improve their fitness and diet.
Which is nice.

The impulse to offer un-CRB checked, unprofessional, un-audited, unregulated and heartfelt attention to people as they are rather than as we think they should be is what begins the journey of caring for others. Jonathon has always offered people, has always offered me, that. I hope we can continue to reciprocate.

* Identifying details have been changed.

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