What we don’t see

How many times have you seen a dead person, or sat with someone you knew was dying? When did you last have to deal with someone in the throes of total mental breakdown? How about care for an incontinent adult? When did you last encounter someone with serious physical disabilities or learning difficulties? Unless it’s your job to do so, or a close family member has been in this position, the odds are you don’t have this kind of experience at all.

Modern, industrial, affluent culture likes to have things tidy. If you aren’t able to cope with the mainstream it means the odds are you are tidied away from public view. Now, on the one side there’s a lot to be said for having experienced professionals care for people who need extra help – they know what they’re doing. Caring is incredibly hard work, and being able to go home at the end of the day and rest is worth so much – those who look after an ill person at home seldom get much respite. But many people do it, and are very isolated as a consequence, as are the people they care for.

One of the consequences of this, is that when we encounter these kinds of scenarios full on in our own lives, that’s often the first time we have to deal with it. People I know have managed to get into their thirties without anyone they care about dying. Lots of folk only start dealing with the trials and distress of old age when their parents get into difficulty. People who become physically or mentally disabled often do so not having had any prior experience of people in the same situation. It’s frightening. We hit crisis with no points of reference, and no idea of how to cope. We may be the one being shuffled out of the way. That’s a very scary process as well.

Community is about sharing – not just in the good times, but with the harder stuff too. Altruism aside, there are a lot of good, pragmatic reasons for being more involved. If you’ve listened to someone else when they were close to cracking up, if you’ve sat with someone bereaved and grieving, if you’ve kept in touch with someone obliged to go into a home… not only are you supporting them and doing a lot of good, but you are also learning. The hard times are that much harder when you have no idea what’s going on or how to cope. None of us are immortal. None of us are immune to accident or injury.

It may seem like defensive behaviour, moving away from the hard stuff other people are going through. Who wants to hear the doom and gloom stories? Who wants to deal with another person’s grief? It’s all hassle, it’s not our problem. Only it is, and it will be, sooner or later. If we can’t reach out to each other for reasons of compassion, we ought to be doing it out of self interest.

We don’t benefit, as a culture, from hiding away the people who aren’t part of the whole working and breeding system. The sick, the elderly, the troubled… most of us do not have to think about them, most of the time. We are ‘free’ to get on with our lives. Right up until it happens to us. If we weren’t so keen to hide away the ‘problems’ there are a lot of people whose quality of life would improve dramatically. There would be less to fear – it’s bad enough being ill of body or mind without the added fear of social rejection and isolation. We could do so much better with this issue.