Posted: Monday 1st June 2020
In a team reflective session the other day, we were processing our experiences, personally and professionally, of the Covid 19 pandemic. Eventually, the presence and fear of death was acknowledged. As the conversation rolled around the group, it turned out that many parents had been considering their wills, the house deeds, their life insurance. What would they leave for their children once they were eventually gone, whenever that might be? We asked for more; what do parents leave for their children beyond the material stuff? How are we held in one another’s hearts, way beyond settling the practicalities of death?
This got us talking about how we humans are formed by the connections we have experienced with others. In the modern West, we are encouraged to think of a ‘self’ as an internal, separate and individual entity. Yet alongside this dominant idea, there are other ideas about what a ‘self’ is that may be useful in our work. There is an alternative idea that a ‘self’ is a community of internalised experiences of our relationships. We are part ‘my mum’, part ‘my dad’, part ‘my reception teacher’, part ‘my boss’ etc. etc. From the familial to the social and professional, any relationship that has touched us will have left its mark on who we are. If we think this way, then even those whom we have lost are still with us. Through internalising them, they remain amongst our community of selves. In this way of seeing things, it follows that we will also continue to be changed by those we will come to form relationships with in the future. And so our community of ‘self’ is never complete; good news for those who are offering caring relationships to others.
In our work with children looked after, we meet children who have been separated from their formative relationships. In the most severe cases of relational deprivation, life events and the ensuing organisational responses, whilst perhaps unavoidable or necessary at the time, have left children with absolutely no-one who holds a thread of continuity for them in their lives. If my ‘self’ is a community of my relational experiences, then my ‘self’ is in deep trouble in this scenario. Without any continuity or coherence of relationships, there is no continuity nor coherence of me.
This circumstance begs the question: Who the heck am I? Without knowing this, humans, adaptable, intelligent and wired for survival as we are, will grasp onto the solidity of the most constant, reliable thing available. The most constant thing might be a person, but it might also be being locked up, beaten up, moving on, being rejected, being in turmoil and so on. When we see it like this, we can better appreciate that in a situation of relational deprivation it is a matter of survival for a person to keep a firm hold of whatever their solid constant thing is. We can also better understand why it can be so difficult to take the risk of changing, even changing what seems to the untrained eye to be the most destructive and harmful of attachments to a thing.
At MyST, we try to work with children with these ideas in mind. We try to build a credible alternative of a stable community of relationships around children so that they might risk taking the leap of faith of giving up their ‘solid thing’, whatever it is, and allow themselves to depend instead upon relationships with other people. To achieve this at all, we must appreciate many factors: The magnitude of the ask we are making. The time the process might take. The false starts. The backward steps. The extent of fear of making the leap, and the trust required to let go of the one solid reliable thing that a child has ever found.
We are deeply moved by the experience of seeing children achieve such courageous acts. Wow, you are wonderful, all of you. We are also completely willing to wait for those who haven’t yet found sufficient from us as a community to inspire their courage to let go into a dependence on relationships. We will wait for you, and keep trying until you are ready to jump into the arms of your community.
Jen & Jael