At 60, I know it is not age that matters, but what you do with what you’ve learned - Ewan Aitken
I don't know what it is about hitting 60 but it has, somehow, had a impact on how I think about age. I don’t feel “old” but unlike other birthdays I do somehow feel I have hit a significant milestone which has led me to reflect not just on what I have done but on how I will use the time I have left on this planet.
If the woman I visited in hospital recently is anything to go by, I may still have a good while left. I met Margaret when she was 75 but, amazingly, I have now known her nearly half my life - she's now 102 and still sharp as a tack. She has slowed a little recently but even when she was 100 she was baking for “the old folk” and for the folk we support in Cyrenians. Her early experiences in life gave her a deep commitment to service and justice for others. She has taught me never to give up.
At the other end of the age spectrum, I was with a group of young people recently who said to me they had “no time for politics,” but had all become vegan and were ready to keep protesting about the environment until they saw the change they know is needed. They too would never give up.
It is not the age you are which matters, but what you do with what you’ve learned in however many years you’ve lived – and your willingness to not give up, no matter the challenges you face.
At Cyrenians we don’t give up on anyone. Some of the people we support have made choices many would see as dangerous or destructive to themselves or others – some have done some very great harm. But we work with the person, not their problems.
We have a philosophy of “unconditional positive regard” – searching for the human being beneath it all and how they and others see them. It’s not easy, and we have to work hard at it but it works; as one person told us recently; “I'd be dead if you had given up on me”.
Sadly, a willingness to see the person and not the perception is becoming more and more challenging in a fractured world where it seems more important to take a hard line and have nothing to do with those we disagree with.
It can feel like we’re reverting to a new form of tribalism, where we’re pushed to instantly and completely condemn people we disagree with as unworthy of attention, or even of being seen as fellow humans.
I despise much about the present UK Government, not least the morally vacuous culture of the leadership, but the truth is that just by writing that sentence, I am less likely to persuade those whose actions I despise to change their behaviours.
Collaboration rather than condemnation is always best, especially when it’s with those we disagree with. Learning from the wisdom of years and changing our behaviours to finding common ground might bring us to a better outcome.
-Ewan Aitken is CEO of Cyrenians, a charity tackling the causes and consequences of homelessness.