This week between Christmas and Hogmanay is in some ways a bit of a limbo, in others something of a mad dash between relatives and friends to make sure we see everyone at some point over the festive period.
It’s a particularly tough time for those for whom there won’t be many or even any visitors. Their limbo is not just for a week. It can feel like it’s been for a lifetime. The impact of social isolation is well documented; some evidence suggests it’s as bad for our health as smoking 15 cigarettes a day.
What this reminds us in very stark ways is just how we are fundamentally social animals. Despite the strong and persuasive narrative of individualism which has threaded its way through much of public debate and policy of the last 20 or 30 years, we are not autonomous beings, in the end alone in the world. We need each other; we depend on each other. We find out who we are and how we can be the people we want to be in and through our relationship with others; friends, family, colleagues, inspiring figures, teachers, coaches, tutors; people with whom we feel we matter and whose belief in us helps our belief in ourselves.
Research which shows those who experience four or more adverse childhood experiences (known as ACES); – things like violence, physical and/or emotional abuse, neglect, addictions, family member in jail etc – are significantly more likely to experience illness, poor quality of life and early death. However, some who grow up with those experiences don’t have those outcomes. Research shows the key factor in them overcoming the impact of those ACEs is a trusted adult in their lives; not necessarily a family member but someone who was always available, did not judge and did encourage and support them.
One of the great myths of our time is the idea of a “dependency culture” as if depending on each other is a bad thing. It’s often combined with an ambition to roll back the state and reduce the ways in which those in need are supported. It is reflected in the “selfish gene” approach to evolution which creates a scientific underpinning to the idea of individualism as being core to who we are and how we flourish.
The strong messages we hear around the market being the best way of paying for everything and managing our needs makes every relationship into a transaction devoid of value other than price and cost – adding another layer to the individualistic philosophy.
Yet the evidence of ordinary lives would suggest the opposite is true about what brings about human flourishing. Ask anyone who finds themselves sleeping rough what the biggest challenge is and they will tell you how quickly they feel they become invisible. Sure we see more people sleeping rough but we don’t see them, we see their presence and their numbers as a problem. Commentators in the press and the pub talk of the “waste of taxpayers’ money”. In truth we are talking about not a commodity paid for but a person in need of our help, in need of being treated as we would want to be treated were we in the same situation; not to be forgotten, to be reached out to, to be cared for in our hour of need.
Not just this week but throughout this year, I have been deeply moved by the extraordinary work done by my colleagues in Cyrenians and by many other homelessness charities like Bethany, Rock Trust, Streetwork, Salvation Army, Four Square, Crisis, Shelter, Social Bite and many others to reach out and get beside those most isolated to begin the journey from their limbo of homelessness to a place of belonging and hope. It’s a sign of a city which cares, built on nurturing our interdependence which is where true flourishing lies.
Ewan Aitken is CEO of Cyrenians