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How Seeing A Children's Home As A Place Of Hospitality Could Help Us Create A Sharing Society

10/02/2017 13:56 GMT | Updated 10/02/2017 13:56 GMT

George Lyward always insisted, invariably after a longer than anticipated by the questioner pause, that Finchden Manor, the pioneering residential community he initiated, was a "a place of hospitality". I first heard this decades ago.

I have often thought about those words. I have also passed them on to many new people I meet wanting to learn about what goes on in children's homes, including them in the insight he'd shared, even when I was unsure I'd fully grasped what he was meaning.

I reached a greater understanding when reading the eulogies to John Berger. There was a 2015 British Library event where, when asked a question, Berger put his head in his hand, and sat, and thought. It would be marvellous if it exists on film. Like Lyward he didn't say anything for a long time, finally answering, "I have been thinking about the storyteller's responsibility to be hospitable."

Berger went on, "the act of hospitality", he suggested, "is ancient and contemporary and at the core of every story we've ever told or listened to about ourselves - deny it, and you deny all human worth".

Berger talked about the need for hospitality: the friendly and generous reception and entertainment of guests, visitors or strangers.

Hospitality shares its origin with hospital, a place to treat sick or injured people, a place of kindness and care for the ill and strange, the vulnerable and dispossessed.

Maybe the world has always been two places simultaneously, that in which we live, and the other world we consciously keep ourselves apart from in order to 'get on with things'; the world where others live, those who would unsettle our equilibrium if included in our daily world.

The way the one world survives is as Berger observed by 'forcing the majority to define their own interests as narrowly as possible.' How apposite for our current social situation.

Today, in many quarters, there is talk of another world being possible; Theresa May's sharing society or similar projects with a left hue. It's a project to try to meld the two disparate worlds.

There is a test for this thinking given to us by Berger. Does it try to understand the experience of another, take the necessary step to dismantle the world as seen from one's own place within it and to reassemble it as seen from that other? Then this world is differently possible; maybe not one world but at least one world aware and encouraging of the other.

At the root of hospitality is the word 'host'. It means both the person who offers hospitality, and the group, the flock, the horde. It has two origins: the Latin for stranger or enemy, and also for guest. Here's two worlds again.

One of the origins of our children's homes is the Hospitallers, a place where that other world existed, supported by contributions from the community. One world supporting the existence of another within the single community.

The monastic tradition that infuses the vocational work with young people in desperate need has its roots that far back, and has existed for that long. Throughout the ages the most open hospitality has been found not in the mainstream of society but at the edges.

Today people working in children's homes are remnants of the call of vocation; few would devote their lives or part of their lives to caring professions without it being an active calling. Interesting that Lyward abandoned his ordination with two weeks to go.

We can only ignore the low pay in our caring professions if it is seen as a world in which we rely on the vocation of others. Two worlds, it might have been so for centuries but that doesn't make it right.

It might not be Brexit that defines Theresa May and her time in Government. It might be the social project of Theresa May, the sharing society, that has potential to be a penetrating project disassembling social relations with a view that there is such a thing as unconditional love for our fellow beings, and it can exist in the mainstream.

Seen in this way it is the mirror of Brexit. It is a project that rejects the two worlds and assumes one 'shared' world in which any negativity can be contained with generous empathic care. It is an ambitious political project to aim for the generalised dissemination of kindness. It is not a modern project but an eternal one, accompanying all the pernicious fashions, waiting in abeyance to be noticed, to be more prominent, and for it to be seen that actually very little gets done at all without at least a modicum of hospitality being present.

It is a project of complexity and ambivalence with a requirement for endless needs-led risky creativity rather than the rules demanded these days of certainty.

So what could be the first signs of coming together of the worlds?

As with many things to do with child care children's homes are often the laboratory where good ideas that later become commonplace are first explored and developed.

A first sign would be that children's homes are seen as positive places for children, places we support, rather than pushing them to the margins.

Second, to think again about that child who has survived abuse, trauma and neglect. Their responses can be unusual, even extreme, even to kindness. Yet they can be completely understandable and logical to that young person in their own world. Behaviour is communication; in that young person's world what they are doing means something. Yet they are in our world and their reasons for what they do simply do not get recognised. So they carry on. The change can be seen when we appreciate that this communication by the young person is healthy, and we don't see it as bad, even though it may be a nuisance, and meant to be, to test our commitment and get our attention.

This is to see 'delinquency' as a sign of hope. This young person is not crushed by life but is still sparking and alive to say 'Here I am.' It's a sign that everything was all right in their world, and then it was not, and the memory repeats itself often, and will do so until it is recognised for what it is. Then there can be gradual return to the world accompanied by someone who understands.

The world in which that reparative work takes place is often the small social world of a children's home. A children's home needs to be appreciated and supported to be a place of sanctuary, a nurturing protective environment. Like a refugee or a homeless person needing a place to call home. In a sharing society maybe home, the place and the relationships we build are precisely where it all starts.

All those people just described have suffered loss. Loss is not a momentary event, it happens over time, serial moments of decline and restitution. Loss is losing relation of yourself, to others, a feeling of falling for ever.

Someone, somewhere has to catch you, hold you and comfort you, and together, over time, find a way back to the world you lost. It can be a child who needs a children's home, a refugee, someone who is homeless.

There is a way back to the world where others have continued living whilst they were 'away.' When they return it's not to the Present they left but to a new carefully constructed one. Crucially where there is no longer an absence, for there is now presence, theirs and others in relationships; they are not dispossessed of value and identity but possessed of a potential.

There is a move to reduce the availability of children's homes by funding gaps or vilification, to remove the very space that can take a child who feels apart from the world, and accompany them back to being part of the world.

Children's homes are where empathy can be made real, a small example of a sharing society, of hospitality.

I am beginning to know a little more of what Lyward and Berger were reaching for, asking us to reach inside ourselves, another world too, to make the world a place of hospitality.