The Meandering Social Worker

wandering : wondering : learning

Archive for the tag “Christmas”

As Christmas approaches …..

My heart sinks.  It always does as Christmas approaches.  I see the tinsel and trappings appearing in the stores, the job adverts for this year’s Father Christmases, the craft, cookery and home magazines appear with their recipes and ideas for home decorations, and so on.  I know the loan sharks will be rubbing their hands in anticipation of the extra income as poor families struggle to keep up with the false expectations of the happiness they can bring by buying things they can’t afford, and in reality don’t need, just because that is what the media circus is telling them.

When I was first starting out in social work, nearly 20 years ago, I remember a young mum telling me with great excitement that the Provie man had lent her £200 to spend on toys for her young son that Christmas.  My heart sank.  The best I could manage was a wan smile – she was just trying to do the best for her son in the only way she knew how and it was too late to undo the loan.  I knew it would take her all year to pay that back and it would cost her way more than £200 by the end of that year.  And no doubt by then most if not all those toys would have been broken and discarded.

Since then there has been the credit crunch or banking crisis, a world recession and a downward pressure on the poor under current political austerity measures.  With the threat of tax credit cuts still looming (although there might be some shifting on that) the outlook is bleak for whole swathes of society.  Pressure to be jolly and spend hard-earned money on things you can’t afford and don’t need is just as great, but the gloom and doom that follows as the bills stack up along with the extra debts in the new year will be even more crushing.

At the end of the day it is our relationships and our experiences that make us happy, not the stuff in our cupboards.

As a society we have been spun the lie that we need to keep consumerism high in order to keep the manufacturing industries going and the money flowing.  At the time of the 2008 financial collapse the economists were saying ‘we need to get the Chinese to consume more’.  But none of that is true – as this blog explains more fully:  Sure, if we all suddenly stopped buying the latest cheap fashion rip offs, changing our home decor every year because some fashion has changed or because we are enticed by some new decoration we see, if we all turned to the charity shops to replace our furniture, if we all bought fewer clothes but chose instead those of higher quality and wore them for longer, if we worked together and shared as a community more, then there would be an impact on manufacturing industries.  But entrepreneurs will find other ways of making money.  If we all bought less ‘stuff’ we would have more to spend on leisure, art, beauty, travel and the ‘stuff’ we buy would be of better quality, and those who remain employed in manufacturing could be paid more.  This was the vision of the early pioneers of technology: little did they realise then that we would chose instead the path of the materialism.  At the end of the day it is our relationships and our experiences that make us happy, not the stuff in our cupboards.

The poorest communities have always been better at the economies of reduce, re-use, recycle, restore, remake.  We’ve not seen it for generations in the West, although in the poorer Latin American countries this lifestyle is still thriving.  We need to re-learn these values.  We need to be able to teach our children to value what they have.  That’s not to put on them the pressures of adult money worries, but to teach them the lost skill of appreciating the value of things, instead of succumbing to the pressures of advertising, to always be wanting the next new thing.  And we have to model that for them.

And we need to learn these things ourselves so we can encourage those we work with to see through the lies that tell us to buy our way out of unhappiness.

It won’t solve the problems of a ruling elite that appears to have no concept (or care) of the impact of their policies on poorer and middle income earners.  We have to look after ourselves and we have to recognise that if there is to be change it will have to be from the bottom up.  Two recent (and still current) events may well spur that on: the migration crisis as refugees and asylum seekers pour out of war-torn Syria, bringing the reality of their situation to the shores of Europe and the attention of Europeans where it is the less-well off who are the most heart-broken and responsive to the sight of their suffering; and the election of Jeremy Corbyn as Labour leader, showing that politics is not necessarily the preserve and interest of the elite.

 

The value of ‘having more’

One of my earliest experiences of working with children & families in social work was visiting a young mother who was excited because the “Provie Man” (Provident Loan company) had lent her £200 so she could buy Christmas presents for her children.  I didn’t want to destroy her temporary sense of happiness and excitement, and it was too late to change the fact of the loan, but I knew that with crippling interest rates she would struggle to pay way over the odds in interest over the coming year, and no doubt repeat the cycle again the next year.  All so she could buy a pile of cheap toys that would break in no time.  She was just one of many in the same situation.

Travelling in Ecuador at Christmas I stayed with a family whose children received only one present: a bag of mixed biscuits and sweets.  All the children in the village received the same present.  Few received anything else.  The parents simply explained that they couldn’t afford to buy the children any more presents.  Yet none complained.

The children didn’t go without.  They received everything they needed it when they needed it: clothes, books for learning.  There were few toys but plenty of opportunity to play with natural materials, using their imagination in play with friends of all ages.  Play was not always supervised and sometimes might have been thought unsafe, but they learned to help and look after each other.  There was also masses of love and attention from their parents, their aunties and uncles, cousins, siblings, friends and neighbours, as they learnt the ways of their community.

From the opening lines from Michael Meegan’s book, All will be well – “We were not designed to live the lifestyle that has become predominant today.  The nature of our Western economy is to feed an insatiable value system based on having more.  It is based on people not being happy.  If people began thinking that they were content with what they possessed already, the economy could no longer sell you the latest style or the latest ‘must-have’ stuff …..  We settle for trifles such as wealth, fame and comfort … self help books, at best, do three things … remind people they are locked into cycles and patterns of negative thinking; point out practical ways of changing behaviour or developing self-awareness and they can help people to climb out of emotional straightjackets; but these are merely by-products for a way of life that we were never meant to live.  … It is often easier to read about happiness than to become happy, easier to aspire than to do, easier to plan than to break the entrenched patterns of our daily routine.”

Meegan sums up well the cause of so many of the social problems social workers spend their working lives dealing with, picking up the pieces from the fallout of the “insatiable value system of having more”; including the consequence that leads young women and others to take out Christmas loans they cannot afford to buy things their children don’t really need so they can feel they are meeting their children’s needs and so their children can begin early compete among their peers to climb the ladder of always “having more”.

Society demands social workers deal with society’s problems, recently in England this including taking the form of the Troubled Families Programme.  Allegedly social workers are applying the values of society: do not steal or murder, etc, etc.  But are these the real values of modern society?  And how do the real values of society compare to the values of social work?

 

Let is snow, let it snow, let it snow

The news of deaths during the current winter weather is always sad but why is the wintry weather so much more of a crisis and so much more ‘difficult’ to deal with than it used to be 40 years ago?  Even the current weather, which is more severe than we have seen in perhaps the last 10 or so years is no worse than I recall from my childhood in the 1960’s.

Or perhaps it’s society that’s changed.  In the 1960’s we were more dependent on walking and less dependent on travelling by car.  It was more likely that our families and our jobs were within walking distance and we hadn’t yet developed the habit of holidaying abroad, especially at Christmas. We were less likely to expect it to be our right to travel whenever  and wherever we wanted, regardless of the weather.  We knew the dangers of getting hypothermia and took more precautions to protect ourselves.  And I can’t help feeling that our news services were a little less inclined to hype up into such a drama every negative bit of news and comment that came their way.

So let’s recap.  It’s winter.  It’s cold.  It’s snowed and is snowing still.  Now lets strike a blow for common sense and just get on with it.  Help the old and vulnerable if you are able.  Use modern communications to keep in touch.  Instead of moaning about what we cannot do lets boast about how we coped and how much fun we had instead.  Like we used to in the old days.  And plan next year’s special long distance visits when it’s less likely to be dangerous to travel (or so expensive).

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