Dr Keith J. White Copy for TTCJ In Res Vol IV 07 2023
A Reason for Getting out of Bed in the Morning
When I was on a visit to Middlesbrough as the president of the Social Care Association, we drove through an estate at about mid-day one summer. It was on the way from the station to the first of several meetings with social workers and carers in that area. Noticing that many, if not most of the houses, had their curtains drawn, I asked whether there was a funeral. The response has stayed with me ever since: “No. It’s nothing unusual. Most people are unemployed, and there’s no reason for them to get out of bed in the morning”.
With energy prices having increased so much in recent months, particularly for those on prepayment meters, I wonder how many choose to stay in bed during the winter months as a way of keeping warm?
The phrase, “a reason for getting out of bed in the morning”, has entered common parlance as a way of crystallising whether a person has a reason for living, not just for a particular day, but for life in general. And it is this thread that I want to trace here. It was Albert Camus who coined the phrase: “Without work, all life goes rotten. But when work is soulless, life stifles and dies.” And Victor Frankl who wrote, “Life is never made unbearable by circumstances, but only by lack of meaning and purpose”. The former had experienced the life of the urban poor, and the latter, life inside concentration camps.
As human beings we have an innate desire for purpose or meaning, and this does not necessarily require an understanding of philosophy, or religious belief, about the whole of life. For most it is a pattern or rhythm of daily and weekly life that provides sufficient reason for getting out of bed each morning. I recall a young person who had recently become a mother. She told me how at last she was “someone”, and her radiant smile was evidence, if any was needed, that she now knew she had a very important reason for getting up each day. Study, work, hobbies, clubs, caring for a relative, walking a dog, or shopping, are among the many tasks or roles that form routines or patterns of everyday life that constitute, whether consciously or not, reasons for engaging with, rather than keeping away from, social life.
Sometimes one or more of these options are available, but a person is too anxious or depressed to engage with them. However most human beings, most of the time, find a measure of meaning or fulfilment in a range of activities. And the most appropriate word to cover them all may well be, “projects”. By this I mean that at any point in time, evening or morning, any day of the week, any month of the year, a person has something in the future, tomorrow, next week, next month or even next year, to look forward to. Such a project may not necessarily be seen as a pleasure or privilege, but simply as something that they will be undertaking as a matter of course. If there is no one else who can fulfil this task, the incentive of a project may well be even greater (this is what Victor Frankl found). And often work or study is undertaken not because the activity is enjoyable or creative, but because it is a means to an end; perhaps a qualification, or money, which will in time make another (desirable) project possible.
Turning now to those living in, or supported by, therapeutic communities, I wonder what projects are available or offered to them. As a matter of course, there will be some form of structure to a day, a week, or a term. There may be systems of rewards for achievement or good behaviours. But I wonder how much attention is paid by those running such communities, to the views those we are seeking to help and support, on the kind of project that they see as most significant.
The evidence that I draw from arose in conversations with children at Mill Grove. And it all relates to holidays. This had nothing to do with any prompting on my part. As a project in the sense I have described, holidays have a a very high rating. It doesn’t take much thought, or study of newspaper supplements and advertisements, for example, to realise that time spent in chosen places away from home is something aspired to by nearly everyone in contemporary western societies. Such holidays range from stays in Centre Parcs or Butlins, to luxury cruises or five-star resorts.
At Mill Grove we are blessed with accommodation in North Wales and since 1976 we have always stayed there during the month of August. Now it’s understandable that immediately after such a holiday there is plenty of banter about what went on, triggered, or supplemented by photos and video clips. Also that in the weeks leading up to the holiday anticipation mounts.
But what I noticed during January and February this year, was how often youngsters have been talking about this coming August, although it was still several months and two school terms away.
There have been prolonged and animated conversations about who might be coming this year, where they would sleep, and especially graphic descriptions of what activities they would like to be doing together. The experience of being together as part of a group of peers is a major attraction of the holidays. These are all based on personal experience, and so involve frequent retellings of what happened at favourite places, or popular regular activities. There was intense concentration, and each of the children present has been fully engaged, whether as the teller, or the listener to the story.
All the children that I was listening to live in households where the father and mother are unemployed. Half terms and school holidays are predictably stressful times in the lives of everyone, whether children or parents. So, perhaps it is not surprising that, although August was still six months away, the summer holiday in Wales was something to look forward to. It was evidently giving meaning to the present.
With this evidence from the children in mind, how best to understand and describe what might be going on? As far as I could see, they were not remotely interested in or concerned about reasons for their enthusiasm. And it was not appropriate to interrupt their animated exchanges by asking. So, we are left with the task of musing, taking our clue from them that the subject was significant.
We are familiar with the concept of a “life-project”, and how it provides meaning, motivation, and security. The North Wales holidays were not being described with any hint of something as long-term or all-embracing as that. But surely children rarely engage in thinking long-term. In fact, as Shakespeare intimated in The Winter’s Tale, perhaps children think that there is nothing more to life than “such a day to-morrow as to-day, and to be boy eternal”.
In this sense holidays, like birthdays and Christmas, are things that they can look forward to and expect for ever. There is a cumulative sense of predictability and stability. In his book, A Secure Base, John Bowlby, describes a place that a child can return or regress to, not as a destination or permanent resting place, but as a springboard for engaging further with the real world and everyday life. This is usually associated with home, significant others, kith and kin. But I wonder whether holidays fulfil just such a function, although as far as I can recall he does not mention them.
If this line of thought is helpful, then it should be noted that the children were not talking about holidays in unknown settings, but in a place that they had come to know. In Wales there have been common, shared experiences: surely a critical factor in what makes it such an attractive project for the children. If the plan were to be to go to another place, for example, would the project function in the same way? Could conversation be sustained in the interim? And would it be solid enough to rely on, or might it resemble those many things, half-promised, where hopes are dashed as the reality of poverty bites? Summer holidays in North Wales as a secure base? I think it makes sense.
Be this as it may, for whatever reason, the holidays figure prominently in imaginations and conversations of these children. And between now and August 2023 I will have plenty of opportunity to tune in to what they might be thinking. We are left with at least two practical questions. First, how much attention to therapeutic communities give to holidays? (Are others blessed with facilities such as ours in Gwynedd, I wonder?) And second, what of those households for whom a summer holiday like the ones in North Wales are not remotely possible: not even on the horizon, because of their limited means? Are there plausible substitutes?
As indicated, there are innumerable potential “projects” on offer, but holidays happen to be one where it is the children and young people who are driving the agenda. This evidently means something very special to them. Perhaps it might stir feelings and memories in each of us. I wonder how many of us found school terms bearable because of the longed-awaited and often distant summer holiday? And how many of us in our work, are motivated at least in part by the times we will spend on vacation doing the things that we most enjoy, with those whose company we enjoy?
Not life-projects perhaps, but projects that make life bearable enough to constitute for some a reason to get out of bed in the morning.
Revised 9th March 2023