Last month I spent a week in the Philippines teaching sixty or so students on courses based on the book The Growth of Love. I spent as much time as I could visiting and experiencing projects for street children in Manila, and much of our study time was given over to reflecting on them. But, although it is so far away, there was also considerable interest in Mill Grove, and how we live our lives day by day in a way that creates safe space in which love can grow. One of the phrases that became something of a mantra during the course was “We have time at Mill Grove”.
Again and again as I recounted examples of how children had come to know acceptance, a sense of self-worth, and to begin to take responsibility for their lives, however unfair life had been to them, it dawned on me that I was talking about decades rather than years in several cases. We realised that the process of healing had taken a lot longer than people tended to think. The Filipinos were sometimes astonished at how long “time” meant in the phrase “We have time at Mill Grove”.
On Saturday 20 November this year we celebrated the 111th anniversary of the founding of Mill Grove: the same houses, the same biological family, the same vision and faith. There is stability, continuity and predictability through the decades that forms a backdrop to the lives of individual children and families that we help. This context is, in itself, comforting, reassuring and therapeutic. To illustrate the point, let me share with you one or two stories.
One young person who came to live with us had experienced seemingly unending rejections from family, schools and foster carers. We managed to stay alongside him, to “hold him” and never to reject him (however provocative and testing his behaviour), and we helped to see him through college education. And over a period of nearly twenty years he has come to believe (at least for the most part) that he is loved, accepted and seen by others as loving. No doubt it would be possible to point to particular aspects of the care we provided, and some of the interventions in his life that we planned, but even so I am convinced that the primary factor in his growth and personal development was the length of time that we stayed alongside him.
On Friday 5 November he joined us for our traditional family bonfire party, with his wife and two children. One of his daughters had made a rather elegant collage for me, possibly on the theme of fireworks. We talked of times past and present, and his wife and children are beginning to realise just how much of our lives we shared over many years together. What’s more, his wife can tell just how much we respect and admire each other. That long-term, non-negotiable relationship was the setting or framework in which love grew. Forty years alongside children and young people who have suffered separation and loss have persuaded me that there are no short cuts: it has to be the long road to recovery. It takes time. And Mill Grove has time.
The following Monday a young man joined us as usual for our evening meal. He is contemplating a career in social work. He too lived with us some time, as it happens a few years before the young person I have just described. He also had suffered rejection by members of his family. He is a sensitive and creative person, and the rejection wounded him deeply. Try as he might, he was not able to freeze or blot out painful memories and experiences. (This was, of course, the emotional lifeblood that has contributed to his sense of well-being now.)
There were times when he became depressed. And he sometimes had outbursts of rage and anger. After one of them I commented to him, that although he had shouted and sworn at me for an hour or more, I didn’t feel his anger personally. I’m not sure it helped matters, but it was true. He often became agitated as we opened the Bible for our family prayers each evening.
He set about establishing an independent life: we provided accommodation for him, and he has several really good friends whom he has known from his schooldays. Earlier this year he was married, and now at last he is beginning to realise and accept some of his gifts: not least the ability to listen and to empathise. As he sat beside me during the meal we recalled mealtimes two decades earlier. Now he was relaxed, actively interested in others, settled, and he took a natural part in conversations and the discussion that was prompted by our reading from the Bible and our prayers.
Once again time was the crucial factor: from the moment he came to live with us the truth began to take root that we were there for him, and would not reject him. This provided a context in which he could deal with some of his ‘demons’.
A Long Process
In neither case do I wish to suggest that the young people have arrived or succeeded: rather they have reached a stage of their lives where they feel OK or good-enough for much of the time. Progress in our psychological and emotional lives is anything but linear. There are oscillations in experiences, relationships and feelings, some within a single day, others within a year, and still others over longer periods, but gradually a sense of confidence, self-worth and significance can grow.
The young people who live with us as I write, and those who have lived at Mill Grove some while ago, all know instinctively that we have time on our side. The buildings and garden remain; the yearly festivals and events like Bonfire Night, Founders’ Day and Christmas mark out our shared experiences and stories. There are any number of intimations of permanence and commitment.
There may well be readers of this piece who want to argue that growth and healing come through more specific, time-limited interventions such as cognitive behaviour therapy, counselling, family therapy, psychiatric treatment, courses on anger management and the like. I do not seek to minimise the role that such actions can have in the lives of children and young people suffering hurt. (Indeed in the lives of both the young people to whom I have alluded there have been a variety of interventions.) But four decades spent observing how love grows have convinced me that even where there has been creative, and seemingly ‘positive’ therapy or treatment, it still needs many years for this to become part of the story and experience of the person concerned (emotionally digested, if you like).
Some talk of the ‘university of life’, and that idea has real attractions for me. But it can be a very harsh learning environment, and it is vital that in it there are the long-term relationships on which a young person can rely, and that they can trust.
It has been my privilege to witness love growing in and among children who have suffered emotionally in ways that still grieve me. But in no case did this love spring up like a mushroom overnight as it were: more like the way a tree grows from being a sapling, year after year, season by season, adapting to seasons and conditions, until it reaches some form of maturity and is able to provide shelter for others in its branches.
If you do not have this sort of time (for whatever reason) as you seek to help children who have experienced hurt, I do not want to discourage you: every positive intervention can have lasting effects, however small or time-limited. But one thing you are likely to miss is the joy of seeing love grow over the years. That takes lots of time and patience, but is well worth it!
In a previous article for Children Webmag I explored the saying “Time is a great healer” (August 2009). My conclusion was that by itself time does not heal, but I suppose I might want to add that without time (just as without love) you can do nothing.