Letting Be

There is a sense in which we can lose sight of a vital element of what it is to be human, (that is, a growing, learning, exploring, relating, creative being) if we are content with mere doing, making, helping, tending, nursing, caring, teaching and the like.Social Care (assuming that the term will long outlive the unfortunate demise of the UK Social Care Association in 2012), and its sister, Social Work, and their close relatives, nursing and teaching, are defined mostly by what they do to and for others. For example they: assess, provide packages of care, support, counselling, treatment, advice, structured information and so on.

This article takes a step back to consider a vital, but under-rated (and admittedly difficult to define) dimension of human life, being and relationships: “letting-be”. I first came across the term used in the way I understand it, when reading a book by Professor John Macquarrie. I will not give the title until later, for fear of putting anyone off reading further! (But before proceeding, I ought to assure intending readers that the term has little if anything to do with “laissez-faire”, a political approach often associated with foreign policy that involves standing aside and doing nothing.)

Macquarrie reminds us that the first recorded action of the Creator in the Bible once there was heaven and earth was to bring forth light: “Let there be light!” And we tend to assume that this is a description of God doing or making something (albeit by word, rather than the sweat of his brow). But Professor Macquarrie invites us to consider a rather different concept of what was going on: perhaps the Creator was making space and time for light to shine, rather like someone drawing back the curtains, holding a space open, or creating the right conditions?

And this is pivotal to Macquarrie’s whole theological approach: he sees God not simply as a maker, shaper, creator, first cause, but as one who is willing by His very nature and essence to draw aside, to hold back, to create the appropriate space and conditions for creation to thrive, to breathe, to grow, to explore, to become self-aware, to make mistakes, to rebel, and so on.

If we look for parallels we find them immediately in the creative arts. The painter who uses water colours and allows them to run into one another; the musical composer who allows harmonies and dissonances to travel into their own spaces and silence; the dramatist who allows characters to develop their own personalities beyond those that are scripted; the novelist who allows a world to grow in the mind of the reader. In each case the creator brings into being something which is then allowed to be (it is “let be”), rather than making something finished and static.

With this in mind what might “letting-be” entail in the practical world of Social Care, I wonder? Here are some of the examples from recent life at Mill Grove that have come to mind.

I think of allowing those beginning new tasks or roles to experiment and make mistakes as a way of learning and becoming richer, deeper human beings. I think of a new mother and her baby as she discovered some of the complexities of multiple tasks for her baby and herself. I think of the initial period when a young person buys a new device (an iPad, for example) and then makes any number of laughable errors when trying to understand how it responds to different touches and numbers of fingers on the surface. And I think of a child with cerebral palsy aged eight years who was at last beginning to gain the confidence to walk unaided. The helpers had to hold themselves back in order to allow the first, risky, faltering steps. I remember the way they held out their arms towards him, but deliberately left space for him to move.

And then I think of the ways in which relationships need space in which to grow. This is true of all relationships whether those between kin, therapists and clients, between peers, or between those of quite different categories and groups. D.W. Winnicott was good at articulating something of the essence of this when talking of transitional space and objects. They have to be allowed to be and to be valued because they are not completely predictable or programmed. And this is where Macquarrie writes in a way directly related to Social Care. Talking of the virtue of love he continues: “Love is letting-be, not of course in the sense of standing off from someone or something, but in the positive and active sense of enabling-to-be…Most typically, “letting-be” means helping a person into the full realisation of his (sic) potentialities for being; and the greatest love will be costly, since it will be accomplished by the spending of one’s own being.” (Principles of Christian Theology, pages 348/9)

Next I think of the space for creative exploration, beyond specified rules, tasks and objectives. It can be for some “simply messing about in boats” (to quote Kenneth Grahame, The Wind in the Willows, Chapter One). It is the essence of real play, especially but not exclusively outdoors. It is integral to cooking which can proceed only on the back of some pretty awful mistakes. It can be part of painting and decorating, and this leads me to recall the time when I left a young person with the task of painting an outside toilet (ty bach) in North Wales, while I went off to address a conference. On my return there was a definite silence during my first meal when I enquired how it had gone. I was invited to see for myself in such a way that I knew I should fear for the worst. Nothing prepared me for the frenzied combination of paints and colours thrown at the walls and ceiling with obvious feelings of anger symbolised by the predominance of red. But over the years we became adjusted to it, so that now newly repainted it seems dull and bland.

This letting-be means allowing little children to discover that nettles sting (and that dock leaves soothe); that brambles prick; and that uprooted saplings cannot be replanted. It means finding out that snowballs in the face can hurt; that ice can be very slippery, and a fall most unpleasant; that waves can knock you over; and the sun and wind can burn. This is not a complete abandonment of adult responsibility, but rather recognition that there is an element of self-discovery at the heart of genuine human being and growth. For this to happen, that is, for a human to be (a human being) there must be a letting be.

And there must be opportunities to see if simmering tensions and differences can be resolved without intervention; to discover the latent, inner resources of individuals and groups.

This leads us to realise that letting be will result in projections on to the one who lets be; testing of the carer; answering back; questioning…For, once the process of letting be is underway, there is no sure way of knowing or controlling the end result.

I hope that you have got the gist of this. If so it will be possible for you to add your own examples from experience.

Now this sounds very well in theory, but in real life it is far more untidy and risky. That word risky is the key one. For letting be always involves risk. Let me give an obvious example from the realm of education. It has become the norm to set out lesson plans, with intended objectives, and learning outcomes. But do we really think a teacher knows what pupils will actually think or discover as a result of a given input? What of their imaginations? What of unintended connections and insights? What if an apple falls from a tree at the crucial moment, or a bath overflows with water? Surely the idea of sowing a seed is much nearer the truth. The teacher can sow the seed, but what happens to it in each and every mind and life, is another matter!

And in the realm of Social Care the mantra “health and safety” seems to rule supreme, the Big Brother of the 21st Century, a deity arising at the very time when belief in the traditional Creator God is deemed to be on the wane! The favoured tool of this god is “risk assessment” and the path to enlightenment is to eradicate risk. Stupid statements are made, such as: “the safety of our passengers is paramount”, when it is obvious that if this were so, all travel would be cancelled in order to achieve the objective. Health and safety is the enemy of letting be. It always seeks to narrow the possibilities of self-discovery, exploration and mistakes. It has no concern for creativity, beauty, imagination and learning by doing.

All this reminds us that the universe and its creation are far more risky by their nature than we care or dare to suppose.

Yet, despite the risks, there is in the very process of creation, a letting be that delights in the potential for discovery, and what it is to be fully human. This requires patience, love, wisdom, experience and maturity for situations need to be read deeply, and the space that is created has to be “good enough” for disasters to be averted.

And it also requires genuine joy in the discoveries and experiences, the achievement of others.

Letting be is characterised not by turning away, but in listening, noticing, approving, hoping, enduring, and appreciating.

These qualities are surely somewhere near the heart of what we really believe about Social Care, and far removed from the tick-box, outcome-driven culture in which we live and move and have our being. Perhaps we need to borrow Macquarrie’s term to bring us back to our roots.

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