It was the book Face to Face: a Narrative Essay in the Theology of Suffering, by Professor Frances Young (Edinburgh: T&T Clark 1990) that helped me to crystallise what I want to say in this, my 100th column for the Children Webmag.Professor Young’s first son, Arthur, was born profoundly mentally handicapped, and the book is a remarkably honest and meticulous analysis of, and reflection upon, the meanings and implications of what she learns in the process of parenting him. There is much to learn from her combination of lucid prose and intricate poetry all through, but it was two sentences on page 70 that particularly triggered my thinking. Here they are:
“The extraordinary happiness of marriage had so filled me with gratitude and the sense that something had happened to me which in I no way deserved, that I felt there had to be someone to say thank you to. I still think that was a profound discovery…”
It so happens that in the weeks before reading the book I had been focussing some of my thinking on “complaints procedures” for children in the UK “care system”. The National Council of Voluntary Child Care Organisations has sponsored a piece of research that I had scrutinised as a Trustee, and I had also been looking at some related documents in the light of the Every Child Matters standards. The thinking behind such attention to complaints is, of course, the importance of ensuring as far as possible that children who lack sustained and effective advocates should have ready access to those who will listen to their point of view and criticisms, so that where necessary changes will be made to facilitate their safety and well-being.
Given what we know about the extent of child abuse and neglect within so-called governmental and non-governmental care systems worldwide, this is a very important matter. But the more I pondered what I read the more concerned I became at what seemed to me to be a (possibly unconscious) bias in the whole process. Put simply, I wondered how we also made it possible for children and young people to say thank you to those who had been part of their lives, and to whom they were grateful for how they had contributed to their well-being. In the light of a sequence of child abuse enquiries in the UK, there have been many attempts to tighten up complaints procedures as part of an extensive response to improve the safeguarding and protection of children.
But this is to look only at risks, and not at blessings; at that which has gone wrong, and not at the positive elements of a young person’s life and experience. It makes the assumption that the former somehow deserve more attention than the latter. And it tends to undervalue the significance of being able to express gratitude.
That led me to realise that the whole approach to life characterised by the framework of “rights” inevitably undermines the concept of appreciation and gratitude. If something is my right, then there is no need, or possibly inclination to thank those (or the system) that has given me what I should have anyway. It would be like tipping someone for a service that is an essential part of what they ought to provide. The concept of thanksgiving derives from an approach to life that sees what we receive and experience as in some sense a gift: that which is neither, strictly speaking, deserved or demanded.
I guess that if the book were a rather romantic and sentimental account of a person’s parenting, we might be sceptical about these comments of a Professor of Theology writing about gratitude. But this book is anything but. Frances Young, her husband and their son Arthur had many good reasons to complain about individual professionals involved in their lives from the time that Arthur was born, and they were not well served by the institutions and systems of which these individuals were a part. But looking back, in and through everything, the writer still recalled a deep sense of wanting someone to thank.
I am not sure that I had ever thought of things in this way before. Much of my life has been spent living alongside children and young people who have found that the families and communities that were expected to care for them, had, for a variety of reasons, let them down. The loss of significant others had triggered a number of reactions and side-effects, but I had not stopped to think about the way it deprived them of someone to thank for a sense of well-being.
With this train of thought in mind I spent some time in a bookshop where there were at least three books by convinced and rather strident (not to say evangelical) atheists. Frances Young has long been aware that “there were no satisfactory arguments for the existence of God”. She reckons the whole thing works out about 50-50 (page 70). But re-reading this part of her book I realised for the first time that these three atheists had no one to thank for the blessings of their lives, and of their positive experiences of the natural world in which they found themselves. What a contrast to the Psalmists in the Judaeo-Christian Scriptures, where so much praise and thanksgiving characterises their whole approach to life! What a contrast to the content of so much Christian worship: “We thank Thee for our creation, preservation and all the blessings of this life…”!
As I have reflected in the light of what those who lived at Mill Grove as children have told me years later, I recognise a familiar pattern. Again and again, many of them have expressed gratitude to those who cared for them in the place of their biological parents, and many of them also discovered a faith in God, whom they also wanted to thank for His Providence at work in their lives. Two elderly sisters confirmed this at length only a couple of days ago.
I readily admit that there may be others who remain bitter or disaffected by what has happened during their lives. No doubt there could have been better systems to hear their complaints. But is there any reason why we should not make space for thank yous and appreciation? What sort of personality or character is formed where complaints dominate over delight?
Mothering Sunday and Father’s Day may have a dubiously ambiguous edge and motive to them. But they are a way of institutionalising, patterning and framing the opportunity to say thank you, and to express appreciation for special people in our lives. What is the equivalent for those in the care system, I wonder?
I want to make it clear that I am not advocating a spur to children and young people to express gratitude for the acts of charity done to them, to be truly thankful for what they have received whether they like it or not! I am asking a quite different and specific question: have we got the whole balance wrong, in our stress on complaints at the expense of thanks?
If the answer is that the system is unlikely to be good enough for any sensible, thoughtful and in-touch child or young person ever to want to say thank you, then that is another problem all together, and I do not want to get into that in my one hundredth column!
Perhaps this is an appropriate occasion to express my thanks to the Editor of the Webmag, David Lane, for inviting me to write a regular column all those years ago. I am grateful for the opportunity to reflect regularly on the lives of the children and young people with whom I live. There have been times when a deadline has crept up on me unawares, and I have needed to write a piece when I might have chosen otherwise to read a good book, or take a rest. But for the most part, it has been a privilege and pleasure.
For the record, on Father’s Day this June I will be away from my family and Mill Grove because I will be lecturing in Kuala Lumpur, so any complaints or notes of appreciation will need to be by email or telephone!