Last December, I ran an arts evening which needed professional actors to perform a short new play. At the audition stage, one of the candidates wrote to me as follows : “If only the theatre world was run entirely by social workers and mental health professionals ! I hope I can speak for all of us in thanking you for your concern for the actors’ feelings and convenience, something that sadly is rare in our profession.”
I have now written back to the person as follows :
“You weren’t dead serious in making that statement [about social workers] but were trying to say something about my initial approach to you all, which for me is important.
I am honestly not fishing for compliments here. What (I think) I want to do over time is articulate and identify and separate out what consititutes the sort of practice that makes things work between people, that helps people work better together, or want to perfom well, or whatever. The sort of practice that binds people in, or brings them out, in this or that common situation.
I do believe that all our futures depend on those skills flourishing and spreading. Yet they are also under great threat in these times that need them more than ever. Maybe they are even in retreat. The Market is surely one cause. Population numbers another. New forms of mass communication maybe another in some way. I’m not saying that things are worse than ever before, though. Only a slight acquaintance with History teaches you they’ve always been pretty bad.
So is there anything you can identify in the way I approached you that made you say what you said, made the difference you commented on ? As far as I was concerned I was just functioning according to learned experience, and thinking purely pragmatically down lines I assumed I needed to.
There is this phrase “The Skills of Love” which is one possible English translation of some words used in the Metta Sutra, a Buddist tract on kindness. I would claim social workers and similar care professionals are actually using the skills of love all the time (though few would dare say so). So is an experienced good parent, although the basic connection between I and Other is obviously different in the two cases. Between Parent and Child, of course, there is the blood-tie and all that personal shared history and “ownership.” Between social worker and client, there is perforce a difference of position and set of parameters, and a necessary degree of professional detachment. Nevertheless, both social worker and parent are deploying ordinary human relationship skills on the basic premise that Other is innately precious, or of value, as central in the Universe as I am, not merely an object for use.
So there is attitude as a basis, and then a huge collection of skills available for deployment, which act as the expression of that attitude. And I would say the basic attitude is not some holy state or position of virtue or goodness or piety, but merely a sober recognition of plain reality. But is it worth naming the skills, as best we can, or should we put all our attention, at this late stage in human history, into the attitude ? We’ve failed pretty conclusively on both fronts up to now.
I hope all this does not sound completely wacky.
I have been playing with these ideas for years and very very slowly coming to some decisions, however ambivalently, so your comment chimed in to a state of readiness.