On Structural Love ~ learning through shared pain.

Lemn Sissay speaks at the Cambridge Union. Photo by me.

At the top of a wide staircase, under the light of a golden chandelier, I met an elderly man with depth to his eyes, leaning on a stick. We smiled, and began to speak of love and nature ~ that sponteneity, with a stranger. It’s rare.  And memorable.

A few moments before, we shared an audience downstairs in the Cambridge Union; the talk by Lemn Sissay at the Cambridge Literature Festival. I have written before about his book,  My Name is Why. Now, we were at the back of a long booksigning queue.

I didn’t learn his name, but the man’s voice held a gentle tone and lilt. I recognised it from Questions. Holding the mic close, he’d said his question may not make a lot of sense. Either way, it inspired me to write.

On the nature of love, love is good in acts of compassion, and more ~ forgiveness. Lemn had found forgiveness for the foster mother who rejected him at the tender age of twelve. It demonstrates an unconditionality to any love he has/had for her, an understanding that she too was damaged, and a wound going some way to being healed.

Some background: Lemn describes the institution of ‘Care’ in Britain as The Authority. The question was, if the foster mother could be forgiven, and the rest of the family, shouldn’t The Authority be forgiven too? Under those bright chandeliers in the cradle of Western free speech, where Presidents and Prime Ministers have communed before, the old man pointed out that any Authority was made up of people; in this case, people who were supposed to be in loco parentis. Could he forgive them? The answer, he suggested, may be useful for whatever comes next for Lemn.

The question was poignant, difficult. And I suddenly felt like an intruder. I’ve not written much about forgiveness, but its integral to unconditionality.

The Authority was entrusted to care for a human being, trusted by a young Ethiopian visitor to this land, Lemn’s birth mother, Yemarshet. It was to make sure he was safe and loved, care being upsized to in loco parentis. Fostering was only intended to be until such time this young woman, alone and far from home, could finish her studies and return with her son safely to Ethiopia. But The Authority failed them both. Trust was shattered. More, it behaved with a inexplicable callousness. It  re-named Lemn, covered up the trail, and deliberately lost him from his mother’s sight.

I contend love as a verb is good by way of consequence. Love reveals itself in good, beyond one person’s mind, in public. Love is a psychological exchange, like the hyphae, the lover and the loved. Love constitutes more than an isolated thought. It’s a mutual relationship.

In Lemn’s case, there seems to have been no love on either side in terms of The Authority. It would, therefore, not be a weakness to admit any failure to forgive.

We must ask The Authority, instead, why its response to a young boy carved away from his birth and foster families for any ‘normal’ resistance to the emotionally violent events endured during his teenage life, resulted in even more opression. He was not loved. The Authority must have seemed like an impossible edifice, channelled through a string of social workers, with no continuity, no compassionate hugs, and exposure to so much abuse.

The Authority files of his life were surrendered in 2015 after a considerable fight. Contained on the pages, a story unfolds in a mix of truths from strangers and lies from his closest. Truths typed of talents. Lies typed of character. What a maelstrom of emotion it must have unleashed to read the reports. Lemn has since taken The Authority to court, winning costs and damages. Care, as it turns out, was a carelessness, so less that it was more; a dehumanisation. Given that ‘The Authority’ as Lemn describes, depends on a “sleeping prejudice of assumptions,” it is there that attention must lie in the detail of communication, not just with carers but with individuality of the cared-for (see ‘Ethic of Care’ below).

But the elderly man, with the gentle tone, was right. The lawyers were not dealing with an edifice, but a number of people who no doubt swore individual affidavits for the case. Had any of them shown an ounce of love in the years preceding, perhaps the case would never have been brought.

Something bigger has emerged from the pain of one man’s past. For whatever reason Lemn felt compelled to publish this story, it offers us the best reasons to change everything. It’s as if a body was found and taken away ~ love. In its place, a line has been drawn around where love should be, and in perfect detail. And it is love to search our souls about this fundamental component of the social contract in society.

We surrender certain freedoms in favour of the legitimacy of the State. The State is then charged to care for us. If it cannot even uphold the basic levels of care for a baby, child or teenager in the deepest folds of its cloak, then it doesn’t deserve our subservience. If it cannot care for any vulnerable person or living being, then it has simply failed.

I think we live in a failed State.

More, if the baby comes from another region, another biome, another race, for instance, and grows up to feel ‘othered’ and aching for cultural roots and a language lost, then it’s a type of colonialism on top. This is one of many obvious rips in the fabric of post-colonialism. Awareness gives rise to insight and, hopefully, prevention of repeated injustices.

And then it was my turn with the mic.

“On love and nature…”

“Oooh, love and nature,” came the reply.

“Can we trust love?”

In my work, I contend love is life itself, the connecting, irreplaceable relational symbiosis between all living things that moves towards a flourishing ~ The Good Life. I write this even today after a week bearing witness to the opposite, in the hate-filled election of liars, racists and climate criminals.

Lemn likened bringing his childhood experience into new relationships as if carrying a dead bear over his shoulder, and how weighty that could be, exposing and ‘different’. It would take him to find love for himself before he could trust love in anyone else. And he told me he has.

Ethics of Care

In all aspects of society, as a complexity of relationships, the ‘Ethics of Care’ approach (Gilligan) facilitates case by case solutions bringing compassion/empathy to the equation each time rather than a universal carte blanche policy. It’s especially loving with regard to individuals involved (human and non-human), and their interdependencies, vulnerabilities and relations between all the living beings, sapien and teresapien.

It’s clear, after this last election, we simply cannot treat species, fauna or flora, nor each other, with such utter contempt as to deliberately cause suffering. And we cannot continue to allow the State to do so, by reflection.

As in most things, there is a range-boundedness of each complex problem, but all are ultimately connected in flows. This is a way of ‘seeing’ and ‘being’. I want to relate all to a new structural love in society ranging from ‘care’ and education, health, food growing, food giving, shelter, planning, energy, justice and equality, to economics and, critically, animal and teresapien welfare (their welfare also being ours in our shared biospheric system). I contend ecoliteracy as a pedagogy is already form of structural love. So too is trauma informed justice. Creating climate refugias and building ecological social housing are additional acts of love. And there’s boundless room for more.

I am not talking about the role of Religions, Charities or The Big Society, although they will surely play a part. And random acts of kindness at all scales will enrich. This is a full, cultural secular acceptance of love as a verb into our daily lives ~ top down, bottom up and everything in between.

For too long, Hollywoodish, Mills and Booning and Cosmopolitantric commodified versions of romantic and sexualised intimacy have dominated Western culture. It’s beyond time to correct it. Lemn’s pain, and the pain or suffering of so many living beings, should never happen. His is a modern-day fairy tale in the original style of Grimm, but true, bringing the whole ethic of our civilised society into a stark, cold light.

Assert love, akin to symbiosis, as capable of being nothing short of anatomic, not least in Fluminism. But also in other ways. Begin in the care of our most vulnerable. Re-structure support for the poor, the homeless, the lonely and the ill. This world, the biosphere, deserves it.

Like flesh around bones, we can grow muscle around structured processes which demonstratively centre an ethic of care in any social contract ~ love; the word used by those less afraid, not least under the light of golden chandeliers, in an historic arena of political debate and free speech.

My gratitude to all who continue to inspire me.