Looking At Shadows From A Cave

Looking At Shadows From A Cave

Plato, in discussing the impact of education (or a lack of it) on a society used the idea of prisoners in a cave Plato’s Allegory of the Cave to illustrate his point that, without education, we can only ever be looking at “shadows on the wall”, rather than what’s really going on.

I was reminded of this when I recently heard the idea that, to know the future, we should “look at what the rich have.”  The speaker elaborated this point: “The rich used to have personal chauffeurs, and now everyone does – it’s called Uber. The rich used to have private holiday homes, and now everyone does – it’s called Airbnb.”

But – and it’s a big “but” – Uber and Airbnb aren’t “what the rich used to have, and now everyone’s got.”  The Uber driver is not employed by you. You pay what they charge you, not what you decide is a suitable salary.  You may not have Uber in your area – and you don’t have the power to bring it there.  Airbnb is just a digitalised version of what has always been available to those who aren’t “the rich” – lodging houses.

What we have is not “what the rich had before us” – what we have is shadows on the wall, poor impressions of what the rich had, which serve the purpose of keeping the majority of the non-rich quiet for the majority of the time.

Uber, Airbnb, Waitrose, Topshop… they’re all just placebo drops to make us believe we’re not doing too badly, that life really isn’t that tough.  Netflix and Starbucks make up for the fact that many people find themselves in insecure employment, being paid barely enough to make even very basic ends meet.  A cheap TV, the ability to get something that’s almost the dress or suit some catwalk model was wearing, soothes us away from thoughts about what kind of exploitation may have been involved in the making of such things, and gently closes our eyes to the declining living standards and abuses of power that are going on all around us.

It’s not really feasible, in most cases, to  renounce cheap fashion and electronics, or to boycott every company with unethical work practices – the very poorest in Western society would be left unable to shop anywhere, as their income limits them, in general, to unethical companies, because those companies’ products are the cheapest.

Personally, while I don’t have a TV, I do need a laptop in order to work. It’s best I have clothes (although I mostly buy these from charity shops), and, as I don’t have a garden, or much space on windowsills my dogs can’t reach, I need to buy my food, rather than growing/raising it myself. (If anyone wants to give away a remote cottage with a nice bit of land, somewhere in the UK, let me know…chickens, a couple of goats, veggies and fruits…that’s the kind of life I’d like, with or without other people around!)  Most months, I’ve only just made enough to cover the cheapest form of basic essentials (the joys of early stage, non-funded businesses started after several years of unsuccessfully applying for “traditional” jobs…) I’m looking into making my own, natural cleaners (lemon, white vinegar, and salt), and my food is fairly simple fare – pasta with something, couscous, chickpeas, hot or cold salads.

So, we need to take a creatively negative approach: we need to accept that we don’t have – and probably never will have – “what the rich have”, and look at the benefits of that situation:

. We don’t become reliant on any “labour saving” or “lifestyle” options. I recently got a second hand tumble dryer (useful, as it rains a lot in my part of the world, and I currently can’t afford to fix the central heating, so I can now guarantee getting clothes dry), but we still wash clothes by hand, in the bathtub. I’ve never had a car.  In most cases, when things come to you as a result of having saved up, or got a better-paid job, rather than as something that is simply a “fact of life”, you’re better able to cope when those things break down, or you can’t afford to have them. It’s frustrating to go back to a more labour-and-time-intensive way of existing, but it’s possible.   Life is a little more dull when you can’t get away on holiday, but you can cope without that specific, defined break away.

. We can more easily empathise with those who are less fortunate than we are – the current issue in the UK and America is that our politicians and journalists are people who have grown up with a certain level of “luxury” – holidays, cars, washing machines, tumble dryers, childcare – as a “fact of life.” It’s always been there, or they’ve forgotten the childhood in which it wasn’t there, and so they can’t imagine how other human beings can not have those things, unless those others are particularly stupid or lazy… These people have the loudest voices. They are everywhere, positioning themselves as the only voices you need to listen to.  When you encounter people at some remove from the voices of media and politics, you see more awareness and compassion, in general, for people who are struggling – because most (though, sadly, not all) people know that their “everyday luxuries” didn’t just fall from the sky.  My father was a very kind, considerate, and compassionate man, who would help anyone if he could, whether with words, deeds, or tangible things: he had grown up in a house without central heating of any kind, with a copper bathtub that was filled from the kitchen sink, and placed in front of the fire once a week, without a fridge or freezer – without even a kettle or toaster: toast was made under the grill of the oven, and hot drinks in a saucepan on the stove.  Washing machines and tumble dryers were very late additions to his life (he was in his mid-thirties before he had either in his house), and he spent the first 45yrs of his life without a car, getting about on foot or by bicycle.  He didn’t suffer fools, and was quick to (correctly) identify people who “wouldn’t take the effort to improve their life if you dropped it into their lap” – but he was never abusive, never hostile, never demeaning.  Because he knew the struggle that was involved in “bettering yourself”, or getting things that made life a little easier.

.We will be the ones who will survive when the inevitable mass failure of technology happens.  My father taught me the basics of trapping and fishing, as well as how to prepare what was caught, he taught me how to tell if a particular plant was good to eat, and what things could be eaten raw.  He taught me the value of manual labour, and the importance of being able to absorb, understand, and simplify complex information.  He taught me that in every managed forest, there will be logging roads that always lead to a main road, and that, if you follow a river downhill, you’ll reach some kind of port town eventually, which will usually have the means of getting at least close to where you want to be.

I didn’t grow up living in the mountains, or on some hippy commune – I grew up in a nice house in a nice village, in a reasonably wealthy county in England.  A reasonably wealthy county with a LOT of “hidden deprivation.”  Many of my primary school classmates left school unable to manage more than basic literacy and numeracy. Many were still in farming families, and were absent during harvest and lambing seasons. My father wasn’t a farmer – he was an electrician working maintenance at the local slaughterhouse.  One thing everyone in that village had in common, even the older people who, in a couple of cases that I knew of, couldn’t read or write at all, was common sense, common courtesy, and an intuitive understanding of the world and patterns around them.  They’re the “Gary In The Pub” that the middle classes love to mock, the “armchair economists/politicians” who are usually proved right in the end. They’ll never be recognised as such, but they are the real experts – and they are experts not because of any “natural wisdom” or the “wisdom of crowds” (which isn’t as wise as it claims), but because they pay attention to what is going on around them, and remember what has happened before.  The current generation, with shortened attention  spans and a preference for soundbites over substance, either forgets history, or doesn’t bother to study it in the first place. Patterns are “boring” and “pointless”, because they take time, effort, and attention to comprehend.

Back to the main point of this post, though: What is it, as a unified, whole concept, rather than the individual aspects of the concept, the rich have?

The answer to that question is simple:

Leisure.

The rich don’t have to go out to work – they have streams of passive income. They own companies in which other people work. They own property portfolios, and collect rents.  They never have to ask where they can “afford” to holiday that year – they pick somewhere, and go – for a month or two, not a week or two.

The rich don’t have to run their households – they employ other people to do that.

When the rich come across a new thing that interests them, they get involved in it – fully and completely.

The chauffeurs and holiday homes and yachts – even the money – are all just aspects of the core concept of leisure, which is the one, single, defining difference between the rich and the rest of us.

And the easiest thing to genuinely acquire.

. Instead of getting a job that you go to every weekday, come up with a strong franchise concept. Okay, you can’t charge the £10-20,000 (or more) that established business models charge for their franchise – but you could charge a couple of thousand, and commission on each site’s profits on top of that.  If two people a month – one person a fortnight – takes on a £2,000 franchise from you, that’s £48,000 in a year. And then you get commission on each site’s profits on top of that. Yes, this is turnover, not profit – you’ll be investing in marketing and promotion, in training, in recruitment, in maintaining the sites – but even if you only end up with £20,000 a year profit, you’re earning it in a way that allows you more leisure time than your 9-5 office job.

. Rather than paying a hotel for your next holiday, why not see if you can do a houseswap? Save up your leave entitlement, if you’re able to do that, and take off for a month.

.Give a neighbourhood teenager, or someone who’s struggling financially, a helping hand, and yourself a bit of free time – pay them to mow your lawn, or do the one-day-a-week main clean. Pay them to serve at, and wash up after, any parties you have.

These are small things – but they make a difference.  And remember: “leisure” doesn’t equal “idleness” – someone with “leisure” may very well still be working – but they don’t see it as “work” in the same way many people often do – as something to be endured, and escaped from.

 

On Being Free

 

 

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I recently had one of those moments where you realise that something you’ve blithely followed – taken for granted, almost – may not be… quite what you first thought. That, in fact, your feelings towards it may have changed.

In my case, the “something” was the plethora of “never work for free!” blogs, and the shift in my thought on that was sparked by a blog on the topic over on LinkedIn.

I realised, reading this blog, what I’d missed before: that the whole attitude of most people who write about “not working for free” is centred in a mistaken idea that, if you work for free, that means the person you’re working for doesn’t value you, that they’re taking advantage of you.

Maybe they are.

But, on the other hand, someone who genuinely has no budget – because no one’s paying them for anything, they’re not in a position to get a bank loan, and their crowd funding campaign netted them a lot of well-wishes and “Great idea!! comments, but no money, but is trying to get something – an event, or a small business – off the ground literally by their bootstraps – who NEEDS you to work for free, for the simple reason that they can’t do everything – no one can – and they need to eat and keep a roof over their head – may well value you far more than the company who pays you “what you’re worth.”

The person who needs you to work for free is likely to give you a hell of a lot of recommendation, because you helped them. Those recommendations may well lead to paid work – because a lot of people can afford to pay for services. They’re the ones who are likely to pay you first when they do get money, to offer to do things for you for free, and to remember you come Christmas.

The company that’s paying you “what you’re worth?” They’re not likely to do any of that, because they resent the fact that they’re obliged to pay you.

Of course, working for free all the time isn’t feasible -utilities companies want to be paid in real money, so does your landlord or mortgage lender, you have to pay real money for your groceries, your fuel, your bus fare. Life costs money, and, until wealthy governments decide that a good idea, since we’ve pretty much been hurled into their beloved “gig economy” (which, you notice, they take no part in….), is to pay a basic wage of £10,000 a year to every citizen of working age, those who are physically and mentally able will be expected to get that money by working.

But these “never work for free” blogs always seem to be written by people with high-level experience, either working for or with very well-known companies, or running a successful business. They’ve got money to live on. They don’t need more. Once or twice a year, it wouldn’t kill them to help someone out who genuinely needed it. Someone who, for one reason or another, couldn’t access the labour market. Couldn’t get a bank loan. Hadn’t been able to make money through crowdfunding – but still had a sound idea.

If you already have money, you don’t always need to be paid in money – maybe the person who can’t offer you money would be happy to do something for you, for free, in exchange. Or they’ll promote you – on their blog, at their event, on social media. That’s payment, too.

The blogs are never about how to get people to pay you actual money – just that you should treat people who can’t like the scum of the earth.

Imagine if no one ever worked for free. Think of all the projects and businesses that would never have got off the ground. Think of all the support services that wouldn’t be available. Think of all the parents who wouldn’t be able to be involved in the labour market, because the grandparents they relied on for childcare wanted the going rate. Think of how much higher your taxes would have to be, as the government found itself having to support people who couldn’t afford childcare, and so couldn’t go out to work, as it found itself having to pay for services previously run by volunteers.

I’ve been treated with utter contempt by people who were paying me “the going rate”, and with nothing but genuine kindness, absolute respect, and a desire to speak up for me and promote me by those who could pay little or nothing.

If I could, I’d work for free on projects that interested me, because I’ve had better experiences.

But I need to eat, pay bills, and keep a roof over my head, too – so it’d be great if someone, somewhere, would pay me for something, whether it’s the services I offer through my own business, or doing something else within their business.

Once I had enough money to live on? I’d still be involved in a couple of projects that don’t pay, because they bring other kinds of rewards.

My worth isn’t how much money I make – if it were, I’d’ve killed myself out of shame a long time ago.

My worth is in the opinions of my genuine friends, in people acknowledging that I have done something well, to a good standard, and in a timely fashion.  It is in knowing that people choose to come to me for advice or information.  It is in knowing I have seen and survived things that would have destroyed others. My worth is in knowing that I’m walking the walk, daily, of my talk about how, if we were all “decent human beings”, if we all helped where we could, nobody would be left wanting.

I’m currently trying to get an event off the ground whose focus is bringing people together, and celebrating diversity – but I’m terrified to ask anyone to be involved, because I can’t pay them because, at the moment, no one’s paying me. I’ve got to somehow raise the money to cover the venue costs. Once I’ve done that, my intention is to give a small financial consideration to each of the performers and helpers, and donate the rest to humanitarian charities working with marginalised groups, locally, nationally, and internationally.  I will take nothing from this event – which may not even work out, because the world that refuses to pay me has made me so afraid of asking people to work for “nothing”.

The Eternal Morning After

One aspect of suicide is rarely, if ever, talked about: the “eternal morning after” of the failed suicide.

I am, it seems, utterly hopeless at dying. Four failed suicide attempts, that I remember, from the age of 14.

Although I haven’t attempted suicide recently, I live with a background desire to die. My life has become that eternal morning after – the morning you wake up in, even though all your plans were otherwise.

So far, I haven’t had any road-to-Damascus revelations on why I’m apparently not allowed to die. Nor have I fallen into the sullen hatred of a life I want to leave.

I live in a grey zone, a zone where nothing is definite or defined. I don’t want to be alive, but I don’t want to die badly enough, at the moment, to act on that not-wanting-to-be-alive. Life hasn’t got much brighter or better, but I’ve started to care less about still being a part of it. Perhaps that’s a kind of slow dying – suicide at glacial speed.

Of course, there are things that bring me pleasure – lasting pleasure as well as passing pleasure. There are things I look forward to, things I remember fondly.

None of this takes away that desire to die, that sense that life will never have any real relevance for me.

Mainly, my reasons  for suicide, such as anyone has reasons, are financial – I’m trying to get a business off the ground, having failed in previous businesses, mainly because I appear to have been born without the ability to make people like me. I’m unable to pursue a lot of jobs because I’m unable to drive – medically banned. I’ll never get a driving licence, which, in my part of the UK, automatically makes me a second class citizen in the eyes of many employers, especially as I can’t afford to live in our main city. I have a wife with complex health issues whom I fear I’m letting down. I’m trying to run a house on my own, with no outside support. I have nothing to sell, I will never be able to afford the kind of technology that means I can present an attractive, convincing account of myself, and persuade people I’m worth hiring. There’s things I want to do, places I want to go, that are closed to me because I can’t afford it, and don’t have anyone who is in a position to pay for me. I don’t even have a bank account, courtesy of not having photographic I.D, and paying my bills by pre-payment, so not having a utility bill, either.

Sometimes, my schizophrenia has led me to attempt suicide – not because I was in a flare state, not because of the illness itself – but because it causes me to screw so  much up for those people who, for whatever utterly incomprehensible reason, choose to throw in their lot with me.

Most recently, I came very, very close to suicide in the wake of the Brexit result – because, as someone without money, without strong support networks, without social standing, without “gainful employment” (you know, the kind that means you’re not going without things like hot water or a functional toilet, because you can afford to fix boilers and plumbing when they fail), as a member of a minority community, as someone with the kind of mental health issues that don’t get better, no matter how much Cognitive Behavioural Therapy or medication you throw at them, I was terrified of the country the winning side talked of “wanting back”: a country in which I was considered sub-human, a species of vermin, to be driven out – poisoned, if necessary. A country in which my human rights would be quietly forgotten about. A country in which my life could well end up being legislated against.  A country where I faced the very real prospect of losing vital support – you know, the kind that means I can have internet access to look and apply for jobs, to promote my own work. The kind that means I can afford the ever-increasing bus fare to get to places where employers bother to set up, which are never the places where I can afford to live. I’m talking about money – I’d already lost the mental health support. Britain doesn’t see itself as a country that needs public healthcare – mindfulness and positive thinking are, apparently, going to cure everything, and the seriously ill, the lifelong disabled, just need to be exposed to more motivational speakers.

That, as you can see from the fact that I’m writing this, passed: I’m still terrified, especially as I see hatred and intolerance of all kinds rising all around, and people becoming less and less bothered about it, but I’ve pretty much settled on the idea that I’ll carry on living out of spite for those who call me vermin, scum, a loser.

Wanting to die in a quiet way, not badly enough to act on the desire, is something you get used to – it feels as though there’s a gauze curtain between you and the rest of the world – you can see them, they can see you, you can interact just fine, but you can’t ever really connect. You have your side of the curtain, they have theirs, and both are a little distorted to someone peering in from the other side.

Waking up when all your efforts were directed towards not doing so is…amusing, actually. You end up laughing, a little hysterically, as you send texts to everyone you might’ve texted a goodbye to, not mentioning the “S” word, of course – you tell them you were drunk. Anything but admit you tried to off yourself, and couldn’t even get that right.  You rush around the house, frantically trying to remember where you left the suicide note that, clearly, no-one has read. Tidying up. Washing the blood out of furniture and furnishings, air-freshenering away, or trying to, the stench of vomit. Going out to buy more aspirin, as you try and remember exactly how many had already been used.

Or coming to in hospital – recognising that smell, seeing the strangers’ eyes, compassion battling contempt, like you’re a  young rat soaked to the skin in a downpour – cute, but still vermin.  You want to laugh,  because you know people only hate rats because of misconceptions about how they carry disease. The domestic ones are cleaner than most dogs, and just as intelligent. You don’t listen to their questions, because the questions are wrong – they’re all about how you were feeling before, rather than how you’re feeling now, all why didn’t you talk to someone, rather than why did no one ever really listen to you, all here’s-how-you-can-stop-this-happening-again, rather than here’s-how-I-can-stop-the-situation-you’re-still-in. It’s all pills and potions and pontificating, all personal stories and purple prose – because that’s all it ever can be. They’re not allowed to actually help you, not in any practical sense, and that’s what’s so ridiculous – they think you tried to kill yourself because of imagined stress, rather than the very real stress you’re going to walk right back into as soon as they kick you out of here, not even really caring how you’ll get home.

There’s nothing more lonely than a bus ride home in the first dawn of that eternal morning after.

I have never tried to kill myself out of spite or selfishness – well, perhaps selfishness in the way we all pursue what we want at the expense of others: the “perfect” job applicant, over the competent person who isn’t perfect, but is good enough, and genuinely needs the job. The opportunity to throw our bag on the seat next to us on the bus, rather than acknowledge that another human being has more need of somewhere to sit  than an inanimate carrier of our crap. Having loud phone conversations in public, because our lives are so important they simply must be conveyed to everyone around us. Moaning about “the friend zone”, because how dare we be made to waste energy being decent human beings if we don’t get sex as payback?

I have never tried to kill myself “because the voices told me to” – some of my voices do tell me to, but most of them would rather I didn’t – they’re afraid of what will happen to them if I die.

I have never tried to kill myself because life seemed utterly hopeless, but, rather, because hope was visible, but out of reach, and I couldn’t make those who could reach the hope easily understand why I couldn’t.

I am not every failed suicide.  But I am one of the many.

I am suicidal, but not likely to die. I am tired – exhausted – yet still awake. I am broken, and, somehow, still functional, or something close to functional, at least. I am lonely, even though I’m not alone.

The shades of grey of the eternal morning after are my wilderness. And this is my voice, calling in that wilderness.

Isolating Stereotypes

The image that springs to mind when you talk about “social isolation” is someone living in a rural village, without transport, unable to get to the bright lights and social whirl of the big city.  Perhaps they are also elderly, and not skilled in the use of the internet for social media purposes. Perhaps their broadband is “too slow” for such things, or they have sporadic network coverage.

But social isolation exists just as much – perhaps more so – in cities as it does in rural areas. Those without a lot of spare cash often find themselves isolated, because city prices for food, entertainment, etc, are often quite high – and people in cities tend to be more insistent on “going out somewhere” than on “just being.”  Those with chronic health issues, especially mental health issues, but any health condition that means that individual isn’t always well enough to manage lots of people, lots of noise, and being out and about for long periods, can also become isolated.

And, where social isolation exists in rural communities, it is often less a facet of rurality, and more to do with the attitudes of people.

I have lived in rural villages, and I live now in an urban coastal town. I have spent time in a city – when I was working, I worked in the city.   I was least isolated when I lived in villages, even though, being unable to drive, I was often unable to see people, or get to events, etc.

Here are a few of the complaints about rural areas from those who exercise themselves around the idea that “better links to cities will solve everything!”

.People in rural areas are so judgemental and stuck in their ways – No. They’re concerned that things that have been generations-long livelihoods, and which involve vital skills – the skills you’ll actually NEED if all technology one day fails – are being lost. They’re sick of seeing their villages become ghost towns, either dormitories for city workers, or second-home holiday havens.  They’re fed up of being the butt of everyone’s jokes, of having their accents and mannerisms and way of life mocked, as though they’re merely caricature cut-outs, rather than people with feelings.

.They don’t care about social justice! – They do. In a quiet way. A way that says “if everyone does, and gives, what they’re able, and people who have a bit more help those with less, everyone’ll be taken care of eventually.”

.It’s all about “how we’ve always done it” – Usually because individuals in rural areas know how best to do something. They know there’s no point building houses if you don’t first bring employers in – and they know that technology companies are far more vulnerable than the “boring, old-fashioned” industries, because what people expect technology to be, and what they expect it to do, moves on so quickly.  They look at the chaotic-seeming lives of young people, and see people without a sense of place, rootless people trying to grow into something enduring and eternal. And they know that’s not possible.

.But casual racism and “little England” mentality! – I’ve found that to be the case in urban areas far more than rural, to be fair.  Because, in rural areas, people from the next village are considered “strange”, someone with a different ethnicity really isn’t that shocking, in the grand scheme of things.

The issue isn’t “OMG, rural areas!” it’s the fact that the intelligent, fashionably socially aware individuals will run, headlong, from rural areas as soon as they can, arriving, breathless, in the city, falling (whether they can genuinely afford it or not) into its whirlpool of activity – ensuring that, yes, on the whole, the people left in the villages are those who are considered a bit “old fashioned” and “not quite nice.”  But, when you step back and watch, you see that a lot of the “compassion and concern” in city circles is only on the surface – it’s a tiny ripple in  an ocean of thoughtlessness, rudeness, and self-obsession: things which have no place in rural areas.

People in villages are often considered “rude”simply because they’re used to not wasting words – to city dwellers, words are tossed around like confetti at a wedding, usually to cover a lack of action. Discuss “issues” to death, and you won’t actually have to get off your backside and do anything about them – because you’re aware! You’re talking about these things! You’re having the conversations! Meanwhile, the villagers you mock and disdain are quietly, and without show, getting on and addressing the problems they see, and can do something about.  They don’t set up soup kitchens and run crowdfunding campaigns – they take vegetables from their garden to the house of the family they know are struggling. They don’t set up MeetUps for unemployed Millennials (or any other age group) – if they hear of a job going, they tell the people they know who’re unemployed. If they know a person well, they’ll “put a word in.”  They don’t feel the need to constantly host events – they chat to you when they see you in the pub.

No, people in rural areas don’t like people who seem superior, who “put on airs”, and who act like they know everything – rural villages have a genetic memory that goes back centuries, because, historically, they’ve always been very settled populations.  They’ve seen all the fads come and go, seen all the fine speakers come undone. They’ve seen the eternal return of the same, the coming round, in a cycle, of the old ways.

In focusing on “how to make cities more accessible”, you miss the fact that not everyone wants to be in a city. If someone has mental health issues which mean they find crowds and noise stressful, why should they “have to” go to support services, events, and “social initiatives” in places that deplete them of energy?  Why should people have to travel over an hour, in many cases, to get to a place of employment?

The focus shouldn’t be on “making cities more accessible” – it should be on remembering that cities aren’t the only part of a country. It should be on addressing the historical shoddy treatment of rural dwellers as a somewhat stupid breed, more like cattle than human beings, that can just be ordered, en masse, to wherever the factories or offices or tech hubs are, because “it’s a better life for them than their poxy villages.”

In the 1700s,. this attitude,and forced migration from villages to industrial centres caused a mass episode of alcoholism – the “Gin Craze.”  What form will its impact take in modern times?