Human nature is a truly wonderful thing. The human race has established itself as the pre-eminent race on the planet (ants & cockroaches may disgree), through an odd mix of extreme selfishness and an organised sense of community. As a species we have the strange ability to be both completely selfish and yet very community minded at the same time. How many public figures speak wise, kind, enlightened words, whilst cheating on their partners, robbing the rest of us and generally being despicable human beings?
We see this at every level of society. I had a conversation this week which reminded me of one of the most troubling experiences of my adult life. Twenty opr so years ago I attended the funeral of a young, extremely handicapped man who's family happened to be friends. The funeral was like many typical Irish Catholic funerals. Their were tears and fine words at the service, followed by a drunken and cathartic wake.
As the evening progressed, the young mans mother got ever more teary and maudling. How could the good lord have been so cruel to her son? Why didn't he have the chances that everyone else had. Why had his lot been so bad. By about 9pm, she was disconsolable with grief and was shuffled off for some drug assisted sleep. At this, a change came over the siblings. It was for me at the time a shocking change. Whilst mum had been around, they were model, caring siblings. They joined in with mum, in the grief. Once she'd gone a whole new picture emerged. It was one of jealousy at the attention lavished on their brother, a desire for some of their mums time and love now he was gone. There were catty comments about how he'd make sure no one else got a look in with mum. Their were tales of how he'd be lying in bed happily watching TV, when he'd hear mums footssteps and immediately switch to dying swan mode. I was naively shocked at the sheer jealousy at a young man who had very little from life.
In the 20 or so years that have intervened, I've seen a big change in society. Wheras insults such as "Spaz" and "Mong" have rightly disappeared from the vocabulary, a whole new set of issues confronts the disabled. We have the benign form of attack, such as the "Andy" character in Little Britain, the person with special needs who plays on it and takes advantage of "drippy" carers. Then we have the less pleasant sort of discrimination, championed by papers such as the Sun and the Daily Mail. These propogate the idea of the "disabilty scroungers" who play the system to avoid work and have a cushy life at our expense. In all communities there are those who take advantage, and it would be naive in the extreme to pretend that this doesn't happen. Sadly the Sun & the Mail choose to portray the situation as something other than a very rare extreme. They quote huge figures paid by the taxpayer to fund lifestyles of people without jobs and often with poor excuse for not working.
The general line taken by these right wing papers is that "no one on benefits should get more than a person on work". We hear of people with spinal injuries skydiving and people with agraphobia hiking Dartmoor, to name but a few. What we never hear about are the hundreds of thousands of people who don't get what they are entitled to and struggle simply to stay warm and have any sort of life.
It seems that the Sun and the Mail have identified that there is a little less of the generous mother and a little bit more of the jealous sister in us than we care to admit. Of course it's easy for me to pontificate. All my brothers and sisters are quite normal and being the youngest of six, I was probably the most spoiled for a number of reasons. Whilst at the time,allthose years ago, I was appalled by the behaviour of my friends towards their sibling, now I have a bit more understanding. I still find it uncomfortable and distasteful, but I do understand. I saw my friends sister a year or so ago. We had a drink and discussed her brother. I didn't mention the comments made at his funeral, and all of the conversations about him were warm and funny. The things that had been raw and grating at the time of the funeral had mellowed into funny and warm memories. She made a very sad and chilling observation "When XXXXXX died, I thought mum would come out of herself and have a life, but she never got over it. She'd lost her reason to keep going" She died a couple of years later, perhaps of a broken heart. After a couple of glasses of wine, my friends sister made what was perhaps the starkest admission of them all, she told me that it took her a couple of years to "forgive" her mother for dying before she'd lavished a bit of love on the rest of her children. I then realised that she'd never been angry or resentful of her brother, she just wanted her mum to love her a little bit more.
As I ponder this, I think of my own children. Have you got children? Maybe what we need to take from this is that we should remember to tell all of them occasionally that we love them. Even when it is difficult and we have "more important things to do", we should remind ourselves that actually, there is nothing more important than the people we love. If we want to change things for the better, lets make a start close to home.