Every cloud has a silver lining. Caught in a 3-way temporary traffic light débâcle a few miles from home recently meant I caught Welsh poet Jonathan Edwards on Front Row reading work from his lovely collection ‘My Family and Other Superheroes’. The title is an homage to Gerald Durrell’s autobiographical work recounting his family’s adventures on Corfu in the 1930s.
Gerald’s book was one I had to study for my English ‘O’ Level. I loved it. Whenever I’d had enough of revising inorganic chemistry or knife edge ridges I’d reach for ‘My Family….’ and read it again. It was a great way to escape to another time and place populated by a family of eccentrics. The episode which has stuck with me most is about half way through the book when it is Gerald’s birthday (about his 13th I think). He suggests to his family that, instead of letting them choose his birthday presents, that he might tell them the things he wanted most. In this way they could be sure of not disappointing him with their gifts. He then very cleverly comes up with gift ideas for each of his siblings and his mother which he knows are things they are interested in and will get pleasure from seeking out, shopping for or making.
Gerald was already a budding naturalist so everything on his list was to help him follow his own passion…..exploring the island and collecting all sorts of wildlife specimens to study at close quarters.
From his sister Margo he requested yards of white calico, pins, cotton wool and pints of ether. All stuff he needed to help build his naturalist collection and things he felt sure she could buy from her favourite shops on the island.
To his elder brother Larry (who went on to be a successful writer in his own right) he gave a long list of titles, authors’ names and publishers of all the natural history books he could think of. As long as his list had some sort of literary leaning he felt sure that Larry would approve and apply himself to the search.
Hardest was his ‘out-doorsy’ adventurer brother Leslie. He loved to make things, carry out experiments and explore the coves and inlets near their home in his boat…. the Sea Cow. He had to pick his moment carefully but Gerald’s inspired request tapped in to Leslie’s sense of identity and passions. Gerald asked him to build him a boat.
What Gerald had worked out for himself was that people are far more motivated, and far more engaged with something, if it is an activity that interests them…..Margo liked to shop; Larry loved hunting out English language books on a Greek island and Leslie loved to make things.
“Start with what you have, with where you are” Cormac Russell
It’s so tempting for those of us who provide services….support workers, housing providers, social workers, community workers, health visitors, GPs, bereavement counselors, the list is endless……to see ourselves as the ones with the gifts. The ones with the solutions. The superheroes ready to fly in and save people. We want to do good and make a difference but too often we see those we want to help as just a collection of labels….that describe all the things they can’t do….their deficits…their failings….their mistakes.
It doesn’t have to be this way round.
Imagine if we started by asking people what they could do; what they liked to do; what they enjoyed doing? Imagine if we asked them what gifts and talents they have to share? Imagine if we had a conversation not about where they’ve come from but about where they are going?
Maybe we’d start a very different relationship.
With a better sense of what they already have there will still be things they need. But maybe they don’t have to get these things from a paid professional. Maybe there is someone a few doors away who has a gift to share……Mr Smith next door or auntie Trish round the corner or David at the allotments or their daughter Gemma.
Maybe there is already a superhero living on their street.