What kind of society do we want to be?

An emotional survivor of London's Grenfell Tower fire holds up her door key as she speaks at a Kensington and Chelsea ...
Reuters

An emotional survivor of London's Grenfell Tower fire holds up her door key as she speaks at a Kensington and Chelsea Council meeting last month.

I was thinking this week of the kind of society we should be and I thought of a poem.

I didn't write one; it was one I'd known for a long time but hadn't read for 20-plus years.

It appeared, somehow, through the dust in a poky cupboard under the stairs of my memory.

The central theme came back into focus because I was contemplating the words of someone far more recent, which to me convey the opposite sentiment, one which has had a devastating effect on large swathes of modern western society.

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The poem contains these powerful words:

"… every [human] is a piece of the continent, a part of the main.

If a clod be washed away by the sea,

Europe is the less.

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As well as if a promontory were.

As well as if a manor of thy friend's

Or of thine own were."

Pardon the historical phraseology – the olde English version is much more cumbersome - but that's how they put things in poet and cleric John Donne's day, in the late 16th and early 17th centuries.

It was the message of the poem, "No man is an island", that I wanted to return to.

Unfortunately, it's written from the patriarchal perspective of the time, one this week has sadly shown us still prevails for some in 21st century New Zealand. I found myself wishing they might be islands, floating ones, that could drift off into obscurity.

But I've updated that opening line, to try to present the message without the irritation factor.

Obviously the continent of Donne's focus was Europe but the message travels well, even for those of us who don't live on a continent.

We're all connected, is the gist, and one bit's as important as another, no distinction between "clods" and "promontories". And as much as many would like to think otherwise, and act to distance themselves from it, connection implies a degree of responsibility to each other.

It speaks to the kind of society I found myself wishing we had this week – one that operates on the principle that "no-one gets left behind", where no-one is precluded by circumstance from participating as fully in society as they want to.

That flies in the face of the other slightly less historic words I'd been contemplating, those of the so-called "Iron Lady", Margaret Thatcher, who told Britain's Women's Own magazine in 1987 there was "no such thing as society".

"There are individual men and women and there are families. And no government can do anything except through people, and people must look to themselves first."

They're words that may seem reasonable at first glance, because they imply a degree of personal and collective responsibility, which we all have. But really, in their abdication of the government's key role, they were setting the scene for the kind of situation that came to a head in London with the horrendous Grenfell Tower disaster this year; for a siloed, separate pseudo-society, for punitive inequality.

Where Members of the British Parliament, a significant proportion of whom owned rental properties, voted against improved safety standards for buildings such as the ill-fated tower, which would have seen it fitted with fire-retardant cladding, and close to 100 people ended up dying terrifying deaths.

Thatcher probably thought she was appropriately churchy when she told the magazine "It's our duty to look after ourselves and then, also, to look after our neighbour."

From where I'm sitting, though, her 'me first' phrasing, with the neighbour as an afterthought, contradicts the Biblical message I think John Donne would have understood of "Love your neighbour as yourself".

It puts the neighbour first, and implies an equality of love. Which isn't just a soppy emotion, by the way, it's a choice, as is the kindness that flows from it.

In the words of a message one of my many regular purveyors of wisdom shared with me: "Loving kindness is a profound recognition that our lives have something to do with one another, that everyone counts, everyone matters."

Let's face it, Thatcher was setting the scene for the downgrading of the welfare state, backed by the rabid right-wing tabloids, who never let the facts stand in the way of a good beneficiary bashing, and her words have proven prophetic, in Britain and elsewhere, including here.

They set the scene for the kind of smug, lazy, off-the-cuff reasoning that can put the difficult circumstances of all those caught in poverty, or homelessness, down to "poor choices".

Not every difficult circumstance is the result of a poor choice. If you question that statement, look up The Aunties, a dynamic group of caring women fronted by the irrepressible Jackie Clark, whose mission is to provide "sustained support" for refuges in Auckland, and "also help bring joy and dignity to the lives of vulnerable people".

That's genuine, unconditional loving kindness in action, just quietly, but my point is that if you try applying the theory of "poor choices" to the many women and children in genuine need they deal with, it quickly falls down. Look up Jackie's blog post on "choices" this week. It's instructive.

Several people this week shared qualities with me that they saw as key to a functional society and many are choices too, courageous choices: kindness, tolerance, connection, respect, empathy, "doing life together", and one I particularly like, "considered leadership".

Some are choices we can make for ourselves, and the more who do, the better, but it would go so much further if we chose to make them as a society, as a country.

On that score, I can't help but co-opt the words of Van Morrison: "Rave on John Donne, rave on thy holy fool."

 - Stuff

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