Trouble In Paradise: Happy Birthday Edinburgh Cyrenians 50 Year Celebration
I have written this to commemorate the 50th anniversary celebrations of Edinburgh Cyrenians, an organisation which in my opinion is the gold standard of how human beings in need should get the support they require in a society which, despite having so many great successes, fails in horrifically modern and technocratic ways. It is not easy to bring the support to vulnerable people and things are particularly challenging when individuals have multiple needs.
The way support services and, in particular, funding is allocated is in simplistic ways. This is meeting the world in all it’s nuances, subtleties and human peccadillos with inadequate acknowledgement of reality. In my humble opinion those with the resources and those who are allocating the resources (i.e. funding) are often creating the problems they purport to be trying to work to solve by the instrumental ways which they meet with the world – the world which is remote from their experience, the world which they are frequently uninvolved with, and the world which they apprehend through the simplified renderings of data which they rehearse in their minds.
The lessons which have come of the failings in the field of international development are key to understanding the ‘wicked problems’ which plague and puzzle the managerial classes who methodically apply the modes of ‘scientific management’ to human populations. A great deal of the problems which pepper the landscape of paradise are due to an institutional/organisational unwillingness to behave in different ways to the ways that we have been operating in for the past decades.
Experts are hired to analyse problems and then propose answers year after year, yet so often when the responses come suggesting institutional and organisational behaviour change, the advice is discarded or cherry picked because it is involving, does not look like anything they recognise or already do. We can see this happening in various sectors (i.e. education) and as wealth concentrates in smaller and smaller spaces, fewer and fewer voices are recognised as important to inform the collective landscape.
Original Online Source: sirkenrobinson.com/pdf/allourfutures.pdf
We can see the same kind of managerial processes being rolled out a la business schools all over the place – a whole industry of people who have decided they want to be a ‘leader’ and brandish the lingo of management, ‘success’ and ‘influencer’ but lack a focus in what. It is a correlate to the empty celebrity where people have grown in a culture which celebrates fame – an imposter which has been foisted on hapless individuals not because of any passion or talent which enchants people adding value to their worlds, but simply because they have got the epitomous 15 minutes of fame where they became a brand, a product, ruled and packaged by a series of managers and contracts within a constricted distribution network.
The world in the UK, it seems, has fallen into a quagmire of bureaucratic ritual of key performance indicators, spreadsheets of league tables, tendering arenas and winner-take-all scenarios. This obviously is showing up as the anomic society where depression and mental illness, systematic failure and corporate agency have all been normalised as daily occurences; realities which are not questioned as abnormal but understood as operationalised realities of the social environment of homo sapiens.
There is trouble in paradise and we need to tap into the knowledge of thinkers who have deep understandings of the anomy – of the entropy and chaos which plague the most in need and the most vulnerable. The perspectives, expertise and examples we need come from those who are most disaffected (rather than those who most benefit from the current cultural configuration) and from those who commit their lives on a day to day basis to the front lines of where the problems bank onto the organised proceedings of society.
Specifically I am suggesting the support workers, the nurses, the doctors, the police, the teachers, the sanitation engineers, the environmental officers the social workers, and so on – in brief, I am talking about the civil servants and many of those involved in the third sector. The people who are being told to save, protect, develop, support, and provision the lives of the whole population with budgets which are being savaged by cutbacks, these are the people who we need to help us collectively understand the problems which are escalating. This in the face of a culture which is giving more freedoms to corporate structures which are based in tax avoiding jurisdictions (like the City of London) is unacceptable to anyone who has any ethical or moral commitment to democratic society.
It is in this context that I place my appeal to you as the reader to support Edinburgh Cyrenians, if by no other means, then by simply by being aware of their good work. They embody good practice built of humane and personal attendance to detail all of which comes of conscious and intelligent cognition of all the problems which are faced in supporting multiple needs people. Most of all they have not compremised their ethical values in their duties as human beings working in an organised way, despite the structural pressure to.
They have managed to square various circles and offer wisdom at this point to improve people’s lives, the sector and society at large. All this is held in a community of practice bound up in the individuals who make the service a reality, and not only this but an ethical caring reality. With all this in mind I wrote this to celebrate their 50th year as an organisation supporting people.
I had jumped overboard from a sinking ship. People had turned on each other and I had thought it better to take my chances with the ocean than those left on it. Humans can turn pretty nasty and I had thought that sinking below the waves would not be the worst way to go, but I also saw other boats on the water thinking there might be some other place for me.
I swam towards anything that floated. I swam to the main boat of the flotilla thinking it was part of the command ship; over the side they shouted “Come back later, when you cant swim!”. I carried on swimming. I swam to the service tugs and cried “Can you help me in ?”; they shouted “Keep on, keep clean, keep your chin up”, and as one drifted by I heard a scrap of conversation amongst the crew “…ignore the ones who call out, and the quiet ones are already gone…”.
I carried on swimming. Passenger vesicles went by again and again, some were vast and decked in hard woods and silks the size of football pitches for what I could make out, and inhabited only by a hand full of people. Others were small and stacked to the brim, trying to help me and others on board, but there was no room and I slid off.
Boats of all sizes passed and every time I called out I would take in a little salt water, some going into my stomach, some going into my lungs. Nights passed and I would shiver in the water sleeping between blinking eyes – sometimes mine, sometimes theirs, as I was aware of various people watching from their distances.
Some boats occasionally made for me or others starting at us making it urgent to swim out of the way as their crews and captains aimed their bows for our heads. Luxury boats would sometimes creep up, and haul me out of their water and as I stood coughing, blue,wrinkled, half naked and wretched they would scream and throw me back in – sometimes with laughter, pussers rum dribbling down their chin; sometimes with revolt thinking I was diseased with the wet of the sea.
I stopped calling after a while knowing what it would bring. I started to hear only the lapping of the waves and water over my ears. The cold became ethereal and all notion of the past or who I was had become bleached in the turning days and nights that had wrapped me in their cosmos. I swam with dolphins and ate the scraps thrown overboard. I learned to sleep with half my brain at a time and use the fading reality as a crutch to float in the water.
I cried a lot, and tears mingled with the briny green seas to the point when I could no longer tell whether I was hot or cold, in or out of pain; eventually I started to doubt if I was a human at all for only the fish would speak with me before they were speared or netted. Numbed I felt the last energy going from my time and new it was time to leave.
Before I left, I said to the rumbling whale far below, I am going to say my final goodbye to those I thought I was of. One last look – as every hope was – to see what likelihood that I had been wrong. I scrambled to the side of each ship, all decked out with different uniforms and regalia coded with ritual importance.
“Sorry mate, you are too tall for this boat, we only take on the small chappies; it’s policy”; “Ahoy, good luck, you are the wrong gender, sorry”; “Nay my lad, you are too old for this ship, tis the rules”; “I bid thee well, but without your passport and papers, I am expressly forbade to engage”; and so on. There was a mix of not caring and numbness which I could get by on. I took to drinking in the sea; it was all so dreamlike – as if it were a story I was being told which was too absurd to believe.
Then, to my surprise I was fished out of the water again. Naked, semi rotten and wracked, I puked up sea water; it flowed from me like a gale wind. Then I collapsed waiting to be thrown back, waiting finally for sleep, finally to rest and pass by the blacken pearl that was my darkened hope. But no, I found quizzical creatures staring at me; they said “We are not covered for this, but that’s ok, we can see you”.
I cried and I cried and I cried and I cried. I was scared of these stranger beings; I wondered what they had in store for me and whether I was better back in the water before they cut me limb from limb. But I thought, it is time to go; if this is my end, then to my sleep I am fine. Nothing can be taken from me that has been taken from me.
The salt peeled out of my brain and skin, burning its caustic smart. At nights, I had been given a tight woven woollen blanket, and I would sweat demons dancing fearfully on my eyeballs. I cried and I cried and I cried. I wanted to sink but still these quiet beings came to me bringing broth and waiting without words. I cried and I cried and I cried; I choked up a tangled and rotten heart and out it flopped on deck gasping, rolling and then still, it passed.
I looked up with fear of disgust, and yet none of these beings squinted or squirmed or scorned me. I felt disgusting. The words were in my head from being thrown overboard before. I had been thrown from ships as a devil, and I had become used to my flotsam. Yet these people did not turn me back on the waves, they kept me company as I writhed and I convulsed.
Now I have taken to speaking, the first words which I said were Edinburgh Cyrenians. I had no others, they had fallen away. I found these words first inscribed on the tin cup they gave broth to me in. It is a comfort to say it, and I dont know what it means, just how it feels. My sight is coming back and my skin has stopped peeling. I choke out other words too sometimes now and the sea weed has dried and fallen from my ears.
“Edinburgh Cyrenians” I mutter as I whisper into my past tasting something other than salt. I don’t know where I’m going now, but I look out onto the water. My jerking limbs want to swim out and bring more people on. I want to be strong for this, I want others to know the magic words and have their voice filled again too.
(TRIGGER ALERT – THE NEXT SECTION INVOLVES A DESCRIPTION OF CRUCIFIXION)
‘And they compel one Simon, a Cyrenian, who passed by, coming out of the country, the father of Alexander and Rufus, to bear His Cross.’ — Mark xv.21.
The story of Simon a Cyrenian to carry the cross of the Christ figure is a famous one. In a punitive culture the Christ figure had been condemned to death by being thrown to public opinion. Pontius Pilate was the prefect of Judea, regarded as a province of the Roman Empire under its colonial force at the time of 26 to 36 CE.
The politics of that famous execution were one of the popular opinion of baying crowds; the loudest people turned out and the quietest were not present or heard. Crucifixion was the method of capital punishment which has a long history in human culture dating back probably before the 6th century BCE.
In Roman times this punishment was applied mostly to slaves, disgraced soldiers, Christians and foreigners; it was only rarely applied to the citizens of the empire. Citizenship was defined by privileges and protections by the law. Slaves lacked legal personhood and were valued purely in economic terms thus they were regarded as property. Legal personhood is a prerequisite to legal capacity and hence to being represented by the laws of the land.
Death from crucifixion usually occurred between 6 hours and 4 days after the individual had been put on their mount. The victims would be subjected to a scourging and were maimed beforehand. They would bleed and become dehydrated which brought about hypovolaemic shock and pain due to loss of fluids and blood pressure. They would suffer from progressive asphyxia and as their ability to inflate their lungs became impaired they would slowly suffocate.
As this progressed, they became oxygen deficient bringing on failures of different systems one by one. Death would commonly come about by heart attack brought on by failure of the nervous system, lack of oxygenation of tissues, cessation of muscle function and loss of blood pressure.
The Roman guards had to stand and oversee only being allowed to leave after the victim had died. They were known to end people’s lives by breaking the bones of the legs, spearing the heart, striking blows to the front of the chest or choking them with smoke by building a small fire below them.
Original Online Source: pdfs.semanticscholar.org/5a4f/56c2f984b5dbabe358c870a28cfd680bb070.pdf
The suffering that the Christ figure had to endure was not unique; he was not special in this as people were regularly exposed to such horrifying ends. For example we know that after the Third Servile War 6000 slaves who rebelled were crucified along the Appian Way from the year 73 to 71BCE. This behaviour was normalised as an everyday occurrence.
Trouble in Paradise
There are two main reasons I want to bring up the account of crucifixion; one, that it was a common experience which the most disadvantaged population was exposed to, and the other, how easily accounts of how things really are get sanitised and move into silence the horrors which are a part of the everyday.
The problem with trouble in paradise is that the collective ideals are precious; this preciousness can blind or hinder the ability to look critically at societal problems which year after year are recreated and revisited on the population through structural violence.
Our cultural context has become colonized by financial forces which are artificially creating scarcity, and which in turn visit harms on the population. As the way that social support structures are funded and resourced has changed from a culture of relative collegiality to one of competition and specialism, the people who are least empowered and most vulnerable suffer the greatest.
The support structures help the population meet their most fundamental needs as there are no longer commons of sustenance from which the commoner can draw; for example, there is nowhere I can plough my furrow or plant my oats.
My experience of homelessness, drug and alcohol recovery and mental health services has been one where organisations are policy bound and one where, in my past, I found that I was more involved in meeting bureaucratic outcomes for funders than in human capabilities development in my own life.
It is perceptible from the ‘client side’ that organisations are pitted against each other over ever decreasing pots of money in systems of tendering which create a vast drain on organisational capabilities through the creation of sunk costs. All this goes on whilst international conglomerates such as G4S which are ‘too big to fail’ can weather expensive tendering processes, whilst smaller more effective services and organisations rooted and related in their locales are set up to fail by an unaccountable administrative system.
Notions like participatory budgeting are being embodied in ways which corrode partnership working in communities whilst companies like Asda/Walmart get tax breaks to create businesses that destroy 2.9 jobs for every job they create at the same time as moving public money as profit offshore into secrecy jurisdictions/tax havens. The punitive effects of criticising exploitative and badly rationalised policy are significant enough for large silences to be created which are skirted by informal after-work discussions about the problems which everyone is aware of.
In this clamour of the indigities of neofeudal-the-market-will-fix-all policy making it takes an organisation with character and strength of values to go out of the way to meet its aims without compremising its ethics. Edinburgh Cyrenians is one such organisation which has embodied a humanised practice that shows because of the people who staff it.
At a time when the third sector and charitable notions are big business in terms of disaster capitalism, we must look to the examples which can inform a future that squares the circle. In terms of social support – vitally needed social support – Edinburgh Cyrenians manages to work in the spaces that other organisations shirk, avoid, do poorly or badly.
When mental health has been reduced to a series of pills to shut down neurotransmission resulting in long term illness like tardive dyskinesia, the humanity and multiple needs approaches found in the Edinburgh Cyrenians tells us that there are better ways to operate; more successful ways, complex ways.
If there is a question to ask of people and of organisations, it might be this – “Can this organisation/person behave in ways which are different to the ways they already do ? “. Edinburgh Cyrenians has answered this with a resoundingly practical ‘Yes’ ! If we were to apply a Turing test to the people and organisation, they would come back as reading human – as having an intelligence.
Typically policy filled environments return results to the Turing test that show one is speaking to a machine rather than to an intelligent, evolving, adapting, complex, consciousness capable of acting, reacting and interacting with its environs in appropriate and ethical ways.
My heart is with these people who are doing so much for so many under the most inhospitable of conditions; I trust them and it is that which has kindled a flame to in me to live again. With these people and these sensitive practices we might find land with the hope they offer.
Happy 50th Birthday – may you live forever more in the ways you have pioneered
by Alex Dunedin