Aunties and Little Fish

Aunties and Little Fish

Each week we (CC-UK) meet online with wonderful people from around the world and we never know what we’re going to talk about.  This is our members only ‘Kitchen Table’ and it really does feel like a virtual version of the sorts of conversations that emerge in that sort of informal setting.

One Friday each month is dedicated to talking about people’s experiences of either working towards or further embedding the Compassionate City Charter standards.  Most other conversations are unstructured and this week in particular got me reflecting on relationships, kinship, society and belonging.

The science associated with the benefits of feeling a sense of belonging is compelling.  The impact on people’s health, wellbeing and in fact mortality is clearly shown in Julianne Holt Lunstad’s research (Social Relationships and Mortality Risk (2010).  

Julian was sharing some of his reading on issues of ancestry and belonging and we shared examples of people who feel connected, who feel like family despite not being a blood relative.   We see this in modern society all the time as part of blended families – but is it wider than that where structure doesn’t pre-suppose a loving connection.  

We talked about different indigenous communities and the differences in social relationships and togetherness.  Which of course directly relates to the importance of community development recognising that community is where it starts. Like Cormac Russell says, once you get to know one community…you know one community.

We chatted about how relatives who have never met carry similar non-physical traits and one of the group, shared a story of someone who under regression therapy had visions of traumatic experiences her relatives went through.  There are examples of this in books like ‘My Grandmothers Hands’ (Resmaa Menakem, 2021) and ‘The Body Keeps the Score’ (Bessel van der Kolk, 2015).  The recent growing popularity of tracing family trees has grown with the advent of DNA testing – we can pick up clues on our ancient ancestry. I share a segment of DNA with a Viking who was dug up in York who died with a spinal injury most likely as a gladiator.  I shared in our kitchen table conversation, some research on DNA suggesting everyone on earth can be traced back to 7 women. I asked that the science not be debunked as that research whilst contentious in some fields – make me feel so very connected to humanity!  Maybe the interest in family history is also a craving for belonging.

We chatted about the word ‘auntie’ although we had mixed feelings about the ‘word’ as it sounds too much like ‘anti’.  It reminded me of ‘aunties’ I had as a child, close female friends of my Mum’s.  People we knew my Mum trusted outside of what was a fairly small family circle in the town we lived in.  It made me remember my daughter asking what to call her best friends Mum and I said you can call her Auntie and that she considered her best friend her sister as she only has brothers.  We talked about trust in communities where in some places parents are comfortable putting children on a bus as they know they’ll be looked after by the elders, and how in other communities this just wouldn’t happen and the damage that has been done by high profile examples where elders and people in power have not been trustworthy.

This conversation got me thinking about labelling – how we seem to want to label and categorise everything including relationships.  Rather than a single category of ‘human being’ – we divide, and sub divide and then divide again. I hadn’t considered this in the context of family relationships.  I’m very precise – I say ‘“sister-in-law’ but more like a sister” to express love and affection – why not just sister.  We say colleague when we mean friend.  My daughter has had BFs (best friends) and BFFs (best friends forever, a higher category) and – her categorisation of the word ‘friend’ is very narrow – with most people in her class being in some sort of unclassified group of ‘associates’.    There is also the need to categorise and label all sorts of other characteristics of OCD, anxiety, autism, dyslexia, and depression and at times she has decided she must have all of them.  Autism maybe – we’re waiting to be categorised to ensure the support she is getting at school continues.   Society is forcing us into adopting and accepting more and more dividing labels.

These categories focus on our differences rather than our similarities and maybe make it harder to just simply ‘belong’.

I’m Generation X, brought into a society where women were starting to go to work and not stay at home.  Women were carving out careers, believing they could ‘have it all’.  University was starting to become more ‘expected’ following school (although not for me).  Success was linked to status and wealth, not happiness. My children don’t have ‘aunties’ outside of the family circle – they did have a stay-at-home Dad as I was main breadwinner, but their community was home and later nursery.  My children massively benefited having their Dad at home, I love their relationship.  We knew our neighbours and could knock on their door in a crisis but that was about it.  Do children have ‘aunties’ in western society anymore – is it more prevalent in communities where more people are at home rather than at work?  Are communities of predominately working people, community deprived?  If ‘it takes a village to raise a child’ – how does that happen when they are in nursery and school for so much of their time and their parents are at work?  This isn’t meaning to be critical – just a reflection on societal norms from my perspective.  Women’s changing role should not be used as a negative factor in the fracturing of society – but it is worth reflecting on – not the decision of women to work, but perhaps how the structure of society didn’t change sufficiently to support equity and community? I‘m not an expert on the issues of women’s role and the changing nature of society – but I am a mother who reflects and considers the world facing my children.|
I overheard someone talking the same day as the Kitchen Conversation, they were being criticised as a new Mum for not putting their child into nursery more than 1/2 day a week which she was going to do for social skill development.  The rest of the time the child was with family or her.  How can someone be criticised for a blended approach to childcare that is more community and family embedded than institutional?

In the workplace I feel that commitment and passion is so often confused with ambition.  However, whether progression is due to personal ambition or community ambition.  These roles can force us into being more isolated – the old phrase ‘it’s lonely at the top’ – when you are not expected to have friends at work in case you have to performance manage them or it creates a divisive culture with people you perhaps connect with less.

As we were talking around our virtual kitchen table and listening to the views and examples of my new friends, I had a light bulb moment.  There is a phrase – ‘are you a big fish in a little pond or a little fish in a big pond’.  Those who watch The Apprentice will remember Claude Littner telling a contestant who was rather sure of himself that ‘he wasn’t even a fish’!  Anyway – I wonder in this divided, sub-divided, over categorised society – more of us are craving to be a small fish in a large shoal of other fish.  As a CEO previously, arguably I was a big fish in that organisation – the reality is I just wanted to be one of the fish as well as having the ability to influence and make a difference in the work we did.  To be clear – there is a difference between the metaphor of a fish and a sheep.  A fish being one of a community where there is togetherness and equity as opposed to a sheep who is a follower.   I certainly don’t want to be a sheep!  Although writing that statement has got me thinking about the fact that we want our fish to have equal status and that this is different to all being the same. We want to be unique and individual too.

I don’t have a neat answer here regarding organisational hierarchy, power or structure – just that it is another layer of division and separation

Julian reminded us about the science of trees how they all link and feed off each other and another metaphor of a flock of birds moving together in the wind.  We chatted for a while about the societal challenge of belonging – how do we bring it back.  One of our new friends who came to the Kitchen Table talked about a friend of hers who researches and uses the phrase ‘exnovation’ as an alternative to ‘innovation’.  I’ve not had chance to read about it yet – however it is a way of focusing on growing the good that is already there – maybe an assets based alternative word to ‘innovation’ that sounds like it’s something better going in – rather than something excellent getting out.   I think new language and reflection on research from outside health – from social anthropology and community development may help those of us more embedded in the health sector.

In the book Human Kind, Rutger Bregman (2021) writes “when the bombs fall or the floodwaters rise, we humans become our best selves”.   He writes about the positive nature of humans as social animals and how it suits some parts of society to suggest we are more divided and selfish than we truly are.

During COVID people did come together, did connect and care about their communities, maybe in part because furlough and home working created the capacity to do so alongside an international feeling of all fighting the same battle.

We never know how a Kitchen Table conversation will go.  They are sometimes very practical and sometimes like this one, the sort of head-scratching sharing of all sorts of issues related to society and our work. I truly value that hour a week with amazing people.

For those of you familiar with Finding Nemo – I’m going to use a phrase from there to end this blog to de-categorise all these labels into something simpler.  “Fish are Friends”!

By Emma Hodges, Development Director CC-UK

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