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Ireland’s sorry history of child abuse is no secret. Much has been done since to change things, to make life better for Ireland’s children. However, a fundamental problem in this country’s view on children has remained unchanged. It is, I believe, the foundation of two major violations.
The first I became aware of in the course of researching for a possible story (I sporadically consider returning to writing fiction. The affliction passes quickly, don’t worry). It turns out that in Ireland, if a person under the age of eighteen wants to go for counselling, they have to have the consent of a parent or guardian. If they seek the help of a school counsellor, the parent will be notified. It doesn’t take very long to figure out how that is just plain stupid. All people in Ireland have a constitutional right to privacy, except one group. If that group were black, or women, or Protestants, there would be an enormous outcry. But because that group are people below a certain age, their right to privacy is violated without anyone batting an eye.
What’s even more tragic is that when someone is suicidal or self-harms, some of the biggest problems among teens in Ireland at the moment for which they are likely to seek help, the feelings are often strongly related to a sense of not having any control. In what universe does it make sense to deprive people who already are on the brink of even this, control over who knows they asked for help?
The other area in which society misses the pot by a mile, is when it comes to religion. Again, we all have a right enshrined in the constitution to religious liberty. The farce this is when it comes to education has recently been under the spotlight, but there’s one issue which I haven’t seen highlighted. I’ve read the argument that parents who wish for their children to be given a religious education should be free to do so, ie provided with a school run by the church of their choice. I’ve read that non-religious parents should have access to secular schools. I can’t recall ever having heard anyone outline how children’s right to religious freedom is infringed even if they attend a school run by their parents’ favourite church/mosque/temple/whatever. What if they disagree with their parents’ religion? Why should a certain group of people have the right to subject another group of people to religious indoctrination? If you’re a boss in a standard workplace, you can’t force staff to pray, to attend religious services, to have every task infused with religious bias. We are even debating whether those who work for a religious organisation can be forced by their boss to practice the religion in question. It never crosses our minds that a certain group of people have their personal religious convictions flatly ignored, that they can be forced by another person to go to a place where they are subjected to and forced to participate in religious practices every day. Again, simply because that group of people is not black, women, of a certain sexual persuasion, it’s okay to deprive them of a fundamental right.
Until Ireland stops looking on children as parents’ possession, there will be a gigantic problem. We cannot treat people as lesser human beings with no voice and fewer rights than others for the first eighteen years of their lives, and expect them to emerge from that magically unscathed. Yes, I am all for discipline: when a child is young, there are some rights they cannot yet exercise without harming themselves. I’ve said it before, it is crucial for a child to feel their parent is in control, but that parent must always view control of their child’s life as a temporary necessity, handled with respect for their humanity and stepped back from as soon as possible.
Irish society violates children, rapes their sense of control of their lives especially when they are in crisis. What just puts the cherry on the cake is that they then wring their hands in despair: why oh why is there an epidemic of depression among Irish teens? Depression is strongly linked to a sense of helplessness, of not being in control of your own life. You regulate someone’s life and deprive them of rights the first two decades they’re alive, they’re going to develop problems.
For a country that is so child-safety obsessed, it continually amazes me how little Ireland thinks of children. They truly are moving from “children are ultimately the possessions of the church” to “children are ultimately the possessions of their parents”. Let’s hope some day society will cop on and discover
children humans should all be the possessions of nobody but themselves.
One of the most fascinating books I’ve read is Sue Gerhardt’s The Selfish Society. The last few days, with political scandal on the front pages here, I’ve thought again of her description of politicians and their behaviour – a must-read, really. Yet another thought struck me:
We don’t hold back one inch when it comes to vilifying and condemning those who hold political office. I for one certainly don’t make any effort to consider their feelings when making comments about them in public, even though those politicians I’ve met in real life have been very decent people. Now, no human being can continuously absorb negative feedback about themselves. It’s a natural defence mechanism to, at some point, shut out those spewing mud at you. At some stage, if people keep throwing poop in your direction, you’re going to turn around and lock yourself away somewhere safe.
Should we be surprised then when we have a constant problem of politicians, especially those at the top, closing ranks and forming veritable echo-chambers, surrounding themselves only with those who agree with them? What would happen if those who disagreed were not no-holds-barred, vicious critics, but people you trust and with whom you can have honest, civil discourse? Would you want to discuss matters in a constructive way if you knew everyone around you was just waiting to pounce on any word which could possibly be twisted to make you look bad?
I just wonder if we don’t in this aspect again get the situation we deserve.
My brother and I look remarkably alike. I’m not sure if age will have softened that (and haven’t seen him for nine years so can’t check), but certainly when we were young, the resemblance was so strong that people who’d never met me but knew him, would be confused if they met me but didnt’ know we were related. “I swear I know you, where have we met?” was something I heard often, and I was used to saying: “Do you know Johann Breytenbach?” and seeing that jaw-drop recognition dawn. It was also amusing because we are as different in personality as we are alike in looks. This blew at least one mutual friend’s mind, who enjoyed the dissonance of us being physically like a male and female version of the exact same person, but mentally and personality-wise like polar opposites.
The dark side of this showed when I met my brother’s ex-girlfriend for the firs time after they’d broken up. It had been a serious relationship and a traumatic parting, so that it was very difficult for her to be in my company, as I reminded her so much of Johann. Her body language, tone of voice and facial expressions were those reserved for someone you associate with agonising pain, she associated those feelings with me, but I was not the person she associated with my appearance. I now experience something similar, but the very different person who looks exactly like me was, in fact, me.
I went through some serious personal upheaval not too long ago, but thankfully ever longer ago each day that passes. Whether it’s through pure stupidity or because I was making pathetic attempts to cope, to make sense of the world, I became someone else. Someone who could cope. Someone who didn’t care and didn’t hurt. Unfortunately right during this time I met a good few new people as I threw myself into triathlons, and as this phase of trauma came to an end, I stopped doing triathlons, meaning I hardly saw any of them any more.
This leaves me in a weird position: now and then I bump into some of the folks who got to know me-in-crisis, and only her. Me-in-crisis was different enough from me that I feel as detached from her as I do from my brother. I face these people from the same body, through the same eyes, but with a very different person in residence. It’s quite a helpless feeling: you know they have it spectacularly wrong, but there’s nothing at all you can do to set right their impression of you. You just have to live with the body language and contemptuous tone, contemptuous facial expression – thank Christ a rare reaction, but understandable where it occurs.
The situation bothers me a lot, sometimes tremendously, and I wish there was something I could do about it. But there isn’t, and that leaves me with another of those humbling tasks of being human: let it go. Some people think a number of really unpleasant things about me, and that’s just the way it is. What’s more saddening is when I meet someone new, and through the arguable blessing of Facebook see mutual friends include some people I am 99.9% sure think extremely poorly of me. All you can do is again let go, and take the lesson on board when you form your impressions of others: people have multiple facets to them. You may get to know them when they’re in a very good place, you may get to know them when they’re in the deepest pit of despair. You may possess some trait which brings out a quirk in them which doesn’t show when anyone else interacts with them, you may never see a quirk of theirs someone else is familiar with.
Be merciful. Be kind. Reserve judgement. Do this for others, because we all need it done for us.
Yesterday, when I went shopping, I loaded my shopping trolley to the brim with old clothes. The charity shop bins for collecting such things are right beside the supermarket where I shop. Two men standing talking beside the road made a very poor job of hiding that first the one got the other to look at me, then they discussed whatever it was about the sight of me that was noteworthy. I wondered whether they were just talking about how handy such a trolley is, or how nice my hat looks, or how what I was doing is not a sight you see very often. This brought up another thought I’ve had a lot since making a conscious effort to live with environmental consciousness as much as I can: it’s messy.
“Messy” might not really be the best word for it, but in my mind the concept I’m trying to pin down best fits this word. We as humans have convinced ourselves that we should live sterile lives. We travel from point to point no longer embraced by the smells, sounds and realities of that journey, but encased in a private space. Our food is dissociated from its earthy origins, the styrofoam and plastic packaging far from the stench and terror of the abbatoir, the washed and selected fruits and vegetables a manufactured orderliness removed from the reality of odd and twisted shapes in nature. The waste of about half of all food is worth it, to ensure that what we’re offered is close to some manufactured idea of food perfection. We don’t care what effect the chemicals we use to clean our homes may have on our water and our soil, what matters is that our homes are sterile way beyond the point of necessity. We no longer even want to touch the bottle delivering the anti-bacterial soap to our barely-soiled hands, for fear of getting them dirty before washing them.
Living ethically involves stepping out of that. It means sacrificing luxuries. It means embracing humility. Trotting down the street looking for all the world like a bag lady is not something I do because that’s my idea of fun, it’s a choice I make, consciously changing my life to one that has less negative impact on the world around me.
So go ahead, men-along-the-way. Do your “Oooh, look at yer wan coming along” thing, do that surreptitious look to take in the sight before proceeding to look everywhere but at me while talking. I know you’re just discussing the sheer awesomeness of my crocheted hat.
Continuing from this post, what, then, should we tell our kids about sex? If I am not for the preaching of abstinence, am I for encouragement of promiscuity? Viewing the issue as one or the other is a straw man. Here’s a thought:
Teach children in plain terms what biologically is involved in sex. Teach them also about the physical risks attached. Teach them that there is a huge emotional implication, too, for which you need to be ready. Sex is a serious thing, and should not be engaged in lightly, but it’s also not serious, and fun is part of a successful sexual relationship. I don’t think it’s for teenagers, but I know still-married-after-decades couples who started having sex in their teens. I think it’s for adults, but I know there are adults who are not really mature enough to deal with it. It’s not a one-size-fits-all thing.
An exercise the Pure in Heart team engage in was described: they asked for volunteers to come forward. Two of them are sticky-taped together at the wrists. The tape is then ripped off one of them, and reattached to another. This process is repeated, to show how a number of sex partners diminishes the power of a sexual relationship, the same way the sticky tape loses its stick.
I’ll say only this: nobody but an idiot or a virgin who has no fecking idea what they’re talking about can ever cheapen an extremely complicated issue that way. The idea is that if you have numerous sexual partners over time you become used up, sucked out, worthless. How dare you saddle any other human being with that conviction about themselves. I wish with all my heart that I can inflict even a portion of the pain this bullshit causes on those trumpeting it. Of course many of these idiots will then protest that the crumpled, used-up sticky tape they say you are, can be totally renewed. That requires belief in magic, and you are spreading your lies to kids who don’t all believe in magic.
Yesterday I listened to an item (starts at 17.12, but you can click on View Items on This Show and select Pure in Heart) which had been on the radio here, dealing with a Catholic group that is allowed into schools to take care of sex education. Parents got (imo rightfully) upset when their kids were told such things as masturbation leads to depression, and that contraception = abortion. A number of pupils walked out of the talk. I have loads of problems with what this group does, and I would be enraged if they were invited into any of my children’s schools. The problem which I want to highlight, though, is the concept of “purity”.
The term “staying pure”, especially “staying pure until marriage” is often used to describe abstinence from sex outside of marriage. The implication has been pointed out ad infinitum: those who choose to engage in sex outside of marriage therefore are impure, dirty, spoiled. Sex is an impure activity, this view tells you, and I’m sorry, but that is sick and wrong. However, the implication goes further: you remain pure until marriage. Then you become impure, soiled, dirtied. But hey, it’s all right, children! For some bizarre reason you now don’t have to feel sex is dirty and wrong any more.
Really, people? You think you’re going to drill it into someone’s skull that sex is filthy and impure for years – the most vulnerable, impressionable years – then flick some switch and turn all that indoctrination off in the space of a single ceremony?
A good while ago my youngest forgot his house key when he went to school, and had to wait a while at our door for one of us to come home and unlock. Our house is right beside his school so the kids leaving for home were streaming past. When a fellow student saw him there, he asked Nic whether this was his home. When my fella confirmed that yes, it was, the fellow student replied: “Ha ha, you’re poor!”
Nic didn’t tell me about it straight away. He’s like me, needs time to digest stuff that happened before he can decide how to feel. As it was, he wasn’t upset, it was just… weird. What did I think?
Well, I’m afraid it’s true, our house looks shabby. The window frames, sills and electricity box all need painting, it’s single panes rather than double glazing, and a few other signs point to the conclusion that we’re not exactly the Gates family. However, as I explained to Nic, the child’s statement was confusing, it needed clarification. What is poor?
Because while with me being a student we are indeed not rolling in money, our bicycles and cycling equipment are collectively probably worth more than a lot of people’s cars. Micky has top notch climbing equipment, a number of good quality hiking rucsacks, a good quality family tent, and a good quality two-man tent. We could have chosen to spend that money on the appearance of our house instead, but we didn’t. So are we poor compared to someone else in a fine-looking house who doesn’t own these things?
Is rich or poor what your bank balance is? We choose to remain as debt-free as possible. So another family, who chose to borrow money so as to make their house look fantastic, are they rich compared to us? Is it okay if there’s a minus in front of that bank balance, as long as it’s a lot of numbers?
Poor doesn’t even clarify whether we’re talking about money. You can have a poor life, and I most certainly don’t think we have had a poor life. Micky and I have had amazing experiences, have seen sights and sounds in our love of outdoor pursuits which most people never will. I have cycled along a quiet road with cows galloping beside me on their side of the fence. I’ve eaten a sandwich with about twenty of them staring at me (why is it that when I try to think of my most awesome cycling experiences cows come to mind?). Micky has glided up rock faces and stood on mountaintops, swum in clear lakes and seen the world from a place you can only reach through near heartbreaking effort and the sweet elation of attaining your goal. The kids are getting ever closer to having the freedom to travel as Micky and I have been privileged to do. Jonathan is about to visit South Africa, Lara has been to Ranafast twice. Is that poor?
Poor can also refer to ability. We are all above average intelligence, the children instilled with understanding that this alone will not get you places. They work hard and that hard work yields great results. This is a privilege, because there are other kids who work as hard or harder but don’t get the same yield. We are rich, blessed, privileged for the genetic lottery that has instilled in us this brain power.
We are rich in love and happiness. I am humbly grateful for a wonderful relationship with each of the children, free so far of most of the stereotypical strife between parent and teen. Is that poor?
So we had this really wonderful, thoughtful discussion of what precisely poor is, what it means, and I ended it with: “Anyway, Nic, you may be poor, but at least you’re not an arsehole.”
I think we handled the whole thing well.