Psychotherapists and mental health practitioners understand very well that asking for help is sometimes the most difficult thing a person can do. For the most part, it is fear that keeps us quiet — the fear that asking for help will be interpreted as a weakness, as a sign of failure, as an indication that one has somehow fallen behind. We are afraid of feeling vulnerable, we worry we might be judged or, worse, that we’ll be turned away; but, harder still is the underlying fear that in the end we will be misunderstood.
Fear diminishes humanity. I heard a Rabbi say this during an interview on CBC while I was driving along the Gardiner Expressway. Fear does diminish humanity — and, come to think of it, so does driving along the Gardiner.
Fear — of failure, of stigma, of exposure, and of rejection — relates to expectations, to those of others as well as to our own. It is disappointing when we feel let down, when our expectations have not been met. Likewise, it can be discouraging when we know that we have disappointed others, too, regardless of the expectation. But feeling that you have not met up to your own expectations, to the ones you have set for yourself — well, it is nothing short of devastating.
Last week, Trudeau’s government promised more financial aid to Canadians — more help is on the way. While an enormous endeavour, The Canada Emergency Response Benefit (CERB) has not reached everyone — many people have “fallen through the cracks.” Indeed, many of us have. What also needs to be said, however, is that many of us have been “falling through the cracks” for some time now, and it has been hard to ask for help.
Expectations are learned. They are reflective of the prevailing norms of a given time and place — they are reflective of culture. We learn them at home, at school, among friends and at work. We learn what it means to be honest, to be responsible, and to be hardworking. In other words, we learn what it means to be a good person. But culture is not homogenous. Nor is it static. It is differentiated and dynamic — it’s messy. So what it means to be a good person in one place and time may not be true in another, and it also may not be true for everyone. When we learn what it means to be a good person, we are learning a culture of class.
It is here that I think we can see the cracks, the fissures and the rubble. It is here along the fault lines of class that some of us have been falling.
Since at least the 1970s, we have been hearing a lot of talk about culture, yet we seem to have given up on talking about class. Perhaps this has something to do with the fact that the economic growth and prosperity experienced in the decades after World War II made it seem, at least for a little while, that we were all included in an expansive middle. Keynesian postwar recovery powered the engines of economic growth and puffed up the middle class; for some, through access to university, but for others through a Fordist model of production that used wages to stimulate spending. For many of us, this is the historical culture in which our parents grew up, and so their expectations reflect what they learned then — that they were in fact the new middle class.
For many of our parents, their lives were better, or more affluent (i.e. social mobility) than the generations that lived before them. Hard work and company loyalty were recognized and rewarded materially. And with greater access to higher education, the myth of meritocracy could be culturally ingrained. Pensions provided a certain security, as did public health coverage, education and housing. The welfare state was in the making, shifting the language of class to a language of shared identity, and to questions about who did and did not belong. With Communism in place as the enemy, talk of class was easily hushed by just the eyes of suspicion.
By the 1970s, this story of political and economic harmony (as much a myth as any) was coming undone, as manufacturing was seen to be overproducing and the State thought to be overspending. Technocrats of middle class stripes were coming up with new measures of productivity. Like the old Sheriff of Nottingham, they tightened the coffers on spending and came up with new goods (i.e. services) to be taxed. Industry responded by moving offshore, subcontracting production now based on demand. Lean and mean is what I think it’s been called, out of which emerged yet another little nasty word — redundant.
So here we can see where a subtle shift in our expectations may have happened, especially with respect to work. Instead of full-time employment, including benefits and wage increases, we have been learning that we need to take risks. Gone are the days of moving up in careers, long-term commitment a thing of the past. The expectation is to be self-enterprising, to accumulate skills that can be contracted out, and to live with a degree of uncertainty. Fear it seems keeps productivity alive, and debt has proven an especially effective way to instill it.
Our expectations of protection from the State were also starting to shift as the subjectivity of citizenry was being reimagined. Supposedly equal in terms of the law, we possess rights now as individual citizens. We can see how fear works here too, especially when being reminded that such rights can easily be taken away (e.g. states of emergency). We’ve been formed to believe that we are individuals — rational, self-interested, and competitive. Our Self has been fragmented, broken up into parts, and marketed to a so-called flexible capitalism. What the technocrats of neoliberalism are really saying here is that the market needs resilient and “free” individuals, not social relations of attachment that might engender connectedness and interdependency.
So back to the question of falling through the cracks of Trudeau’s desperately needed emergency fund: If we’re all supposed to be self-sufficient, productive and profitable individuals then where do we turn for help? Whose expectations have been disappointed? Whose feelings of failure abound? Whose livelihoods have been made precarious, whose flexibility has been overstretched — whose fears are today being lived out?
I was born in the mid-1970s and so grew up unaware of the changes that were then underway. Rather naively, as I look back on it now, I took my parent’s middle class words to heart: Pursue your dreams, be true to what you believe in, and go after what makes you happy. And so I did. Like many others my age, I have more than two university degrees and I have spent years speaking a second language. I have fallen in love and have lived abroad and I have had many jobs since I was thirteen. In my twenties and thirties, I worked as a researcher, as a translator and as a teacher. More recently, I have also run my own business. But throughout it all, I’ve been living life precariously. I don’t need much money to live on, but I do need some basics to get by — most of which come from people, and from the sense that in fact we are.
I watch the news today, as our politicians appeal to the people: We need more doctors, we need more nurses, we need more people in the business of care. And yet the fact that this virus is killing the old, the weak and the most vulnerable seems to speak to the proverbial elephant in the room: Why would a single healthcare worker have to work in more than one nursing home? Why is it today that our frontline staff are unequipped to do the jobs they’ve been trained for? If we continue talking about efficiency and about measures of productivity, then we’re missing a simple fact — that as social beings we do not prosper on the principles of profitability.
Instead of carrying the burden of failure, it might now be the time to ask just by whose expectations we are living. So, yes, we’re in need of financial help, and, yes, we are fearful of debt. But time is up on the fragmented Self, and on the euphemism of flexibility — which as we know now really means overworked, underpaid and isolated in an individualized society. Those are the selves that are falling through the cracks, the ones desperately in need of help. But the help that we need is not a short term fix, or a patchwork that hides the cracks. What I think we need is to reclaim our Self — the one that is social, whole and coherent, and one that can rely on a stable foundation.