Word View – Our Own Health
In his penetrating novel The Needs Of Strangers Canadian-born writer Michael Ignatieff examines the question of human needs and whether or not they may be met or even understood by a political directorate.
The book opens on a scene in North London with a group of apparently neglected old-age pensioners rummaging through a barrow of used clothing. Ignatieff makes the point that these individuals are not destitute, just “respectably poor”. What he notes, however, is that they all seem “cut adrift from family, slipping away into the dwindling realm of their inner voices, clinging to the old barrow as if it were a raft carrying them out to sea”.
This scene causes the writer to reflect on the role the state assumes in looking after its citizens: “Modern welfare . . . does attempt to satisfy a wide range of basic needs for food, shelter, clothing, warmth and medical care. The question is whether that is all a human being needs.”
In a lengthy but balanced discussion relative to the distinction between needs and rights, the author makes the point that what a human being needs, ultimately, goes beyond the material.
It seems hardly surprising that Ignatieff chooses Shakespeare’s King Lear in order to bear out his argument. For those who may not know the story, Lear is a proud and powerful king who demands that his three daughters tell him which one of them loves him most.
The two eldest flatter their father with their superfluous but false answers. The youngest is honest. She loves her father but will not pretend to love him to the exclusion of all else. She is banished from the kingdom while Lear foolishly gives away all his possessions to his two deceitful daughters.
Having achieved what they wanted, the two daughters then put their father out of his own kingdom. Lear is driven to madness by rage and grief. He roams the heath like a common beggar but it is here, stripped of all material trappings, that he learns both the vulnerability and the value of being human.
To my mind and to some degree, similarities exist between Barbados and the Lear story: the pride of status we now hold in the Caribbean and perhaps even world-wide, the material basis on which that pride is founded and the fragility of our existence which could bring about change overnight.
It is an unfortunate trend in societies that the more developed they become, the more materialistic they tend to be. And who can deny the obvious in Barbados? For example, it would seem that the bigger and more elaborate the houses, the better. The same goes for vehicles.
Meanwhile it is these very status symbols that are causing us to become alienated from one another. In his title, Ignatieff uses the term “Strangers” deliberately. It is not only possessions that divide us. Even the social systems put in place to help the less fortunate ensure that they become strangers to the rest of us. It is a case of “us” and “them”.
Technology is also having a field day: more often than we can keep up with, a new gadget appears on the market. We come to believe that we can’t do without them; our whole sense of geography and connectedness is taken over by the push of a few buttons. And the more expensive the gadget, the more desirable.
But what is interesting, in returning to Lear, is that while he was in his kingdom, secure in his sovereign status with all its power and material wealth, the heath was in existence. Just outside the vast expanses of the palace lay a cold, dark and desolate area inhabited by the insane, the destitute and other social outcasts whom he would join, unknown to him at the time.
Do we have our own heath in Barbados? For right alongside our material progress, there is economic hardship and deprivation for several. Vagrancy, homelessness and other social ills are reportedly on the increase.
But perhaps the concept of the heath acquires even deeper significance when we see it as a kind of moral or spiritual disconnect.
Ignatieff makes the point that our greatest need as human beings is for love, respect, dignity and a sense of belonging. In our quest for the bigger, the better and the latest, what are we losing?
Perhaps, like Lear, we too must take our downward spiral in order to discover what we truly need to make us flourish as human beings.
• Esther Phillips is an educator, poet and editor of BIM: Arts For The 21st Century.