Sunday, November 16, 2008


My eldest son scorns my occasional use of the word “networking”, and I can see his point. He feels that “to network” has taken on a kind of cynical, manipulative connotation, that of using people for one’s own selfish purposes, of empire-building, ‘feathering one’s nest’, a culture of reciprocal favours and obligations: “you scratch my back and I’ll scratch yours”.

Networking, one imagines, is a vital part of the curriculum of the coveted Masters in Business Administration with which so many of our health and social care managers seem to invest themselves in modern times. But our organisation - and I use the word cautiously - is very loose, and deliberately so. We rely on the self-directed actions of individuals to fulfil our declared purposes. The Trust has only ever been a free association of individual women and men, committed to sharing themselves in spiritual friendship with others at times of difficult transition, and to fitting themselves for such sharing through personal practice.

We don’t select, accredit, authorise, train, direct or supervise our volunteers. We don’t ask for references, testimonies of good Buddhist standing, Criminal Records affidavits, or transcripts of caring experience or qualification. In this sense we are counter-cultural, if only because everything else in contemporary culture seems to be subject to ‘managerialism’, to the entrepreneurial ethos, the ’cutting edge’ of new technology, the rolling tide of added-value, risk-reduction and all the rest.

I read a prospectus recently for training as an End of Life Care Practitioner. The training involves four weekend modules and two eight-day retreats. It’s an impressive-looking programme aimed at impressively qualified and committed individuals, but the cost to each participant is US $5,000, plus US $2,900 for accommodation at the training centre. I can’t and won’t repudiate such initiatives as this, but I deplore any trend towards the ‘commercialisation of compassion’, the insidious commodification of care.

And, right or wrong, my instinct is to trust the open-handed and open-hearted Hospice Trust volunteer to do her best, as she sees it. In my experience, our best is always just what is needed: even our mistakes and clumsiness are as it should be in the wider scheme of things.

Writing about when things go wrong reminds me of an incident that occurred at my brother’s funeral last weekend. The service had just got under way with a short introduction, and the priest invited the congregation of mourners to join him in a short prayer. As he was making this invitation a latecomer, a young woman carrying a child no more than a few months old slipped into the chapel and, making her way down the central aisle, lost her footing on the polished tiles and fell with a great crash and a cry of shock to the floor.

Fortunately, with a mother’s instinct, she managed to hold the baby away from harm’s way on the unforgiving tiles as she fell, but she was clearly very distressed and a great gasp of concern rose up from the seated mourners. She rose to her feet clutching her child, and managed unaided to find a seat on the pews. Without offering a word of comfort or concern, and without leaving the rostrum (but with a look of deep embarrassment), the priest continued at once with his formulaic words “Shall we pray….”

Over his recited prayer the congregation heard the woman quietly weeping as she comforted her baby. We were, and I include myself, as if transfixed by the awful conjunction of events. I still feel the momentary horror of the situation as I write, the awful contradiction of a ceremony that - as it were - averted its eyes from everyday pain towards an unseen God who, we learn, numbers every hair on our head, and every sparrow that falls.

It has occurred to me to wonder if such a scenario could ever be enacted in a Buddhist setting. I don’t know the answer, do you?


mick said...

A beautiful piece of writing Peter! Intellectually strong in the first section and very moving in the last section.

Well done!


Anonymous said...

Nicely put Peter.

Metta, Jon.