18 September 2007

Andrew Smith is alive by Kenneth Zammit Tabona (Times of Malta, Sep 18, 2007)

I wonder whether anyone has given a thought lately about which way Western society is heading? I got a nasty shock a week or so ago when I saw the cover of The Sunday Times Magazine of September 2; a tombstone with the stark and shocking legend:

Lest we forget
By 2021 a third of us will live alone
How many will die alone too?
Andrew Smith - November 30, 1965 - May 13, 2006

Maybe I am wrong. Maybe it is because I am in a position where living alone is more of a reality than the majority; but the cover had the same effect on me as the warning that miraculously appeared in Belshazzar's palace that was interpreted by the prophet Daniel in the Old Testament. Since then pronouncements like the one above have been referred to as the "writing on the wall". I felt profoundly sad.

I have no pretensions to be a Daniel, however common sense does indicate that in the larger more impersonal world single people are on the increase and they are at risk. Although in Malta we are saved from "slipping through life's cracks" because of the constant presence of extended family and friends, there are those who subconsciously start shutting doors on the outside world, slowly and imperceptibly, till those around get so used to not seeing the person concerned, that, should he or she one day snuff it, as Andrew Smith did last year, it will be the smell of decomposition and not the loss that will finally alert other people to the fact that there may be a dead body in a house. Still, mercifully, this is very difficult to imagine happening here, but, abroad, in the big cities, it is a reality. Thousands die alone and unmourned every day. Are we to be the blessed exceptions? I somehow doubt it... at least not for much longer.

People who live alone do so for a variety of reasons. They may be divorced or separated. They may be people who find it hard to get on with others. They may be widowed. Above all I am convinced that many, the majority in fact, are deeply hurt. They are hurt by the continual rebuffs that single people receive in a society that, superficially, is instinctively bent on reproducing itself and is centered entirely on the concept of heterosexual marriage and that's it; period; full stop; end of story! Because, for whatever reason, these people are not mainstream, the more sensitive of them may feel cheated by life and withdraw into themselves, making it even more difficult for those who care about them to help. I have seen this happen to people I know and therefore please do not imagine that this is a hypothetical situation. I have never felt more impotent in my life. I still, years after a particular friend whom I knew and loved all my life passed away, cannot stop feeling guilty for not having done more for her. The explanation is that it was she who put everyone at arm's length and more. Despite that, the niggling discomfort somewhere in my conscience goes on itching like an old scar.

The couples with two point four children are the ideal. Both the state and the Church in Malta consider these family units to be the ones worth sustaining and encouraging, lavishing all sorts of allowances, tax benefits and safeguards on them. The single person is a non person. They do not figure in either the state's or the Church's agendas. When I stopped qualifying as a "zaghzugh", I was shocked when the Lenten Sermons were announced. Not one of them was for me unless I considered myself as "kullhadd". As I never thought I was ragtag and bobtail I gave them up. I have felt excluded ever since. Not from God and not from Christ as I know and am convinced that when the Good Shepherd went to look for the lost sheep it was one sheep only and not for a ram, a ewe and two point four baby lambs. It is the Church as an institution that baffles me because it is run by single people exclusively; single men who dictate policy from the Vatican and who are supposed to have dedicated their life to saving the souls of others. Whether married or not should not make a difference but the Church hierarchy is officially oblivious, not to say intolerant, of the single state in anyone else but themselves! Weird but unfortunately true. In the past, many were those single people who found Saint Gorg Preca's "Muzew"to be a refuge. Today less and less single people would opt for that sort of life.

The state also does not consider single people at all except for single mothers and widows. Are they aware that it is a continually growing section of society? I am unsure as to whether the government is taking its cue from the Church or not, however one gets the impression that the state of being single is just as undesirable and there are absolutely no provisions that can alleviate the already heavy burden of loneliness and make one feel like a valued member of society. If what the tombstone says is remotely true and a third of us will be single by 2021, governments and potential ones had better watch this space as a third of any electorate can make or break them as quick as boiled asparagus.

I would, thanks to Ariel Leve, like to think that poor Andrew Smith did not die in vain. When, after months of dogged research the cadaver was identified, not by the police but by a research team set up by the London Times, the tragically hurt and withdrawn personality of Andrew Smith emerged, piece by painful piece, to form a picture of a man who could be any one of us. I quote, "Andrew Smith must have wondered who would grieve for him or feel his loss. And to live your life knowing that if you didn't exist, nobody would notice, must be so lonely; it's being a ghost long before you have gone".

We tend to get on with our fast and hectic lives without stopping to think of others. We work hard and we play hard too. People who do not conform or fit are not considered worth bothering about. Many of these are single. There are those who grab life by the horns with both hands and like Theseus force the Minotaur to the ground by fighting on. Yes there are single people who can take it all in their stride however even the most positive of them has moments wherein the loneliness, the lack of warmth, the absence of support, the empty bed, the breakfast for one and the tins in the cupboard get to them. That is why both the great two institutions that run Maltese life, the state and the Church, must revise their policies... and fast before they become totally antediluvian.

No comments: