100 letters changed my life

When Alison Hitchcock decided to write a letter to a friend after he was diagnosed with cancer, she had no idea it would lead to a new venture and an MA in Creative Writing at Birkbeck. She writes about how these letters changed her life. cancerlettersBack in 2010, I would never have predicted that when my friend, Brian Greenley, was diagnosed with bowel cancer, the letters that I offered to write to him would change both our lives.

In 2009 Brian and I had met on a yoga holiday in India. We got on well, both equally inflexible and neither of us able to do a headstand, but we had little else in common. I was a City career-girl, and Brian had recently taken voluntary redundancy and was thinking of setting up his own gardening business. We met up a couple of times back in the UK, but neither of us would have described ourselves as anything other than acquaintances. When Brian shared that he had been diagnosed with cancer, perhaps because I didn’t know what to say, I offered to write letters to cheer him up. Looking back, I’m not sure what possessed me – I was no writer. But a promise was a promise!

The letters began and over the next two years, as Brian’s cancer developed to stage four, I kept on writing. I surprised myself, finding that I cherished the time I sat alone and wrote. It felt good to be doing something for someone else and it removed the feeling of helplessness that friends so often feel when a loved one becomes ill.

My enthusiasm for writing was bolstered by Brian’s response to receiving the letters. He once said: ‘Knowing that someone is caring enough to write, buy a stamp and put the letter in the postbox means so much. Your letters help me to feel reconnected with the real world.’

Enthused by my newly discovered passion for writing, I attended an Arvon Starting To Write course and began to understand what it means to want to write. From then on, as for so many who attend Arvon, everything changed. I wanted to write more and learn more. My letters continued but Arvon had given me an appetite for writing and letters were no longer enough, so I applied to Birkbeck’s Creative Writing MA. The MA not only confirmed my love of the writing process, it gave me confidence to explore different styles. By the time the course ended, I had had short stories published, written a novel and become involved with wonderful literary organisations such as Word Factory.

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At the end of 2016, Brian and I were recorded for Radio 4’s The Listening Project. Such was the response to our story, we set up From Me to You, a charity which inspires people to write letters to friends with cancer; keeping them connected at a time when they feel most disconnected. At From Me to You we run letter writing workshops, speak at events and our website hosts writing tips on what to say and how to say it, and shares many inspirational stories from those who have received and sent letters.  Recently we have expanded the initiative so that people can write letters to cancer patients they have never met. The communications range from postcards and notes that say something as simple as ‘keep strong’ to longer letters recounting tales of everyday life. These letters are acts of pure kindness. There is no obligation on the recipient to write back.

Brian never responded to any one of my 100 letters and I never expected him to. The letters had given me the gift of writing and a whole new life. That alone was, and still is, more than enough.

Contact details for From Me to You:

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Charitable giving in times of uncertainty and distrust

This article was written by Dr Bruna Seu from Birkbeck’s Department of Psychosocial Studies. Dr Seu participated in a Cultural Capital debate  entitled ‘The trust virus: the future of giving’ on 9 February 2017

money-256319_1920In a climate of economic uncertainty and rampant resentment, what hope is there for giving? Is there a future for altruism in an age of isolation? Are charities the answer or do government and corporations have to take responsibility? These were some of the questions asked at ‘The Trust virus: the future of giving’, a Cultural Capital debate organised by the Y&R London on 9 February 2017. These debates are terribly important for both academics and NGOs as they engage with the complexities and moral dilemmas involved in giving as an act of helping and social responsibility in today’s divided society and conflicted world.

The findings from the four-year research project discussed in the forthcoming book Caring in Crisis, which I co-authored with Shani Orgad (LSE), address some of these questions.

Charity starts at home

All the focus group participants in the study believed that charity does start at home. Yet, to think of this as simply parochialism, in antithesis to universalism, is unhelpful and an over-simplification. Looking at how people perceived the boundaries of their care and social responsibility, we identified nine circles of care from the most inward-looking (some expressed this in terms of ‘me and mine’) to the most universalist (‘the world is my family’ or ‘I’m a citizen of the world’). Worryingly, the majority of participants did not extend their sense of responsibility beyond their local community. This speaks to the power of the ‘inward looking’ attitude at the heart of parochialism. Yet, it is in the daily practices of care that people use in their community that people find a model for taking responsibility for others, near but also afar. Members of the public expressed a wish to care for distant others built on these practice of care they are familiar with, as if the ‘world were a small village’. These practices of care can be a vital resource for NGOs to build on.

On the other hand, Brexit, based on isolation over integration, is feeding on and in turn fuelling processes of ‘othering’ of distant sufferers. Many have commented on how anxiety, verging on paranoia, is at the heart of xenophobic Brexit. This anxiety, fomented for political ends, can have very damaging effects on the capacity and willingness to open empathetically to others. For example, the portrayal of refugee seekers as scroungers, parasites and vermin circulating in the media, blocks empathy and exasperate pre-existing and outdated portrayals of those affected by humanitarian crises. Focus group participants spoke of ‘the Africa thing’, whereby Africa becomes the stereotypical symbol of what is quintessentially wrong with humanitarian causes –– intractable, corrupt, hopeless.

The defensive and oppositional stance of ‘us and them’, at the heart of Brexit, disconnects rather than connects people to others. This is very detrimental to the future of giving to distant sufferers.

This distrust is not limited to refugees

The 2017 Edelman Trust Barometer identified a worrying decline of trust towards NGOs and charities. We also found evidence of a deep crisis of trust between NGOs and their public. In particular, people distrust NGOs when they were perceived to operate as businesses, in competition with each other, and manipulating people to make them donate. Many felt that ‘all they want is my money’. This distrust runs deep. Most people, even those committed to humanitarianism, talked of NGOs constantly ‘hitting on the same note’ which causes saturation and a hardening of attitudes towards giving and NGOs in general.

People are angered by this approach and likened most NGOs to marketers (self-serving and manipulative), in contrast with their wished-for model of NGOs as Good Samaritans (altruistic and good people).

Money is not the future

Although monetary donations are essential in enabling NGOs to operate, they are often a form of fleeting participation in that they give people permission to disengage. We found strong evidence of the negative ‘collateral damage’ from this transactional model of engaging the public, which we call the ‘hit and run’ model of humanitarian communication. This form of communication presents the viewer with an emergency scenario, through emotionally-charged images and contents, asking the viewer to donate money so that NGOs can respond to the emergency on their behalf. Put crudely, members of the public feel ‘hit’ emotionally and then disregarded, while NGOs deliver the help. In the short term the ‘hit and run’ model ‘“works” in so far as it is a successful fundraising tool. For this reason, it is understandable that cash-deprived NGOs resort to it so frequently. But it is counterproductive in terms of long-term public engagement. Participants commented that the ‘hit and run’ model enables people to disengage with a good conscience and doesn’t require commitment.

This is where we can learn a lesson from care in the community. When people talk about their model of caring for others, we found that it is relational rather than transactional, and based on commitment. People feel that the ‘hit and run’ transactional approach is dehumanising for themselves (‘all they want is my money’) and for the beneficiaries.

The future for giving then is not money but connectedness. People feel they want to connect to distant suffering in more meaningful ways, which they model on their everyday ways of caring. These ethics of care are deeply rooted in people’s ways of life. One participant talked of wanting to ‘give blood and tears’, not money. That would make his giving meaningful. If we listen to the symbolic, rather than concrete meaning of this, we learn that the British public are looking for symbolic, cognitive and emotional meaningfulness in their giving. On these, meaningful connectedness to humanitarian issues and deeper public participation over time can be built.

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