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His Excellency John Ralston Saul
"A circle of friends" Foreword to the publication In the Company of Others by PLAN (Planned Lifetime Advocacy Network)

August 1, 2005

There is no more ancient idea of society than a circle of friends.  And there is nothing more predictable than the discovery by a group, who have come together to support one among them, that the one in need is somehow helping them.

Why does almost every philosopher since the beginning of recorded time come back to this idea of mutual support, of the emotional sustenance needed and found in organized friendship?

The answer simply is that life has several essential components.  And one of these, one which can be seen as a metaphor for civilization, is that we live through the mirror of the other.

Gilgamesh, hero of the very first Western dramatic story – the perfect leader, handsome, rich, surrounded by admirers – discovers that he cannot live without his friend Enkidu.  He discovers his own mortality through his friend's death.  More to the point, he discovers his own mortality because he has discovered a sense to his life through friendship.  This same discovery is repeated throughout Homer, the Greek legends and plays, the anglo-saxon myths and so on through story after story to our days.

What did Socrates mean:  "the unexamined life is not worth living?"  Well, one thing he meant was that we become conscious of the potential and the limits of our existence through the mirror of those around us.  And that was what Adam Smith meant when he focused all of his philosophy on our need to imagine the other.  We are not the other.  We cannot be the other.  Our destiny is to be ourselves.  The readers of this book will not become Margaret, Betty, Jeff, Rick or Erin.  But the people who have joined the circles around these five individuals have in a sense examined themselves.  And you, the reader, will perhaps get a hint of how you might better imagine the other and examine yourselves.

What of Margaret, Betty, Jeff, Rick and Erin?  Well, they'd be the first to know what their disabilities are.  They do want friends.  And they do want to be part of a community, just the way all of us do.  Forty or fifty years ago their disabilities probably would have led them to being treated by our society in an unacceptable way.  In fact, many with disabilities still are marginalized in unacceptable ways.

Think of the well-intentioned but foolish decision thirty odd years ago to shut down old style hospital facilities for Canadians with mental illnesses under the naïve delusion that their needs could be handled with drugs.  How those drugs would be administered in the real world was never addressed.  To address that need you would have had to imagine the other.  And that would have led to the organization of circles of friends, assisted housing, group housing and so on.  Instead, we got a falsely rational, administrative solution.  And the result today is that over half the homeless on our streets have mental illnesses.

The five Canadian citizens around whom this book is written carry a single message.  It isn't an easy one.  It is a message about the central role of friendship for each of them, but also the central role of friendship for the small group of individuals who make up each of their circles.

What makes these five people so special?  The answer is disarmingly simple.

If you have a disability, you have to try harder to make your life work, to make a place for yourself, to get through the practical needs of every day.  You have to examine yourself as best you can and make a constant effort as best you can.  In other words, you have to be far more conscious than those of us who float along, lost in the illusion that we are OK and are therefore in control of our lives and therefore have little to examine.

Margaret, Betty, Jeff, Rick and Erin are the centre of their circles, and not simply because they are the reason for their existences.  They are at the centre because they bring their example of consciousness and effort to the lives of their friends.  I have said it before, but it bears repeating:  our society has come to confuse speed with intelligence.  We are wrong.  There are many kinds of intelligence.  And the most interesting kinds of intelligence turn around consciousness, consideration and care.

PLAN is an organization centred on this understanding of multiple intelligences and of citizenship as a much richer and more complex engagement than we often imagine.  Above all, it is an organization centred on the reality of building friendships to support people with disabilities.  Everyone involved has fast discovered that this business of building friendships is a two-way street on which everyone must be a beneficiary.

I began by pointing out how circles of friends have always been at the heart of our idea of society.  If the convenor, so to speak, is someone with a disability, this idea of shared multiple friendships becomes all the clearer.  And it becomes all the clearer as a model for society.  Why?  Because the price of each person's entry into the circle is their – your – willingness to imagine the other and so become more conscious of yourself.

This book is about the core idea of any society.  And it is a reminder of how careful we must be when we expand our notion of society to hundreds and thousands and millions of people.  People massed in great numbers can give themselves a false sense of certainty; sometimes a frightening sense of certainty.  It is important to protect ourselves from ourselves by being able to hear the voice of someone like Margaret, with her sense of this unconscious reliance on reassurance.  And so she asks her friends whenever she feels it is necessary:  "You okay? ... You sure?"

Updated: 2005-09-07
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