It’s relationships, not transactions, that ‘get you through’ the bad times, by Julia Unwin

Julia Unwin

Julia Unwin

In another of the stories from our collection, Insights for A Better Way, Julia Unwin writes movingly about our proposition, 'relationships are better than impersonal transactions'.

Everyday life is full of transactions. Buy a ticket, jump on a train, pay for over-priced not very good coffee, tap an oyster card, rush to a meeting, text the next event to say I’m running late. And increasingly each of those transactions is done without even making eye contact, speaking or even handing over cash. A tap of a card, a wave of an e-ticket on a mobile phone – a daily life mediated by machines and technology has bought ever greater speed, and ever fewer human contacts.

And when life is going well, and the sun is shining, in every sense, that way of living has its own satisfaction.

‘Everyday life is enriched by love and by friendship and laughter’

 But everyday life is not always sunny and can never be made up of a series of transactions. Everyday life is muddled by sadness and loss, by joy and by anxiety. It is enriched by love and by friendship and laughter. It responds to our full humanity, not the particular parts that we show to the world.

Ten years ago, one of my children, then fourteen, became seriously ill. In my busy professional transaction filled life I simply had to stop. I entered a whole new world of transactions – of blood tests and x-rays, of hospital appointments and complicated treatment plans. And I discovered, once again, that all my professionalism and all my skill and knowledge could not cope with the transaction led life. We faltered and missed appointments. I got confused by the drug charts. Members of the family were angry. Others couldn’t talk about it. Others still wanted reassurance that it couldn’t happen to them and looked for causes that kept them safe.

And through it all, and finally a good recovery, what I remember is the relationships. The teacher at school who first noticed something not quite right, and then made it easy for a sick child to come back to school. The nurses who managed not to call me ‘mum’ but to remember my name. The hospital porter who twinkled, teased us and made us laugh as we walked down the endlessly long corridor to the operating theatre. The GP who checked in to see how we were all doing, not just the patient. The hospital receptionist who always managed to tell us how good we were looking, when it was clearly not true! The consultant who referred us for brilliant counselling when all was better. But, of course, what united all those gestures were their humanity, and their recognition of our humanity. An understanding that we were more than a sick teenager, more than a troubled family, we were a complex mixture of feelings and fears, and that, if we were going to get through this we needed to be treated as the people we were, not the conditions we showed.

All that was a decade ago, and as I go to my GP for something much more trivial and tap in via a reception screen which recognises me by date of birth and postcode, and pick up my automated prescription, I do wonder whether in the interests of speed and efficiency that kindness which helped our joint recovery might now be much more difficult to find. I wonder if the diagnosis might have taken longer, the treatment been less effective, and the long-term damage very much worse.

Transactions may be fine when you’re buying a ticket to go on a train. But when you’re sad, or angry, lonely or sick, it’s the relationships that will get you through. In our much faster world we cannot take them for granted, but without them we will all risk being much more frail, much more vulnerable even if the component parts of our experience are dealt with perfectly professionally.

Julia Unwin was the Chief Executive of the Joseph Rowntree Foundation from 2007 until the end of 2016. She has been a Charity Commissioner, Chair of the Refugee Council and Deputy Chair of the Food Standards Agency and, amongst her many current roles, is chairing the Independent Inquiry into the Future of Civil Society, Civil Society Futures.