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De-skilling society

Recently I have been revising my notions about helping people. I mean helping people in the abstract, in the potential sense of the world not the real and immediate sense. It would be perverse not to like having the opportunity to help someone fix a tyre – especially when they admit they’re stumped themselves; or open a stuck jar for a helpless cook; or revise some piece (short hopefully) of hopeful writing by a neophyte. These are all likely to get you thanked - rewarded help you might call it.

Then there's doing stuff you don't like to help others: babysitting, perhaps; or coaching maths that you can barely remember having studied yourself. But at least you're giving someone what they want. 

Unrewarded and unnoticed help too: washing dishes in a house full of inveterate dirty dish leavers, picking up litter, paying for something without telling the person benefiting. 

But there is also the more abstract sort of helping. Putting grit down on the road, providing a waste bin, signposting the nearest town. All very helpful.


But a few months ago I was in the Naga hills, an area to the far west of India that borders Burma. Right near the border I visited a village and leaving one house I found myself faced by a short slippery muddy slope to the road. I thought: “If I lived here I’d cut steps here, put in a handrail. What about an old person? They’d have a hard time right now.” But just as I spoke, an aged gent of no less than seventy skipped past me up the slippy slope to the road.

In Indonesia once I’d been in an open truck speeding away when a chap who had told us earlier that he was 75, ran and jumped into the back- a moving truck…

In the Sahara I’ve seen a 67 year old Bedouin sprint up a sand dune and beat a fit looking 17 year old from England.


Maybe it starts with cutting the steps in the muddy slope. We don’t really need them. In fact they provide very good exercise in balance and using muscles we don’t normally use. We’ve paved the road and made everything flat- for cars, mainly. And now people suffer from all kinds of foot and knee problems because the human body sure as hell wasn’t designed for walking on uniform flat surfaces. In fact, bar the odd dried up lake bed and limestone pavement I can’t think of any.


We need variety in everyday life. We need challenge in everyday life. That muddy slope and the skittery scamper it promises may be just what you need.

But what about wheelchair access? I have a good friend in a wheelchair which he can’t wheel himself. He’s taking the Trans-Siberian railway with his Dad later this year. They’ll need help I’m sure from time to time- real immediate help as opposed to abstract potential help- and they’ll get it. Requiring help is far from being helpless, in fact the ability to elicit aid from others is just as much a skill as getting up a slippery slope unaided. Again, a few months ago, I found myself at 4000 metres and feeling very poorly. I had to give my pack to someone else to carry. I needed help- but so what? We’re not all the same. Naturally If was confined to a wheelchair I'd hate not being able to get around on my own. I'd love every place to have wheelchair access. But try to keep that thought in place without rejecting what I now have to say:


If I put the steps in I’m not only removing a good exercise opportunity for myself, I’m removing a challenge for others. Instead of seeing that muddy slope as something primitive, I now see it can be viewed as sophisticated too.





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