The eve of promise: the potential of social care

It is certainly a week of happenings. Wednesday past was this year’s Winter Solstice. It has always been a night of hope and light which begins the hallowing of days till the spring and summer beckons and bursts life through darkness. From ancient times the lengthening of days, however slow and imperceptible, has presaged hope in the midst of harshness and re-birth in the place of grief. It is a day when we turn in a new direction, it is one of potential re-orientation and focus. But like so many days of light in darkness at this time of year it has a quality which it is hard to describe and fathom. That’s why for me days like the Solstice and Christmas are often best described by our poets. One of my favourite poems around the Winter Solstice is by Gillian Clarke a former National Poet of Wales. She wrote ‘The Year’s Midnight’

The flown, the fallen,

the golden ones,

the deciduous dead, all gone

to ground, to dust, to sand,

borne on the shoulders of the wind.


Listen! They are whispering

now while the world talks,

and the ice melts,

and the seas rise.

Look at the trees!


Every leaf-scar is a bud

expecting a future.

The earth speaks in parables.

The burning bush. The rainbow.

Promises. Promises.

From Selected Poems (Picador, 2016).

That last line says it all, I feel, ‘promises, promises.’ Clarke pictures renewal and rebirth incarnate in apparent decay and emptiness. She sees a world dormant with hope and promise. And today there is no shortage of expectation and promise in the air.

I hardly need to mention that tomorrow is Christmas Day because mine cannot be the only household full of the energy of childhood expectation. Tonight, is one of those evenings where the focus is very much on what is to come; when all the emphasis and preparation is about an experience yet to be savoured and moments still to be shared. There seems to be so much preparation and planning, organising and arranging for a day of just a few hours. But whether for good or ill what happens tomorrow becomes the stuff of memories and future reminiscence in a way that few single days are able to be.

Today then and especially tonight is one in which we stand on the edge of possibility and on the eve of promise. I often find it sad that the sense of expectation and promise, of not wanting to fall asleep lest you miss the happening; of wakening up before dawn breathless with anticipation – that all that seems to diminish as meaning and ‘adult truth’ replace childhood wonder and naivety.

Promise is an intriguing concept and one I’ve reflected on over the years. I have done so because I think there is something intrinsically to do with promise and hope, with expectation and discovery, at the heart of all good and meaningful social care support. Now some see social care as a set of functions or tasks, as something that is done for or with another. But I think that fails to see the whole truth. For social care support is surely much more adventurous and open than simply the performance of action or function? To reduce social care to a spreadsheet of activity is surely to lose its spirit and essence, to commission out its dynamic and unpredictability?

Every encounter we have with someone is a moment of promise, it offers us an opportunity to bring positivity, healing and meaning on the one hand and equally on the other it offers us the risk of harm, hurt or rejection. There is nothing definite or defined about the act of caring for another, it is at its best always a reaching out not to take control but to support the spirit of another to be independent and to grow into the fulness of their own self. I suppose that is true of all relationships but there is for me a special and unique dynamic about care support relationships when they are working well and most especially as folks get to know the pattern of the other.

In her poem Clarke beautifully describes the dormancy of hope in the midst of a cold winter day. There is a sense that the natural world is just waiting, patiently for the thawing of the days till it flourishes life into being. In care support where workers are allowed time to relate, to get to know, to attend and be present with, there is the potential for a life to be refreshed and renewed, for light to overcome the emptiness of absence or pain. Some of you might describe such sentiments as naïve or even false, but I have seen it too often in the compassionate care of a nurse or a carer in care home or in community to not have witnessed something which in this season we might describe as the incarnating of true humanity and love. At a very deep level social carers are promise keepers tomorrow and every day. That promise is lived out in their care, support, love, and compassion for others.

Tomorrow will be a day of excitement and joy for so many especially those who are younger. But we also have to be honest and reflect that for others it will be a slow twenty-four hours in which they will be touched by absence, cradled by regret and held by the tears of memory. There will be thousands of women and men who will combine their thoughts and feelings with going out to work in care home or in the homes of those they support as home carers. They will some of them carry their regret and some will be eager to return to the warmth of others – but for the moments and times they are with others they will be present in that person’s joy or sorrow, delight or pain – for it is the rhythm of presence that creates a carer able to make a moment meaningful for another.

But ‘promises, promises’ also has another tone to it and that is one of challenge; a dismissiveness of a commitment made with voice but not followed through. I cannot but think of all the political and societal promises we made with gestures like clapping hands to remember the women and men who were the frontline of professional compassion and care in the darkest of days during pandemic and since. I cannot but reflect that we have all broken our collective promise to recognise, reward and remunerate those women and men. A promise is empty and hard without the energy of commitment and response. That is the task and call to all of us who have a role to make change happen, to ensure that such promises do not become the stuff of fairy-tale or platitude but are lived out in societal and political commitment and action. There is nothing more important to the creating of true human community than the recognition and value of all, the fostering of compassionate care and support to those who need it to play their part as citizens, and I would argue the primacy of valuing those whose role is care and support whether paid or unpaid as intrinsic to our being in community with each other. We have some considerable distance to travel before we fulfil that promise.

May I take this time to wish you and yours a restful and restoring time as we move through this eve of promise.

Donald Macaskill