A 'Humanistic Flexibility'
On one of the rides, Ron’s mind drifted back to the first time that he started to properly struggle with his mental health. Sure that he was being followed on the way to the shops, Ron decided to lock himself in his house and cover all of the windows and doors. Dave had popped over to deliver a package but only received a glut of barely sensible warnings about the CIA through a disembodied voice drifting through the slightly open letter box. He finds the thought of Dave chatting to him through the letter box quite funny now but it wasn’t at the time. He’d tried to explain to Dave why these group rides were so useful but in the context of the above experience he could understand Dave’s confusion.
For Ron, one of the benefits of these rides was that the language, the relationships and the expectations were not at any point dominated by the ‘technical’. That is, there was what one volunteer ride leader told Ron a ‘humanistic flexibility’, where the standardised tools, methods, therapies and medications for standardised diagnoses, which could leave some pretty unstandardised people slipping beneath the joins, were replaced by untrained acts of humanity, compassion and support. That is not to say that these encounters were not without forms of expertise in the more conventional sense. In trying, mostly unsuccessfully, to explain to Dave why riding your bike with a bunch of other people could have a massive impact on your well-being, Ron came to appreciate that among many of the routine human practices and exchanges in the groups were real acts of expertise.
It might be the ride leaders or volunteers knowing how and when to pitch a conversation and when to leave riders with some space, and knowing when to talk to people about their distress and when to bring it back to something lighter, for instance, talk about cycling, the ride or other stuff. There was recognition of a need for sensitivity, a capacity to tune into where the riders were at that point and to respond appropriately. To watch how the volunteers and ride leaders worked was, for Ron, to watch a form of everyday mysticism, simply normal people being open, listening, not passing judgement and being supportive. The biggest impact that they had was simply by being themselves, by not being an expert or professional or someone explicitly mobilising techniques or programmes but rather enabling a bit of space and everyday human interactions. In so doing, the biographically situated meaning of what people were experiencing, something that often (although not always) disappears into the ether during diagnostic processes of symptom elicitation,11 was present at the forefront for those so inclined to share it. A sense of shared awareness, understanding and experience that often wasn’t to be found in the very different relationships that people form with professionals and where small acts of practical help like offering food or bike advice could be emotionally significant and help to create a sense of connection between people.12