the muiz

Tuesday, 20 March 2012

Compassion under pressure

The entire goal of the spiritual life is compassion – as Meister Eckhart emphasised, “if you were in an ecstasy as deep as that of St. Paul and there was a sick man who needed a cup of soup, it were better for you that you returned from the ecstasy and brought the cup of soup for love’s sake.”

I fail this test frequently. And not because I am in ‘an ecstasy’ too great to tear myself away from and serve my fellow human beings…no, nothing as wonderfully spiritual-sounding as that… Most often it’s because I am too busy, ‘not in the mood’, distracted, irritated or self-absorbed…

Compassion takes time, energy and the willingness to become involved in something that might snowball into something much bigger than you at first anticipated. Sometimes I just don’t feel I have the energy to ‘go there’ with a particular person or situation I am confronted with, usually at an inopportune moment (like when you are on your way to work, or already late for an appointment…)

Is it even ‘reasonable’ to expect that anyone would always react with compassion, patience and self-sacrifice though? Aren’t we all ‘entitled’ to have ‘off’ days, or to avoid certain situations because they just aren’t ‘our thing’? I often ask myself this, when I am judging others for not seeming responsive enough… as well as when I am feeling guilty myself for turning away from someone clearly in need and right in front of me…

As I write this, I am still feeling very bad about turning a young man away from our house, who approached me as I was getting out of the car, and asked if he could wash the car in exchange for food. To my shame, I responded dismissively that our car was already clean and sent him on his way – because I was totally absorbed by my own concerns (I am 9 months pregnant and had some alarming symptoms that had sent us scurrying to the hospital, to check our baby’s heartbeat and ensure she is okay – we were just returning from there).

Many times in the past, a similar situation would have caused my heart to melt, and I would have found a way to make this a dignified transaction, to enable me to give him food, a shopping bag or two full, and send him on his way with smiles and blessings. A bit of gardening, or something for him to do… In a previous neighbourhood we had actually gone from an encounter like this, to babysitting the man’s grandchild, and frequently giving him lifts to the other side of Cape Town afterwards - always with bags of food (and money for the work he did in our garden – work we usually do ourselves as I don’t believe in having ‘servants’). But not this time. This time I was hard-hearted and dismissive.

By the time we were inside our house, I was already feeling ashamed of myself - he wasn’t even asking for money, which I don’t like to give to people as it may support a drug or alcohol habit… He wasn’t even asking for something for nothing- he wanted to work for it… He was so young, maybe 17, and I had just added to the bruises on his young soul that poverty and discrimination have no doubt already left there… I thought of how much food we have in our house, and how easy it would have been to give him some… I realised again how blessed we really are in comparison with most people living in this city…

Sure, my concerns are real and valid too, but in the context of so much love, so many blessings, and so many resources at our disposal to deal with our problems (like access to private medical care when we needed it that morning, and a car to drive there!)… Not to mention my spiritual, social, intellectual and emotional resources – when I don’t know what to do, I can pray, call friends or family, research possible causes and solutions on the internet, or at times just lean on my lovely man for comfort and support… While many people trapped in poverty, and usually with deeply dysfunctional, ‘broken’ families and communities, have none of these avenues of assistance or support open to them.

How could I just turn away from him like that, without even pausing to think of the options available to me to help him? As I already explained, I was self-absorbed, concerned about our baby girl, and her imminent arrival in our world - hopefully in an untraumatic manner… But there was more to it than that: I also felt impatient with being ‘accosted’ as I was getting out of the car in our usually quiet little cul-de-sac – like, “oh just leave me alone, what are you doing here anyway, you shouldn’t be here… probably looking for a chance to break in or steal something like all the usual druggies down the road in the park…” 

This was my jaded self talking – the one that has been living in this country again perhaps just a tad too long now, with calluses growing over my heart in places – probably in a futile attempt at self-preservation… There is just so much suffering here, right in your face, all the time… And you don’t often know what to do to help, or feel like you can even make a dent in the problems… I am not sure if you can go on indefinitely, being ‘too sensitive’ or ‘too idealistic’ (as I am often accused of being) and not crack up because you can’t help or ‘solve’ it all… I think most people eventually just start turning a blind eye so that we can carry on with our daily lives without cracking up all the time….

But I don’t want to be hard-hearted. The irony is that I have often, in sheer frustration at not knowing where to begin, asked God to “send people across my path that need help” so that I can at least do small things along the way to share the resources I have been blessed with – financial and/or spiritual… And yet there he was, this young man, obviously in need…and I sent him away with nothing. You might think I am really carrying on too much about this, but I don’t think I will forget my callousness in that moment (and many others) for the rest of my life. One of the many moments in my life I will always wish I could have over, to redo, and do it with compassion this time.

I will try to use these regrets as a learning experience though, rather than staying in a place of shame and guilt (at being such an obvious part of ‘the problem’ rather than ‘the solution’) – which is disempowering, soul-destroying and counter-productive. I would rather see these moments as reminders of my own fickle, self-absorbed humanity, so that I will not be so quick to judge others and rail at them for their failure to ‘do something’ – to care, to share, to respond… I do spend a lot of time thinking “why don’t they do/see/think/care…??? When I should include myself in the analysis, asking “why don’t I… ???” It’s a sobering, humbling, challenging question.

The next question is something like, “how can we freely (but gently) acknowledge our own lack of compassion, empathy or love; accept that many others are stuck in the same sort of inertia – also often brought about by feelings of helplessness in the face of the huge issues to be addressed; and still press on – humbly, bravely, even if inconsistently, to try and do some good, together…?” Perhaps pretending to be more loving and patient than most of us really feel at times, is part of the problem.

I am not saying it’s okay not to care, or it’s fine to do nothing, because we are all ‘just human’. No. I hope you are not reading that. It’s about being honest enough about who we all are, and this hopefully freeing us, to be and do more than we could if we were still sitting around feeling bad for not being Mother Theresa. I don’t think we will get far if we think it’s all up to us, or that we should be a certain way, always respond in certain ways… Every person that crosses my path is not my responsibility to help, or ’fix’ - but I have a hard time letting go of the idea that maybe they are…and I will never be able to live up to that unrealistic (self-imposed) mandate! 

So perhaps I need to let go of ‘the one that got away’ and instead focus on being more open, attentive and responsive for the next one that crosses my path.

OR maybe I really did mess up big time and no one else helped the poor guy either, and I am just trying to self-justify here… What do you think?

I would really like to read some other people’s opinions and perspectives on this… both from within South Africa, and from other countries, where there are of course also inequalities and social injustices - although the dynamics may be very different...

Tuesday, 13 March 2012

Community and courage

I am looking for a community and society I can introduce our daughter into with pride. This isn’t it.

These recent words of mine on facebook elicited many responses from friends and family - mostly those in South Africa – either saying I should move to their neighbourhood as it has good schools and churches, or that the perfect community does not exist...

I found these responses most unsatisfactory, and here‘s why:

A ‘good’ community or society is more than its schools and churches – these are only ‘good’ for those that are a part of the particular group or subculture – I want to be part of something bigger than that: multi-layered and inclusive, with a good mix of people of various races/ethnicities, socio-economic backgrounds, age groups and religious/worldviews.

Anything lacking this diversity is a subculture, an ‘us and them’ space, and often an elite or exclusive group which ‘allows’ membership based on certain restrictive criteria or traditions. Conversely, true community is open to all: no exceptions, no exclusions, and no ‘expulsions’ when we don’t agree, don’t understand each other, or simply don’t like each other...  

In other words, community is like family – you don’t get to pick who is in it, and you aren’t necessarily alike or going to always like each other! But healthy families love and celebrate difference and individuality; communicate respectfully; resolve conflicts constructively; forgive and grow in their understanding of each other; and remain connected and supportive of each other throughout their lives...

Whereas dysfunctional families criticise, judge and condemn; can’t seem to communicate or resolve conflicts, preferring to nurse old wounds and grudges for decades; drift apart over time, heading in their various different directions; and are disinterested in each other’s lives, disaffected by each other’s pains and struggles.

While I agree that no ‘perfect’ community or society exists, or ever has, for that matter – there are certainly healthy, functional and multi-dimensional communities of people throughout the world, and historically. Peace scholars refer to these as ‘peaceful societies’, and have spent a lot of time researching and analysing what makes for peaceful human systems, in the hope of sharing certain principles and values more widely.

Some key principles of a ‘healthy’ society or community, from my limited studies, experience and point of view, would be the following:
  1. Conflict is not absent, but proactively transformed (through constructive, constant, loving and humble communication and dispute resolution processes) into a learning experience, an opportunity to grow and make a better way forward together.
  2. Difference is not feared and criticised, not even merely ‘tolerated’, but embraced and viewed as a gift to the community. This creates a ‘safe space’ for people to be themselves, and therefore not feel threatened by others being themselves. There is a healthy balance of personal freedom (to ‘be’) and mutual respect (to allow to ‘be’).
As someone once said, “between the alleged opposites lie the colours of the rainbow”... Instead of drawing lines, we could be painting in watercolours...

Unfortunately, it does seem that most communities and societies today are not of the ‘peaceful’ or ‘healthy’ sort, but more like the dysfunctional families described above. However, this does not mean we should sit back and accept this state of affairs, or remove ourselves and form subgroups or subcultures to avoid dealing with our neighbours.

In fact, since dysfunctional families are a major contributing factor to our dysfunctional communities and societies (Mother Theresa famously observed that “in the home begins the disruption of peace of the world”)... we can all also play a direct, observable role in turning this around for the better, beginning in our own homes and families, as well as in our immediate neighbourhoods. But this does take time – and massive daily doses of patience, dedication, forgiveness, humility and courage!!

‘Community-building’, a much-bandied-about phrase, and a field I studied as it touches the very core of what I passionately want to see in the world, and in my not for the faint-hearted. What I concluded from my studies (and quite contrary to the message they intended to give) was that it’s also not for outsiders – project-based experts who flit in and out of an area with good intentions but no lasting links to the people or area.

It’s not easy to ‘build’ community, or family for that matter - it needs to be invested in: deeply, proactively, and constantly... and is therefore best done by those who are personally, deeply and indefinitely invested in the community - because they live there, and eventually need to entrust their children to it.

Community-building is an ongoing journey, not a destination - like peace or sustainability (concepts very much interlinked with each other, and with ‘healthy’ communities) – we can never rest on our laurels, thinking we have ‘arrived’... We will need to nurture and attend to it daily in some form or other, for all of our lives.

So a ‘healthy’ community (or a ‘peaceful society’) is not in a state of stasis, or standing still in some ideal and perfect state, but on the contrary, requires a constant forward movement – constant learning, negotiating, growing, changing and developing... Otherwise things go backwards very quickly – losing ground occurs through simple inaction and indifference, more often than not.

Scientists might recognise this line of thinking as resembling natural processes such as ‘entropy’, expressed in the second law of thermodynamics, and the basis of chaos theory: anything left to itself decays or descends into a state of disorder, randomness and even chaos. It takes energy to prevent or reverse these inevitable natural processes.

Now, our daughter is not even born yet and I am already thinking about this. Any day now she will make her appearance into the world, and hopefully eventually become a shining member of human society – loving and being loved, contributing and learning, sharing her giftings and blessings with those around her... At any rate, this is how we will be raising her, and the values with which we will be sending her out into the world - when the time comes for her to leave our home and make her own way in life.

But what sort of world will she find out there? And what influences will shape her early years even before that – encountered at schools, in other people’s homes, and in public places like shops, beaches, parks and sporting events? 

Can we afford to be blasé about these influences, and hope that she is strong enough to make a value-driven, spiritually anchored path for herself through life- merging the values we instil in her, with those that come from her own heart and experiences? Or should we invest more time and effort in finding (or building) a community and society that more closely resembles what we believe in, in order to further support our child-rearing efforts?

This line of thought has of course in the past led many people to go off into the mountains and build their own ‘ideal’ community there, abandoning the society that has ‘failed’ them – excluded or persecuted them due to their religious beliefs, or not provided a safe and welcoming space for them to express their concerns and values as part of the communal debate and law-making processes... or simply because they fear ‘contamination’ by the society they see as corrupt and morally degenerate.

This removal of oneself from the rest of the community (whether completely, or by focusing one’s efforts on subgroups instead of attempting to interact with the ‘others’, the whole community) is a sad loss for all, and counter-productive - there can never be full health of any body or system, in this case the community, when there is fragmentation and disconnection between the parts. Health requires wholeness.

Having said all of this, there are valid reasons for carefully considering one’s membership of any given community, and feeling free to leave if one does not feel a deep resonance with the core values and beliefs encountered on a daily basis...

By this I don’t mean to imply that one would always agree with everything, or always feel understood and included... As I already pointed out, there is no ‘perfect’ or ‘ideal’ community - all communities have flawed assumptions and prejudices that individuals and subgroups within them may not agree with. But are you still able to live as you in that imperfect, flawed and fragile (read: human..) space?

Or do you feel suffocated, stifled, squashed, ignored, dismissed, disregarded, misunderstood, judged and ridiculed most of the time...? Because that’s not a healthy space for you to live in, then. And if you feel sufficiently outside of the collective space and conversations, then it will be very difficult, perhaps even impossible to change or build the culture and community.

So my recent ponderings on community, belonging and community-building come down to this: the courage required to commit to the long-term journey of community-building, and moving forward together to a preferred future, comes from some deep place within that can only be described as passionate commitment and unconditional love. One will only undertake this journey if one firstly feels a part of the community (at least enough to want to stick around and try to improve things) and secondly can visualise a ‘better’ future.

Many South Africans appear to be in denial about the second half of that – the ‘better’ future our communities could be building together - they claim to be very happy with their neighbourhoods or lifestyles, despite hard-to-ignore facts like crime and social injustices all around them.  For the most part, their statements show a lack of awareness of the issues, and complete denial of their responsibility to engage with the rest of the community and society, and contribute towards change.

Of course in the previous paragraph I am referring mostly to the white or affluent minority in this country (my friends and family...and me!). But those who have had less privileged lives in the past are now also mostly focused on serving their own narrow interests, and buying into the material-wealth-is-happiness myth, with very few pursuing selfless goals like community-building, reconciliation and empowerment of others. 

And of course the remainder, those millions struggling to just survive, can hardly be expected to pursue lofty goals like ‘community-building’ when those of us with ample resources find it hard to ‘make time’ to do this...

As for me, I am struggling with the first half of the motivation to be a part of changing and building this community – feeling a part of this community, at least enough to want to stick around for the loooooooooong journey of turning this culture around. Right now everything I see and hear around me makes me deeply unhappy and uncomfortable, yet I don’t feel I have a ‘platform’ from which to address any of these issues, or be a part of the change I want to see (to intentionally misquote Gandhi).

I don’t feel sufficiently connected, understood or even listened to, in this alien land (once my homeland) be a part of the conversation about what needs to change, let alone how to go about implementing that change. Why throw my 5 cents into the virtual arena then, you might ask? Because I still feel a small flicker of courage and hope – that there may be others out there who feel similar inklings, and a similar alienation from the national conversation, or lack of...

The many thousands (or millions, by now) who have emigrated to other parts of the world in recent decades, must attest to the fact that many South Africans have felt sufficiently ‘left out’ of the national conversations or direction the country was moving in, to not stick around and be a part of the much-needed changes, but to pursue their destinies more successfully elsewhere. I find this completely understandable (and I am so sick of people here attacking those who have left!!!) - although as I already said, I see this as counter-productive to our society, and a sad loss for all.

At least while I am here, I can keep trying to ‘stir the pot’, trying to start conversations about all of this, trying to prod people to think about it... until one day soon, when I suspect I might give up and go away. Sadly, or happily for me at least, I have actually had the experience of living in a reasonably healthy, functional society... and I freely admit, I long to go back there one day, even while at the same time feeling such a deep longing to contribute here (which is why we moved back to South Africa in the first place).

Although flawed, completely imperfect, fragile, with barely concealed conflicts and its own share of denial of these... Bondi, in Sydney, Australia... my neighbourhood, community and home from 2001 to 2009, was a more welcoming and ‘safe’ space for me as a complete foreigner, and for my particular personality, beliefs, interests and passions, than my so-called home country has felt over the last few years. So I keep asking myself, why stay where you are not wanted and will possibly never ‘belong’?

Any thoughts? I would love to hear them... (Not abusing me for my comments about South Africa please, but about your own feelings regarding belonging and community, or thoughts on community-building and whether you see yourself as having a role in this in your local area?)