Standing in generosity

I just peeked into a thread of Facebook comments. Given some of the people involved the trajectory was fairly predictable. It began with what appeared to be a genuine attempt at nuance, and quickly unraveled into pejorative dissing of caricatured positions.

Once again the ideal straw man is set up and gets set ablaze with aplomb.

It is tiresome, and normally I simply avoid even glancing at such conversations, but this was a fairly new addition to my ‘friend’ list and I am curious about the position she is taking on a particular topic.

What if, instead of attacking those who we presume to be coming from a different position, we adopt a position of curiosity? What if we dare to presume that actually the vast majority of people really do want the best for the greatest number of people?

I am not talking here about the extremist minority who seem to want destruction. I am talking about friends, colleagues, coworkers and students who do want a good outcome.

Let me be very clear, I’m not talking about the ultimate resolution, I have nothing to offer there. But can we avoid colluding with destructive forces? Can we recognise that there is a particular kind of stress present in the world at the moment which makes it so much harder to hear different viewpoints?

There is clearly a strong division in opinion as to the best way to get to a better future. But what if we can approach those who hold a different opinion to our own with curiosity (again this is not a strategy for those who are either violent or intimidating). What if we dare to presume that their position is actually considered?

We are all struggling at the moment. If we wait to be treated with respect and generosity before we step forward, we are likely to be waiting a long time. What if we dare to take the first step? What if we dare to say ‘I’m curious, what do you mean when say that?’ And then just listen.

Daring to stay present

Daring to stay present in a time of uncertainty.

I’ll confess that the last week has been tough for me. My emotions have been more volatile. I have felt the real uncertainty around the future of both higher education and the South African economy.

It occurs to me today that perhaps the greatest temptation under such circumstances is to rail against those in power who seem to be making outrageous decisions. It isn’t that bad decisions potentially directly affecting my life (and those of millions of others!) are not being made. But rather that expending my energy in that way is utterly pointless.

Yes, I should own my frustration, anger, fear, grief and anxiety. The challenge is to allow myself to feel what I feel so that it can pass through me. Railing against those in power can feel like the easier option!

In a time of deep uncertainty I am going to be blindsided by different emotions at unexpected times. Okay. So be it. But I still need to show up in my life .

So now what?

I think that I need to make sure that I am attending to precisely the tasks that my life is presenting me. It feels terribly mundane and trivial, but actually no one is inviting into any space that I would think of as being more significant. So I have to trust that I am exactly where I am meant to be.

I will do my best to be present to every person who shows up. I will consider, in a broader sense, where my teaching may be alienating to some people in my classes. I will be discerning about what I post on social media. I will pray for the grace of wisdom for those in leadership.

But most importantly, I will embrace entirely my own sphere of influence. I will show up and consciously make the choices which are mine to make. And I will do my best not to play armchair quarterback.


Do not perpetuate violence

We are in the midst of a time of deep uncertainty, anger and grief over the state of higher education in this country. To say it is profoundly painful is something of understatement. Images of violence and senseless destruction fill my social media feeds. With it more or less masked rage at the other (whichever side is held).

How did we get here? We have to recognise that we live in one of the traumatised societies on that planet. That did not magically get healed with the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. And now all the baggage of those years of brutally dehumanising the majority of the population is being triggered in all of us.

How do we find a way through? I have no idea. I only know that if we are going to give the next generation any hope at all we need to face into our own pain. We need to acknowledge the deep trauma.

If South Africa is to survive as a nation at all we need to do what we can to ensure that we don’t perpetuate the violence. Certainly I mean physical violence but I also mean the violence of words and intention.

How to do this as a society? I have absolutely no clue – for today I am doing my own inner work.

A resource I have found particularly useful has been the ‘Sanctuary’ album – a collaborative project between Jim Finley and Alana Levandoski.  (You can find the live concert here: The song which gives rise to the title of this blog can be found on the video around 24 minutes – Do not perpetuate violence against the parts of yourself that need to be loved the most.

Name the real fear

“What you are aware of, you are in control of, what you are not aware of is in control of you. You are always a slave to what you’re not aware of. When you are aware of it, you’re free from it. It’s there, but you’re not affected by it.” – Anthony de Mello in Awareness.

I was chatting to a friend recently and was struck by something he said. He was discussing the possibility of having to have a difficult conversation. I asked him what he feared and he gave an answer which amounted to ‘social awkwardness’. It simply wasn’t the real fear.

In reading Anthony de Mello’s quote I realised how vitally important it is to name the deepest awareness we have. We have to speak the best version of the truth we can possibly access. As we do that over and over again we become aware of new levels. More of the things which control us gradually come into focus. As we learn to name them, we slowly become free of their control over us.

But this will never happen if we are satisfied with the first answer that pops into our minds. The surface fears are real, but for the most part they are huge distractors. If we allow them to dominate the conversation we’ll never get to any of the real drivers. When the real driver comes into view it is often a little embarrassing, but the liberation is so much greater.

We need to name the real fear that we have, its the only possible entry to interior freedom.

Pyrrhic victory

A friend and colleague who is a full professor at a very good university in South Africa posted this as a status update this morning:

‘Pyrrhic Victory. Time to google that concept if you have forgotten it.’

The chemist in me has a fair intuition of what is implied, but I googled it anyway.

‘A Pyrrhic victory is a victory that inflicts such a devastating toll on the victor that it is tantamount to defeat. Someone who wins a Pyrrhic victory has been victorious in some way. However, the heavy toll negates any sense of achievement or profit.’

Whatever will come of the ongoing protest action in higher education – we are here.

If you are still not getting the picture – think of the victory of the war veterans in Zimbabwe. They gained the land but at what cost?

As talented academics of all levels and all races across the country prepare cvs and make job applications elsewhere, the cost is already too high. As a whole generation of graduates may have to spend another year at university who will staff our schools and hospitals? What about those who are due to enter next year? What is the cost to the country? What is the cost to the students and their families?

The shells of the great learning institutions of our country are already being hollowed out. Whoever ultimately claims victory there will be nothing worth celebrating.

Truth telling

Over the last five or six years I have found increasingly that paying attention to my own interior areas of unfreedom has been instrumental in my development and growth. Interior unfreedoms present themselves in different ways – there are two key markers for me.

  1. A sense of ‘stuckness’ – recognising that I am either clinging to something or resisting something.
  2. Over reaction – recognising that whilst my reaction may be legitimate in essence, that the intensity of my reaction is out of proportion to the incident.

In both cases it may take a while of gently noticing, befriending and becoming curious about the unfreedom before I am able to identify its origin. In almost all cases the roots are deeply embedded in my own wounding.

Once I can name the real underlying fear I begin to pray for the grace of freedom. In many cases where that issue is linked to relationship with another it will require an honest conversation. Once I know the source of the unfreedom, I can have the conversation I need to have.

The whole process requires truth telling – I need to be honest about my interior freedom. I need to be honest about what is actually triggering me. Finally in my communication with the other I need to be honest about what I am feeling and how I am making sense of what is going on.

Engaging the other person requires discernment – are they able to have the kind of conversation I need to have? If not, it is probably wisest to continue the interior journey alone. But on the occasions that I have dared to tell my truth I have been delighted at the outcome.

Not only have I regained my interior freedom, but the relationship is on a firmer footing.

All of us or none of us

I have spent the few months considering the connections between people. Discovering that my own growth and development is inextricably linked to my relationships with others was something of a shock.

This wasn’t some nice theory I had read but emerged from very clear life experience, and once I had seen it, I couldn’t help but look back at all that had gone before and recognise the truth. I am who I am today far more because of the web of relationships that have framed my life more than anything else.

The question which has been tugging at me – What if the idea of the autonomous individual is a myth?

The final nail in the coffin of my faith in individualism occurred about a month ago as I listened to Mary Evelyn Tucker describe the ecological state of the world. Alongside her words I had swimming in my mind pictures of Syrian refugees and the dawning recognition that Brexit had actually happened. The ideal of the ‘self-made man’ pulling himself up by his bootstraps is at best joke and at worst a cruel impossibility held up to the poor as a shaming spectre.

As I sat in a hotel ballroom filled with 500 people all signed up for a course in mysticism I found myself toying with the idea that either we are all transformed or none of us will make it. Either we all choose to participate or humanity will kill itself off along with a huge swathe of the current diversity of life.

We are in a new phase of violent protests at South African higher education institutions. My social media feed is filled with anger and outrage on all fronts. Over and over, different groupings believing another group is the source of the problem wanting to get rid of them. And over and over, I can’t help but think that if we don’t find a way which truly makes room for everyone then we are all sunk.

I have no idea where the answer lies. But I hope that this current outflowing of anger is in fact a step forwards. We can’t move forward together if we don’t face into the real pain at the heart of our society.

For now I sit and watch and grieve. I grieve for the ocean of trauma that has flooded this country from generation through generation. I grieve for both the perpetrators and the victims of violence. I grieve for those who sit smugly saying ‘I told you so’.

I don’t know where the answer lies but I am becoming more and more convinced that if we are to find one at all, we will all need the courage to sit with the pain.

Spiritual escapism

Jim Finley has a offers a useful caution against ‘spiritual escapism’. As I pursue my desire to engage in a conscious spiritual path, what is my motivation?

I know as I look back on my own life that there have been periods when I used spirituality as an escape. There have been times when I have justified my neglect of other things on basis of the importance of my spiritual work. At the time, I would have resisted strongly any suggestion that what I was doing was a form of escapism.

I don’t think we should delay the pursuit of things spiritual until our motives are pure. If we do so we will be waiting forever. And sometimes we really do need a ‘port in the storm’.

I think there are some useful things to look out for

  1. Is your journey leading you to face challenges within yourself?
  2. Is your journey leading you into more real relationships with others?
  3. Is your journey leading you to confront your own image of God?
  4. Is your journey leading you to greater engagement with the ordinary things of your life?
  5. Conversely, is the story you tell of your life the same one you would have told a year ago, two years ago, five years ago?

As you consider these questions are you aware of any ‘stuck’ places? Is your current spiritual practice able to help you work with them?

Don’t panic if you realise that actually a good part of commitment to spirituality is escapism. Recognising that it is so is half the battle. Just be as honest as you can with yourself about what it is that you are avoiding, and then begin the process of re-engaging. You may need to find some support!

The gift of spiritual friendship

I went for a walk with a friend yesterday. She and I have know each other for a long time. We first met nearly eighteen years ago. But our friendship dates really back to my return to Cape Town in 2007.

I don’t remember now how it began, but I do recall a conversation on a walk, very similar to the one we took yesterday, where we decided that we would meet regularly for ‘spiritual conversation’.

This particular friendship has been and remains a real treasure. Our social circles do not intersect. This is not a connection that would have thrived if we had not both intentionally committed to it. And yet this friendship is one I treasure deeply.

Not all spiritual friendships endure. Some have a specific season. Some occur by virtue of circumstance.

As I reflect on this particular relationship – almost immediately a parade of others appear in my mind’s eye. A long established close friendship with a fellow Ignatian enthusiast; the friends with whom I shared lunch this same day; my Living School companions; friends I encountered at a book launch a few days ago; etc. etc.

I have been inordinately blessed in my companions on The Way.

Happiness is…

Happiness is understanding chemistry

A Facebook friend posted this meme last week. I confess for a trivial meme it has occupied an inordinate amount of my head space over the last few days.

What struck me most forcibly in the moments after I first saw it was the trajectory of my thoughts. Almost immediately I began ‘Yes, but….’ followed by an litany of sections of chemistry that I feel I should understand better.

For those who haven’t quite registered this – I teach organic chemistry at a very well respected university in South Africa.

My reaction was interesting to me: Whichever way you configure the statistics, few would argue I understand more chemistry than most people (unless you want to take a very small sample size of professional chemists!). But what was immediately foremost in my mind was the areas of understanding that I lack!

Now, the enneagram savvy may recognise a compulsed 5 in operation. (The 5 on the enneagram is the personality who gains a sense security through having knowledge). That may well be true.

But it alerted to me to a much bigger social problem – my compulsion to shore up my security through knowledge doesn’t appear to hurt anyone, but what if I found my security in financial resources? What if I found my security in being able to identify those who don’t belong? What if I found my security in owning firearms? What if I found my security in being found likeable by others? What if I found my security in being seen to be successful?

Suddenly my kneejerk response is far more sinister. I cannot claim a greater morality because my response is apparently less harmful. It is simply the way we are wired.

In unveiling my own compulsion I am both deeply grateful it is relatively neutral (at least as far as I can see), and I see those whose compulsions are necessarily potentially more destructive with far less judgement. It isn’t my path, but the reason it isn’t is not because I am fundamentally a better person, it is just because I am wired to be soothed by a different stimulus.