A trip down memory lane

I’m at a chemistry conference this week. This one has got me reminiscing. This is the first chemistry conference I have been invited to speak at. Professionally, that is a bit of milestone.

It just so happens this this particular milestone happening in this place at this time has some resonances.

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This picture was taken just over twenty years ago – sometime in mid-November 1996. This is me with two of my third year chemistry buddies. This is minutes after we had walked out of our final chemistry exam. This is us celebrating the fact that none us would ever study for another chemistry exam again. We were all shaking the dust from our feet and moving on to other things.

This picture was also taken about a mile from where I am now sitting!

There is something deeply poignant for me about having this particular invitation in this place at this time.

Those who know my story know that it has been a series of leavings and returnings. Chemistry is appears to be my long suffering life partner. It allows me to walk purposely away, or to meander gently down an alternative path. But always welcomes me back. It is the part of my being I value less than I might, but it is always forgiving, and always willing to give me another chance.

I’m not sure I will ever fully grasp quite why I need chemistry, all I know is that I cannot seem to let it go. It is appears to be a strong part of who I am. And I am deeply grateful that have had such incredible opportunities.

Hope

We begin a new liturgical year. The season of Advent comes around once more. And once more we are invited to wait in hope.

On Saturday I gave a day of reflection to a group who are dear to my heart. The priest saying mass asked me what readings I wanted. I hesitated and he suggested repeating the readings of the Feast of Christ the King. I gladly agreed.

The gospel was that of Jesus being mocked as being ‘King of the Jews’ as he hung on the cross. Of course this is the gospel for the feast, what else would it be.

And yet, and yet, the juxtaposition of the triumphant nature of the feast itself and the image portrayed in the reading jumped at me in a way it never has before.

What struck me was that Jesus hanging on the cross wasn’t the disaster it appeared to be. It was horrific; it was tortuous; it was desolate. But it wasn’t the disaster it appeared to be.

That gives me hope.

Believe

I am sitting at something called the H3D symposium. This evening I had a great conversation which has left me energised and hopeful. The conversation was with Kelly Chibale.

Kelly co-supervised my PhD. When I began as his student in 1999 he was just starting out. A Zambian who had gone from working in an explosives factory to a PhD at Cambridge. He postdoced with the best and the brightest and returned to Cape Town with a vision to make a contribution to science in Africa. I could be wrong, but think the first paper we published together was his first paper as an independent academic.

Today H3D, the drug discovery spawned from his lab employs just over 50 people! He is also warden of Smuts House at UCT.

This evening, we had an amazing conversation, about politics and life and hard work. But above all about the importance of building and sustaining relationships. I know Kelly has his detractors, but if there is an example in my life of the fact that one person with a vision and sustained effort can make a difference in our world – Kelly is the man. And most importantly, in a crowd of 170+, he fended off the distractions of at least a few international guests to continue the conversation we were having.

Even if he had achieved 1/10th of what he has managed to create, he would still be a role model for me, because above everything, he values people. Regardless of whether they contribute to his vision or not – he values people.

When I had worked in spirituality for four years, and then emailed him to ask if I could get back into chemistry. He responded that day to say, come do a postdoc in my lab – He values people.

At a time when I am feeling a little overwhelmed by potential threats, I am deeply grateful that I know this man. There is hope for our world, if we could all value people to this degree.

The feast of All Saints

The 1st of November is the solemnity of All Saints. It is commemoration of all those who have gone before us who now stand in company of the Blessed Trinity and the angels.

For me it has a personal significance – one I have broadened beyond the scope of the original intention. In the Spiritual Exercises of St Ignatius in the final contemplatio there is a ‘composition of place’ – I imagine myself standing before God our Lord, with the angels and saints interceding for me [232].

In my mind’s eye the image is clear – I am standing in the front of a quire style church – the floor tiles are oblique and alternating black and white. In the choir stalls are the saints and angels. They are personal to me. My saints and angels.

The people both living and dead who have supported me and who are supporting me in my life’s journey; who support me in my faith journey (whether they profess faith in the way I do or not).

I know my interpretation is not quite what the Church intends for this feast. But I love the image of those who have been my guides and those who have loved me willing me on to greater truth. I stand where I am now because of those who have been willing to hold me when I was less able to face into what is real. I stand where I am now because of I stand with others who have chosen the painful path of what is real.

On this day, I am deeply grateful to my company of saints and angels.

Holding space for anger

Jim Finley has huge experience in helping people recover from trauma. He claims that a person cannot heal unless they have allowed themselves to feel their anger. This certainly rings true for me.

This is not to say that the person must be allowed to express that anger in any way they fancy. Violence and displaced anger are not useful. I’m not talking here about condoning any behaviour that is violent, aggressive or intimidating. Sometimes it is enough just to feel the anger and to own the angry feelings in the presence of another.

Too many of us are uncomfortable with anger. We avoid it at any cost, and the result is not pretty. Deep wounding never gets a chance to heal.

As we see the anger and violence boiling up around us, it occurs to me that maybe we need to pay attention to ‘holding space for anger’. The expression ‘holding space’ is one I use in a spiritual direction context. As I sit with another I see myself as holding the space to allow for encounter with God. It is an active, conscious process which provides a safe containment for the exploration.

What if we focus on ‘holding space for anger’? What if we dare to stop soothing, pacifying and attempting to fix, and simply let the person express their anger?

I know that we fear that we will be overwhelmed and that we won’t be able to contain the pain. But I think we can begin in small manageable ways. I can begin to own my own anger. And I can begin to simply allow those around me to express their anger when they need to, or perhaps even to vent (again this does not mean allowing yourself to be a punching bag either in an emotional or a physical sense!).

I suppose the challenge really lies here. If anger comes from a sense of powerlessness, in order to hold this space for another, we must be at ease with own powerlessness.

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: https://alanalevandoski.com/) 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.