My safety net(s)

I have had one of those weeks. The confluence the climax of a journey I have been on acutely since the start of the Lent this year (and more chronically for at least the last six years), and the serious illness of someone close to me has made it quite a week. In addition, as minor players, it is the start of exams and I have the third cold in as many months.

I am done in.

Yesterday was a duvet day.

It was also a day that I went to see my spiritual director. I am still astounded at God’s grace in bringing this particular person into my life.

Now, as I think back over this crazy week of emotional turmoil I realise that I have had not just one, but several safety nets.

Firstly, the email conversation with a friend. A conversation where I can speak my fears and concerns and have them held lovingly. It is a safe place where I could process the stuff in my head out loud and not fear judgement. What a grace!

Secondly, the friend and colleague who simply said – if you need to get on a plane, all you have to do is make me a list of what I need to take care of. And I know her offer was genuine, because I made the same offer to her a little over a year ago. She would have marked my exams herself if need be.

Thirdly, the two people whom I am leading a spirituality course with – I sent them an email just to say I may have a problem. The immediate response was simply thoughts and prayers with you – if I had had to drop the course I could have, they would have made a plan.

Finally, my spiritual director who painstakingly helped me untie and discern my way through the minefield of stuff.

With any one of these safety nets I would call myself blessed – that I have so many – I am astounded. How can this possibly be my life? And yet here I am.

It doesn’t change any of the detail, but it makes it all so much more manageable.

The gift of true friendship

Most friendships are built from common experience and shared interest.

We hang out at the same places and participate in the same kinds of things, and discover, almost by accident, a resonance. And for most of us, for most of the time, that is enough. Companionship through shared activity – these are our friends.

Occasionally, someone breaks through that, you start hanging out intentionally. No longer spurred on by the excuse of bumping into one another, you begin to seek one another out. And now, there is something more, a genuine friendship begins. A friendship that will survive the loss of the common space. These are the friendships which survive changes in life circumstances – the birth of children; moving cities or continents; and many more of life’s curve balls. I am blessed to say that I have at least a handful of these friends.

But, there is one step further. The friendship that will shape the person that you are. I have one such friend. We met about five and half years ago. We share both chemistry and Catholicism – an odd combination to be sure! As our friendship has developed the things we have in common remains, but as time goes on, it emerges that we are so different from each other. And yet, in the difference, and in the capacity to communicate with each other lies the gift for both of us.

This particular friendship has changed my life. For the first time, ever, I have been forced to challenge to my own way of seeing the world. This was precipitated not by my process, but by hers, initially. It began with recognising that whilst her choices were not mine, I could respect them, that she was ‘other’. Through that, some months later, I discovered that I could challenge my own unconscious way of being in the world.

The longer we are friends, the more different we recognise we are, but the more both of us value the friendship. It is a gift to be treasured


Pray as you can

The last few months have reminded me, once again, of the power of prayer. Not so much in terms of what I have witnessed in the lives of others, or in healings, or wonderful solutions to problems. Rather the power of prayer in my own life.

Through prayer and a couple of good friends I have come to see an aspect of myself that I was utterly blind to. I had an entirely unconscious pattern of behaviour which simply kicked in under particular circumstances. The breaking open of that space has been shocking, but it has been incredibly liberating.

Thinking about my own prayer life and how this has come about I realise that how we pray is actually immaterial. The important thing is the understanding that we cannot will ourselves to change. All we can do is put ourselves in the path of grace, and leave the rest to God.

It is entirely possible (as I have discovered) that we may not even be aware of the things of which we are most in need! For someone like me, who prides themselves on their self-knowledge, this is a revelation! How can I, who knows myself so well, have been so utterly blind to my own most basic of patterns?

Too often prayer is an attempt to convince God of our view of things. It is really an attempt to manipulate God into seeing things my way. Even centering prayer can be used in this way. If I sit and surrender to God for my twenty minutes then God is more likely to do what I want. If we pray in this way, we will miss the transformative power of grace.

What we need to do is to give God full access. To open ourselves to the grace of God. Any prayer method can get us there, it is the intention that is important. What we discover may not always be pretty, but it will lead to freedom.

What stories are being held?

Yesterday I stumbled across a short preview of a documentary about the forced removals of the coloured community of what is now Harfield Village.

Of course, I knew about the Group Areas Act and I knew that there had been removals of people. But my idea of when things happened is clearly a little off. The removals that happened in these areas took place around about the time of the birth of my two eldest siblings.

This happened in living memory then. The people in the clip are telling their stories. It got me thinking about the violence and gang warfare in some of the areas which became their homes after their removals. (For Capetonians – there is a big difference between Harfield Village and Mitchell’s Plain!). Is it any wonder that there is such violence in these communities? If these stories have been stewing for forty, fifty, sixty years, is it any wonder that the pain has found its only possible expression in violence. Which itself creates a new cycle of pain and violence.

A few weeks ago I found myself navigating some traumatic experiences in the past of my family as the news was filled with xenophobic and anti-white rhetoric. And in the aftermath, my reaction to unwitting comments by a few friends was definitely inflamed. Some time later one of the friends said to me – you have to explain this, you can’t presume that I understand. And while she is right, I also hate having to tell an old story yet again.

As I walked across campus to get my morning cup of coffee, I found myself looking at people a bit differently this morning. The main question in my mind – what is your story?

South Africa is a traumatised nation. I don’t know what the solution is, and I don’t know where the remedy lies. But I suspect we will all get a little bit further if can learn to appreciate that there is such pain in so, so many. Some of the pain is old pain, but there is still so much violence, that much of it is new.

As my own institution begins to engage in a dialogue around transformation, I wonder whether it wouldn’t help us all to at least consider that each person speaking might just have a story to tell. Let us not make the terrible mistake of presuming that we know, or presuming that we understand.

Catalytic companionship

It had to come to this! Sooner or later chemistry was going to have to be part of my blogging life. There is a much bigger analogy involving organic synthesis which is working its way through my system, but for today – catalytic companionship.

In chemistry, a catalyst is a substance which provides a new route for a chemical reaction. One which requires less energy and therefore enables a faster reaction. The reaction is possible in the absence of the catalyst but it may take longer and require harsher conditions to get it to go. Add a bit of synthetic flair and you can sometimes get a catalyst to make significantly more of the product you want if there is the option of few possible products.

In the last months I have enjoyed catalytic companionship with a woman half a world away. We have been exchanging emails. Somehow her presence in my life has precipitated significant interior shifts in me. I say precipitated, because in part, the correspondence has been significant. But at the same time I know that reagents necessary were already swirling in the vessel before she appeared on the scene.

Somehow, with her companionship, the activation energy barrier has been surpassed. And I am in a new place.

The catalyst itself is regenerated in the reaction cycle. It is not used up, it is not changed. Likewise in the midst of this, my companion has been on her own journey.

For a person like me, whose greatest fear is being a burden on others, such catalytic companionship is truly a grace and a gift from God. (I have already expressed my gratitude to my companion!)

Being seen

I think everyone struggles to a greater or lesser degree with ‘being seen’. None of us come through childhood unscathed in this way. There will always be someone who failed to recognise something of what was going on for us.

As adults this still happens, but as adults we are better able to understand what is going on. We see our needs and we see the lack of appreciation of where we are, and we find ourselves reacting.

I find it interesting to watch my own reactions. Four categories of response of have been identified – we can become more needy and create drama; we can respond by proving ourselves to be successful; we can respond by laughing it off and becoming the joker; or we can withdraw. For better or worse my own response is withdrawal.

As soon as I suspect that someone is not able to attend to me, I pull back and batten down the interior hatches. Over the last few weeks I have seen myself do this with two friends. The problem is, that neither of them really understands that there was a problem. As an adult my knee jerk response doesn’t really get me anywhere. I need to at least engage enough to assess whether they can really step up or not. I need to give them a chance to understand why I have withdrawn.

And yet to do so, I have to fight every fibre of my being. My instinctual self-protection is just to walk away, and yet to do so I would lose so much.