As I sit in my study looking out towards the back of Table Mountain I am reminded of an old image. In my early to mid twenties I spent several years living at Kolbe House, the Catholic Chaplaincy at the University of Cape Town. Nestled at the base of Devil’s Peak just below Middle Campus and above Main Road, it was the perfect location.
There was a little spot – an odd square block just outside the kitchen stairs where you could sit and look up at the awesome magnitude of Devil’s Peak. It was my ‘solace’ spot. The place where I could sit when I felt lost; alone; overwhelmed. I could just sit and look up at the remarkable solidity of the Mountain and somehow after 5 or 10 or 15 minutes I would feel better. Devil’s Peak always visible day or night.
At some point during my PhD I spent a couple of weeks house sitting a house in Plattekloof. During the day it had a beautiful view of Mountain, but being significantly further away, at night the inky blackness of Mountain was indistinguishable from the night sky. One night I was struggling with something (I cannot remember what now) and I did what I always did when I felt that way at Kolbe. I went outside to look at the Mountain. To my horror I realised that I couldn’t see it.
And I so I raged at God that even this last solace was taken from me. As my rage softened to silence I noticed that whilst I couldn’t see the Mountain, I could see the edge of the city lights. If I kept looking at those lights the dawn would come.
And so tonight I sit looking out of my study window with a very similar view. The Mountain and sky blend into the darkness, but the row of lights at the base are clear. It seems a good metaphor for higher education and the skirmishes which are being fought over the soul of South Africa on that playing field.
For today, I will keep looking at that line of lights and trust that the dawn will come and the Mountain will be revealed. At the end of this long night – none of us will be the same, but that is what is needed to build a real future for us all.
Our parish priest gave a phenomenal homily this evening. In it he recounted a conversation with Mother Teresa in the 1980’s where the troubles in South Africa were being discussed. I forget now quite the words he used, but I have paraphrased her response in my own mind as ‘Leave the craziness to Christ.’
That isn’t an abdication of responsibility to do the best that we can.
I watched ‘Spotlight’ last night, which recounts the uncovering of the story of physical abuse of minors by Roman Catholic priests in Boston in 2002. The overwhelming message seemed to me to be about the ease with which so many in the community were effectively complicit.
South African higher education (the sector in while I am employed) is in turmoil at the moment. There are very real tensions which exploded into the burning of paintings last Tuesday evening. From a small faction, there is a very strong anti-white anti-establishment cause. It is unsettling.
For better or worse the system in which I work is currently seen as being problematic and exclusionary. I know it is unlikely I will ever have a conversation with those who are at the heart of the transformation movement. I am no activist and I am relatively junior as far as academic power structures go.I don’t see that any attempt on my part to insert myself into any of those spaces would be particularly helpful.
All I can do is to commit myself to observation, and to call out any person regardless of rank who behaves in a way which is derogatory or exclusionary of any other. I commit to doing this privately where possible. I have no desire to shame anyone.
The rest I leave in the hands of God – I trust that those who need to negotiate and make decisions in the long long road we have ahead will have promptings to act in creative ways. Some choices will be good and some perhaps not quite so good. But overall I think we have some inspiring leaders in our universities and among the younger generation who are truly trying to affect change.
I am choosing hope; stepping up to do my part as I see it; and leaving the craziness to Christ.
I know that this is probably not the the first topic on anyone else’s mind as we enter Lent. But a phone call from someone close to me yesterday, put me in the space of thinking about shame and suicide.
Suicide only entered my personal world in my mid thirties. First, someone who I lived with in community and then a member of my extended family. This time it is someone I knew in adolescence – late teens, early twenties. Someone who was a good friend to someone close to me.
I cannot begin to understand what it is like to feel suicidal – my brain simply doesn’t work that way. But I have been close enough to people who have been left behind to begin to glimpse the complex web of shame, guilt, anger and loss that is left.
I am grateful to people like my friend Robin Craig who has chosen to bear witness to her own journey – her 24 year old son committed suicide (you can find part of her story here: http://www.pts.edu/Robin_Craig).
As I hold this news, together with the crippling shame of so many who have suffered a similar loss, I pray for the day we no longer stigmatize suicide as we seem to now.
Perhaps the question we ought to pose ourselves – how would we journey alongside those who have suffered the loss of a loved one as a result of violence?
And then add to that burden the terrible weight that the violence was self-imposed.
It doesn’t matter whether there appears to have been a terrible climactic cause or not, the shame of those who were closest and who are now left behind can be almost unbearable.
If we have any judgement whatsoever, we do greater kindness by staying away.
Today I pray for every single person who is battling with their own sense of shame – their own questions over what they might have done differently – that they will find support in their grief.
Hurt people hurt people
I have heard that phrase so many times it almost washes over me. Nonetheless it has been pivotal in helping me to access the grace of forgiveness. One of the key insights for me in the process was recognising the importance of pausing to absorb the sting of pain when someone hurts me. Before I lash out in retribution to consider what they may have intended. Did they really mean to hurt me; was something else going on; is this not really about me at all – were they hurt in some way and are lashing out and I happen to be in the way?
It is easy once you begin to look for it to see the hurt behind the hurtful actions of others.
What has been shocking to me this week has been to see a particular attitude of my own laid bare. I have struggled with a choice of one of my friends for a long time. This week a second friend in similar circumstances made a similar choice. I found myself responding in the same way. A hard core of unequivocal judgement in the depths of my being.
The problem is that both friends are good people who are genuinely trying to do the best that they can and this particular choice is not morally problematic. Clearly the issue is mine.
I can rationalise my position, but in the depths of my being I know that the inflexibility of the core means that that won’t actually get me anywhere. So I have sat with this perplexing issue for a few days.
Yesterday the penny dropped.
The inflexibility is masking a huge vulnerability. It plays into my oldest, deepest wound. The ground each of my friends is exploring is, to me, profoundly unsafe. But somehow, way back, unsafe and unacceptable morphed into one in my mind.
Their choices have been unacceptable to me because, to me, they are unsafe.
It is shocking to me to recognise that my own deep wounding was being transmitted unknowingly and unconsciously. I was the hurt person passing on the hurt.
It is profoundly humbling.
I am deeply grateful for the generosity of these two friends – my attitude would certainly have poisoned both friendships in time. I am truly blessed that it hasn’t done so yet.
I’m in the midst of a process which has been going on for about three months. At every step along the way I face the choice of continuing on or stepping out. In almost every way shutting the process down would be easier. Because at every step I have to face into interior discomfort.
It has a slightly different flavour at each turn. And I’d be delighted not to have to continue. But at the same time as I lean into the interior discomfort and take the action required – which is usually a conversation with another person I find my interior freedom growing.
Each time the discomfort niggles at the same old, self-defining, wound. I am not triggered in any way. I am just being invited to sit with the discomfort. The remarkable thing is that as I lean into the discomfort and have the awkward conversation it seems to be loosening some of my interior knots.
The net effect even before the process is over is that I feel my old wounding taking a different shape in my psyche. It is no longer so controlling of my identity, but rather just a part of my story. And as that shift happens I begin to get to choose more how I act and react. I feel like I am no longer driven in quite the same way. Rather I have begun to taste true interior freedom.
I pray that through the grace of God that in seeing this process through that the freedom may be both lasting and pervasive.