Unassailable truth

In the last couple of weeks I have found myself slightly uncomfortable with the way people are using ‘truth’ and ‘facts’. There are two places in particular that have caught my attention. It began with an email from a Catholic blog I write for insisting that we should stick to the truth. In the context what was actually meant was that all the writing should be consistent with Catholic teaching. I have no problem with the latter given the mission of the site. But to equate this with truth without equivocation is a big problem.

Don’t get me wrong I do think that for the most part Catholic teaching is pretty good. There have been a lot of wise people working on, and revising the teaching for a long time. But I hope and trust that it will continue to evolve and change as our understanding of our world and who we are grows. Some of what is official teaching does rankle and I sincerely hope in time there will be changes. In general I’m happy to say that Catholic teaching is a good solid guide, but I won’t hang my hat on it being ‘truth’.

The other sphere has been the rhetoric around the March for Science. I am a scientist and I really do want policy guided by evidence based research. But let’s not forget that all data is interpreted. Just because it is labelled ‘science’ doesn’t mean it is good science. Not only is data collection subject to a range in reliability, but we necessarily interpret through the lens of our best understanding to date.

I am sure that understanding of pretty much all physical phenomena is more accurate than it was a decade ago, precisely because we have more data, and the data has helped us hone our understanding. But we could still be missing a giant part of the picture. I do put my faith in the process of science, which does occasionally allow for the paradigm shift. It really is the best we have. But again I’m not hanging hat on it being ‘truth’.

In both cases discernment is necessary. I’m not going to upend my life based on one scientific study, or one line in the catechism. But as more information becomes available and I begin to study around these things, I will begin to see whether this is indeed trustworthy. And then I have to act, and to continue to discern.

(Don’t misunderstand me – I’m not suggesting at all that the catechism and science offer the same kind of information! That is a whole other conversation – this is simply a commentary on certainty)

Holding insecurity with compassion

Over the last few weeks I have had to face into my own insecurity in several different circumstances. In almost every case the situation has been something of a time delay between the stimulus which has triggered the sense of insecurity and the required response. Actually in my life, that happens a fair bit.

It has been useful to feel the trigger, to notice my visceral response and still have time to gather myself. The gathering for me is relatively analytical. It gives me time to look at what I am actually anxious about. Sometimes it is real, almost always there is an element of truth. This could actually go badly, and it is because of some deficiency in me.

But it also gives me perspective. It helps me to see that the triggered response is not actually a good representation of what real. The reactivity is more like the giant shadow of the little mouse in the cartoon. The mouse is real, but the size of shadow is way out of proportion to the real threat.

In each case, I have finally faced into the situation, and in each case what I face is occasionally painful, occasionally humiliating, but the light of the truth is so, so much better than the fear. Perhaps more extraordinarily, more often than not, what has been revealed is actually pleasantly surprising.

Noticing the emergence of the insecurity and approaching it with compassion and then curiosity has been tremendously helpful.

Twenty sacred minutes

Since my retreat in January I have begun a practice of taking some time when I get home from work. I take twenty minutes to just sit and let myself be present. It isn’t a practice of active mindfulness, nor is it the stilling of Centering Prayer.

It is simply a time of allowing myself to be. To watch the evening light on the mountains. To gently sip a beverage. To just be.

Those twenty minutes somehow create an unexpected spaciousness. My life is not so full that I don’t waste time. Most of my evenings are not spent particularly productively. But somehow the intentional quietness of these twenty minutes creates a sense of peace. It removes any sense of urgency, and yet at the same time, I am more likely to spend my time in useful occupation after the investment.

It takes my mind off the hamster wheel of daily activity, and allows for more intentional effort.

These twenty sacred minutes are the most valuable time investment I have made (beyond my morning prayer).

Building community

I am a reasonably solitary person. I do have a good number of significant personal relationships which form a complex web of support. But I have never been very good at relating to others in any configuration other than one-on-one.

Consequently the insight of my last blog post on the face of evil has caught me a little off guard. To effect real positive transformation in our world it is necessary but insufficient for me to simply do my own work. I must do my own work. I must face my own woundedness. I must allow myself to enter the Pascal mystery of my own suffering, before redemption can occur.

But if I am to truly have any kind of impact on the world I must align with others. I must actively form a community of people who have a desire to make difference. And we must work together to make a difference.

This is a deep challenge to me. It is a call, a beckoning, an invitation, to step beyond my comfort zone. Quite what it will look like, I have no idea. I know only that it is time to begin seeking in earnest.

The face of evil

I drove home today mulling over the disappointing reversal of several ANC leaders who are now saying they should not have criticized the outrageous Cabinet reshuffle initiated by President Zuma last week. It occurred to me that this kind of allegiance to an institution might just be the face of evil.

Individuals are wounded and broken and can make awful choices, but it requires institutional support for evil. That institution can be a family, a community, a religious body, or, as in this case a political one. But for a broken person to truly have a damaging impact on the world requires collusion.

I don’t know Jacob Zuma’s story. I cannot say that would not make similar choices had I walked his path. But the ANC machinery is colluding and evil is manifest in our country.

This is not to say that the ANC has not been a real force for good in the past. It clearly has.  But it has lost its way.

After I got home I read an article in News24 which quotes Gwede Mantashe as saying “what do you think the ANC is, Father Christmas? I don’t know where this notion comes from that we are a collection of individuals who have conscience. We are members of the ANC in a party political system.”

What hope of being a force for good in the world does institution have if it demands loyalty over conscience? Sooner or later a damaged person will come to power and evil will fly.

If evil is only really manifest when we come together, maybe the same is true for good. Who are your community? Who are you standing with?

 

We don’t know the future

It is an obvious truth – we don’t know the future. But today I reminded of that in a useful way. We stand on the cusp of history in South Africa right now. Or that is how it feels. Will we descend to the infamy, ridicule and ruin that is Zimbabwe, or will we manage to make democracy work in a traumatised, tribal, post-colonial culture? It really isn’t clear.

But today I am reminded that there is hope. Almost exactly 10 years ago I began work as a postdoc in the lab of Kelly Chibale at UCT. I shouldn’t have been there. I had been working outside of chemistry for four years (when I say outside of chemistry – I was a spiritual director in a Jesuit retreat house!). I had to relearn most of what I had known.

Today I said goodbye to my first grad student. He was with me through honours, masters’ and his PhD. He’s going to postdoc in a very good lab at a good university overseas. When I began in Kelly’s lab in 2007 this was not my dream – I don’t think I had one. And yet now, 10 years after that reentry and nearly 15 years after I submitted my PhD this is where I am.

There is real fruit. My student’s journey is his own. I cannot claim any of it, except, I gave him space. For me, I didn’t dream 10 years ago that I would end up here.

I don’t know where I will be in 5, 10, 15 years, but I do inherently trust the journey so much more now. I don’t where South Africa is going, and I don’t know whether my fate is linked to the country I have adopted. But I have hope in humanity. Because when I sit with those who are truly seeking, I see healing happening – in myself and in those who choose to share their stories with me.

There is nothing but hope.

Not blind optimism but real hope.

Unconscious patterns

I found myself reacting this morning in a way that is so deeply familiar that it seemed both reasonable and justified. An irritation to an interaction over email.

It didn’t occur to me to question my response at all, until my sister did. We were casually chatting over lunch.

As soon as she pointed it out, I realised how blind I am. I do notice my reactions, and I do critique the extent of the reaction quite frequently. But it has never occurred to me to pay attention to the very flavour of the reaction itself.

In this particular instance – why does this particular sequence induce the response it does in me?

Today the answer was obvious as soon as the question was asked. I think though it is the start of a new layer of exploration. I look forward to seeing what I will learn.

Discernment

I’ve been thinking about discernment a fair bit recently. In Christian terms this is often the term we use for seeking to do God’s will. This often means given a choice between x and not x then my task is to figure out what choice seems to be more in line with God’s will for me. In other words, what matters is what I choose. One path will lead me towards God and one path will lead me away from God.

Now, I think there are some choices like this. But I think the vast majority of choices that I try to actively discern are not in this category. When I think about the last major choice I made, I know that both choices were good choices, and both could equally have led into deeper relationship with God. What mattered was not the choice itself but the process of making the choice.

The lasting impact on my life is not the decision I made, but rather the way in which I made the decision. Engaging in that particular process revealed to me my attachments and fears. There were six clear steps where I could have chosen to lean into my fear or bow out of the process.  Ultimately if I had bowed out of the process, my external life circumstances would look no different to what they look like now (my decision was to stay where I am). But I know that if I had bowed out of the process I would not be who I am today.

All of the steps, except for the last one, were about shifting the decision from a possibility to a reality. Every single step was profoundly challenging. I had to face into a significant fear – the same one in different guises. What actual choice I made on that sixth and final step would have significant impact on the external detail of my life, but the essence of who I am was far more impacted by the previous five steps.

The faithfulness to the process, which required that I attended to my own attachments and fears, has allowed me to cross an interior threshold. That would have happened regardless of the ultimate decision that was made. In other words what was significant was the process of discernment, not the choice that was ultimately made.

In this case there were multiple steps, and so the lesson is clear. But what if this is the case for the vast majority of the decisions we are trying to discern. What if the real invitation is to examine our fears and attachments? There is no doubt in my mind that the extent to which I can free myself of my fears and attachments is the extent which I am available to begin anything which might resemble the will of God.

 

Community

I spent a good part of the last week in India. I was invited to give a talk at a chemistry conference. There is much to say about the experience, but for today just one thought.

We were given a ‘cultural event’ – some music and dancing from the region. Some of it was striking and quite moving. But what stays with me is the dance of these seven young girls.

As I watched them, there was no clear ‘leader’ of the group. Over the passage of the dance first one, then another, then another, took the lead. It wasn’t planned, it was just whoever happened to remember the steps at that particular point was the leader. The one who had been confident only seconds before lost her way and had to watch her companions.

They all made it through the dance because of their collective memory. Not one of them would have made it one their own.

It struck me, almost immediately, as a beautiful metaphor for our need for community. We all get momentarily distracted or preoccupied from time to time. If we are acting alone we lose our way. But if we are a part of a larger community they can carry us along in those moments. And just as some carry us during those times. We too take our turn at leading periodically.

I participate in several different dances – therefore there is not community but several. Nonetheless, I am left deeply grateful for those who dance alongside me.

Perspective

Our perception of our world is so much more subjective than we realise. The facts of our situation may remain the same, but a shift in internal perspective can often have a huge impact on how we feel and consequently how we act.

Many years ago when I was postdoc applying for jobs, I couldn’t quite see myself in either of the possible paths which seemed my probable future. I felt quite trapped. Then on the treadmill at gym on day, it suddenly occurred to me that I had never been unemployed, and I had always chosen my next job on the basis of a deep sense of this being the right next step. How could I possibly consider myself to be trapped?

With that one moment everything shifted. No, I didn’t get a job the next day. It would still take about another 18 months until I got a permanent position, but that moment changed everything. The emotional burden of the uncertainty of my position dropped radically, and over time I became far more able to see possibilities which I wouldn’t have even considered before.

I’ve seen similar things happen over and over again over the years. In retrospect what was often the tipping point into a new phase was not so much a shift in external circumstances as an internal one. I can’t help wondering what implications that has as we consider the complex political situations so many are struggling with now. I wonder whether we should be praying the grace of clarity of perspective. I wonder whether that will help.