Says Who??

Verstehen, through shared perspectives


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COLLEGE STUDENTS GIVE MY LIFE MEANING

bare tree

The university academic year begins for me this week, and—not for the first time—my thoughts are heavy with the implications of the grave responsibility of educating the young. This year, though, seems to weigh heavy on my heart more than any such year in the past, with the possible exception of the years in South Africa during the end of apartheid and the first years of democracy. It could even be because of those years, and the comparisons that can be made between South Africa then, and the United States now, that my concern is great.

Of course, no comparative study would find a perfect correlation between the two countries. But there are many similarities, especially when observing the issues of race, intolerance, social injustice, disenfranchisement, rule of a power elite—I could go on, but already it become obvious that there are points to be made, as well as huge differences in the two situations. Can anything be learned from the past in another country, that would shed light on a way forward for us in the present?

My course load this semester consists of Intro to Cultural Anthropology, Social Theory, and Political Anthropology. All three courses contain a great deal of material that directly relates to August 2016 in the United States. Some of these situations, like the failed war on drugs and its ongoing, devastating aftermath, do not appear to be related to anything that occurred in South Africa. But when you look deeper at the combinations of political misinformation, low intensity violence incited deliberately by the government, and antipathy between police and the often innocent subjects of their brutality, a shared trend appears.

In fact, one can see that the troubles in both nations were not caused by failed societal structures so much as by a shared failed personal accountability for human actions. I always try to find an opportunity to explain to my students why it is true that to the extent we dehumanize others, we dehumanize ourselves. And the more often that we do that, the less human we become. At some point, it no longer matters who we hurt, or how much we hurt them. Having reached that point, nothing is sacred—we can lie to each other, cheat in personal and public relationships, and shame our religious traditions by turning them inside out and using them against each other, rather than in enjoyment of the sacredness of our existence. Some people blame this on the capitalist profit motive; I blame it on unrestrained greed grown to inhumane size, however you want to rationalize it.

Our inhumane behavior is seen in social media pages, day after day. Many posts are deliberate lies, some are propagated by people and organizations who make a great deal of money developing the ways and means of destroying political opponents, or spreading ideas in order to challenge inconvenient truths about how we should live. Our youth often do not trust our government, our news media, or our religious leaders. We have an entire generation of youth who have grown up in the midst of uncontrolled verbal and media bile, day after day. Yet many parents and teachers are still able to reflect the values of integrity and community to their children; too many others have failed.

I don’t want to be one of those who fail those precious young people. It would be safe for me to just present the information in the texts as is, and avoid controversy. Unfortunately, sociology and anthropology are not calculus. They exist to provide a learning situation whereby we may study, compare, theorize, and determine the state of our world, and consider possible ways to improve our situation and that of others. If we learn anything at all from these disciplines, it is that humans are not meant to live just for themselves. We are psychologically and mentally geared to living in community, from whence we learn our sameness as well as our beautiful uniqueness; where we learn to share, to care for others, and to be cared for. It is where we discover the meaning of our lives, as Victor Frankl explains so beautifully.

On the surface, our country is in what Durkheim would call a state of anomie; of “normlessness.” There are too many who live by disregarding the norms of human interactions, of human responsibility. The rest of us are not free of responsibility for this state of affairs. The rapidity of progress has allowed us all to enjoy an unprecedented mobility, separation from family and old friends, from the norms that defined our lives when we were young people. The sense of normlessness that has grown has produced political and religious apathy, as our values as a nation have withered into weapons for some groups to hurl at others in hatred.

It could appear that all is lost. It is not. We can, and must, regain our humanity by treating others as the precious human beings they were meant to be. We cannot separate ourselves from community, especially from communities of meaning. We can look to the examples of those around us who are good people, who live honestly and compassionately. We can seek justice for those whose lives have been broken by injustice.

…..We can demand from our government leaders the same values that we hold for ourselves, and make sure not to repeat errors in judgement on that score.

….. We can bring family life back into vogue, securing the early years of our children with the nuts and bolts of honesty, responsibility, and community.

….. We can demand improvements in our education systems so that our children learn to think, not just to memorize.

And we can treat the people we run into each and every day as though they were human beings like ourselves: imperfect, yet full of potential; sacred to their Creator and therefore sacred to ourselves. Deserving of respect—enough so as to inspire those who have none for themselves to strive for improvement.

 

……Yes, this is indeed a heavy responsibility to owe to the students in my classroom. But why else would I even want to be there? The intergenerational discussions and learning that will take place give my life meaning. My students, who are also my teachers, are the joy of my life. When I meet with them again, that “heavy responsibility” will be rediscovered as a great privilege. So begins another year.

classroom


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PONDERINGS ON THE FIRST YEAR OF MY SECOND CHANCE AT LIFE

justinhighrockGlancing over the titles of the posts in this blog site since it began just over a year ago, I am once again amazed at where my journey has taken me. Before it began, when I no longer had the will to keep fighting the illness and pain, I thought my life was (finally) over. Pain/medical management, along with an ever-expanding group of loving friends and the patience of an understanding God, restored not only my will but also my ability to rejoin the human race. I am not the same person I was before, but then who of us can claim to be the same as our younger selves?

First of all, for example, I had to adjust to the “new normal.” It was important to regain my ability to take care of myself, while also accepting that I was still somewhat limited, physically and mentally. I read an article recently about chronic pain resulting in a loss of gray matter in the brain on an annual basis, exceeding by at least 3 times the average for a healthy aging person. Sometimes I am actually aware of my thought processes searching for a new route to the data stored in my brain–data on what I used to know, and on how to accomplish certain activities. Some data seems lost to me for good. Some activities remain beyond the scope of my physical and/or mental ability. I often think in terms of “before the end of my pain and illness” and “after I began my new life.”

Then there is the issue of anger. I don’t remember when it began, but by late adolescence/early adulthood I frequently found myself swallowing what grew from a lot of diffuse anger to a frightening amount of rage. I soon realized that my words that were intended to convey merely a little displeasure were interpreted by others as threateningly angry. I began to be afraid of letting my anger out, fearing the results for both myself and others. Not knowing what to do with the bottled up anger, which only increased at a rate positively correlated to my growing sense of powerlessness, I truly believed myself to be a terrible person.

I divorced, believing that getting out of the world to which my husband had introduced me would allow for room within which I could regain some control of my life. My only response to those with whom I had been raised and who, with me, believed divorce to be a sin, was “God and I have agreed that murder and suicide are not viable alternatives.” However, what I found was that gaining control of my life meant two important things: 1) I could no longer blame my now ex-husband for the problems in my life; and 2) the anger was still there, still threatening to me.

So I still felt like a terrible person. A very angry, terrible person. But, given the chance, the human psyche can be a wonderful thing….

One hot summer night in South Carolina, as I tried to fall asleep after coming home from an adrenaline-filled 2nd shift as the nurse in the county jail, I had a waking dream that remains as real and memorable today as it was that night 33 years ago. I was in a dark, dank underground passageway, listening to the bone-chilling maniacal laughter that seemed to be coming from everywhere. The ghostly faces of demons faded in and out of sight against the walls of the passage. I was already panicked when a strong voice announced “Follow me. I am going to show you who you really are.” My degree of panic accelerated, as I replied “Thanks, but no thanks! I already know who I am, I don’t like it, and I don’t need you to show it to me.” Despite my strong resistance, however, I found myself moving relentlessly toward the end of the passage, accompanied by the mind-bending laughter. The Voice said nothing. I dug in my heels, trying in vain to avoid the forward motion toward what appeared to be a castle-type wooden door (you know, the kind with a rounded peak on top instead of a straight edge). As I came nearer, the door began to swing open inwardly, and at first all I could see was a soft, embracing light. It was quiet and peaceful in that room—powerfully so. Still against my will, however, I crossed the threshold.

There, in the room, sat a lovely and graceful woman on a vanity bench, dressed in a floor-length layered white dress, brushing her long and lustrous hair while looking into the mirror. “Who…..” I began, and she turned to me just as the Voice returned to say “She is you.” “Impossible!” I replied. “That cannot be!”   “It can, and is.” The Voice said.

And I returned to full consciousness, in my own room, stunned. Now I know that Freudians will look one way at this story, and Christians (whether or not schooled in psychology) will have their own interpretation. Just for the record, I personally prefer the latter, with a compelling use of Jungian archetypes.

dreamer

That being said, although it did not all happen overnight, I began to take control of my life and incredibly wonderful things happened to me. Though without funds and resources, I was able to return to college and move on to earn my PhD fully funded by grants and scholarships. I did my research in South Africa, where I returned to teach for a total of seven years. What a privilege all that was, supplied for me almost through no effort of my own but because of my goals, rather than as an enticement to follow the wishes of my donors and mentors. It was incredible—unbelievable. How could I ever repay this huge debt?

I was truly a changed person in many ways. What remained with me was the anger. During the college years I could cover and ignore it because I was so blissfully happy. In South Africa, I recognized the sources of my adult anger: injustice, inequality, abuse of power, violence against the powerless–these all fueled my rage. Only now I had learned how to take the energy from that rage and use it, as an advocate and activist. I could do that whether the victim was me, or entire groups of disenfranchised people. I used the anger, but I could not use it up. It remained with me. Where could I find an antidote?

Nelson Mandela suggested an idea that stays with me. mandelaAfter being released from prison and being in the public eye for some weeks, he was asked how he could possibly not be bitter about his unjust 27 years in prison. His simple reply was “If I bring the bitterness and anger out of the prison with me, then I am still in the prison.” My problem, however, is that acting on that statement must be much more difficult than he made it seem. After living for seven years in the middle of a revolution, death all around me and immanently possible, my anger had fueled a lot of action but was still very much with me. (Along with something like a veteran’s PTSD, later). But Mandela became my first black President (I was a permanent resident of South Africa, because I did not expect to return to the States) and I realized that with the influx of well-educated exiles returning home, my role was no longer necessary. Fourteen months later I returned to my own home.

It was home, but not the home I expected. I have written elsewhere how very much like South Africa during apartheid the attitudes of my country had become. It has become even more so since that post. As I write, I am still grieving over the Charleston massacre, and what it means about my beloved country. I find that the anger I feel is appropriate to the situation, and not overwhelmed by the old, built-up rage.

It is here that I finally come to the point of this article.

I have learned that managing built-up rage as well as new anger is a skill that can be learned and must be practiced. I have my own meditation and calming exercises, others will choose what works for them. But the anger must be met first of all with my decision not to be ruled by it, followed by a plan of appropriate ways to either use it or let it go. I’m not a psychologist so I will not attempt a therapeutic explanation—it is only my need to order my thoughts by sharing them that drives me to write this article.

Letting go of the anger is not enough. The empty place that is left must be filled with something strong enough to help protect against the anger when it wants to return. Again, I had begun to see the answer in South Africa.

One day I was talking to an African lady, in one of the townships which was engaged in an uproar (euphemistically referred to as “unrest” by the S.A. media) and not really a safe place for a strange white woman to be. Our conversation, however, went something like this:

Woman: Why don’t you come in the house and stay with us? You will be safe here.

               Me: Why would you offer me safety, when my presence could endanger you and your family? Why do you even trust me in your home?

Woman: Because first you are a human being, and we only survive if we look out for each other. But mostly it is because I can see that you love us so much that you suffer because we suffer.

The woman’s ability to offer unconditional love, and to accept it unconditionally, was the antidote I sought and one that I had spent many years trying to keep from controlling my life by banishing it. I could love, on condition that it be understood as a feeling and not a commitment. I had long stopped believing I was loveable because I was unable to believe the words of those who said they loved me. Therefore I could not be in control of my life if I depended on love, right? People can hurt you. I thought I did not need love. Yet in the words and actions of the woman described above, I saw what was important both to me as a person, and to me as a social advocate. I had to learn a lot about my emotions.

I have been home from South Africa for 19 years now, 17 of those years having been spent working 60-80 hour weeks and not making much headway with the deliberation and meditation required to learn things about love and anger that would have made my life much easier. About love, I have learned that it, too can be a deliberate decision and commitment, and that it also must be practiced faithfully and responsibly. The really difficult part of love has been learning to accept it, and learning to accept caring help when I need it. A friend once described me as being “rabidly independent,” which is not really so funny, when I think about it.

It took the overwhelming pain of my arthritis and disc disease, along with several other physical problems, to make me retire two years ago. The following year was a nightmare of pain and near helplessness. It was only after the successful efforts of my physicians to restore me to functionality that I realized the gift I had been given in meeting–and surviving–my greatest fear. Thanks to the loving care of special friends, including physicians,  I know it is safe to accept help from people who care. I am slowly accepting that I am loved by people that I love. I still have a long way to go.

It is important to me, however, to acknowledge something else of great importance that I have learned. That is, in working to try to make a difference in my reachable world, I need to try to confine my anger to my own energy needs and use my love to guide my work with others. And to let the anger go afterwards, and to hold to the love unconditionally. Too much of my anger has spilled into my words and actions in advocacy, and not enough of the love that sparked my need to respond.  There is already too much anger in our nation.  I don’t need to add mine.

None of that means that I believe I should not be angry with the world that spawned a young man who would be proud to kill people at prayer. None of that means that I will just forget about it. But I am going to have to love my country an awful lot, unconditionally, to keep my anger from depriving me of seeing all of its citizens as equally deserving of my efforts to respect the spark of humanity I do not see because of my anger, even if I cannot love what they have done. My words must reflect both my anger at the injustice and my concern for all the players.

Charleston Post

It’s hard. I am not very good at it yet. But I have made the commitment to try.


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THE ELECTION IS HANGING IN THE BALANCE

I am what one could call “an elder.” My station in life affords me the ability, or perhaps burden, to look back and assess the arc of history’s swinging pendulum. I’ve seen this play before. I didn’t like it then and I don’t like it now.

It’s only August, and only midterm elections, but already the advertisements have been repeated so often for so long that I can lip sync with them. At least the primaries held some interest, with more candidates to listen to and select from. Now we are down to a predictable routine: “He doesn’t do” this or that job, to which the answer is always “HE LIES!” It was a lot more interesting when I was teaching, and we had debates based on research of actual records, and mock elections. Grades were given based on points won while sticking to the facts, and class discussions were even more heated than the TV versions. No wonder I’m bored with it now.

Every two years since my return from South Africa, I am reminded of a conversation with one of my dear friends as we sat up through the night awaiting the results of the presidential election of 1992. I am always impressed with how very politically informed about the world people in other countries are, compared to Americans, and this day was no exception. “You know,” she began wistfully, “I wish so very much that when our national elections are held democratically we could be as civilized about the results as Americans are.”

“How so?” I was intrigued. Aileen, more intelligent than most people I knew, was bound to have a profound insight on this subject. “Because, even though this election is a fierce battle between your political parties, once the election is over you all will settle down, accept the winner, and once again pull together for the good of the country. Because you love your democracy so much, and you really believe in it. And that is why it works.”

And I believed her. Because her words corroborated my experience, up to that time. Sure, I had lived through the whole Watergate saga, as well as Contra-Gate. But we survived all that, didn’t we? I was never more proud to be an American than I was that night, seeing my country, and democracy, through the eyes of this remarkable Afrikaans woman.

Then, early 1996, I was home again. Or at least I thought that was where I had come. Eyes wide with astonishment, mouth agape, day after day I watched my elected representatives behaving like maladjusted toddlers not just in public, but on national TV.   I had never seen such infantile behavior by political leadership, including the entire seven years I spent in Africa. In Africa, political disagreements were life threatening more often than not; in America they sounded life threatening even though they were far from such extreme issues. In 1996, I witnessed for the first time the failure of my fellow Americans to graciously accept the working of the democratic process. Rather than accept, they hated it so much, in fact, that the losing party seemed to wish the leadership of the winning party dead. From the noise, it sounded like nothing else would satisfy them.

By 2000, I was already comparing the good ol’ USA to apartheid South Africa. It was getting more like the old RSA every day, to my understanding. People no longer identified themselves by ethnicity, vocation or religion. They “became” a Republican, or a Democrat, so that in much the same way as we used to say “I’m a plumber,” or “I’m Baptist,” what had begun as a personal option had become an entire identity.

What I found so alarming about this was that in South Africa I lived in the middle of a revolution, where people died, sometimes as innocent bystanders, but always because of a political identity. The anger I felt and witnessed here was just as deep, just as mindless, as what I saw in South Africa – despite the absence of war and terrorism. Then, in September of 2001, we had terrorism. For all too brief a time, we were Americans, together, again. Then we had the Patriot Act, and the War, and Homeland Security. It was the latter, despite all the protected rights that we lost permanently with the Patriot Act, that spelled out “South Africa” for me in huge letters.

Of all the names they could have given that agency, they picked Homeland Security. The name of the most abusive agency in South Africa, the agency that could do whatever it wished to any person, and justify it under the name of Homeland Security. Forget your rights, if Homeland Security considered you any kind of threat to South Africa. Now I live, again, in a country where I say the same thing about an agency with the same name and mission.

In apartheid South Africa, the poor were disenfranchised and abused by the wealthy. And so, it seems, they will be in America. Politics in South Africa were corrupt. People hated other people for being different, and it was enough to kill them for. The wealthy, to protect themselves, lived in walled compounds with security guards – actually prisoners in their own homes.   I often longed for the freedom of a small town neighborhood in America, where I could take a walk by myself late in the evening, or sleep with my windows open. Now, locking my door here in America is such a habit that I keep locking myself out when I go to get the mail.

Finally, in South Africa the architects of apartheid (pronounced, appropriately, “apart – hate”) based their political stand on their religious belief that the Bible clearly stated that the races should not intermarry. Like many such interpretations, even if true, it is hardly enough to merit committing murder. Especially if you are able to ignore virtually dozens of other “thou shalt nots” without turning a hair. They also subscribed to the belief that they were the chosen people of God, who had given them South Africa for their own, and their political wealth and power to prove His point. Take the race issues out of the question and look at the scene in socioeconomic colors, and the parallels with America today become really depressing.

In the end, South Africa also learned that you can’t legislate morality.   America has forgotten that truth.

I am certain that in every generation there are the elders, looking back with saddened eyes and faces, mourning the country that they once knew. Today, I am one of those. The pendulum of history has swung too far since the craziness of the 60s, and a swing back to the opposite point again is inevitable. I just hope to live to see it hesitate, for a little while, in the balance of moderation.