Sunday, February 22, 2009

Trying to catch a thief

In SA with it high levels of criminality and corruption we often find ourselves in situations where we have to choose between actively confronting and resisting the “evil” or, on the other hand, accepting the inevitable, letting go and allowing some problems to resolve themselves. Put differently: we are faced with the decision to engage, to hit back or to simply back off.

That we need to engage with our unique kinds of problems and actively help to counter atrocities and misdeeds in our society, speaks for itself. This is an ongoing responsibility we as members of civil society have. The question is how to be really creative and effective in curbing careless, offensive and even criminal behaviour and in helping our society to become more peaceful and whole. There are many examples of attempts to resist unpalatable, anti-social behaviour, of standing up against crime, that are unhelpful and damaging. It is possible that in standing up for what is right one may yourself be exhibiting less ethical behaviour, or a kind of foolishness that puts not only one’s own life at risk, but also the lives of others. In fact, in close encounters with criminal activity, we should be watchful that our well intended acts of resistance do not boomerang, or have the opposite effect and thus cause unnecessary pain and even embarrassment - like the day when I tried to catch a thief.
I surprised an intruder in our home one morning, having returned from town earlier than he expected. I can still recall my stunned shock, looking into his bewildered eyes, realizing the potential danger I was in. So, sensibly, I backed off and calmly offered him an escape route … which he took. However, the moment he had left and was out in the garden, my anger and annoyance surfaced and I found myself shouting, chasing after him. I wanted him to know that this was unacceptable and that he should never ever try this again.

In going after the culprit I became so intent on apprehending him that I stirred up a number of neighbours, and ended up a couple of streets away with an outcome that I could hardly have anticipated. In front of a home where some who had joined me in the chase said the thief was hiding, a voice from across the road suddenly announced that he had dogs that he would send over to help. So the next moment two keen, agitated German Weimaraners were let out. But - listen to this - instead of going after the thief, they went for me!

This shifted the attention in such a way that the thief got away while I ended up in the doctor’s rooms having to receive 12 stitches for my wounds. If the absconding youngster had not already skipped another fence and was actually still in the vicinity, he surely would have had something to smile about. I, on the other hand, learnt some important lessons about confronting criminality in our country. In honesty, I didn’t have too many regrets about my reaction. I think my thief got the message. However, I am not sure that my behaviour contributed significantly to diminishing criminal activity in our community. One place to start with a more lasting solution, would be to ask where the bewilderment that I initially had noticed in the eyes of the rather shabby young man, had come from.

Carel Anthonissen

Thursday, February 12, 2009

This too shall pass

Not long ago someone made an awkward request to her friends. She asked them to consider joining her in what can be only be called a venture into the sometimes ambiguous art of tattooing, that is to have a tattoo made or painted on some part of their bodies. Not having expected such an indulgence from their friend into what seemed a way-out and slightly exhibitionist exercise, practised only by weirdos and hippies, most of those invited reacted with surprise, if not open alarm.

This however did not put the friend off. Responding to their inquiring and puzzled look she went on calmly and informed them that she had actually already had her tattoo done. She also revealed that there had been a purpose in her little madness - that her tattoo was not only a fleeting idea, but something which would continue to serve as an important reminder, a piece of wisdom, a motto for life, ingrained in her body and mind and which she will carry with her as a permanent sign of hope.

Having informed them about her surprising venture she then turned her wrist to them so that they could see for themselves. And lo and behold, there it was, neatly written in curly letters on her slender wrist, the words: “This too shall pass”. The astonishment of her friends grew, but when they saw the excited and proud look she had, they realized how important this was for her and, considering her history, how profound the words actually were.

By this she was telling herself and the world out there that most things that happen to us, things which are bad and deeply upsetting, which seem extremely devastating, are in the end always relative, provisional, transient - that they eventually shall pass, that the tide will turn again, harbouring new opportunities, new joys. Her motto of course also has a ring of realism to it - reminding us that we must also reckon with the fact that our happiness, our moments of joy are also transient, that they can and shall also pass…and that we must embrace them as precious gifts as long as we have them.

There are off course other ways, less public and unconventional, to carry and proclaim our truths. This does not necessarily demean the truth of the woman’s tattoo. In fact for those who profess to be Christians the content of her motto is a call not only to faith, but also to realism.

Because this too - whatever is part of your life now - shall surely pass!

Carel Anthonissen

Thursday, February 5, 2009

An unusual Experiment

This week a friend of mine sent me this true story. It is about a man who sat at a metro station in Washington DC, playing 6 pieces of Bach on his violin for 45 minutes. Since it was the rush hour, thousands of people, most of them on their way to work, passed him. With the exception of a few who briefly paused to look and listen - some were even gracious enough to put money in his hat - the majority just rushed passed, almost as if they were swept along by a mighty river.

The one group of people who did, however pay some attention were the children. One three-year old in fact became so intrigued by this strange musician, that he instantly stopped and tagged at his mother to join him…but she just kept pushing him along. According to the story, this happened to several children.

When the man eventually finished, only 6 people had stopped and stayed for a while. About twenty gave him money, but then continued to walk at their normal pace. No-one applauded, nor was there any recognition.

What nobody realised at the time, was that they were part of a social experiment on perception, taste and priorities, organised by the Washington Post - the aim being to observe whether people can still perceive and appreciate beauty and talent in a common place environment at an inappropriate hour.

Because - and that’s the ironic, if not sad part of the story - the man they walked past without really attending or listening to, was one of the best musicians in the world, the violinist Joshua Bell. Not only was Bell at that moment playing one of the most intricate pieces ever written on a violin worth 3.5 million dollars, but two days earlier seats, averaging $100 each, were sold out for one of his many concerts.

Listening to the story made me realise again to what extent the compulsions and speed of our modern day society had blunted our senses and impoverished our lives. And how we need to take more time, practise more patience and especially regain the eyes and attitude of children to really see and discover the infinite richness of life. Because the most sacred moments and events are usually much closer to us than we realise. Just like Joshua Bell and his violin.

Carel Anthonissen