Monday, March 30, 2009

On the meaning of grafitti and the Dalai Lama

Not long ago Basil Manning, who was an exile in Botswana during the 1980s, gave me an interesting perspective on the role and meaning of grafitti. Apparently his son picked this up while studying in America where grafitti can be found on numerous buses, trains and the walls of certain neighbourhoods.

According to him the painting of grafitti represents a way of making your presence felt, of stating that you also have a place and a right in a particular place, neighbourhood or area, of saying: “I was here and I belong here!”

Of course, grafitti is often also used by hooligans to shock people by confronting them with their own vulgar and obscene impulses in public spaces. But in most instances, according to my friend, it is an act of protest, a way of standing up against the more powerful who, for whatever reason, discriminate against others by not even noticing them, thus excluding those they count as less significant from certain places and denying them freedom of movement and expression. In essence it is a bold statement (“Hello, I’m here as well, you know!”) and even an honest cry for acceptance.

Against this background, it is a great pity when these or similar signs of human struggle, such traces of the need and suffering of relatively marginalised people, are deliberately and blatantly ignored, scorned or carelessly removed. This was part of the sad discovery of the author Andre P Brink after his visit to the scant remains of the concentration camp at Dachau in the south of Germany - there is not even the slightest reminder left of the former inhabitants; their captors had not allowed, in fact severely punished, any attempt at scribbling a message how ever cursory and anonymous, thus one finds no initials scratched into wood or paint, no last message, no grafitti on a wall. This discovery not only drove Brink to tears, it also brought him to write in his latest Memoirs: Nobody should ever be denied the right to cry out: I was here. I am!

Is this not to some extent what happened to the Dalai Lama during the past week? The denial of a visa is also a denial of the opportunity to make any kind of contribution. Sadly, such limitation comes from people, from a government, who should have known better; who during a period of our own history also had to struggle for recognition, for a space in which to be heard, for the right to be. And now they have obviously forgotten, have denied that same right to a figure of undisputed integrity, a man who has become a symbol of peaceful resistance to unchecked, ruthless authority. And that in exchange for financial gain! How sad can it still become?

Carel Anthonissen

Friday, March 20, 2009

On projections and honest confrontations

The other evening I took our dog, a tiny Maltese, for a walk in the neighbourhood. On leaving the house she suddenly took off and started chasing and barking after a neighbour who was on a similar stroll. Contrary to ours, the neighbour’s dog was on a respectable lead. It was obvious that this unsolicited interruption had disturbed the neighbour’s evening peace and irritated him. He deliberately ignored the commotion behind him and just walked on with an air of indifference.

I felt rather embarrassed at first and while mumbling an apology, started to run after my dog, trying to get her back into our garden. Noticing the neighbour’s indifferent and almost arrogant attitude I became upset, in fact slightly angry, with him. I felt that it would have been polite of him at least to greet me, or pay some attention to the barking dogs in an attempt to settle them. But with a stiff neck (and upper lip) he just walked on. Instead of acting in accordance with my real feelings, which meant that I should have spoken to him, I directed my frustration at my own dog. Ignoring the neighbour, I started to talk more loudly at my dog, shooing her back into the house.

It was the psychologist Jung who first made us aware of this strange tendency in our psyche when, reluctant to face the real source of our own fears, shame, anger and other similar natural instincts, the so-called shadow, we tend to shift or blame it on others. He called it projection and signified this as one of the interesting manoeuvres of the unconscious self, which prevent us from being completely honest and open. Rather than admitting to and confronting our shadow side, we unconsciously find another and expect that person to carry the shadow, to take responsibility for those things we struggle to abide in ourselves. In the little confrontation I refer to here, my poor dog had to suffer my suppressed and brewing anger at the unfriendly neighbour.

Projections occur daily in our relationships with one another and with groups of people, and in many instances they are relatively harmless. But they can become unhelpful and even destructive when they give us an excuse for bad behaviour towards others - when they move the guilt or anger away from ourselves and set the innocent other up as an offender. In fact, at the root of many negative emotions that we carry within ourselves and that are potentially damaging to others, lies the inability to recognise and confront our own, often unconscious and unintegrated, fears and prejudices. This is also recognisable in the way that irrational behaviour rooted in xenophobia or homophobia, is founded on unattended racial and sexual fears and prejudices.

In South Africa it has become crucial, especially for the sake of more transparent governance and a peaceful society that individuals and groups acknowledge and confront their fears and prejudices and especially the projections they effect. However difficult and painful it may be, the victims of such projections are called upon to resist and unmask these hidden agendas. For Christians this can be a way of serving and furthering the Kingdom of God in our society. In confronting the unwarranted negative projections that are so evident and addressing them with integrity, we can remember the words of Jesus when he said: “Happy are those whose hearts are pure, because they shall see God.”

Carel Anthonissen

Friday, March 13, 2009

The empty moments

We all have our empty moments, those days or hours when our best plans or efforts come to nothing; when we are constantly interrupted or simply struggle to finish our allotted tasks, and then end the day feeling totally unproductive, frustrated, regretful and empty - as if our whole day, all the energy and effort we spent on it, has been a complete waste.

Such moments are bearable when they pass quickly. But they can last too long, overwhelm us, even become a lifetime of boredom, shame and regret, creating in us an enduring sense of emptiness and a nagging doubt about the overall meaning of our life. This week again I met someone who was trapped in a false and artificial life for many years, discovering only now for the first time who she really is and what she ought to have done, but never did. What a shame, what a waste, what regret - these are the feelings that often plague her today.

Another person told me the sad story of her father, a highly talented and creative person who for different reasons never managed to fulfill his real potential. Returning from work in the late afternoon he would often go into a passive mode, have a drink and then retire to bed early. It was as if, in her words, at this specific hour, an empty space, almost like a dark gaping hole, suddenly appeared in his life - one which he struggled to fill with meaningful activity and which often left him restless, frustrated and moody.

How do we cope with these feelings of emptiness and waste? How do we overcome a lifetime of shame, guilt and regret?

In a wonderful meditation on the Kingdom, Anthony de Mello first of all invites us not to deny or shy away from this fragile part of life, but to constantly see and embrace life in all its brokenness, uselessness and wastage. In his words:
“Contemplate this - all those seeds that never germinate; the wasted struggles of millions who aspire to be actors, writers, statesmen, saints and fail; the wasted hours of boredom, useless conversations, unproductive planning, fruitless undertakings, neglected talents, etc. - not with sadness, not with guilt, but with patient understanding, because you wish to love life as much in its failure as in its success”.
Recalling the parable of the sower (Mark 4:1-20), De Mello also reminds us that something of the brokenness and apparent wastage is part of and visible in the way God’s Kingdom operates in the world. In fact Jesus himself, as the vital sign of God’s reign, was also broken, so that our wasted lives can be redeemed and restored. It is from this belief that De Mello finally invites us:

“Look at the saviour on the Cross, symbolising in his broken body and his unsuccessful mission the drama of life in general and my life in particular... Love Him too and as you press Him to your heart, understand that somewhere, somehow, all of this has meaning, all of it is redeemed and made beautiful and resurrected”.

This must surely be one of the most profound and consoling thoughts during this time of Lent. No wonder that someone also remarked that since the coming of God’s Kingdom through Christ we may live with the assured knowledge that time is no longer empty…because it is now permanently filled with the loving and forgiving presence of God.

Carel Anthonissen

Sunday, March 8, 2009

The hope that we carry within us

One of the most beautiful, but also obscure instructions in the Bible can be found in the book of Peter where the apostle, after presenting Jesus’ suffering as an example that should be followed (1 Peter 2:18 vv), admonishes his listeners to be prepared at all times to answer anyone who asks them to explain the hope that they have in them (1 Peter 3:15).

Reading the words out loud during a Bible study session on Peter a few years ago, I posed the question more directly: “So what would your answer be as a Christian if you were asked today to explain the hope that is in you? And how exactly do you understand this hope that we believe we all carry within us?”

The sudden silence that descended and especially the perplexed, in some cases almost sheepish, look that appeared on peoples’ faces, betrayed that most of them had never really thought about the question, even less about the answer. Then, although hesitantly, a young student put up her hand and ventured this almost confessional answer: “The hope that keeps me going is the firm knowledge that I am forgiven; that although I am weak and fallible, God understands and is willing, every time I come to Him/Her, to offer me a new chance”.

Hearing such an honest and wonderful answer, from a very young person, left me amazed. Then it was my turn to become quiet. The moment she had spoken these words I knew that she had grasped the very essence, the deep comforting heartbeat of the biblical message.

When Jesus came to live with us and specially when He suffered and died on the cross it was not only to demonstrate the full extent of God’s love for humans - its immense range of height, depth and breadth as Paul puts it in Ephes 3:18-19; above all it was to offer to us God’s forgiveness, to remind us that however far and deep we have fallen away from our Creator and our own destiny, however miserable we may feel about this, we may stand up and start all over again today, every day - because we are forgiven!

To know and believe this - is not only the key to new beginnings, to a fresh and confident start in life - it is also the secret of true healing - also of those wounds that we have suffered in our relationships with other people. Receiving forgiveness and also granting it to my adversaries, even when they don’t deserve it, can heal our deepest wounds, over time turning them into nothing more than scars. These scars may indeed remain visible and even sensitive, but they are no longer raw and open, perhaps there remains merely a fading itch.

The secret is that we have discovered the mystery and healing power of love and forgiveness. Then we can also truly explain, especially in this time of Lent, the hope that is in us.

Carel Anthonissen

Monday, March 2, 2009

The cowboys of the road

I see them every day - the cowboys of the road. They weave their way through the traffic as if they own the road; they rush up from behind, sit on your tail until you move aside; they scamper across red robots like rabbits being put to the chase; they pass other vehicles like formula one drivers, hell bent on getting to their destination first; they park when - and wherever they want; they fling their cigarettes, wrappings and leftovers out of the window as if the natural world outside is a big dustbin. Some will speed away after causing a minor or major accident, taking no responsibility for the hurt, inconvenience and misfortune they have caused.

This modern cowboyhood includes a wide variety of drivers and makes use of any kind of vehicle. The new cowboys range from a generation of yuppie drivers who can afford the latest car models to a gang of rude and reckless drivers of old, probably unroadworthy, models - of which quite a number are taxis. Often they want to show off or test the speed and power of a newly acquired vehicle on our public roads. Many are four by fours and heavy trucks, which roar past us in ever increasing numbers. Most of them belong in the slow lane, but more of them crudely force their way into the faster lanes.

Every day when I’m confronted with this madness, I ask myself the same question, often with anger and alarm: “Where on earth do these cowboys come from? What are the reasons for their haste and carelessness, their lack of discipline”. I do not recall such rudeness and speed hype on our roads as a long established practice. It seems to be a relatively recent development, a symptom of some illness. The other day, a young person who returned from England, remarked: “You will never see it there - in any case not to this extent”. So where do our local troubadours come from? What is driving them?

One of the reasons for the growing culture of reckless driving is of course the fact that there are more owners of cars, and therefore also more cars on the road than a while ago - more traffic, more congestion, and so also more impatience, more intolerance. There are rumours of corruption in handing out licenses to people without proper training and testing. Thus we share the road with careful courteous drivers as well as those who have little experience and do not know the most elementary rules of the road. Although the traffic department tries its best, there is no system that effectively controls reckless driving, or assures a reasonable degree of road safety. However, at the root of the problem is what I shall call a lack of “spirituality of the road” - that is, a basic respect for others who use the same road. This spirituality would include respect for the environment, for a material thing such as a car that actually also needs care and most importantly: respect for life - your own life and that of others. What is necessary, for a start perhaps, is an awareness that the flamboyant cowboy with his adventurous, but indifferent temperament is also lurking in your own heart.

We need a spirituality today which not only promises people a way to heaven or to inner peace, but one which also takes them along busy, public highways in a safe and meaningful way, helping us to discover that speed does kill and that very often slowness, patience and tolerance not only gets you home safely, but also timely. Taking time, doing things at a slower pace can actually render more effective results than the mad speed at which we travel and live.

We will do well once we realise that cowboys do not belong on the roads; they belong to a different time, in wide, uncharted and sparsely populated places, where horseback is the only possibility. There even they would understand the value of stillness and slowness!

Carel Anthonissen