Wednesday, September 30, 2009

The tender gravity of kindness

In a recent TV programme called Focus, Nico Smith – formerly a professor in theology at Stellenbosch, who left his academic position during the 1980s for a ministry in a black township – expressed his concern that as South Africans coming from different cultural traditions, backgrounds and histories, we have still not met one another with significant trust and understanding. Even after our transition into a so-called non-racial democracy the expectation that we would become one rainbow nation has not really materialised. In fact, it seems that exactly the opposite is currently happening – partly also due to former social and geographical divisions which are still in place.

What we find now is growing concern about crime and corruption, about economic inequality – things that feed into increasing distrust, strengthening of old prejudices, new forms of racism and even hate speech. All of these make our future in this beautiful country precarious and uncertain. In Smith’s words: “We don’t know what can happen tomorrow…anything is possible in Africa”.

Among the many possible solutions that one can think of to counter this problem, Smith went on to suggest a very straightforward and simple one, namely to take the step of deliberately crossing the boundaries that divide us and to meet one other with kindness. In fact the practice of kindness, of reaching out with a smile and embracing the other with goodwill should, according to Smith, become a national project, a long-term campaign. As with the AIDS awareness campaigns where people wear a red slipknot as a sign of empathy and concern, we should consider wearing a similar sign – perhaps a green slipknot – whereby we indicate our intention to be kind to one another.

There is no more timely call than this one today: that South Africans rediscover and deliberately practice the virtue of kindness, and eventually even make it a public and long-term campaign. Perhaps people with the same concern for a peaceful and sheltered future should come together to organise such a campaign. But then we should also remember that real kindness, however simple it may seem, is much more than just a friendly smile. It is a way of life, an act of ongoing understanding and solidarity, which will also involve some sacrifices – the value and richness of which you won’t always be able to calculate immediately.

Nowhere has the profound richness and sacrifice of kindness been expressed more movingly than in Naomi Shihab Nye’s poetic work “Kindness”. She writes:

”Before you know what kindness really is you must lose things, feel the future dissolve in a moment, like salt in a weakened broth. What you held in your hand, what you counted and carefully saved, all this must go so you know how desolate the landscape can be between the regions of kindness…Before you learn the tender gravity of kindness, you must travel where the Indian in a white poncho lies dead by the side of the road. You must see how this could be you, how he too was someone who journeyed through the night with plans and the simple breath that kept him alive…Before you know kindness as the deepest thing inside, you must know sorrow as the other deepest thing. You must wake up with sorrow. You must speak to it till your voice catches the thread of all sorrows and you see the size of the cloth. Then it is only kindness that makes sense anymore, only kindness that ties your shoes and sends you out into the day to mail letters and purchase bread, only kindness that raises its head from the crowd of the world to say it is I you have been looking for, and then goes with you everywhere like a shadow or a friend”.

If kindness is indeed the deepest thing inside, the only thing that makes sense and can secure a peaceful future, why not try it today?

Carel Anthonissen

Thursday, September 17, 2009

Between an hasty reaction and a considered response

In appreciation to Richard Martin who reminded me again of this important distinction.
Not long ago I was invited by the Beyers Naude Centre at Stellenbosch to participate in a conference on Culture, Identity and Spirit. My assignment was quite easy, namely to share something of the Centre’s history and work. Although it took me a while to select the content and structure it in an interesting way, so that I felt some pressure in the preparation, in the end I really enjoyed offering a glimpse into the heart of our organization to an audience of mostly ‘outsiders’ – some of whom were visiting academics from the Netherlands. I felt relaxed and was enthusiastic as I took my listeners through our story, highlighting my own involvement as well as some of the very exciting challenges we currently face. From the expressions on people’s faces I could see that the talk was well received.

However, when question time came, it was a different story. I found myself at the receiving end of incisive questions, having to elucidate some of the information I had shared as well as having to explain some of the statements I had made. I knew the questions were asked in honesty and good faith, and yet I felt under attack. Some questions were sharp and critical, forcing me to articulate more clearly – which looking back, I felt I had not done as well as I would have liked to. In fact, some of my answers were vague, incomplete, disputable and far too hastily articulated. This was clear also from the frowns with which some of my answers were received. So, in the end I left the session feeling unsatisfied and a bit annoyed with myself.

Reflecting afterwards on what had happened, I realised that I had in that moment forgotten an important distinction which is often vital in communication, in dialogue with others. That is the distinction between a hasty reaction, (ie. giving an immediate, unconsidered answer to people’s questions, ideas or opinions), and giving a thoughtful and honest response.

Many of our hasty reactions or answers to people’s honest scrutiny come from a place of insecurity – in some instances even from a deep felt woundedness – and come across as overly defensive, if not outrightly aggressive. This is understandable because probing questions that seem to raise dispute, can irritate, put you under pressure and suggest that you don’t know. In turn, a hasty response to such questions and the apparent misunderstanding implied in that, can frustrate and even offend. There is an alternative to this: a considered and honest response that comes from a place of conviction and of quiet assurance.

A sincere response would entail the willingness to listen carefully, to understand deeply and then to respond cautiously; giving brief and clear answers, acknowledging where one does not know and indicating an openness to new perspectives. Such a response can disarm those who interrogate, can help us overcome a feeling of being under threat and can take forward useful discussion.

In a wider context, in our country and in other than the spiritual domain, there are far too many of us who do not recognize this important distinction. Many in positions of leadership react blindly and much too hastily to honest questions, projecting their own fears, anxieties and prejudices onto others, defending what is indefensible and stubbornly maintaining their own viewpoints. We could really do with growing numbers of ordinary people who can discern, who can listen carefully and respond thoughtfully and honestly. Then we may discover that the questioning voice is the voice of a friend from whom we can learn, rather than the voice of a foe with whom we need to do battle.

Carel Anthonissen

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Between the rabbits and the snobs

I love to watch a game of tennis as is currently possible with the US Open championships. For me it offers a glimpse of life where winning and losing is part of the journey and where people are constantly challenged to handle both with dignity. And then of course it always remains intriguing to see the good players construct a point – outmanoeuvering their opponents, playing delicate angles and then, when they seem stranded, clinching the point with a spectacular winner.

Until some injuries started to hamper me, I enjoyed playing tennis myself. For many years hitting and chasing a tennis ball and competing with passion and commitment, was an important part of my life and my main form of exercise. Tennis also offered a context in which I was privileged to meet many new people and over the years, make some of my very best friends.

Way back, when I was on my way to my first parish in Somerset East, the news of my love for tennis travelled fast, so that shortly before my wife and I arrived there, I received a letter from the chairperson of the local tennis club, welcoming us to their town and inviting me warmly to join their club. I was of course thrilled and appreciated this friendly gesture. What I did not know at the time - and that we only discovered on our arrival - was that the town had two tennis clubs. We also discovered that the clubs used to be united, but had split because of internal differences, jealousy and strife. At the time the split caused a lot of unhappiness, bitterness and anxiety – a history that was reflected in the different names that were used to signify the clubs. The one club was referred to as “rabbits” and the other as “snobs”.

You can imagine the dilemma it created at the time for me as a new minister. Not only was I suddenly drawn into a history of strife and division, forcing me to take sides - it even put my vocation and my deeper motive for playing tennis under scrutiny. Did I play tennis primarily for the sake of competing and developing my own game? Or was it supposed to be for the social good, to meet kindred spirits regardless of the standard of their game? Or could it be both? This was my further problem: most of the so-called rabbits were members of our church, but the standard of their club’s tennis was as their name suggested, pretty average. The so-called snobs on the other hand, were generally very good players, but in terms of commitment to religion and church, many either belonged to another denomination, or were more sceptical and less involved.

It did not take me too long to make my decision. I joined the snobs – not because I felt snobbish or had any missionary intention, but simply because I wanted to be able to relax and enjoy my tennis - and for me strong, honest competition had always been part of this enjoyment. In making the choice I felt I remained true to myself, living out one of my keener passions and also acknowledging and honouring what I saw as a God-given talent – that is, to play a good game of tennis and enjoy it with others.

Looking back today I know that, in terms of Ignatian wisdom, deciding for any of the two clubs had benefits and would have been a good choice, but that taking everything into account and especially who I was as a person and player, I had made the better choice. What I soon found out, was that most people in the weaker, so-called rabbit-club did not blindly project the snob-image onto me; in fact, many with whom I had played the odd privately organised game, accepted and respected my choice, some even saying that they felt I fitted there. What is more, most of the so-called snobs – whom I soon discovered were never really that arrogant – became very good friends. Some also became interested in my spiritual work and moved closer to the church, which again helped to break down many of the prejudices and skewed perceptions that informed the enmity between the clubs.

This, together with the growing conviction that one should never ignore or compromise the voice of your inner and deeper passions, made the four years we spent in Somerset-East an outstandingly happy and blessed period of our lives.

Carel Anthonissen