Friday, January 29, 2010

It is as simple as that

One of the most common ways of avoiding one’s responsibility in a given situation is to rationalise - that is, to introduce false arguments that obscure the really important considerations; or it is to shift the blame, the burden of responsibility to other people or to circumstances over which one could have no control. Often people will argue that the issue at stake is much more complex and intricate than it seems. In this way the truth can be compromised and even denied. Bad things are made to look good, and good things are made to look naive and unachievable.

How easily this can happen and how our society has grown to tolerate such approaches to what I would like to call ‘respectful falsehoods’, was illustrated to me during the recent cricket tour of England to South Africa. During one of the tests one of South Africa’s key batsmen touched the ball and was caught out … but then was given not out, because the umpires on the field had not seen it, nor heard the sound of the bat on the ball. The microphones that were supposed to help the third umpire make a final decision were turned off when that judgement had to be made. Thus the third umpire also heard nothing - and so his decision was similarly “not out”! Of course this dismayed the English players who all had heard the sound of bat on ball and were convinced that the batsman was out and should go.

Afterwards there was an extended, sometimes heated, discussion on this controversial incident. The debate focused largely on the difficulty of being an umpire, on the technological limitations of a still developing system of televised assistance, and then of course on the dilemma of the poor batsman who had to wait in uncertainty for the decision, perhaps knowing that his future career could depend on this outcome. What struck me was that very few commentators even mentioned, let alone called on, the batsman’s own honesty and responsibility in these circumstances. However, there was one exception. An older former West Indian bowler who was here as a commentator, was quite outspoken. For me that was like a breath of fresh air, a testimony to the kind of integrity that we are desperately looking for in our society.

According to him every batsman knows instantly, when they have touched the ball. What is more, earlier on, before the technology of third umpires, it was customary – in fact, a matter of honour – for the batsman to turn and walk if he had been dismissed in such a way. In doing so they not only demonstrated their honesty, but also gained respect. Opponents, fellow players and onlookers applauded such conduct, and the umpire who was helped in his decision expected no less.

Listening to his arguments there were several oohs and ahs from his fellow commentators, most of then reminding him that the game has changed, that things are not that simple and that the onus of decisionmaking has shifted. When in such circumstances some walk and some stay, it is best to leave it to the umpires who now have the additional support of technology.

The West Indian commentator and former bowler remained insistent: “No, it is as simple as that. Because in the end it is about honesty, integrity, justice and truth. Just think what will happen when doctors and nurses, engineers and attorneys should start arguing and acting like this, not taking responsibility for their deeds and shifting it to others, especially when they have made a mistake. It will be disastrous.

Perhaps cricket is not that serious; perhaps it is just a game – a rather competitive one, but nevertheless. Well, I would say “even so”. A game does sometimes open a small window on life and on the values that people live by. Sport icons, like leaders elsewhere, can set the tone. That is why one sometimes wants to cry out: “No, not like this! Your arguments may look or sound sensible, but in essence they are a bluff”.

Carel Anthonissen

Friday, January 22, 2010

On the ghosts of anxiety

For me a very consoling part of the sermon on the mount remains Jesus’ speech in Matt 6: 22-34 on our daily worries and how we are supposed to deal with them.

We all know such worries and anxieties all too well – those irrational thoughts and fears, which often disturb and wake us at night, leaving us in a cold sweat or with a knot in the stomach…because we worry and agonise about so many things – unresolved conflict, concerns about the future, the long list of “to-do” things, bills that need to be paid, outstanding tax forms, even putting out the garbage and watering the plants!

At the beginning of the year, many people are plagued by feelings of anxiety about things that need to be started up and put in place. Seemingly trivial matters can, as we all know, make life really unpleasant, if not outrightly miserable, robbing us of our peace of mind and even of our hopeful prospects. When anxiety enters, our inner tranquility and often our much needed rest departs, and may even be destroyed. Then the mind wakes up with all kinds of irrational thoughts, fears and images. People who suffer from anxiety, often have limited control over it: they lose their calm, their bodies become tense, they feel overwhelmed and paralyzed, unable to pray or view things positively. The world suddenly seems a dark and unfriendly place, the way ahead untraversable, impossible, almost like an insurmountable mountain.

How does one deal with these daily worries, the ghosts that feed our anxiety?
According to Jesus most of our worries or feelings of anxiety are directly related to our daily concerns about physical and material sustenance, our economic and social security.

Of course, such concerns are not unimportant. Jesus does not suggest that we should be indifferent or careless regarding our health or the material and physical provision for ourselves, our family and others. But according to Matt 6, if we exclusively and constantly focus on these concerns, our vision may become blurred, murky, skewed (v 22-23); then our anxieties multiply and we become more vulnerable to disappointment and disaster than we need to be (v 19-21). Therefore, so Jesus reminds us, there should be a deeper concern in our lives, a greater worry, a higher priority – one to which we should constantly turn and return with more dedicated focus. Our attention should be directed towards what Jesus calls the kingdom of God.

This phrase may sound rather abstract, removed from our daily toils and nightly restlessness. But taken seriously, the kingdom of God in the long run generates a totally new and liberating perspective on life, a hopeful way ahead. To focus on God’s kingdom is to keep remembering and trusting that there is a God in heaven who knows us and who cares, a God to whom we may and also should call and pray daily, continuously. This God is one who today is still at work in history and has promised to answer us in some way, sooner or later – although we know, it does sometimes take a while.

In the past week I was myself put to shame in that my preoccupation with my own daunting responsibilities was met with an unexpected gift. I had become a bit overwhelmed, worrying about how we would manage all the different projects that the Centre has embarked on. It took so much of my energy and attention that I fretted like one without faith, with little trust even in prayer. And then unexpectedly, we received an answer in concrete, material terms. At times that is how it happens, some little sign is given, reminding us how important it is to keep the balance, to keep our attention in the right place. What a relief. What grace!

Carel Anthonissen