March 21, 2014

All That Matters is your Capacity to Affirm the World

Whatever they do to you: they can imprison you, break your legs, or even hang you upside down by your toenails.  They can torture you for a hundred years until you die.  One freedom they can never take away from you is your right to define the character of the world around you.  And that’s all that matters because all of us are going to end in the grave, including the Malemas of the world.  All that matters is your capacity to affirm the world.  Nothing else matters. 


A couple of weeks ago a Somali friend of mine informed a group of us that the first thing he noticed about South Africans when he arrived in the country is how much we complain. Upon hearing this I felt quite ashamed because I recognized that it is true.  Suffice to say that this has become a bit of a sensitivity of mine ever since.   I must just say however, in the defense of South Africans, that I’m finding this to be a reasonably standard human characteristic in this age. 

We all complain – bitterly.  Our introductory statement in anything is very often disapproval, rather than praise.  So, last night I was sitting on a plane coming back home, I made the acquaintance of the man sitting next to me – a very likable looking Afrikaans man – and he shook my hand in greeting. Within two minutes the conversation turned to our controversial President Jacob Zuma and the catastrophe of the ANC. I looked at this man in complete disbelief.  

I quoted my friends words to him.  I said, “You know I have a mate who’s Somali.  He mentioned this thing…he noticed that South Africans complain bitterly.  And I used an Afrikaans euphemism, I said, [translation]: “We complain with the white bread under the arm.”

The man looked at me with apparent sincerity and he said, “You know, you’re absolutely right. We must stop complaining.” And then, to my complete disbelief and amazement, he proceeded, in exactly the same tone with which he began, to complain for the next hour. 

It’s like he didn’t even hear.  So what is it about our condition that biases our internal and our external discourse towards disapproval? 

This seems to be partly our conditioning. You must understand that every time you disapprove of the world, you’re not saying anything about the world; you’re saying something about yourself.  Because when you disapprove of the other, you are in fact confirming yourself as higher and different, as separate and distinct from the other, which is lesser.  So you’re actually concretizing your constructed and conditioned self, you’re enforcing the boundaries of your sense of self.  You are making yourself exist as an individual.  You are hardening the boundaries which define who you think you are. 

Now I don’t want to counsel that you have to forgive and excuse all craziness that goes on around you.  But I am contending that to look at the Totality of what goes on around you and deem It to be crazy has to be inaccurate. How many things have to spontaneously go right so that you can take your next breath?  How many things could spontaneously go wrong that would stop you from taking your next breath?

So we must recognize that whenever we complain, we have to, by definition be looking at only a sub-set of the truth.  We must recognize that when we complain we are in fact doing violence to the truth.

The human being who can speak and walk and who complains is doing violence to the truth because it cannot be the truth of the matter. It cannot be the truth of the matter that there’s more harm, damage than what there is good, because if there were more harm than good, then you could not be alive.  Logically, you could not be alive. There has to be more blessing.

We also don’t seem to appreciate that by repeating this disapproving comment in ourselves and repeating it to each other; we are as guilty of undermining the social fabric of the world around us as the people we’re accusing.    

 You have to understand that every time you deem the world around you catastrophically broken, you are as much part of the brokenness as the person who’s catastrophically breaking it.  Like the corrupt official who’s taking money, like the teacher who comes to school drunk. When we disapprove we are party to the illness. 

You would say, “How is that possible?  Why is that the case?” Because; things only reconstruct on the basis of a generous intent, on the basis of a kindness. How can a negation construct anything?  By definition, negation deconstructs. So, if you don’t look at the world around you, if you don’t have a deep kindness in your heart towards the world around you, whatever you do will confirm that it’s broken because it will break it further.

Now, how do you find that deep kindness?  It is impossible to find the deep kindness if you don’t find something to affirm; if you don’t find something to say yes to.  In this country, we’ve got so much to say yes to.  Let’s not forget that people were storing up baked beans in ’94.  There is in fact another thing I told this crazy fellow on the plane last night, “You know those baked beans are still probably sitting in your attic.” 

Our country is still here and there’s been extraordinary sacrifice; both by the establishment of the eighties and by the current establishment. Loathe as we are to admit it, both did extraordinary things to gift us the situation, the blessing that we have.  What do we do?  We complain about it.

Let’s not forget that in the mid-eighties, looking forward, there were very few South Africans who could see a way out of this.  All of us saw catastrophic civil war, and complete implosion – an irresolvable problem.  We’re still here.  Still drive to work.  We still have businesses. We still can feed our family.  Kids still go to school.  They might not be as good as they used to be.  But, there still are schools.  You can still have a life. 

So rather than looking at the few crazies who are breaking a little bit now, let’s think about the long run up – the, at least 25 years of run-up to this thing that’s produced the fact that we don’t have a civil war.  We didn’t have a civil war.  There’s always more to affirm than there is to negate but you’ve got to take a more inclusive view. 

When you’re looking at the thing in immediacy you can always find a blemish.  “Oo you’ve got a pimple, oo you grew a beard, oo you didn’t cut your beard.”  There’s always something to complain about when you’re looking now.  But you’ve got to take a longer view; you’ve got to recognize where this thing has come from, what the various alternatives were.

I think ten percent of possibilities would have put us in a better place than where we are now, as a nation.  Ninety percent of situations would have put us in worse situations than where we are now, if our starting point is 1980.  So, why are we complaining? 

Now, very importantly, we must recognize is that if we don’t have the magnanimity to affirm, we don’t have the energy to contribute constructively.  We can only destroy.  We then become as guilty of the bad citizenship as the people that are corrupt.  We’re just doing it with clean hands.  But the inner disease is the same. 

Think about any person who is corrupt, what is he saying?  He’s saying, “I’m owed something.  I’ve been done in.” and why is he saying that?  He’s saying, “I’ve not been given enough, what is around me is not good enough for me.”  It’s as much an attribute of disapproval and ingratitude as us whining in other situations.  He’s just taken a step further; he’s done something about it.  But understand that the disease sits in the same place.  It’s an intent disease.  And it’s an intent disease that is an attribute of a lack of magnanimity; a lack of ability to affirm; a lack of kindness.

If we’re citizens in this country, we have a moral obligation to have a good opinion of it.  And if it’s so deeply impossible for us to have a good opinion of it, we should move somewhere else. There’s an entire planet.  You can go to the other side of the planet in the blink of an eye today.  But while you’re here, find something about this place to love and make that the principle issue.  Make that the predominant theme.  Make that the predominant theme of how you think about the place and how you talk about the place. 

You cannot construct on the basis of negation.  Remember this; it is based on the love of the parent that makes the parent’s discipline constructive and helpful to the child.  If that thing changes – if the parent has hate towards the child – then the discipline of the parent becomes a destructive thing; the parent will break the child.  So it is in any relationship.  If you don’t love the thing, you don’t have license to intervene because when you intervene you’re only destroying. Put differently, the primary attribute is care, without care there can be no growth.