Monday, September 20, 2010

I am not powerless

Powerlessness is the most debilitating and disempowering feeling imaginable. It attaches itself like a vice to your neck and squeezes until there is just enough air left for you to breathe in short, frantic gasps, but not enough air for you to feel alive. It fools you into believing that the only thing you can do is get by – nothing more. And so getting by is all you ever aim for. After all, anything else is mere futility.

That’s how I’ve felt about our country in so many ways – completely and utterly powerless in the face of a one-party government, a crumbling medical and education infrastructure, and crime statistics that make countries at war look like a picnic in the park. As desperate as I am to do something about it, I’ve simply been overwhelmed by the enormity of the issues at stake, and thus relegated myself to the scrap heap of the incompetent and unworthy. In other words, I’ve convinced myself that anything I say and do is pointless, so why bother?

I then read a book about the siege of Sarajevo, described as “the longest siege of a capital city in the history of modern warfare”. Essentially, Serbian soldiers surrounded the city for four years, attacking ordinary citizens with every form of weaponry and decimating the population. Bosnians caught up in the siege were reduced to primitive living conditions, fighting for access to water, bread and other survival basics. The situation went far beyond anything I’ve ever seen and ever hope to experience.

The characters in the book move from an utter numbness to a realisation that “the men in the hills” (i.e. their Serbian attackers) aren’t the ones who will make or break them, but that they themselves are responsible for their fates. So when a citizen is shot down whilst walking home, one of the central characters Dragan chooses not to walk away, but instead to risk his life dragging that body out of the street. Although the man is dead, Dragan realises that his city used to be one where you’d never find a dead person simply lying in the road, and that if he is to fight the decay of Sarajevo, he needs to do something to stop his city being one where the dead are left out in the open.

A simple twist, an elegant change in philosophy – from blaming “them” for the war and devastation to finding a way to counteract the evil. From powerlessness to power in one seamless move.

I don’t really know how to counteract the poverty, corruption and crime that torments our beautiful home, but I do know that I am not powerless. Today, I start taking my power back by writing these words. I hope and pray that it will be a catalyst into something greater in the future, but until such time, I will continue doing what I can, however small.

In the words of the great philosopher, Dave Matthews (of the Dave Matthews Band):
To change the world, start with one step. However small, the first step is hardest of all.

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

When is your pain my pain?

We’ve all faced them at some point in our lives – truly hurt and damaged people. They are jaded and sad and often unable to articulate or express themselves in a way that is conducive to healing. At times, they give the appearance of pulling it together, but underneath that flimsy coating are cracks and fault lines – brokenness.

The question that I find myself asking more and more is whether this brokenness entitles people to a free pass for any and all behaviour. Often, these people act maliciously, wounding others and leaving a path of destruction in their wake. And for those of us reeling in the chaotic aftermath of these storms? More often than not, I find that we justify this reckless behaviour, we condone it because we feel hurt people have the right to express themselves and hopefully find healing. We feel guilty as survivors, believing we need to offer unconditional support because tragedy hasn’t hit us. But how does a perpetual cycle of hurt generate anything other than more hurt?
I found myself asking this question whilst watching an episode of Private Practice last night. The storyline went down like this: Violet, a psychiatrist and expectant mother was violently attacked by one of her patients who cut her open, removed her baby and left her for dead. After a touch-and-go surgery, both her life and the baby’s are saved. But Violet is irreparably damaged and eventually makes the decision to hand her newborn child over to her lover (Pete) and walk away from both of them.

Everyone (including Pete) does everything in their power to accommodate her extreme decision, allowing her “the space” and time to heal. But in this particular episode, her “healing” takes the form of sleeping with a colleague’s father. When Pete finds out, she tries to justify her indiscretion by saying that she now has hope that she can feel again, implying that there is now hope for her relationship with Pete and her son.
Pause that scene… Now replay it again in slow motion. A hurt person inflicting damage in all directions, but finding a way to make it seem acceptable. Sound familiar?

The sad truth is that this phenomenon is peaking in our country. Children and young people struggling with the remnants of Apartheid grow up in poverty, abuse and hopelessness. As such, there is a real sense of their right to grab and hold onto any opportunity at any cost.
But for those of us living on the periphery of these damaged lives, it becomes an intolerable burden to bear. I have walked away more damaged, depressed and lost from many of my attempts to reach out – largely because I give and give and give in an attempt to right the wrongs from these kids’ pasts. But when that giving has no boundaries, when the relationship becomes about supporting someone’s dysfunctional lifestyle, it can only perpetuate the cycle of hurt.

I’m not sure what the answers are, but what I do know is that you aren’t doing anyone any favours by allowing people to behave as they please, especially when that behaviour is hurtful to others. Filing destructive actions under the category of “It’s my life and I’ll live it as I please” sometimes need to equate to a response of, “Well then live your life and leave me out of it.”

Unless you are the direct perpetrator of hurt to an individual, it is not your responsibility to fix them. But when and if you do choose to undertake this task, do so with wisdom and intent. Don’t be railroaded by someone else’s pain. Don’t become a victim. There is no honour in being hurt by someone you’ve reached out to, so don’t condone it. By caring for and protecting you, you can only shine a brighter light to others.