“If you want it, the abyss will be there for you. It is in no hurry, so do not hurry to it. Yes, silence may be the only perfect thing we can imagine… Yes, death is beautiful, but it is not human. It can never be more than it is; It will not solve the argument of you.”
– Brian Ellis, “Please, wait”
The light of winter casts long shadows twice a day. I’ve always found my bearings easily and this has helped me as a runner to know my way intuitively on trails and unfamiliar roads. To get home, I know I need to go this direction. But with the sun lower in the northern sky in what I have always known to be late spring, my internal compass is more easily confused. I need more time to think about my direction. To further disorient, my car and GPS units are metric. An exit 1900m away arrives quickly when you are driving 120km per hour. It all requires more attention. Slipping back into the habit of driving on the right hand side of the road even for a few seconds can be fatal. It’s happened more than once so far. And at least once a week I climb in the passenger door only to see the steering wheel controls on the other side of the car. In that old life when thought I was fully present, much of what I was doing was on autopilot.
In ten days time, I will be flying back to the US for my former students’ high school graduation. It is a special time of year, one where we take pride in what has been done and also when we look forward to new beginnings. Commencement. A ceremony where degrees are bestowed for achievement, a closing. Commencement. The beginning of something new. The combination of excitement and longing for a time past is bittersweet. When I was in the classroom everyday I felt a sort of certainty, a confidence in the way things worked. I felt like an expert. There were very few instances where felt that I lost my voice or couldn’t set the right atmosphere. Twelve weeks here have eroded that confidence and certainty more than a little. I can no longer easily find true north.
When I see my old students again, what will I tell them about a world that I feel I’m just now starting to see? What do I say about privilege and luck and responsibility? What do I tell them about the reality of ambition and dreams? What can or should you say about human nature to someone just heading out on their own? I get emails from them asking how this experience has changed me. Do I tell them I’m much more guarded now. There has been a rash of kidnappings and ransoms lately. I look over my shoulder in broad daylight. I’m hyper-aware that this life can be taken away in an instant. A carjacking or robbery doesn’t make the headlines unless someone gets shot. And then there’s only outrage if it was the victim and rejoicing if it was the would-be thief. The reality is that we’ve taught our kids security words for getting out of the car quickly. We practice entering and exiting the vehicles quickly. If a stranger picks them up, they are to scream, kick, fight. We walk quickly and quietly in parking garages. I don’t drive distracted, and actually, I don’t do anything distracted any more. I’m on my phone when I can give it my full attention. When I’m with my kids we are in a safe place where they can get my full attention. I’m overly cautious about where I’m running, when I go to the market, when I’m at stop lights. But because I’m not distracted, I’m also far more generous and patient than I have ever been. I give people my full attention. The security guard, the parking lot attendant, the waitstaff, the guy on the corner looking anxious. My wife and I are much closer than we’ve ever been. I know my boys better too. The kids at the school in Mamelodi get my full attention when I’m there. I’m present, for better and worse. I now have the luxury of time, and these are my new habits in my new habitat.
The last couple weeks I’ve wondered if I love or resent this new life. I love it because it has increased my awareness of my privilege, but I also resent it increasing those advantages. The examples of such allowance are numerous and readily apparent. Besides our skin color and nationality, we live in a very secure gated community in a house paid for by the company that sent us here. We sleep with confidence in our safety. I can volunteer when and where I want to, and I’m deeply appreciated for just showing up. Someone else cooks our food. Someone else cleans the house. Someone else educates our kids. Someone else does the gardening. As my wife pointed out, we are grown-up children. I just ate an outstanding breakfast for the equivalent of seven dollars, generous gratuity included. I will tip the car guard in the parking lot two dollars, and he will be immeasurably grateful. I’m constantly aware of the new affluence and means present in my life, and it begs the question what did I do to deserve this? Before I married my wife I wasn’t always aware of how I affected others. That was its own sort of privilege. I acted in self-interest for much of my 20’s, and today I’m embarrassed by how I treated some people and situations. Undervaluing people and passing judgment on others was a serious character flaw. I regret how narrow my thinking was and how I imagine it affected people around me. In addition I’ve never been very humble or satisfied or appreciative with my limits. So why do I deserve to spend my days in relative ease when so many around me need to struggle and work for basic survival?
The only conclusion I can draw from this line of questioning is that “deserving” has nothing to do with it. I certainly do not deserve any of it. I haven’t earned it. And none of the people outside the gates looking for work or students orphaned by HIV deserve the circumstances they were born into. I’m coming to despise the enduring power of the idea that merit justifies our behavior and beliefs. If there is a single lesson I hope our boys take from this experience it is that worth and value are not synonyms. But I’m still left with wondering what is my responsibility in the face of this inequity. It is a quiet gravity pulling at me for action. Is there a way to live that could justify the privilege of the life I have? What do I owe to the society that has given me this rare gift? How do I pay this forward? Norman Counsins once wrote that “The individual is capable of both great compassion and great indifference. He has it within his means to nourish the former and outgrow the latter.” How does one nourish compassion? In two weeks when I stand in front of my students as a class for the last time, and I can’t pretend to have answers or even a sense of direction.
I apologize for the solemn tone of these last two posts. I’m not depressed, I promise. I’m quite the opposite actually. I’ve never felt more alive. Every morning I wake up full of love and joy and curiosity, and above all, gratitude. When I started this blog, I said I would be writing for me. It would be a way for me to think and to express those thoughts. Maybe you want to hear about life here. Or maybe you want pictures of exotic animals. Either way, I don’t think you came looking for the mid-life existential questioning that you’ve found here. I’m glad you’re reading this regardless of why you came. I hope you are good and happy and I can’t wait to see you again.
Be good and keep in touch.