Not to worry — we are all friends anyway

2013-01-22 00:00

YOU are assailed daily in South Africa by things that cause you to be depressed. I mean really depressed, as in you wished things had turned out differently, like everyone hoped. You wished that in the new South Africa there would be genuine, self-sacrificial, servant leadership from those in power, but instead you get self-seeking dishonesty and corruption. You wished for more understanding from those who had power (and privilege), but instead you get a kind of “I told you so” schadenfreude from whites about blacks who are “unable to do anything properly”. You wished for more meeting of minds when it came to deciding about how we were going to share the resources of our extraordinarily rich country, but instead you get a desperate unwillingness to give on one side and an equally desperate determination to take on the other.

The list goes on.

Then something happens that makes you happy. I mean really happy, as in a kind of revelation of another side to the whole picture.

Such a thing happened to me the other day.

While walking in a shopping centre I discovered, with that sinking feeling that accompanies such discoveries, that I no longer had my motorcycle keys on me. I rushed back to where I had parked it, hoping that perhaps I had left them in the ignition. No such luck. I then traced my steps, first to the fellow at the entrance selling mangoes and litchis. He had been standing over them unsteadily, muttering to himself when I came in. I had gone over to inspect his wares and he had greeted me with outstretched hand and a warm, if slurred, hello. I had refused both his handshake and his fruit, so he had every reason to be indifferent to my plight. Instead, he showed a genuine interest and apologised profusely for not knowing where my keys were! I then went to the car guard. No, he hadn’t seen them, but where did I go — the bank?

“Go quickly and ask in there; they are about to close,” he said. The woman at the bank scurried around to the various counters on my behalf, to no avail. The same result at the chemist and Clicks, with the same concern.

I resigned myself to thinking about the consequences of lost keys, with the spare some 200 kilometres away. I phoned my wife to tell her. “Ask at Pick n Pay,” she said. Nothing there, but they suggested I try CNA. Yes, some keys had been handed in, and yes, they were mine.

I had to restrain myself from kissing the security woman who gave them to me.

How, one might ask, does such an experience, infinitesimally minor in terms of the needs of others, and which had sent me into panic for only a few minutes, change your perception of people and of the broader view of things? At its most physiological level, panic is to do with adrenaline in your system. But there is much more to it than this. You enter into a sort of liminal state where normal attitudes, feelings, and prejudices that structure your relationship with people are eclipsed, your defences come down, you immediately become more vulnerable, and you start to behave not in the habitual terms shaped by your society, but in terms of your immediate needs. This avails you of the opportunity to experience and respond to things and people quite differently. Your need creates a space in your heart that was not there before and, curiously, a space in the hearts of others that was not there before. You move, in the words of the philosopher Charles Taylor, from being a buffered self to a porous self. My attitude to the inebriated fruit vendor, for example, changed radically while in a state of panic. No longer was he this rather irritating individual encroaching on my space. He became a potential source of the meeting of my need, as I was to him when I entered the shopping area. The difference was that his condition of life, in general terms, was far more vulnerable than mine. I had only very recently, and momentarily, become aware of my vulnerability, and therefore my need of him, and of all the others I encountered in that half hour of panic.

So what is our true condition in this world? Is it the state that our society conditions us into, or is it the state of being human, waiting to emerge in all its vulnerability, weakness, and readiness to identify with those who we have been taught to see as the other? Our society puts us into a default mode, the mode which we revert to when the defences come up, when our prejudices become habits of the heart from which we cannot escape and which make us, and those like us, relate and react in ways that are utterly predictable. We are waiting for the things that reinforce these prejudices. We are inviting them into our lives and entertaining them in our hearts every time we turn on the television or read the newspaper. And they are preventing us from being the human beings that we really are — utterly vulnerable, and utterly in need of each other. And it is only when we are faced with the unexpected that the illusion of invulnerability disappears and it is revealed to us what we really are, and what others really are.

In the elation born out of being reunited with my keys, I did something fairly uncharacteristic of me. I thought I recognised a past student of mine and tapped her on the shoulder to say hello. When she turned around I realised she was not who I thought she was. I apologised immediately and said I thought she was a friend of mine. Without hesitation, she broke out into a huge smile and said: “Not to worry, we are all friends anyway”.

Little did she know how true those words were for me at that moment.

• Professor Tony Balcomb is a senior research associate in the School of Religion, Philosophy and Classics, University of KwaZulu-Natal.

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