The human race is on. Don’t come last

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In the middle of last week I hit the wall. I know the wall well because I’ve been here before. A lot. There were a few obvious reasons why I went splat. I was exhausted after co-facilitating an intense Women’s Day Consciousness Café. I was sad because I had just waved my mum off at the airport after spending a few days together. And I was lonely because my husband was all the way over on the other side of the world.

“Many fears are born of fatigue and loneliness,” my husband says gently, whenever I go splat – a line from the Desiderata – but it wasn’t fear that was gurning around inside my head, but rather an abyss-like what’s-the-point-of-it-all emptiness, accompanied by that old voice: “You are a failure”.

Ugh. Back here. Again. That evening, after dragging my sack-like body to a yoga class, I came home and instead of listening to the chiding and goading, I decided to research why I was here again. What was the link between depression and that pointless feeling?

As I read through psychology articles, I came across a paragraph on PsychCentral.com that hit me in the belly.

“How can you increase your sense of ‘worth’? You cannot earn it through what you do. Happiness is not obtained solely by your achievements. Self-worth based on accomplishments is ‘pseudo-esteem’; it’s simply not the real thing”.

I put down my phone and stared at the wall.

Since I left home at 17, I have associated my value as a person with what I do. And those who know me, know I do a lot. Always a project on the go, always building networks, always connecting with friends, always doing. Somewhere in my mind – pretty close to the surface, in fact – is the belief that if I do good things, then I will matter to the world. And that if I don’t, I won’t.

The article went on to explain that those who measure their self-esteem against achievements are constantly having to do more to try and have any self value at all. This constant chasing of self-worth linked to praise and achievement leads to a never-ending cycle of excitement and disappointment. And burn out.

Which is where I was now. On the couch. Barely able to lift an arm.

Over the past five years, I have been drawn to meditation and Buddhist teachings as a way of coping. A sentiment often offered up for reflection is: “We are human beings, not human doings”.

It’s a teaching that I thought I had understood, and applied. But in that moment I realised  that I had been applying it through my own particular pair of lenses.  In order to embrace more being, I had decided that I had to do more relaxing things – more meditation, more yoga, more playing in the sun. But, of course, to interpret it like that just adds more ‘doings’ to the value equation, growing the list of things to value yourself by. Meditation. Tick. Juice. Tick. Sunshine. Tick. God, I rock!

So what does the teaching actually mean?

According to the psychology article, for the good of our mental health, we need to look inside ourselves for our self-worth, valuing ourselves not on what we do, but who we are. Are we kind, loyal, creative, strong, patient, graceful, funny, thoughtful? Choose your good (we’ve all got a few of them) and value yourself on yourself, not on constantly shifting goal posts outside of yourself. That’s not to say we shouldn’t do challenging and exciting things with our lives, but we shouldn’t ascribe all our value as a person to those things.

It was a light-bulb moment for me. I’m still contemplating it – how my wonky sense of self-worth links to my upbringing, my culture, and our world. I grew up in a Yorkshire family in apartheid South Africa. In the 18th century Yorkshire was the heartland of the industrial revolution, and I am a descendent of workers. In my family, having a job, being a provider, is fundamental. I was weaned on the idea that you cannot have pride or dignity if you cannot provide for yourself. “You need to stand on your own two feet, lass.”

And I’m not unique there. We live within an economic system which has competition at its core. The human race is on. Don’t come last. Capitalism firmly equates our value as people with what we do. But it’s killing us. It’s the reason I keep falling on my face with exhaustion and disappointment.

For too long I – and so, so many others – have relied on applause for our self-worth, when what we really need is a wee pat on the back from ourselves. Mine, for being a kind and honest soul.

That is good enough.

Follow me on Twitter @writerclb

Is culture just a polite word for power?

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Last week, while having breakfast with a French friend at her home in France, I filled a croissant with scrambled eggs and ham, and tucked into it, sandwich style. My friend looked at me as if I had just bit into a baby.

“That’s not done,” she said.

“Well I am doing it, so it can be done,” I replied.

“Well yes, but we don’t do it. It’s not French.”

A little story. Une forte mentalité. For the past 15 years I have quietly rubbed up against the French, learning their language and often visiting the country. My frisson began with admiration. France seemed a much more cosmopolitan reality than the one I had been born into – a working class Yorkshire girl who had been chucked out of England and into apartheid South Africa by Margaret Thatcher’s iron fist. Who were these sophisticated, exotic creatures who treasured food and style? I wanted what they were having.

But as the years went by, and my fascination with cheese dwindled, something else began to grate. The French have a favourite expression.

“C’est normal,” they say. It’s normal.

They use it to describe why some things are difficult (convoluted French bureaucracy), why some things are fabulous (an entire supermarket aisle dedicated to cheese) and why some things are just not worth commenting on (another glorious day of sunshine).

“C’est normal” is the punctuation mark used to put a stop to any conversation that raises an eyebrow at French culture. And to a person who came of age with the end of apartheid and the fall of the Berlin Wall, “C’est normal” is like a red flag to a bull. My only normal is change and more change. Which is perhaps why France was so attractive for a while. The lure of a solid, sure-of-itself culture.

Last week then, as I munched on my croissant, and my friend dropped into the conversation that hers was one of the bon families of France – and by bon, she meant wealthy, respected and influential – I found myself wondering: is culture just a polite word for power? A pretentious way of saying, I’m in, you’re out?

I started a dialogue with myself in my head. What does culture give you when you embrace it? A shortcut to who you are. (This is how I eat a croissant). A sense of belonging. (This is how we eat croissants). A shortcut to who others are. (They are just like me, look how they eat croissants)

And there’s no doubt that us humans like shortcuts. In his brilliant book, Thinking Fast and Slow, psychologist Daniel Kahneman (who was co-awarded a Nobel Memorial Prize in Economic Science in 2002 for his work on psychology of judgement and decision making) explores in detail how the brain doesn’t like to do any more work than it has to, always setting up easy-to-access short-cuts to help us navigate the world and thus survive.

And then I wondered: what does culture take from you when it stares you in the eye and declares: “hey you, you are not one of us”?

Can culture take from you the same thing it gives: robbing you of your sense of self, sense of belonging, a sense of feeling connected to others?

It’s unpopular to say this now, but at the outset apartheid was envisioned as a way to create a society where different cultures could flourish side by side. Where it got it horribly, drastically wrong, was in the way Afrikaner culture treated those outside its culture – with disrespect, hostility, brutality, inhumanity.

Confucius wrote: “Behave to every man as one receiving a great guest.”

What kind of country would South Africa be, if we treated those who are not of our culture, with grace, interest and respect? If culture was not used as a means to wield power and exclusion?

And one wonders the same about France. Right now the country is in a State of Emergency. It has become a prime target for IS-inspired killers, and to date, nearly all of these men with guns are French nationals.

Why are these men attacking the country that raised them? Is there something within the culture of the country that they have grown up in that has undermined their sense of self, of belonging, of feeling connected to a wider community?

This is not an essay on the value of homogeneity. In nature beauty exists in diversity. The most beautiful forests are those in which different trees grow side-by-side and small flowers flourish in their dappled light. But rather I find myself pondering, how do we shape a world where not only do we aim to treat each other as guests of honour – but where it is possible to act with such grace?

I held this question in my head on a train from Marseille to Paris at the end of my French holiday. I waited for my next train in a café outside Gare du Nord, where Romany gypsy girls spend the day begging. Dressed in flowery skirts and headscarves, they thrust their cupped hands at everyone passing by, stabbing their palms expectantly with their finger. Between begging stints they laugh and chat aimlessly, like young women between customers in a clothing store.

Watching them beg, it struck me that the crisis between cultures often comes when one culture demands or expects something of the other. When one is no longer content with being treated as a favoured guest, but begins to set an agenda.

I mentioned this to my husband and he told me a story he had heard about a Bedouin tribe. In the desert in the days of old, a traveller was welcomed into a camp and could have anything he wanted for three days. The wife included. At the end of those three days, the host could kill him. It was the caveat that made sure that no one ever abused the hospitality of another.

I thought back to my visit to my French friend. Her older sister had railed against those Muslims who abuse the French social welfare state by not working, having many wives, expecting the French system to support them and their families. Her big brushstroke views had made me squirm with liberal discomfort, but whatever the truth or falsity of the accusations she was making, her voice was unmistakable: a voice of anger and resentment. The host whose hospitality had been abused. She was on day three and ready to attack.

For a long time the liberal left have kept clear of talking about what happens when cultures collide – that was reserved for the right-wing racists. But as Europe (and many places throughout the world) finds themselves on a knife-edge, perhaps its time we all posed ourselves these two questions:

Am I being a good host?

Am I being a good guest?

After all, we’re all just passing through.

Follow me on Twitter @writerclb

The noise of the world is made of our silences

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Why do I write about race issues? Sometimes I think I am crazy. Sometimes I am sure of it. Why admit to and reflect on dirty prejudices that haunt the shadows of the mind? It’s probably safer to poke a snake with a stick.

I found myself reflecting on this, this weekend, while reading All Quiet on the Western Front, a book that documents the horror of war and that was banned in Germany in the lead-up to World War 2 on the grounds that it painted Germans in a bad light.

For twenty years, South Africans subconsciously banned talking about racism. There was a collective belief that it didn’t support our Rainbow Nation’s war effort, namely the fight inside ourselves to forget the past and move on as quickly as we could.

That’s not to say people weren’t branded racists. “Racist!” became the punctuation mark to end any unwanted conversation. It was the silencer of choice used to quieten any unsolicited criticism, often of the government. But there it got stuck, at the level of insult, never probing, never advancing any deeper understanding.

That is, until March 2015, when the Born Frees woke up and called us on it, adding whiteness and privilege to the concepts to chew on.

The other day, a white woman from Kempton Park asked me to explain #RhodesMustFall and #FeesMustFall.

“What do they want?” she asked.

I explained that because of income and education disparity, begun by institutional inequalities in the past and perpetuated by inequalities in the present, many black people continue to feel second-class citizens in their own country. Locked out.

“But it was hard for me too,” she said, going on to document the years of strife as she worked two jobs to pay her way through university, clawed her way into male-dominated work spaces, struggled to get promoted, be recognised, be seen.

“Then you understand,” I said.

One of the greatest crimes of apartheid was that it taught us not to have compassion for people who do not look like us. Compassion was for the person who sat next to you in church. Pity was for the maid.

We are still stuck here. We may shake hands, call each other bra and dance with petrol attendants, but we are still clawing our way to the place where we see each other as people.

That’s why I write about race relations. Because if I stand naked, and lay myself bare, you’ll start to see me. And we may start to see each other.

Follow me on Twitter @writerclb