Wednesday, March 13, 2024 #36

 To some whose eyes have passed over these spaces lately, it must seem that a kind of idolatry of three men is both the motive for and the result of these scribblings. And while I acknowledge that the kind of story that the lives of these men tell is highly inspiring, and motivating, it is not to idolize nor to fail to note that these men, for all of their honourable traits and continuing global influence, were and remain basically ordinary, and yet uncovered and deployed their best instincts, learnings, mind, body and spirit in the service of their people. And yet, to reduce their lives to ‘altruism’ or even heroic altruism would be such a reduction as to dishonour them and their legacies.

Far from writing a cheque, or holding a protest march, or writing letters to the editor and even editorials themselves, or even joining a religious organization determined to ‘minister’ to the needs of a neighbourhood, or even a town or city, the lives of these men, while continually beset with threats, hatred, criminal charges and time served in both courts and prison, as well as attempting to evade, deceive, confront and ultimately endure in order to dismantle various edifices of oppression, and the reconciliation that needed to follow wrote their own public historic and psychic histories, while they carried the hopes and dreams of their people on their shoulders.   

Indeed, history, supported and sustained by the public dialogue, the media, the education superstructure, and even the professions is contained within a framework of ‘literal,’ ‘empirical’ and formerly agreed-upon data. And while there is a ‘kind of reality and truth’ to the data, such as birthdate, birthplace, income numbers and sources, address, academic degrees or certificates, number of children, number of marriages, titles and ranks, memberships, and other informational evidence of one’s biography, there is another dimension to each of us. None of us can either be summarized or even characterized by a biography. Of course, we look for adjectives, usually from acquaintances, family members, enemies to help us fill in the gaps behind the literal, empirical data. Our medical and legal fraternities depend heavily on the configuration of the lines that connect the dots of our physical ‘condition’ or ‘action’ (depending whether it is a medical diagnosis or a legal defense that is needed).

Churches, too, as well as political parties, attempt to imbue adherents with a set of principles, or perhaps even creeds, to which submission and commitment determine admission and the privileges that accompany membershccip. And while all of these ‘normal’ depictions of an individual are going on, there is another dynamic at play, within the person. It is to depth psychology that we have turned, in looking into ‘souls’ in extreme circumstances where they/we find the suffering and abnormal and fantastic conditions of psyche. Our souls in private to ourselves, in close communion with another, and even in public, exhibit psychopathologies. Each soul at some time or another demonstrates illusions and depressions, overvalued ideas, manic flights and rages, anxieties, compulsions and perversions. Perhaps our psychopathology has an intimate connection with our individuality, so that our fear of being what we really are is partly because we fear the psychopathological aspect of individuality. For we are each peculiar; we have symptoms; we fail, and cannot see why we go wrong or even where, despite high hopes and good intentions. We are unable to set matters right, to understand what is taking place or be understood by those who would try. Our minds, feelings, wills, and behaviors deviate from normal ways. Our insights are important, or none come at all. Our feelings disappear in apathy; we worry and also don’t care. Destruction seeps out of us autonomously and we cannot redeem the broken trusts, hopes, loves….The study of lives and the care of souls means above all a prolonged encounter with what destroys and is destroyed, with what is broken and hurts—that is, with psychopathology. Between the lines of each biography and in the lines of each face we may read a struggle with alcohol, with suicidal despair, with dreadful anxiety, with lascivious sexual obsessions, cruelties at close quarters, secret hallucinations or paranoic spiritualisms. Ageing brings moments of soul, moments of acute psychic pain, and haunting remembrances as memory disintegrates. The night world in which we dream shows the soul split into antagonisms; night after night we are fearful, aggressive, guilty, and failed…These are the actualities—the concrete mess of psychological existence as it is phenomenologically, subjectively, and individually…(James Hillman, Re-Visioning Psychology, pps.55-56)

These observations, without the benefit of clinical assessment and diagnosis, attended the lives of Mandela, Gandhi and Tutu, in various degrees. These men were engaged in an epic struggle to destroy an evil, degrading, racist, bigoted and hateful attitude, and the laws and systems that instilled and sustained it. And the resistance to their efforts proved both their justification and eventually, with its own demise, their modest and complicated achievements. Nevertheless, all these decades later, vestiges of racism, imperialism and the abuse of power persist and seem to be finding new voices to retake their heinous ascendency.

 The self-reflection, prayer, humility, fasting (for Gandhi) and laser honesty of these men,  with their assessment and diagnosis of their personal and the larger circumstances, the purpose of their dedication to liberating their people shines through even in the darkest and most dangerous circumstances. Mandela’s account of his view of deploying a hunger strike, while in prison, provides evidence of his clarity of mind, under extreme duress. Following a food boycott by the warders in Robben Island, who demanded better food and improved living conditions, after prisoners in ‘F’ and ‘G’ sections had been on a hunger strike, Mandela’ section followed the next day. However, in Mandela’s own words:

For me, hunger strikes were altogether too passive. We who were already suffering were threatening our health, even courting death. I have always favored a more active, militant style of protest such as work-strikes, go-slow strikes, or refusing to clear up; actions that punished the authorities, not ourselves. They wanted gravel and we produced no gravel. They wanted the prison yard clean and it was untidy. This kind of behavior distressed and exasperated them, where I think they secretly enjoyed watching us go hungry. …But when it came to a decision, I was often outvoted. My colleagues even jokingly accused me of not wanting to miss a meal. The proponents of hunger strikes argued that it was a traditionally accepted form of protest that had been waged all over the world by such prominent leaders as Mahatma Gandhi. Once the decision was taken, however, I would support it as wholeheartedly as any of its advocates. In fact, during the strikes I was often in the position of remonstrating with some of my more wayward colleagues who did not want to abide by our agreement. ‘Madiba, I want my food,’ I remember one man saying. ’I don’t see why I should go without. I have served the struggle for many years.’ (Mandela, LWTF, p.423)

From, we read the words of Gandhi on fasting:

When human ingenuity fails, the votary fasts. This fasting quickens the spirit of prayer, that is to say, the fasting is a spiritual act, and therefore, addressed to God. The effect of such action on the life of the people is that, where the person fasting is all known to them, their sleeping conscience is awakened. But there is the danger that the people through mistaken sympathy may act against their will in order to save the life of the loved one. This danger has got to be faced. One ought not to be deterred from right action when one is sure of the rightness. It can best promote circumspection. Such a fast is undertaken in obedience to the dictates of the inner voice and, therefore, prevents haste. (H,21-12-1947, p.476)

 Writing to celebrate Archbishop Tutu’s 80th birthday, on, on October 06, 2011, in a piece entitled, Tutu and the curse of self-doubt, in Ideas By Brendan Boyle:

It is easy today to forget how much white South Africa hated the little bishop who went around the world campaigning for sanctions against his own country. He was denigrated in dinner table conversation then in much the same way that Julius Malema (founder of the Economic Freedom Fighters, a populist far-left political party) is now…Graffiti on suburban walls urged him to emigrate, criticized his modest wealth and called sometimes for physical harm to be done to him…..(On Tutu’s anger at Jacob Zulu) It might be an  important moment if it finds somewhere within the party machine that quality which, for me, has always set Tutu apart from Mandela-the curse of self-doubt. Mandela has seemed always to me to have the perfect pitch of a political prodigy. He instinctively knows that right thing to do, the appropriate response to wring the best from an opportunity or to rescue a situation as dangerous as the assassination of Chris Hani (fierce opponent of apartheid, assassinated by Janusz Walus, a Polish immigrant and sympathiser of the Conservative opposition on April 10, 1993),. Tutu pits his wits against the challenges that come his way, prays to his God for guidance, worries about the possible consequences and then plays a hand he sometimes regrets. Travelling with him for a few days in 1986 to research a profile for United Press International, I saw him snap at a middle-aged woman who was asking for assurance about some aspect of being a white person in an apartheid state. She cried as he stalked off. Hours later, in the car heading back to Port Elizabeth, he broke his own call for silence and said, almost to himself, ‘I shouldn’t have done that.’ Once his chaplain had discovered what he was talking about, they started working out how to find the woman and apologise. I don’t know if he managed, but was visibly bruised by his own mistake. If more of us could have Tutu’s courage to do what we think is right and yet to think it possible that we might be wrong, surely ours would be a better world.

Political and personal strength, courage, activism and accomplishments are hallmarks of history. They are, rarely, if ever, accounted for through a deep and penetrating examination of the ‘inner voice’ the ‘inner life’ the ‘inner self-talk’ and the psychic sinews of vulnerability, self-doubt, self-effacement and withdrawal. Indeed, while we live in a primarily masculine-defined and designed culture and psychic superstructure, such attributes are perpetually disdained, denigrated, and even dismissed. Heroes are ‘birthed and celebrated on the merits of their literal, visible, measurable and demonstrated ‘achievements.’ Regrets, self-doubt, failures, and even inexcusable errors in judgement are deployed by enemies as evidence of moral depravity, ‘gutlessness,’ ‘weakness,’ and justification for alienation, separation, and even isolation. Let’s not forget, the solitary confinement imprisonment cell was devised and designed by Quakers, the most ‘passive’ and peace-seeking among Christian faith groups. Mandela regarded this as the most heinous of all possible treatments of offenders.

From, National Religious Campaign Against Torture, we read:

Dr. Benjamin Rush and Benjamin Franklin and several Quaker leaders first instituted solitary confinement at Walnut Street Jail in Philadelphia in the late 18th century, believing that total isolation and silence would lead to penitence, hence the term ‘penitentiary’ was coined. That led to the building of the Southeastern Pennsylvania Penitentiary in 1829, which only had solitary confinement cells. However, instead of becoming penitent, the prisoners developed serious mental health problems. The Quakers recognized that solitary confinement cause severe psychological harm and apologized for their use of solitary confinement. Unfortunately, the U.S. has let history repeat. In the 20th century, some U.S. prisons had a limited number of solitary confinement control units within their facilities; however, in 1983, Marion prison in Illinois instituted a permanent ‘lock down’ of their entire facility, in which inmates were confined alone in their cells for 23 hours per day. The use of solitary confinement has increased dramatically since then.

From, January 18, 2022, in a piece entitled, ‘The use of solitary confinement continues in Canada,’ we read:

According to the Canadian government, November 30th 2019, marked the end of solitary confinement in Canada. Yet, people in prison continue to be placed in solitary confinement in a variety of ways, in contravention of their Charter Rights…..Reports released by researchers Jane Sprott, Anthony Doob, and Adelina Iftene as well as the Office of Correctional Investigator—in addition to our own experience monitoring the conditions of confinement in the federal prisons designated for women—make it clear that solitary confinement is a form of punishment that is disproportionately used against Black people, Indigenous people and people with mental illness. This is yet another violation of section 15 of the Charter.

The cliché that nothing worthwhile is ever accomplished without sacrifice, while warranted, tends to gloss over the details of suffering, threats and self-doubt that accompany these three men, and all of us, daily, hourly, and over our life-time. It is our fixation with the ‘light’ in our multiple historic and psychic and cultural landscapes, to the avoidance and denial of the ‘darkness,’ that we do and will continue to owe our repeating oscillation around the serious issues we are challenged to face. Suffering, pain, depression, anxiety, and even desperation are all an integral part of each of our lives, And these men were certainly not immune from their scars.






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