Spirit is often regarded by the Western world as something intangible and therefore unsubstantial. As something invisible and therefore not real. But what I love about Africa is that here we know that it is the other way round. The wisdom of my continent reminds me that Spirit lives in everything. In Xhosa the word for Spirit is umoya, which also means wind, or air. Spirit is the very breath of life, the animating force, our First Cause. Spirit is understood to reside in everything and to individuate itself in the process of embodiment. Therefore every tree and every stone is understood to have a spirit, a newborn infant has a spirit, every relationship has its own spirit, and every nation too.
What African wisdom knows well too, is that Spirit has its own rhymes and reasons. We need intercessors, ritual and humility when relating to Spirit for Her laws and ways are not those that we mortals know or are comfortable with. When Spirit goes then life – and often all that we find we hold dear, all that truly matters – goes too. Those of us who have stood beside the body of a deceased loved one have felt this. And as mortals it is sometimes frightening that we have no control over the comings and goings of Spirit, over the life or death of a partnership, a person or a people. We can only care as best as we can for that which is temporarily entrusted to us. Just as this next generation must seek to learn to listen to, to interpret and to work in collaboration with the Spirit of our nation which seeks to evolve through us.
But how do we do this?
It is certainly not an easy task, for Spirit – as Africa reminds us – revels in paradox and in process. In the West, Spirit is often conceived of as something pure and holy, something above and beyond us, which is to be aspired to. But, as the author Thomas Moore reminds us in Care of the Soul, God has at least two aspects. One belongs to the high and lofty world of undefiled ideas and ideals – this he calls Spirit. The other is to be found in that which is earthbound and temporal, that which loves to be tied to time past and people and place. Too often, in speaking of Spirit we ignore this aspect, which Moore distinguishes as Soul. Perhaps, I think, because it is scary. We don’t want to get too dirty; we don’t want to get too attached. We want to stay up where the air is clear. But, in order to be able to reach out and up, a tree also needs to extend roots that dig down deep, into the dank and into the dark.
Africa never lets us forget about that which is painful and jagged and complicated though. In fact, at some point, She demands of us all that we hold both light and dark. Ben Okri speaks poetically to this paradoxical and unrelenting nature of Africa in his induction of the first Caine Prize for African Writing. “It is easy,” he cautions, “to dismiss Africa, its people, its problems, its literature. It is easy to patronise Africa . . . to profess to like Africa . . . to have liberal views about Africa. . . But it is difficult first of all to see Africa. To look at it in its variety, its complexity, its simplicity . . . to hear its laughter, to behold its cruelties, to witness its spirituality . . . Africa is difficult to see because it is gun-shaped and heart shaped. It takes heart to see her . . . Actually it takes a truly richly grounded developed human being to see her without prejudice, superiority, or an agenda . . . Africa is a challenge to the humanity of the world, and to the sleeping wisdom and love of the human race. A lovely big awkward paradoxical philosophy, challenging, heart challenging, race challenging, eyeball challenging enigma.”
We then, who are to carry forward the soul of this country at the southernmost tip of Africa, must become truly richly grounded developed human beings or we will not have the capacity to serve as leaders. We are called upon as young people in this time, on this continent, to grow down as much as we grow up, to keep our hearts open and our spirits fluid. It is, of course, a great responsibility, one that makes me think of the Mary Astin quote that, “We are not born all at once, but by bits. The body first, and the spirit later . . . . Our mothers are racked with the pains of our physical birth; we ourselves suffer longer the pains of our spiritual growth.” We have to grow our spirits down into this world and particularly into the soil of this our land, and midwife souls that are rich and vibrant and intimately ingewikkeld enough to hold our nation steadfast in the times of seemingly inevitable confusion and anxiety that lie ahead.
How do we do this though?
I believe that seeing precedes doing, so we first need to examine the filters through which we view the world. Most of us are only familiar with two ways of being and we juggle them as they suit us. Often, we act as dependents, as children without much responsibility to whom the world seems to ‘happen’. At other times we seek, brashly adolescent like, to carve out our own destiny, acting as if we are totally independent and that we ‘happen’ unto the world. As different as they may seem though, both of these behavioural patterns are based upon the singular premise that ‘I am separate from my world’ and therefore ‘I either control it or it controls me’.
But in Africa there exists the knowledge that umntu ngumntu ngabantu – a person is a person through other people. What happens out there is not separate from in here. Our individual destinies are thrown into relief by, and only given meaning through, the background and context that a community provides. This is, it must be appreciated, an entirely different way of seeing, for it does not presume that ‘my universe and I are separate’ but rather that ‘we are in partnership’. This subtle but fundamental shift in perception is the way of interdependence, and of real spiritual adulthood. It implies vulnerability and an open endedness as well as tenacity and commitment on our parts.
This is also a shift in perception that Thomas Moore would welcome for as he writes, “It’s my conviction that slight shifts in imagination have more impact on living than major efforts at change.” It is only with imagination and a sensitivity to the web of interdepen-dance that we can explore evocative questions such as the one Fred Kofman poses when he asks, “Who is the ‘I’ that wants when I say ‘I want’?” You may even come to realise that, in the words of Charlotte Roberts, “. . . as much as you ‘want’ your vision, you are also its instrument – the steward and servant of a larger purpose, as if the web itself were pulsing with a purpose, and you are the expression of that purpose.”
What then, if we dared to imagine ourselves co-creators with God? . . . .
In the midst of the concentration camps of World War II Viktor Frankl and his fellow prisoners found that their very survival depended upon a similar such shift. Nothing less than a, “ . . fundamental change in our attitude towards life. We had to learn ourselves, and furthermore we had to teach the despairing men, that it did not really matter what we expected from life, but rather what life expected from us. We needed to stop asking about the meaning of life, and instead think of ourselves as those who were being questioned by life – daily and hourly.”
As South Africa’s next generation we are blessed in that we have many elders who role model such servant leadership for us. I found for example, one the most touching aspects of tatomkhulu Mandela’s The Long Walk to Freedom to be contained within a letter he describes writing to his former wife. “I wrote two letters to Winnie about a particularly beautiful tomato plant, how I coaxed it from a tender seedling to a robust plant that produced deep red fruit. But, then, either through some mistake or lack of care, the plant began to wither and decline, and nothing I did would bring it back to health. When it finally died, I removed the roots from the soil, washed them and buried them in a corner of the garden. I narrated this small story at great length. I do not know what she read into that letter but when I wrote it I had a mixture of feelings: I did not want our relationship to go the way of that plant, and yet I felt that I had been unable to nourish many of the important relationships in my life. Sometimes there is nothing one can do to save something that must die.” Here is a man who knows how important it is to tend with infinite care, that which we love, to act in service as the caretaker of a plant, of a relationship, of a nation.
So, how do we do this?
How do we even begin to follow in the footprints of such elders? It is, quite honestly, a daunting task. And so, for what remains of this piece, I would like to explore some of the more practical aspects of how we can live and work in partnership with Spirit. And I would like to share with you some of the simple ways in which I, as a young South African, have come to (and continue to) know and ground my spirituality.
For example, whilst the Western tradition exhorts us to ‘know thyself’ I have found it more useful just to begin noticing what it is that I love. Many of my peers who travel overseas only find this out in retrospect. Sometimes I don’t know for myself until I am reminded. Such as when I recently attended a performance of The Spirit of the Nation, which synthesised the singing of Sibongile Khumalo, with the violin of her son Tshepo, with the antics of the young Zip Zap Circus and the fluidity of the members of the Jazzart Dance Theatre! I laughed, I cried, I found myself dancing in the aisle (at one point the little boy in front of me did not know whether to watch me or the stage until his mother reprimanded him for staring). No wonder the word enthusiasm means ‘to be filled with God ’. That night I blessed the artists who provided me with the opportunity to know and connect again with that which I love. “We think,” author Marianne Williamson chides us, “that we need to understand something or someone before we can love them. No, we need to love first in order to truly understand.” That night – as the audience – we all implicitly understood and tangibly touched the richly woven Spirit that gives life to our nation.
I have also found it beneficial to take time to listen to Spirit without expectation and to consciously make space for the new, the surprising and the mysterious in my life. The friends I cherish most dearly are those who walk this path of not-knowingness with me. For example, a twenty-three year old friend of mine phoned me recently, distressed. “What have you done to me?” he pleaded, more to himself than to me. “Before I knew and absorbed your way of seeing the world I was very happy being what now seems to me normal and boring. I was quite content with my TV dinners and my small ambitions. Now I dream dreams that I know are not mine alone, I pass people in the street and the soul in their eyes tells me stories, when I get sick I listen to the spirit of my dis-ease so that it can find rest. I am not comfortable with this new responsibility. I don’t know if I want it.”
There was, of course, nothing I could say to my friend. He knew and I knew that he did not really want to turn back. He has invited Spirit into his life, he has made way for the mysterious, and his life is richer and more meaningful for it. I don’t have to tell him that when he smiles now he smiles all the way into his eyes, that his presence casts a seriti that strangers notice and are drawn to take shelter under. That he is well on his way to being a truly richly grounded developed human being. He knows this, and would not want it any other way. I could only encourage him to keep dreaming, to keep caring, to keep praying as best as he is able.
I meet other young people who are engaging Spirit all the time. At a conference I facilitated for the ‘Brightest Young Minds ’ a resounding cry that I heard was, “We would be happy to earn less money if we could do work that we felt was meaningful. What is ours to do? How can we contribute?” Indeed, even the grown ups, the South African ‘Business Leaders,’ who came to deliver speeches unto them invoked the words soul or spirit on three separate occasions that I noticed.
What then to advise these old souls with young minds? I seek to engage imagination. I try to encourage my peers to see themselves in the biggest framework possible. As pioneers who are role modelling a new way of being – in service to our country and our world. But most of all, I just try to listen to the Spirit that is trying to take shape through them, to be a witness and in so doing, to hold open that wedge of what is, a terrifyingly grand possibility.
Often I offer Goethe’s sage counsel which is as relevant to my generation as it was more than two centuries ago, “Until one is committed there is hesitancy, a chance to draw back . . . Whatever you can do or dream you can, begin it now. Boldness has a genius, power and magic to it. For, in my own life, I have always found that when I take the first step Spirit comes running to meet me. That Providence moves too and raises in my favour, “ . . . all manner of unforeseen incidents and material assistance.”
This has definitely been the experience that my friends and I have enjoyed since boldly launching Imagine Cape Town, a voluntary project that seeks to engage our diverse citizens in heartfelt dialogue. We all feel the magic that surrounds our initiative, a grace that is not entirely of our own making. And in the process of rolling out ‘Imagine Cape Town’ by means of one-to-one ‘Appreciative Inquiry’ interviews we continue to discover deeply the power that lies latent in questions. Questions that really prompt us to think anew, such as:
• What is the core factor that gives life to Cape Town, without which this city would not be the same?
• What do you value about Cape Town?
• Close your eyes and imagine you wake up in Cape Town 10 years from now. Everything is as you dreamt it would be. What do you see?
• What is the world calling for from Cape Town?
When I participate in such dialogue with another I am often reminded of the Sufi saying, “You think because you understand one and one you understand two. No, you must understand and.” For, somewhere in the process of an appreciative interview, there occurs, without fail, a very discernable, very numinous shift and one has the privilege of witnessing ‘the lights’ come on in one’s partner’s eyes. You actually see another beginning to entertain again the notion, the hope that maybe, just maybe, their dreams, for themselves, their city and their country, could be real-ised. Do you remember that feeling? Do you remember the hope that you let yourself harbour on May the 10th 1994? And again on the 24th of June 1995? Can you recollect, literally gather to-get-Her again, this feeling and this sense of hope?
In my home, there is a room, where I keep only pictures of my ancestors, those who are my roots into this world. In this room, there is a table, upon which I place reminders of the things I love most dearly. On this table, there is a box, in which I store the longings, which I am slowly allowing myself to re-collect. The dreams, which speak of and for the fragments of my spirit. To re-member them is to tentatively weave my spirit into a wholly, holy whole. It is the way in which I make breathing space for Spirit, the manner in which I draw Her in close and, in so doing, partner in the healing of us both.
“Dear Love,” I have even been daring enough to write Her. “Is it possible that these very things which make up my spirit – my dreams, my loves, my joys and my deep seated longings too – the very things that make up the essence of me, are actually not mine alone? That they, are Yours, too? That the very things that make me me, therefore make me, You, too? That You and I are so interdependent that we are actually indivisible? Is it possible that I could mean so much to You?”
My friends and peers, it is my prayer that we may, in time, come to be dream catchers for each other. And in so doing, come to re-cognise our true Self, to know again the Spirit which resides in each of us. May our country be a home, in which Spirit feels She can roam free; and in which She can find rest. May our relationships be rooms, within which the presence of Spirit is palpable. May we come to trust each other as containers for, and caretakers of, the dreams which we, as yet, barely allow ourselves to believe.
I wonder, I really need to know, are these perhaps, your deepest dreams too? For I hope, as a dreamer to know, that I’m not the only one. If this is indeed true for you, too, then I shall be beside myself, quite literally be-side-my-Self. And yet, if it is so, then I would ask of you, please do not jump up and shout out, “Yes!” Just come stand quietly by my side, take my hand and let us dance togetHer.
Perhaps, we will then,
live along some distant day,
into the answers,
into the human beings,
into the nation of our dreams.
And so it is.
Siyabulela uThixo .