During 2018 and 2019 I conducted research with fellow colleagues at the university of the Free State as part of the academic prerequisites for obtaining a masters degree in psychiatry.
We simply evaluated all available patients with haemophilia, or other inherited bleeding disorders, with the help of standardised evaluation forms and conducted physical examinations as well. We then analysed the data for possible risk factors which would be amenable with the purpose of improving these patients’ quality of life.
Many thanks to the selfless work of prof. Marius Coetzee, prof. Richard Nichol, prof. Gina Joubert and dr. Jaco Joubert, whose assistance was imperative in finishing this work.
The research was published as a letter to the editor of the official journal of the World Federation of Hemophilia, European Association for Haemohilia and Allied Disorders and the Hemostasis & Thrombosis Research Society.
I just walked past two children playing cricket on the lush grass-field along the lagoon where I am currently living. I was somewhat surprised when the two sisters spoke to each other in fluent Afrikaans, because they were black – unlike their parents (obviously adopters) who were stereotypical afrikaners, watching and coaching them from their camp chairs.
It got me thinking; why was I surprised? Due to the colour of their skin I had certain expectations about the language they would speak, the home they would come from, the sports they would like and so forth. The situation might have been the other way round as well, it doesn’t matter, the fact is that our brains are wired to react in certain ways to certain cues. Although this is a simple example, the psychological processes involved can ultimately lead to extremely illogical decisions and behaviour. Think about Nazi Germany, Apartheid-South Africa, current-South Africa and even the Trump administration. I want to describe a few psychological processes and site some experiments that I think can help explain what we have been witnessing in the news recently.
Classic conditioning: The first process is known to most of you by the example of Pavlov’s experiment with his dogs – where he started to ring a bell every time he fed his dogs and observed that even if the bell rang at different times the dogs would still get ready to eat. Isn’t it interesting that they can associate a neutral stimulus like a bell that rings with hunger – just because they have been associating them with each other over a long period? Or that I could associate the skin colour of a person with a whole different culture because of my experiences thus far. We might associate a specific religious group with terrorism because of the type of news coupled with that group every time they are named in the media. The same with political parties. As you can see these associations might occur very subtly from a very young age through the way our family and friends react to certain cues; to overt media messages we get exposed to over time.
So we are conditioned to react to cues. These cues are often times labels that we consciously or unconsciously place upon people or groups. It seems to be so deeply engraved in our DNA to belong to a certain group – whether it be the ‘left’ or ‘right’ -group, black or white, red or blue, conservative or charismatic; and I don’t think this will change – it is human nature to seek out the label where we will fit in. Look at the ‘Robbers Cave Experiment‘ from 1954 by Muzafer. Two groups of teenagers were randomly put together in two different camps at a summer school and allowed to socialise. For several weeks the two different groups didn’t know about each other, but when they were introduced to each other there were apparent prejudice and hostility towards the other group members – they even refused to eat in the same room. These groups were not even associating under the same specific label; just by virtue of sharing the same camp for a couple of weeks they formed a group that was unified somehow. This unity became more apparent when they let the two groups compete in activities. A bunch of normal random teenagers that new nothing about each others’ ideas and ideologies teamed up against each other. Or consider the ‘A class divided‘- experiment from 1968 by J Elliot who divided blue-eyed kids from brown-eyed kids and named the blue-eyed group the superior group, constantly praising them. This caused the blue-eyed group to perform better academically and bully the brown-eyed group. When she reversed the groups, the brown-eyed group displayed exactly the same behaviour. Labelling by eye-colour led to change in academic performance and social behaviour. (*These early studies does not always carry the strong validity as more temporary studies – due to small numbers and many uncontrolled variables – and often spill beyond current ethical guidelines, they, however, were the first to shed light on important psychological principles).
While this early experiments shed light on our desire to belong to a group, it didn’t explain why it could get so extreme. This brings me to the following phenomenon called group polarisation.
Group polarisation: Different groups don’t like each other, but why could they end up hating each other so much? A 1961 experiment demonstrated that people tend to be more extreme in their ideas when in a group than when alone – a phenomenon termed risky shift. Three main theories arose to explain this:
Social comparison theory: people generally want to gain acceptance when entering a group and therefore they adjust their opinion to the group’s opinion – but then a little more extreme – to gain more acceptance. As this scaffolding happens between different people the group arises with a more extreme opinion as what the average of all the people in the group would have been.
Informational influence: people are aware of the two arguments held by two opposing groups, but tend to lean towards the side that provides the more information and holds the most persuasive arguments.
Self-categorisation theory: maintains that people want to identify with a certain group that is often more extreme and when a group is confronted by one that holds an opposing/differing view, the group become even more extreme in the direction they were already headed almost pushing each other further apart.
Neuropolarisation: in the wake of the events around the previous American election, researchers 2 once again endeavoured to understand this phenomenon. Technology advanced significantly since these previous early social experiments and neuro-imaging studies gave us a slightly closer look at the neural basis for these experiments named above. Participants from both conservative – and liberal political backgrounds were connected to functional brain scans (fMRI) while being shown both conservative and liberal election campaign advertisements. It showed two important things: Firstly it showed which part of the brain worked when participants considered the ads. It was the dorsomedial prefrontal cortex (dmPFC), the part of your brain which is essentially responsible for you identity, your social judgement, empathy, emotion regulation and ethical decision making. Researchers calls the dmPFC the ‘lens’ of the brain as all the information our brain receives firstly passes through it. The same part of the brain was utilised by both groups of participants, but functioned differently – to such an extent that researchers could deduct from the brain scan whether they would be conservative or liberal. This is not because we were ‘wired’ to disagree – it is in fact these processes I have described above that changes the brains to act differently. The way our parents conditioned us and the propaganda we got exposed to – all form the way our brain works! And that brings me to the second important finding: This part of the brain was engaged mostly when language which highlighted threat, morality and emotion were used in ads. The scary thing is that the media knows this and has used techniques to gain votes which has probably resulted in extreme neuropolarisation.
After considering these processes that polarise people, one can try and understand why this can get so extreme. We have seen how easily humans gather themselves under a label. But now, no label is as appealing as a human being. Specifically one with strong character, fearlessness and keen persuasive capabilities – in other words, the political leader type of character – and there is a good psychological theory for this. Psycho-analysis is the field of psychology that can help explain dynamic processes happening in and between people. As we develop and become aware of our strengths and weaknesses through life, some parts of our identity remain yet unconscious. It is these aspects of ourselves, whether good or bad, that we tend to project unto other people, clasically our parents when we are young, and often famous people when we get older, like politicians. The Jews who requested the tall and handsome Saul to be their king is also a good example of this 1. And so we can end up, for example, in awe of the bravery of that person which is in actual fact our own, unknown, bravery. Or end up despising the arrogance of a person which is only our own arrogance, ever so unacceptable to our conscious selves! And so from the depths of our own souls, we idealise one political leader at the expense of another we despise. We end up witnessing on the news – conflict between two parties which is in actual fact two poles of our own souls. Furthermore, the unaware political leader becomes the bearer of his accumulated followers’ worst and best ideologies.
One of the most extreme forms of this polarisation we have seen in recent history may be the holocaust. In the wake of the holocaust researchers wanted to understand how human beings can end up doing the atrocities that happened in Nazi Germany. Comes the ‘Milgram experiment‘ from 1963: Participants were told they were recruited to help study the memory of other ‘participants’ in a study. The participants were told they were to give the ‘participants’ of the study an electrical shock each time they got the memory test wrong. The real participants did not know that the ‘participants’ undergoing the electrical shocks were actors who were instructed to make as if they were being shocked. The unknowing participants gave the shocks and increased the voltage as they were instructed by the study leaders, but stopped when they saw the poor ‘participants’ being in pain. After the study leaders reassured them that they will take full responsibility, 65% of the participants continued shocking the ‘participants’. Stanley Milgram concluded that: people will let them be directed by others if they believe they are authority figures who will take responsibility for the outcomes.
In summary, we have all ended up in a group as a result of our conditioning, projections, our culture and group polarisation dynamics, whether we like it or not. But there is one last element I want to mention that we have not touched on. And that is the presets we all have in our DNA – the code for our conditioning before humans programmed us. CG Jung observed that all humanity regardless of anything that other humans did to us, we have certain presets engraved in our psyche. Presets he termed archetypes. These are recurring themes like the need for mothering, for love, for meaning, the possibility to be significant and to be a hero. These themes has occurred through all of history in all humanity. And maybe this is what Jesus wanted to get us back to when He described the parable of the Good Samaritan 3. He demonstrated the victory of the good samaritan in whom the ‘Hero-complex’ overcame the need to keep to his cultural rules. For the hero inside him it was more important to show compassion and help, than to avoid a Jew because of those days’ customs. Maybe if we all started connecting with our original presets we will find that we all have more in common than we differ.
After chatting with my new friends at the lagoon, it transpired that the adoptive father was an ex-policeman who used to be a bodyguard of PW Botha many years ago. Their two black adopted daughters were in the place of safety, that they recently started and ran, and after the children got too old for the place of safety and were supposed to be returned to welfare, it was in fact him that desperately stopped the process and convinced the family to rather adopt them. I can imagine how much change must have gone into his mindset from his early days as an Apartheid police officer to where he was today, but the important thing is that such a mind shift is possible and we all should develop the skill to regularly reconsider all that we have been conditioned to believe. Because today we might sign up for a better Germany and tomorrow we could be putting Jews in gas chambers; today we could sign up to defend our country against the ‘rooi gevaar’ and tomorrow we might think it’s normal to prevent differently coloured people to sit on the same bench as us; today we might be voting for our liberators and tomorrow join them in bribery; or today we might be making America great again and tomorrow we could be destroying Capitol Hill property.
“Your eye is a lamp that provides light for your whole body. When your eye is good, your whole body is filled with light. But when it is bad, your body is filled with darkness. Make sure that the light you have is not actually darkness.”
1 Sam 8
Brain Imaging Reveals a Neural Basis for Partisan Politics – Medscape – Oct 27, 2020
In a very fulfilling week I had the opportunity to meet with four different people who found themselves in very distressful situations. As they described their series of misfortune I soon realised how isolated and helpless they must have felt.
In summary they recently faced diagnoses of severe mental conditions, loss of loved ones, loss of jobs, romantic break-ups and a suicide attempt. One lady’s brother had been admitted for drug abuse after a relapse. She had to look after him as her mother is old and frail. She started explaining that she had lost her husband the previous year and although she attempted to regain a stable financial income again, the COVID-19 pandemic hindered the growth of her business. Her two happily married sisters withdrew from her because of her problems and her only sibling who supported her financially was recently in a motor vehicle accident and lost most of his own income.
By default I constantly search for solutions, or at least some encouragement, but I soon felt myself ‘up against the ropes’. “How do some people survive conditions like these?”, I thought. All I could do was listen – as I did with the other three people. The results were the same each time: at the end of our conversations they visibly looked ‘lighter’ and even smiled as they thanked me for listening. Unfortunately, none of them could find a single other being that would do the same.
I remember a clergyman of some sorts once explaining the relationship between love and space. “Strange”, I thought at first, but he drove the point to clarity with very common examples: What do we create when we build shelters for the homeless, invite a friend to our dinner table, or schedule an appointment to meet with someone who needs to talk? We create space. What do we take a way when we sentence someone to prison, or solitary confinement, or ground a child for mischief, or when we don’t invite a friend to our party? There is a measure of pain associated with the taking away of space?
Type of space
There seems to be different kinds of space, though. We understand physical space, but there is a space which is less tangible, although very real. Let’s call it psychological space.
Physical space is a commodity of love as much as it is one of power. The rich, powerful and selfish have lots of it; and the poor and powerless have limited space. Those who love give a lot of it and those who don’t keep it to themselves while displacing others. Do the selfish not have big houses and the poor small ones?
Psychological space, though, seems to be the type of space most lacking today. It is climbing in value as it is growing in demand. If you don’t believe me, check what a psychologist’s/psychiatrist’s hour is worth. Because it is true that everyone of the people I met this week had a dwelling place, none of them found any space.
A space is created when one person is in the vicinity of another. It creates the potential for something to happen which is absent when we are alone with ourself – even if we should find ourselves with physical space as big as the Kalahari desert. But space for what? To be. To be fully. To be fully themselves – as they really are. None of these four people felt safe enough to tell anyone how they felt, what they were thinking or ask what they were lacking. They probably thought that if they did tell others about or even show them their anger/ disappointment/ suicidality/ hopelessness/ fear or uncertainty, that they would label or judge them as someone they weren’t. (The problem with stigma – it takes away the space for someone to have a chance to be themselves before being labelled something else).
But it is becoming clear now that neither having physical space nor being in the vicinity of others is enough to create psychological space. You can be most lonely when you are with others. This leads us to the space that really matters. There are two ways of listening: one is passive and the other is active. If you listen passively you will hear the facts; if you listen actively you will hear the message. Let me explain with one example: if you listen passively when locked in an argument with a loved one you may hear her anger about your decision to have drinks with your friends without discussing it with her and you may grow resentful and do the easy thing – stand up for yourself and explain how hard you worked during the week and how much you deserved this break. Listen actively and you may hear her message – that she values you so much that she would not want to miss out on an adventure causing you so much joy as the one you shared with your mates. You might have to concede that you could have handled it better and ended up with a much more favourable outcome, did you pay attention.
But this active listening takes up energy. It requires us to do the nitty gritty of engaging our prefrontal cortices and actually understanding. It leads to the activation of our limbic lobes and the generation of empathy. It requires a greater amount of our energy stores to burn up as our brain cells fire intentionally. (In summary it requires the use of our brains). This is the space that matters – a greater amount of receptors occupied in a greater amount of neuro-circuits that conjures up the empathy and understanding that forms the borders of a space for others to truly be (as they relate to others).
This in itself might be enough to help someone a great deal, but this space may have another advantage. I mentioned earlier that it also creates potential. Potential for what? To grow. Giving someone space enables them to see the reality of their circumstances and who they are and how far they have come. It might well be the space they need to plan their next step or change their direction. (1)
I hope you remember this the next time you open the circle bigger for a new friend to join, invite a stranger to your next holiday, create a time slot in your daily planner, you are giving something very valuable.
The problem with religion
It got me thinking about the problem with religion. If we accept that God is waiting for us in heaven, it is to evaluate our works/deeds, and then what? To judge? The ultimate effect of judgment is to take away our last bit of space. If we see religion like this we are in danger of losing space as we try to adhere to laws with the sole purpose of avoiding judgment. Where is the love, then? Well, right here. In the space between here and there, now and then. The space between who we are and who we could be, the space taken up by our spiritual growth between our immature and our mature selves.
If the Holy Spirit was sent to us after Jesus left, why do we have Him with us? If He is here, where is He? Next to us? If He is next to us, what is He saying? If He is not condemning us every time we stumble, what is He doing? If we accept that He is not judging for now, He most probably is encouraging us. When Jesus was on earth He was not impressed by those who kept the law, because their hearts were rotten, because they stopped growing. God wants us to grow because He wants us to succeed and that is why we wake up with a new chance every day, with new space.
The association between love and space is undeniable. Arguably, life itself is God making space for the human race, the Trinity opening up the circle bigger to join in relationship. If God is love and sharing space with Him is the abundance of life, then there could be only one reason He left us for a while: to create more space.
“There is more than enough room in My Father’s home. If this were not so, would I have told you that I am going to prepare a place for you?”
Jesus (Joh 14:2)
The Road Less Travelled, M. Scott Peck. London: Arrow books. 1978.
Why did we receive the law? Seems so unnecessary. Why make life difficult? Why create human beings to live and then limit them again? Why look for ways to punish people? Why develop a constitution, criminal acts, childcare acts, labour laws? Why train people as officers to enforce these laws? The jails are overflowing already. Who enjoys catching someone doing wrong?
I must concede, though, that I generally do enjoy not being robbed or hurt, or killed, for that matter. I do appreciate the effect it has. So what is behind all these laws? Why is something right or wrong? Because someone said so? Let’s look at it from another angle.
Is it not good to love your spouse rather than to hurt them? Is it not good to be contempt, rather than to desire all the time, or to look after orphans and widows as opposed to leaving them to suffer? Is it not good and, therefore, right? Did God punish His people for the sake of punishing them or did He just actually desire that they trust in Him for everything. Did all the laws, rituals, warnings and punishments not point to one thing – that God is good and knows best for us?
God actually introduced Himself before he gave us the laws. “I am the God of compassion and mercy! I am slow to anger and filled with unfailing love…I forgive inequity, rebellion and sin. But I do not excuse the guilty”. It all started with creation, life and grace, but by the time the Son of God came to the earth as the final offering that would free us once and for all people were being oppressed by the leaders, captive to innumerable laws and weary from the endless traditions of the ancestors.
So, when the leaders tried to catch Jesus out, as they did with everyone else, He addressed this straight on. “But Moses said we can divorce our wives if we have a letter”, they said. “It is because of your hardened hearts that he allowed you”, He said. “Your disciples are walking and eating on the sabbath”, they said. “Didn’t David do the same…didn’t you read that showing mercy is better than bringing sacrifices?”, He asked. “Your disciples don’t wash their hands before eating”, they said; “The prophet Isaiah was right when he said you honour me with you lips, but your hearts are far from me”, He said. And when they ran with an adulterer to Jesus, they were so assured of their laws that they were willing to confront Him in public. He cut through the law, however, right to the heart of the problem – their hearts. “The first one without sin can throw the first stone”, and everyone with a stone in their hand stood embarrassed, because the inside of their hearts looked like the adulterer’s – now laying at Jesus’ feet.
They missed the heart behind the law. And this is the litmus test I use to discern the religious from the true believer. The first group usually knows the theology only, but the second group knows God. The first group stays away from the wrong stuff, but the second group seeks out to go and do good. The first group needs rituals to remind them of God, the second sits at His table everyday. The first group seeks punishment and death and the second group seeks mercy and life. The first group is captive and the second group is free, because the first group read the commandments and saw the law, while the second group read the commandments and saw the invitation to learn from Him.
I reckon from a psychodynamic point of view that it was the deep seated sins and unacceptable drives that the church leaders of old carried in themselves (just as anyone else) that they projected onto others. Condemning others, seeking mistakes, upholding laws all serve a function – it keeps sin ‘outside of yourself’ and ‘under control’ (while it is not). We feel better when we find someone with a ‘bigger’ sin than ours, it makes the truth about our own souls more bearable. This leads to hypocrisy and then it leads to the hardening of hearts. Maybe this is why God opted to remove the heart of stone from our flesh and give us hearts of flesh.
“Come to Me, all of you who are weary and carry heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Take My yoke upon you. Let me teach you, because I am humble and gentle at heart.”
We need less of the ‘right’ stuff and more of the good. This is my opinion, but I am interested in yours…
Engineers are racing to produce ventilation masks, virologists are tracing viral behaviour, geneticists are mapping viral DNA (RNA in this case), pharmacologists are testing vaccines, health care workers are training for infection control, hospital managers are organising wards and staff, public health policies are locking us down, police officers are enforcing it, artists are hosting facebook parties and churches are uploading sermons unto YouTube. There is not one person whose life hasn’t been altered in some way by the COVID-19 pandemic. If you are not delivering an ‘essential’ service it will be altered in a different way. You might be facing something either terribly dreadful or very liberating – time with yourself.
If you can’t numb yourself any further to the inevitable questions of existence by the business of work and play you may have been granted a very fortunate prolonged quiet time. Inevitable psychological milestones might hit you earlier like the midlife crisis or you might get an early taste of what retirement would be like. If not this, then maybe the unpredictability of life will get hold of your attention. The closeness of death, unexpected inner urges and desires or ‘unacceptable’ character flaws surfacing will hopefully force you into what is known as the ‘inner journey’ if you have not begun this important journey yet.
Anxiety and depression might be clues that your psyche is unhappy and is seeking change. This would be a change of lifestyle, of mindset, of priorities or understanding of purpose. If everything you have spent so much time and money on suddenly seem so insignificant, then what is significant? Is there something more to be alive for if not for money, work, holiday plans, emigration plans or health? If future plans can crumble so easily, then what is solid? Do I like myself even if I don’t achieve something at work?
Many have found these questions insurmountable – husbands that used to be busy have started abusing their wives again, or other things. Others have just found alternative ways of keeping on keeping busy in and around the home, but mental healthcare workers are hoping that many will take the courageous steps into self-reflection. But they will also be preparing to treat the anxiety and depressive disorders or the burnout that will come from this pandemic.
Why is this important? Other than reaching a meaningful life, why do we need to reflect on our lives? Well, behold, skies are turning blue again; nature is gasping a breath of fresh air while the human race is on ventilators. Mother earth is taking care of herself, because we didn’t. We selfish, egocentric, money driven, ever unsatisfied generation of people are unable to live with ourselves and forever need to produce something new to be happy. We have neglected our families and children, the vulnerable ones. Let me ask you a better question: why did our comfort and our financial status had to be stripped so violently from us before we could identify a building to house the homeless in our city? Why did we have to lose half of our investments before we tried living slightly simpler? Why did we need to get locked down before phoning up friends again?
While health care workers and other ‘essential’ service providers are risking their lives outside, the world needs you to stay at home for a very important reason and it is not only to stop the pandemic from spreading. While thousands are fighting for their breath this is a chance for millions to take a much needed psychological breath of ‘fresh air’. Don’t let the opportunity slip away. Meditate and plan your future so that you can start living intentionally. Now is a chance to think, to read, to ask.
The greatest commandment is to love. I thought it’s important to examine ourselves whether we truly now what love is; and is not.
Jesus explained so clearly how His relationship with the Father worked and demonstrated what our love should look like. It is like this chain of love that was started by God – Who is love – and in Him the Son dwelled daily. In fact this gave Him his direction, courage – His purpose. After His disciples saw this relationship as they followed Him they had a good idea of what it looked like. Then Jesus explained so eloquently in John 15 how He has also loved them the same and commands them to stay in Him and love each other as He stayed in the Father’s love.
Considering the above, then, the first thing I want to say about love is that it is unconditional. Since love started with God, it is something that we receive and learn to do. Try as you may, you cannot earn it and you cannot change it. God loves you – and there is nothing you can do about it.
Although it is unconditional, it is not limitless. At first glance it may seem contradictory, but we are speaking here about the practicality of love. Remember Jesus advised His disciples to kick the dust off of their shoes when they leave the town that doesn’t want to accept their message. Although love is a fact, it has to play out according to the rules of love. Beyond these rules you find what love is not. It is not allowing someone to do what they want – especially if it is destructive – it is more about helping someone to do what is best for them.
Love is pro-active. We fall so easily into the mindset of going out and loving whoever crosses our path. We say: ‘Okay, God, I love You and today I am Yours. Show me who you want me to love today, and how.” It is this as well, but maybe love sits and wonders – how is the people in the townships coping with the winter cold or with the COVID 19 pandemic – and then asks his house cleaner about this or driving there and finding out from local institutions how to be of help or inventing a ventilator mask that could save suffering people. I think it is important that we realise that love is not passive.
Love has many faces. Love is multi-dimensional. It has cognitive, behavioural, emotional and spiritual facets. You can feel in love with someone, you can think about it and know why you love this person or thing so much, you can do something for this person, because you love them so much and you can pray for that person, etc. It is with all of these faculties of ours that we love God first “…all your might, all you heart…” Therefore your love towards your 5 year old child will look different than your love for your 20 year old child, or your love for a homeless person will look different than your love for a sick person. Sometimes love may look like scolding someone over a destructive action or admitting a patient against his will when he is a danger to himself.
You are the first person you must love. This chain that starts and ends with God is broken when you don’t play your part in loving yourself – “…love your neighbour as yourself.” Can you see that you can easily become the weak link that society so desperately depends on when you don’t understand how to love yourself? It makes sense if you think about it – you do for others as you want them to do unto you. If you make yourself the doormat for your work, always take on the extra work, never say ‘no’ and always deny yourself reward – you will expect the same from others. And you will grow extremely bitter, because others don’t ‘love’ as much as you ‘love’ them.
Some will reason that they want to stay humble. Well, there is a fine line between humility and low self-worth. In fact, I believe that humility can become very hypocritical when you do unto others what you don’t want to be done unto you, like in the above examples. It is a pseudo-love, a projection of your own unmet need – and that need is ‘the loving arms of yourself.’ Jung understood this so well. He eloquently describes how the most difficult enemy to love is within – and this makes all the difference in how you empathise. If you cannot love others through loving yourself, you probably cannot have true empathy.
Love takes more than one. You have to love someone, apart from yourself, it can’t exist in loneliness. God loves the Son, the Son loved the world, etc. That means we have to participate in this love – answer the question, take the rose, accept the gift and join the adventure. When you do this then a relationship is formed. ‘God loves you’ is the biggest reason for our hope and your answer to His question: ‘do you love Me?’ will be the most important answer you give in your life. Acting according to this love will be the most important command you ever obey.
Our behaviour is often driven by unconscious beliefs, feelings and fears. Most psychologists would agree that most of the time these beliefs, feelings and fears are related to death itself. We make use of denial to keep death at a distance, but it is really closer than we would want to admit. The frightening reality is that there is not a lot between life and death. We could cross over any second. There are enumerable things that can happen at any time that could lead to our death and we only realise this when death has come close to us. See how our behaviour and priorities change when someone close to us dies and we have spent a few seconds staring at the inside of a grave at the funeral.
We spend a lot of time and effort that is related to death and we don’t necessarily realise this. Our brains are mainly wired for two things: avoiding harm; seeking reward. Think of all the insurance, the safety measures related to traffic and to the work place. What does your anxiety towards a snake, social scrutiny, to panic attacks, to heights, to your health or to your money represent? They all remind us of the possibility of losing control, of suffering and of the possibility of death. Our earthly goals are not always directly related to avoiding death, but rather to pursue things like money, comfort, love and success. These things add a measure of hope though we are hardly ever aware of where this vague need for hope comes from, until life happens, we are stripped from all of our ‘crutches’ and we hang by a very thin thread in the galaxy of meaninglessness. Also called and ‘existential crisis’.
The flesh (our biology) is naturally wired to live and maintain life. Therefore, it flows naturally that we become fearful, selfish, self-righteous and addicted when death is unconquerable. It makes biologically sense. It is a survival reaction. The reality of death is a breeding ground for perpetual sin in our lives. Our flesh is as much a result of death as it is vice versa. To conquer death is to conquer sin and vice versa. But what if death loses its sting…if we no longer live to save what we cannot lose, would all these things not lose their grip on our lives? Would we not live boldly, joyfully, with hope and with love even in the face of death and in the midst of suffering?
There is a fascinating group of people that lived in the first four or five centuries A.D. that seemed to be unafraid of death. They were killed together with their spouses and children by the Roman Empire. All they needed to do to avoid this was to return a bunch of papers and stop telling others about what was written on it. They heard and read about the Man from Galilee that rose from the dead. Jesus lives. And this made all the difference in their lives. It changed they way they worked, did business, relate with others and the way they viewed life and death. What is so valuable about this?
If He lives, then the rest of the things He told His disciples is probably also true – of which the most important is that, firstly, sin is forgiven, secondly, that He would send His Spirit to guide them, comfort them and remind them of His words; and, thirdly, that death is not the end. This significantly affects life – life before death, even more than life after death. The domino effect of death conquered is life changed, radically – lives that live today!
Jesus lives. There were families that gave their lives so you would know this. So…what if He lives? How does your next step, next word, next project, next business deal, change? What does a life look like that received grace, received God’s Spirit and that doesn’t end?
Because He lives I can face tomorrow
Because He lives all fear is gone
Because I know He holds the future
And life is worth the living just because He lives
A friend of mine that suffers from a serious condition came up to me the other day asking advice on how to handle a certain situation: he wanted to know what to do when well-meaning people came up to him and asked if they could pray for him. This has happened numerous times and he has grown tired of having to face them again after a couple of days, because he then has to deal with the disappointment in their eyes and sometimes have to experience a change in their attitude towards him. He almost feels guilty for not being healed.
What should our attitude be towards suffering; in our own lives, as well as others? It is so understandable that anyone who sees someone else suffer would want to do something to make it go away – it’s probably what we would have wanted if we were in the same shoes. I also understand my friend’s pain, he must have had these same expectations of being healed and subsequently learned to deal with the disappointments and with the feelings of confusion, anger, and doubt. So, what is going on here?
We are striving to be followers of Jesus Christ, but it seems we rarely truly grasp what this means. We imitate behaviour, but behaviour follows on what we feel; what we feel follows on what we believe and understand. Jesus spent a lot of time teaching (renewing minds) and the Bible often reveals what He was feeling while doing certain acts, i.e the compassion He felt before raising Lazarus from the dead, for the children they kept away, for the bunch of followers that reminded Him of a herd of sheep without a shepherd. So, the true followers would not merely be imitating, but would be renewed from the inside out as they follow Him.
I am concerned about what some disciples are being taught. It lacks the longevity, long-suffering and real empathy that makes up part of the fruit of the Spirit. (1) I wonder if we sometimes seek the easy way out by doing some spiritual thing and then leave. What my friend needed, firstly, was someone sitting down and listening so as to try and understand what he is going through. He needed to be known – for who he was, not who he could be.
This would mean that a relationship be formed. If we get to know others, we get to know what they need and what God is busy doing in their lives. Then we can better aim our good deeds. If someone goes through something we don’t understand it makes us uncomfortable, and we avoid what we don’t understand. Saying a prayer and bringing a ‘prophecy’ could be an effective way of avoiding the unknown. Who is the stronger person: someone who prays for miracles or someone with the courage to really get to know another person. Is the nurse that walks up and down on a 12-hour shift, tending to every sick patient’s needs less spiritual than the person that does miracles?
Where is this alien way of ‘helping’ people coming from? It is confusing many and I wouldn’t have taken the time to write this if I hadn’t been moved by the woeful experience my friend had to endure, and many others continue to face. If we want to love, then let’s love; let’s suffer with those that are suffering like Jesus did. Let’s get back on the road after Him and leave the road that is after our own misguided desires. Let’s seek the bigger picture, the one that is beyond our own egocentric lives, and maybe we will then be better able to help others. I am of the opinion that there will be more miracles – in the right situations, eventually, when we learn to live close to God and develop His mind and heart for His people.
Have you ever witnessed a close friend or relative that seems to be doing everything right, yet continues to get the rougher deal? You know this person is the most honest in his industry, the best at his trade, yet he just doesn’t reach the top. Almost as if you want to think: ‘God does this person not deserve better?’ ‘Where are You?’ Or maybe you feel you are this person…
Sometimes the things that happen in everyday life can seem so senseless, as if we are all at the mercy of random chance and people with power. It is easy, then, to start rationalising these things, or even spiritualise it as a coping mechanism. I’ve heard people find ways to ascribe circumstances to God’s greater plan, when sometimes we just bear the fruit of our own, or others’, bad decisions. They eventually end up living out their own self-fulfilling prophecies – and these self-fulfilled prophecies can look very much like a relationship with God.
I want to hazard an opinion, that the truth probably lies somewhere between two extremities with total chaos on the one side and ‘God – the master of puppets’ on the other side. When Jesus explained the discipleship life to His disciples, He used the metaphor of a vine; and you can only be one of two things: a branch withering on the ground or a branch in the vine. (1) The withering branch is the one that was cut off as punishment and it means separation from God, lifelessness, hopelessness, burning together with other lifeless branches. If you are suffering and wondering whether you are being punished, that is what you would be feeling if you were punished. You would be God-forsaken. I understand that some might feel God-forsaken, but the chances are very scarce that this is true of you, as you are indeed alive. Now the branch in the vine still has the potential to bear fruit, and sometimes it does. It can grow in any direction. So much random potential. Exposed to the elements of nature. But at times it gets seemingly unnecessarily cut off. Just as a break through is on its way, comes the Vinedresser and takes it away. It almost seems counter-intuitive, because the idea was to grow and get bigger. If life feels like this you are in a good place. You are alive and free to grow in any possible direction; and if you have entrusted your life to God, He comes and shapes you. It will be the ones truly desiring God and who bear fruit that would be pruned.(1) It is those who do good works (2) in response to the good works of God who will be shaped even more. It seems as if there is a rhythm to this discipleship life – started by God by creating us, teaching us, loving us; and we responding in obedience and trust. He opens a door, we enter; He provides employment, we work hard and honestly; He promotes us, we work even harder; He provides education, we study hard; He brings us into contact with influential people, we testify; He waters, we grow; He prunes, we get shaped into a beautiful fruit-bearing, God-glorifying tree with routes so deep that the driest of winters cannot take us down.
This gospel is one of grace and grace is more than receiving what we want – it is receiving what we need. It is grace that kept the thorn in Paul’s flesh (3). Because of grace, it was not removed for the bigger picture looked different than what Paul saw.
So, what should our attitude be towards suffering and hardships? Are we to pray the suffering away or are we to trust the Vinedresser? Are we to declare that no trials will sweep over us or are we to seek how our trials are shaping us? Are those going through tough times forsaken or are the tough times giving the direction?
“How is it possible that one human can slaughter another human like that?”. Comments like these are thrown around after school killings, mass shootings and murders Have you had thoughts like this one? Well, how is it possible…
It is difficult to accurately communicate the subtleties and nuances that moulds a developing mind, but certainly the person that you become is the result of innumerable, minute and often unseen events in your life that interacts with your body, your DNA. It is difficult to describe psychological wounds and accurately communicate the tremendous disabling effects they have on a person’s life. One only sees the behaviour of people, which is most of the time an inappropriate reaction to the trauma. One often need to look deeper to see them. The movie ‘JOKER’ managed to communicate this exceptionally well – as art often does. While it might come easy for some to understand the root of people’s behaviour, others might find it more laborious to understand. The director definitely succeeded in creating a sense of empathy for a person that would otherwise have been labelled some name and dismissed as another sorrowfully, mad criminal. It is almost impossible not to feel some kind of empathy for the main character after having killed two bullies on a subway station watching the condemning crowd and the highly fascinated media on television. Yet that is what most of us would have been doing. This time around, however, we know the story behind the criminal, the person behind the mask, and it changed our perceptions and affected our feelings.
What about the story behind the person on the news that got sentenced to life for murder. It is broadcasted as a victory and brings great joy to the crowd outside the court room. It might equally be a victory for justice as it is a failure of society. This is another fact that this movie shed light on so effectively – not all bad guys were born bad. Some were made. Because criminals come from communities I feel that each time someone from our midst gets sentenced to prison, each of us should be reflecting on what we could have done to prevent it! How did we associate with the boy at school that got bullied for being poor, odd and different, because his mother was mentally ill, father in and out of jail and moved from one school to another as his parents failed to pay his school fees? How do we see the person visiting a psychologist or taking psychiatric meds? Sure, we cannot prevent everything, but did we play our part? It is easier to become angry and condemn than it is to reflect on the broken villain inside us.
I believe the reason that so many people go out to watch this movie is because it projects so much of our repressed selves onto something as acceptable as a cinema screen – whether it be pain, loneliness, chaos, fear or a longing for empathy – and brings some sense of connectedness and relief with it. A few years ago Batman was the hero and we identified with him, because he wanted to get rid of the bad guys; today, seemingly, many people feel more like the misunderstood and broken villain. None of us chose our cards, we all play the hand we have, good or bad, as best we can.
It got me thinking about those in South Africa that got dealt the ‘Joker-card’ as well. Those ones pitching up with weapons at schools or sniffing glue at the traffic lights or murdering their own loved ones? If the fragile soul of a child can be injured so easily by emotionally absent parents (eg. because of mental illness), inconsistent parenting, ostracism or purely by being treated differently, then how devistated must the souls of those children be who grew up here in poverty, violent neighbourhoods and lacked adequate access to education and health care – in other words…around 4 million South African children (1). We seriously need to change our mindset regarding the prevention of crime, as well as mental illness in this country. We need a huge effort and very soon.
So, how to play the cards? Let’s all walk away from our defences and start addressing the hurt and chaos inside; let’s have empathy with ourselves. This would effect a greater change around us. Let’s look at our own mental health, and get treatment for our own wounds. Listen to each other. Or let’s just be nice to our neighbour in general. Let’s advocate for good morals, prioritising family, compassion for the marginalised. Society’s moral standard should be measured by how good they take care of their children and of their mentally ill…
Hall, K., Sambu, W., Berry L., Giese, S., Almeleh, C. and Rosa, S. (2016). South African Early Childhood Review 2016. Cape Town: Children’s Institute, University of Cape Town and Ilifa Labantwana.