Wednesday, December 29, 2010

The View from my Bicycle [COLUMN]

In 2011, check your mirrors - by Nick van der Leek

I hope in 2011 you will be a more responsible person than you were in 2010.  That's also my wish for me. Let me start by offering a personal example.


Earlier this year, when my lease in Johannesburg was coming to an end, a 60 year old lady invited me to stay with her in Summerstrand PE. She presented herself as someone who believed in my writing talent and wanted to help me succeed. The agreement was that I should pay only for my food and I'd have a chance to pursue my freelancing career [with its sometimes marginal income] without being stressed by financial burdens etc. I was reassured that there was a garage for my car and cupboard space for my clothes. This was a chance to take my freelancing to another level!

When I arrived it turned out that there wasn't really any arrangement for my car, and very little space for my clothes [or even for me]. One month later, her noble sentiments had evaporated entirely, and following my not inviting her on a trip to J-Bay, the 60 year old wanted me to evacuate the premises virtually immediately. I had left a pile of personal possessions in Johannesburg, including TV, DVD player, microwave, refrigerator, and plenty of furniture. Of course there was no sense of responsibility that she had instigated and encouraged the move; her response was simply to avoid the consequences of that decision. Dishonest, and illegal, but none of these matter when you feel...well, inconvenienced. Even if that feeling is all your own doing. And never mind if you're inconveniencing someone else by an order of magnitude greater than yourself, what matters is that  you feel absolutely comfortable. All other considerations are secondary.

In order to make the situation unrelated to her own actions [in other words, to absolve herself of responsibility] she told lies, presumably to herself as well. She complained that rent wasn't paid etc etc when, of course, this was explicitly never part of the original arrangement. She had been fixated on some feeling which she hoped to get out of my occupying the premises, and when that feeling didn't materialise, a new feeling [just as compulsive] I don't want you here replaced it. The context, the practicalities, the previous commitments and understandings were irrelevant. All that was relevant was: I want my own space back.

Trouble is, people enter into these sort of engagements all the time. Getting married, having children, starting a business - with very little imagination or critical thinking into the reality of it.

But I am also guilty of a certain amount of irresponsibility: not asking myself,  what's the catch in this arrangement?  And why does she want me to move there - what's in it for her?  And what if it goes sour?  And when it does go sour what will you do?  And what precautions can I take?  In this sense I was irresponsible, although I have to say, I knew I was taking a calculated risk, and all things considered, the rewards were worth the risk.  The humiliation associated with the arrangement though wasn't much fun.

Old or Young, responsibility is equally valid

I've been told that a doctor from around here [Cape Town] recently had his children tested for AIDS. Inexplicably, the test for his twelve year old daughter came back positive. He asked her how this was possible. Turns out she had been having sex with a married man in the toilets of a nearby shopping centre. Who is more irresponsible, the married man with AIDS, or the twelve year old girl voluntarily engaging in sex with him?

Why are people in larger numbers than ever before getting cancer these days? Why are vast swathes of the world population mall-visiting whales? Why are there so many dark troubles in the world today - from economic black holes, to a climate picture no one wants to face to the new possibilities for pandemic disease?

The answer is that all of us, you and me, are motivated more by feeling than meaning. As a result we have made a world for ourselves which has become pornographised. In other words, consumed by pseudo-life, painted in a veneer of plastic and faux appearances, a world of spin and soundbytes, virtual, manipulated, socioeconomic, or otherwise hallucinated status rather than actuality. A world where important activities like having children and being part of a family have been hijacked by the porn version of them. Which is to start families in order to have sex, or to have relationships, however shallow, for the same reason. This may not be true of every individual, but it is certainly true of the average.

Responsibility Crutches

In this world it is easy to gravitate to religion, the ultimate resource where things that are wanted or needed can be created out of thin air [for a world that believes 'stuff' comes out of thin air, is created instantaneously]. Meaning can thus also be created out of thin air. But most important of all, responsibility can be given to God, whose job it is to judge us, to sort out the world [which He created] and decisions on our fate and the world's fate are entirely his. Really? This means the implications of our own actions are never borne out while we are alive on earth, a convenient excuse to act without fear of consequence whilst we're alive. In fact, a very convenient license to indulge - which is exactly what we have been doing. We act like children running amok, but that's fine, because our Superparent, God, is watching and taking care of us. Eventually, you have to wake up, and grow up. Or if you don't, face the consequences, or hide from them - either way they're out there.

When I see an extremely obese person in a gym [a rare occurence] I wonder how the person managed to divorce him or herself from their own personal reality to be able to reach such a state. Wjat did people around them say? Or not say? Yes, wonderful that they have stepped into the gym. Can they maintain the new habit? Or will they eventually drown in their own adipose and despair? Much better to have never gone down the garden path beyond all the warning signs to transform from human being to a whale. Was the difficulty in walking, getting those tree trunks past each other, not warning enough?

I heard about a priest who had a heart attack and died at the pulpit whilst giving a sermon. I wonder how the congregation respond to this vivid glimpse of the reality of life - that there is no insurance from death, for anyone, anywhere.


The true test of consistent failure to take responsibility is someone who always finds something or someone to blame.  It is when you accept and acknowledge your part, your role in response to your situation, that you can change your life.  When you blame, you actually give power to something outside of yourself, and you rob yourself of strength and the capacity to do anything.  Furthermore, it tends to create emotional tensions, and an internal dialogue, which reinforce a drama - one of your own creation.  In this way you [or I] perpetuate an energy flow away from yourself re-making a situation worse, not better.

We are living at a time where there is a profound lack of clarity, or consensus, to describe who we are and what we are actually doing. Our political leaders, let's face it, are professional liars. Perhaps they are told to lie because it is in our best interest, or theirs, and maybe they believe it. But they are not the only one's telling lies. There is a certain amount of consensual denial, when faced with the environment and resource limits. These are based on our own interests, and so the denial is really rooted in an attempt to perpetuate our indulgent lifestyles. To the extent that we can manufacture a postponement of reality, we see economies deform and twist the way mirrors can be made to transform reflections. There is some semblance of reality in these squewed reflections, but not much.

Check your mirrors

At the gym I go to the mirrors make me look slimmer and more muscular than I actually am. I know this because someone took photos of me at a triathlon and the reality was, well, both painful and disconcerting. The response then is to make the painful decision to change, to undertake new and difficult actions - eat less, move more. Or I can spend more time in the gym, admiring myself in front of mirrors that lie to me.

We are living in a time, right now, where we're starting to bump against the planet's limits to growth. This is reflected in food and fuel prices. But it's also reflected in climate systems, disease and environmental systems that are rapidly changing. Most people will only change when they are forced to do so. The change that is coming is, in a sense, a natural rebalancing. We should try to find a way to welcome it and embrace it. And those who can respond best to the coming change will do better than those who are disconnected from their own realities, and the Greater Realities. That was always so, but perhaps never truer than now.

Now is a chance for us to be better than we are. Change is about making new choices. I hope you will join me in 2011 in being more connected to the world and its creatures, and to do that, we have to be connected to ourselves in a real way.  Hold yourself accountable to your thoughts, words and deeds.  Be disciplined and be an honest asset rather than a liability to the world in 2011.

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