Living contemplatively in action in South Africa in 2015
While some of my colleagues in the Jesuit Institute are political analysts by intellect and training, the world of politics and economics has never been my particular forte. I have always been somewhat politically naive and a supreme optimist, but even I can see that the country is in a dire state. As we prepare to enter a new year, we are plagued by major problems which are largely the result of corruption and incompetence. Load-shedding is set to be a standard part of our lives for the foreseeable future with all of the accompanying economic, political and social consequences. The next few months in particular, which hold a high probability of load-shedding on most days according to what Eskom said in early December, are likely to test morale and patience to the limit. How do we respond to this from an emotional and spiritual perspective?
We can respond by becoming despairing and passive, believing we are powerless to change anything. This is the mode of whining and complaining incessantly about how bad things are. This drains energy and may result in a state in which one simply gives up and passively accepts the situation. Psychologist Martin Seligman called this a state of “learned helplessness” where people feel helpless to avoid or change negative situations because previous experience has shown them that they do not have control. Learned helplessness can lead to depression, increase stress levels, reduce a person’s ability to learn new things or be creative, and decrease a person’s energy and efforts.
We can also respond by venting our anger and frustration either verbally, or, when pushed, even to the extent of physical violence. Being late for an important meeting and stuck in a traffic jam because of load shedding can lead to road rage. When people’s stress levels spill over into aggressive behaviour we may see the kind of mayhem experienced in parliament earlier this year. When people are under massive amounts of stress (as we all are), they feel under threat, and the amygdala which is the most primitive part of the brain takes over. This is the part that puts us into fight, flight or freeze mode. It makes it impossible to think or reason well because we cannot easily access the higher cortex which is responsible for high level processing.
A third way of responding might be God’s invitation to us: To respond contemplatively in action. We have to believe that amid the huge challenges God is wanting us to work in partnership with him. We need to make time to really pray each day; not just saying prayers, but spending time with God, listening to him and asking that we may be sensitive to his invitation as we meet the specific challenges of the day. Personally we need to be attentively looking for specific and practical ways to adapt our patterns of working to be more effective within the current constraints. Collectively we must be asking (as a community, a parish, a school, a business), what creative initiatives might contribute positively to a resolution of some of the issues that face us individually and as a country.
It is only, I believe through contemplatively and actively engaging that we will be able to respond to God’s invitation to us now.