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Hopelessness, complacency, compassion and responsibility.
Social justice work is not for the fainthearted. Now more than ever, we are obliged to acknowledge our own complicity in systems of oppression as well as to assert our individual agency to bring about a better world. Committed action by many people will eventually become a powerful force for systemic change. And yet many of us grapple with some basic questions: “What can I do?” “What should I do?”
I was born into apartheid in South Africa.
We had a white picket fence with a nanny, a maid and a gardener.
This happened despite the outrage expressed by my Scottish mother who felt deeply uncomfortable but ultimately succumbed to the pressure to conform and offer employment to people.
Just before I turned four years old, my parents made the decision to move to Australia.
Like everyone of my generation and our predecessors, I was taught about white Australian history.
A history that said nothing about the genocide of the First Nations people of this country; nothing about traditional wisdom, cultures and histories.
In my middle class, white 1980s Australia, aboriginality was held in stereotypes, othering and mystery.
However, I was acutely, and hypocritically, aware of the injustice of apartheid in South Africa.
I can remember as a child feeling sad, distressed, ashamed, angry and helpless about the atrocities perpetrated against people of colour in South Africa.
It wasn’t until much later that I became aware of:
- the contradiction and hypocrisy of my thinking
- the war on First Nations people here in Australia
- the formal and informal atrocities committed
- the extent of the cover-up by white Australians and the Australian government
- the richness, depth and beauty of First Nations cultures, knowledge and wisdom
- the complexity and levels of connection to land and community held by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples
- my white privilege and its shame
Notice the Rage; Notice the Silence.
When I was sixteen, I returned to see my family on their farm in Kwa-Zulu Natal on the east coast of South Africa.
One day, I decided to go for a walk by myself around the back of the dairy, as I had not been around that way before. I walked along, minding my own business until I turned a corner and came upon the village of huts for the African labourers on the farm.
Picture the scene before my presence was detected:
- a large group of men and boys playing soccer
- women collecting water from the tap with babies strapped to their backs
- laughing, chatting, shouting
Now picture the scene after my presence was detected:
- all activity stopped as I walked by (aside from the soccer ball bouncing across my path and the water that continued to run out of the tap onto the ground as the women watched me pass)
- all eyes were on me, observing with wariness and hostility
- my gaze down and gait accelerated to move quickly through
I had unwittingly intruded upon a private space where I was understandably not welcome.
Where I was other.
It was confronting, frightening and confusing.
And I felt deeply ashamed of what I represented.
This week is National Reconciliation Week in Australia.
National Reconciliation Week is a time for all Australians to learn about our shared histories, cultures, and achievements, and to explore how each of us can contribute to achieving reconciliation in Australia.
Again, I find myself in a swirl of cultural shame and stuckness.
It’s a mix of shame and inertia coupled with a sense of helplessness and hopelessness.
And when I throw in my white middle class privilege, the shame grows.
I used to be much more engaged in my activism.
But a mix of police brutality and false promises from communities of so-called solidarity led to physical and emotional bruises that left me disillusioned.
I mean, I have attended rallies and signed petitions but haven’t really done much more than that in a long time.
I told myself that I had become jaded.
That I was too busy with my own young family.
And that the work that I have done for the last 15 years in family violence and in support of children impacted by abuse and neglect was “enough”.
However, after reading Chris Germer’s article on The Near and Far Enemies of Fierce Compassion last week, I've decided I need to:
- sit up
- take a look at myself
- call it what it is.
So what is it exactly?
It is complacency.
One of the near enemies of fierce compassion.
What is fierce compassion?
Kristin Neff has highlighted the the need to explore and acknowledge the yin (nurturing) and the yang (strength) of compassion. Neff conceptualises this through the metaphor of a 'Mama Bear' who nurtures her cub and also fights ferociously to protect it.
Fierce compassion involves being angry, courageous, strong and being able to take action in the face of injustice.
"When we suppress our anger, we are likely to lose our capacity to speak truth to power or to take positive action.
Conversely, letting our anger run amok can cause irreparable harm to oneself and others".
It's a fine line to walk.
What are the near and far enemies of fierce compassion?
Near enemies are very similar to the core elements of compassion, but can be deceptive, and ultimately undermine the very qualities we hope to uphold.
They can be tricky to spot.
Far enemies are much easier to identify because they are the opposite of what we are striving for.
If we unpack this in terms of the three core elements of compassion (mindfulness, common humanity and kindness), we can see their far enemies are:
- emotional reactivity
With the near enemies of compassion being:
The far enemies make sense; I can tell they are 'bad', and definitely undesirable.
But the near enemies? They are not so clear, and can be insidious.
Like my political complacency.
Rather obviously, becoming complacent in my activitism has meant that I have failed to actively stand up for my values and beliefs in important ways.
I have fallen into a sense of hopelessness and helplessness in an overwhelming world. And I have justified my complacency and inaction through this lens.
As a result I have become a bystander.
This has only been possible from my position of privilege as a cis-gendered, white, middle class woman.
I feel a deep sense of shame and vulnerability in sharing this.
Looking through a lens of fierce and gentle self compassion: compassionate action
If I look at this through a lens of self compassion that embodies its fierce and the gentle aspects, I can:
- bring kindness to myself as I acknowledge that there are many others that feel the overwhelm and sense of hopelessness that I experience in relation to so many aspects of our world
- bring a warm and open, non-judgemental awareness to the mix of feelings that are present
- acknowledge that I have done what I can with the energy that I had available
- identify the small steps that I can take in once again becoming active in my pursuit of social justice
- share, as I am here, my intentions for compassionate action to support my renewed attempts to reactivate my fierce compassion for a better worlds for us all
I will leave you with the wise words of Chris Germer, but would love to here how you take compassionate action - please feel free to share here.
Cultivating the qualities of mindfulness, common humanity and kindness is a good foundation for compassionate action, and when we add a measure of wisdom, we can surely change the world for the better.
Wisdom may be defined as an understanding of the complexity of a given situation and the ability to see one’s way through. Another definition of wisdom is recognizing the short and long-term consequences of an action and choosing the course of action that yields the greatest long-term benefit.
Header image: Ehimetalor Akhere Unuabona