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Meaning in suffering

I have written this with the Marikana massacre in the back of my mind. It is a pity it is in the back of my mind, where it should actually be in the front. I think of the surviving of those mowed down, the frightened families, the grief-stricken mothers, the bewildered, sad and probably hungry little children.

And I bemoan our lot? Yes, we have been through a – relatively speaking – very tough, scary situation, Marion handling it far better than me and we are not entirely happy with our jobs, but I have yet to come up with a better philosophy than the one that was drummed into me by permanent force sergeants and staff sergeants when I was in the army: “Life is what you make of it.”

Much as I am a great believer in gratitude, I still take too much for granted. Sometimes I cannot catch a taxi to the school I teach at. So I have to walk. Boo hoo. At least, I taught myself to marvel, I have the ability to walk that forty minutes to the school. And then still have the ability and energy to teach children for several hours.

I wrote the above paragraph in the light of the hellish life of Tony Nicklinson, who has had locked-in syndrome for many years, a disease rendering him almost completely paralysed. He wishes to end his life and has appealed through the British courts for euthanasia. A court case he has lost. The pictures of him breaking down and crying – because he cannot be granted the wish to end his own life – I found harrowing. His face – and I do not say this offensively – is like the face of a starving dog with his back broken. Utter anguish. Especially when comparing those pictures of abject misery of how he looked before the stroke, a healthy, peaceful, care-free, good-looking man. Tony did not choose locked-in syndrome, but his life has been a nightmare for years though no choice of his own. I made conscious choices in coming back to China, because I love the people and the teaching, and Suzhou is such a lovely, fascinating place. That’s all gone for a ball of chalk.

I have noticed that life has a way of showing me images that bring home all I need to be grateful for here in China whenever I am miserable, and indeed, now at times, frightened about our future (unlike Marion, who is so present in the moment, so chirpily stoic, that if she knew she was descending into hell, as I will jokingly mutter, she will just fart at the flames). Here in China there is no shortage of people who are crippled. One man I sometimes see has his crippled legs somehow strapped to an axle with wheels and he pushes himself along with his begging bowl in one hand or in his mouth, day in and day out. He had an almost permanent, idiotic smile on his face. I suppose I saw it as idiotic because I know that “woe-is-me” Rod would sure as hell not be smiling, and therefore he is being an idiot. He’s the better man.

It seems almost inevitable to search for meaning, to make some sense of, or give order to, the crisis one is going through. How has Nicklinson done that? How have the survivors of Marikana done that? The cripple on the wheel axle? Mine was to reflect on my life history of the worst situations I have been through and I noticed an eerie pattern. Towards the end of each decade from the age of nineteen I went through a crisis and a sharp learning curve before “things came right” again.

1) At 19 I went on Awol from the army and ended up facing charges for general desertion, a civilian charge of illegal immigration and a lot of other awfulness, such as a couple of days in solitary confinement and sitting in detention for nearly two months waiting for one trial or another to come up and being sued by a shipping company as I had stowed away on one of their ships. Eventually I got out of all of it and learned a big lesson in taking personal responsibility.

2) At 29 I went through a crisis of being unemployed for a long time and ending up having to swallow humble pie by going back to live with my mother. Then I went into a fantastic job and essentially did not look back for more than 10 years.

3) At about the age of 38 I took my business down to Fish Hoek so I could better look after my mother. Fish Hoek of all places, after the wealth and wheeling and dealing of Joburg. Almost inevitably my business cocked up after a bit and at 39 I went back to Joburg with my tail between my legs to stay with friends while I sorted my life out. Once things were sorted I was the most grateful person you could meet. Such a lesson in gratitude.

4) And now I am 49 and you may have read allll about it. I took my cue from Sarah Britten in unburdening my feelings during the crisis. She wrote very feelingly when jobless and lonely in Sydney at the time.

But the point is there seems to be a pattern, and therefore a sense of meaning, as if I am being “prepared” for the next decade of my life. And each time things seemed to “turn out for the best”, as we say. And yes, I am starting to see the teacher in these circumstances, learning to spend less, live life more simply, realising that sometimes achieving our goals is the worst thing that can happen to us. (Us getting into New Zealand, which we now can do, has been both a dream and, I now realise, a curse for many years now.) I am told that in the Middle East it is a curse to say to someone “may your dreams come true”. Because those dreams, the wonderful life partner, the nice home, the right job, the Porsche the Porsche the PORSCHE!! never bring lasting peace and happiness. All that “stuff” is still subject to the law of impermanence. We had great jobs and a wonderful apartment in Suzhou literally one day, then … pfff! It was all gone.

It’s all about inner change, not seeking external comforts, as we all know, or should know. Not that I don’t love a variety of comforts. I want to be happy. All the time. Most people are miserable, leading lives of quiet desperation, I believe. And through that misery and self-centeredness we mentally pollute the world we live in. The kids I teach pick it up. As they would. When I am on a high, they love the lessons. When I am trying to disguise my self-centred misery, the lessons don’t go as well and I even get asked “what is the matter?”, their knowledge of that question actually surprising me, as some of them are only five or six years old.

Is the above pattern in my life genuinely a pattern, a series of synchronicities, or am I reading too much into it? Either way it does not matter. Quantum physics and ancient spiritual teachings tell us that that which is viewed is heavily influenced by the viewer, indeed, are inseparable.