Monday, July 5, 2010

Three Lessons

Three Lessons - 7-5-2010

First: Suspicion, Criminal and Mormon.

This past week, I was walking to a nearby appointment in mid afternoon. The sun was out, and children were literally playing in the streets as I walked past in a quiet neighborhood. I didn't know exactly where I was going, so I approached a white woman standing outside of her car, outside of her driveway gate. I realized after I began to approach her that driveways are the scene of a lot of violent crime here, but I assumed there wouldn't be any problem as I am white and don't look particularly threatening. Additionally, to assure good intentions, I called out to the woman. “Ma'am – ma'am?” She didn't turn around (she had been facing away from me.) Her dogs were milling about – a big shepherd, a large white lab, and a small, low dog with fur similar in appearance to the shepherd. I have been told that I'm rather soft-spoken; assuming she didn't hear me, I walked towards her, again, calling out, “Ma'am?” She hurriedly climbed into her car – fast!- closed the door almost with a slam, and look up at me through the tinted window, pointedly pulled the lock. Surprised, but not showing it, I again asked, “Ma'am?” and she rolled down her window a hair. I asked if she knew where a certain store was, and how to get there. She said, “I don't know where it is, and my dogs are running loose in the streets.” I said alright, and she pulled her car in, The dogs, by this point, were running full tilt at me, barking like mad, and then charging off after they had come as close as they dared. I don't back away from such aggression, but neither do I encourage it; seeing that I had unnerved the woman, I turned and walked off of her property to the next driveway. The white lab in particular kept charging and barking; the other two dogs came up to me, but seeing no aggressive movement from my side, went back in the gate. The woman closed the gate with an automatic pad, keeping the dogs out. When the gate was closed, she got out and came to the gate, opening it just far enough for the dogs to squeeze through, though it took a few minutes for the persistent lab to stop charging at me (again, even though I was no longer on its territory).

After the gate was closed again behind the dogs, the woman asked, “What do you want?” I told her I was supposed to meet someone behind CNA, a store chain here. I later learned that the store I was actually looking for was CTM, but at the time I had no idea. By this point, I was being very careful to keep my voice as non-threatening as possible, and was remaining a few steps back from the gate. The woman went on a few sentence exposition that there wasn't a CNA here, only in Vincent; I could tell she still didn't trust my intentions and didn't want me there, and her attitude didn't change until I said that the house I was looking for – behind the store- was on Middlesex Rd. That she recognized, her shoulders relaxed, she smiled, and said – Middlesex rd, that down there, but there's no CNA! I thanked her and walked off, rather shocked at the treatment I'd just received. She didn't do anything, per se – it was simply an attitude towards me that I haven't experienced to that degree before.

Similarly, I had an interview scheduled with a woman on one of the following days. When I arrived, she said she had some concern about being interviewed, as she hadn't spoken with her headmaster and wasn't able to speak for the school. I assured her that was alright, and that I was interested in her experiences and her perspective. She seemed at least partially mollified, and so I gave her a copy of the consent form to read over and sign. She again gained the concerned look on her face, and after she had read it, said, “I see that your studying the Baptist faith, which is all well and good, but this is a Mormon school – Brigham Young University.” I said, “Well, yes. But the school just funds the University; the research is separate. I'm a Mormon, but this is not a Mormon study. The purpose of this study is for [publication] in an academic, peer-reviewed journal.” But to no avail. When I had said I was Mormon, her eyes widened, and she refused from then on to hold an interview and was of no further help.

In both cases, I faced an unusual degree of prejudice. Fortunately, I have not run into that much here – apart from being called umlungu (“whitey;” it's not as much of a slur as cracker is in the US; which means it's really not a slur at all. In Grahamstown, I saw a t-shirt I liked that just had the word umlungu printed in white on a dark grey background.) a few times by black people who thought I couldn't understand them, I haven't really had to face prejudice based on either my religion or my skin color. I realized, after the negative experiences I had, that what I experienced was just a small taste of what black people experience all the time. I had thought of my approach in racial terms: because I was white, - the same race as the woman - I assumed I wouldn't be suspected of criminal intent. I think that I was operating based on my understanding of the white Afrikaner psyche, and not based on my own internal prejudices; I believe and hope so. But the implicit statement remains: had I been a black person approaching a white woman, I wouldn't have been surprised at the treatment.

I'm studying ethnicity and race in one of the sociology classes I'm taking; I don't think I've ever really understood before how it feels not to be given a chance, based on characteristics I cannot or should not change. As a man, a criminal; as a Mormon, not to be helped. I gained a whole new understanding and appreciation for those who fight against racial discrimination. I don't feel it yet in terms of gender discrimination, though perhaps I should, but I can see more from that perspective. I don't agree with the anger, or the methods of hate used by some counter-prejudice groups (who I have consistently found are as prejudiced or hateful as those they fight), but I better understand where the rage comes from, and had a small taste of its source.

Two: The Gospel, everywhere.

The second lesson is not to say that the Gospel is spreading all over the earth, though that is also true. Rather, God is not dependent on culture, location, or time. His grace is sufficient wherever, and whenever, we find ourselves. As I wrote last week in the Prometheus post, the solution to having fire- hope, vision, and passion - is found in the Spirit. I received great comfort this week by reading the Book of Mormon in Swedish, while in my apartment in South Africa - and the Spirit was and is the same. Similarly, I asked a black man from the local congregation for a blessing, and found sweet peace and consolation in the words the Lord spoke through him to me. A good friend of mine is struggling a bit with their testimony, wondering if it is just a cultural prop. I can honestly say that I am experiencing the Spirit of God in ways and through cultural patterns completely foreign to those I was raised with. In other words, this is no cultural crutch; I have tested the Gospel and found it true in multiple cultures, and know that it is true in all cultures. The principles and ordinances of the Gospel are the same.

The lesson to draw from this is: don't forget the Gospel, in a new place! The same thing that has comforted me all my life will continue to comfort me wherever I am and wherever I go. And that is true of the Gospel for everyone. In the throes of culture shock, seek the same source of comfort as for every other kind of shock – namely, Heavenly Father and his Son Jesus Christ, and the Holy Ghost.

Three: Unexpected blessings

Commandments always lead to the blessings that will help us most at that time. I felt strongly drawn – commanded, even, to check out a series some friends of mine have told me about. Now that we have a different internet situation, I have that possibility when other plans fall through. So, I've watched some of this series – Avatar, the Last Airbender, for the record.

This unusual prompting has had two effects. First, it was difficult for me to follow. I spoke with my roommate about something similar when he came back on Saturday, and in describing my philosophy, I realized suddenly that my attitude towards work and accomplishment is skewed. Incorporating some relaxation is kind of foreign to me; there's not room in my plan for renewal, and so my plans aren't sustainable long term. This is not to say I don't relax, but when I do it's a departure from my plans and not an integral part of them. I realized that I envision myself – my ideal – as a machine that operates perpetually – no maintenance, no sleep, no fuel, simply perpetual motion. That's not correct. I think of myself as lazy; sometimes, that's certainly true, but sleeping, eating, and enjoying myself could be sources of strength rather than flaws to be corrected. Indeed, whether I admit it or not, wholesome recreation is a necessary source of strength and one to which I have not attended. Isn't it the Gospel of work that teaches us that we are in constant need of the Lord's support? Of physical and spiritual nourishment? That we need always to be nourished by the true vine? That on the seventh day, the Lord rested; and that Sabbath is made for man, and not man for the Sabbath?

As I have done this simple – strange- act of renewal, I've found that my strength has been revitalized. The cartoon reaffirms something that I have lost faith in: the individual. The storyline is about a hero character who grows into his potential in order to save the world. In order to change the world for the better. The great theme of the story is that an individual can make a difference (though the series covers a lot of themes and topics. It is also entirely clean – no swearing, only limited violence (mostly magical), and nothing sexual. I would certainly recommend it as a good conversation starter and as instruction, even, for young people.).

An individual can change the world. An individual can save the world. In my studies of sociology, anthropology, political science, and economics - which consider humanity only in the aggregate, above the un-scientific whimsy or determination of man's agency – my hope, my faith in my ability to make a difference has weakened and waned. The social sciences are designed to map humanity, but not necessarily to change it.

This series has been sweet medicine to combat the inertia of social science. To believe in the power of agency; to be optimistic, to be enthusiastic. I can make a difference, I will make a difference.

I've noticed too, over the past few days, that I have more energy, more strength. My days are happier; I can do better work. Since I believe I can make a difference, I have a lot more motivation to make a difference. And that is worth the time, worth a thousand times the time, I've spent in renewal, or relaxation, or in non-work.

(I was losing my faith in fiction generally, to be honest. This has been a good reminder of the importance and value of fiction to inspire and uplift.)

A huge bug I found squished on the sidewalk; you can see my thumb for a size reference. I didn't really take any pictures this past week, so the selection was pretty limited.

A sunset over town.

This is a Methodist Church I always pass on the way out of Baptist services. This was on Sunday morning, and I thought it was a really pretty shot.

Some flowers - these grow all over the place.

Same Methodist church as before, but with a different and unintentional setting on my camera. I thought it was an interesting photo, so it made the cut this week.

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