“It hurts.. And I get the feeling we keep talking past each other”
Words directed at me sharply the week.
An accusation that makes me wonder what sort of value in speaking, writing and engaging I am actually seeking.
It’s really difficult. To reach understanding. Between hearts & minds whose perspectives and priorities are not quite aligned.
It can feeling jarring.
But mutual understanding is definitely not impossible. Even between the most unlikely of pairings. But it requires patience, empathy and sometimes “tolerance”.. All things that can run in short supply in the context of a modern day that’s so exhaustive. An overwhelming era of information. With so much access. There are no shortage of disagreements between us.
We’re all at different stages of understanding ourselves. Of understanding all this around us. And where we fit in it. Whether you’re conscious about that pursuit. Whether you think you’ve given. Or even if your frantically doing everything you can to carve purpose out of the chaos that surrounds us. And confounds us.
But for me one thing is clear. We need to speak to each other. More. And I leave it vague, because no matter how much we do it, it’ll probably never be enough. We need to get better understandings of what effects the next person. Develop a feeling for what it is to experience life as another, through this we can humanize many things that for too long have been outlawed as taboo. Or as unworthy of recognition.
It’s tough though to know your role in a conversation. Sometimes. Actually upon reflection maybe even most times. You’re there to listen.
A big part of me talking to you, is saying nothing at all.
This morning I was reflecting on a conversation I had. Were I said almost nothing. And yet, I think it was enough. I want to share this with you..
The weather was fantastic.
A perfect Friday, sun baking down here at the Southern most tip of Africa.
As lunch time approached all the employees bag to drag there feet, and slowly find ways to pass the time.
Fridays aren’t very productive days on this side. Especially when the weather makes such good case for a midday nap.
And as the clock finally reached 1 o’ clock. I made my way into our cafeteria and sat at my usual seat.
There was a new face at the table. He was from another division. A talkative chap.
An older white male, a Senior Scientist.
When I arrived he was in the middle of an expansive conversation about the workings of his division.
As I made my way through my samosa.
The conversation starting shifting to the problems in the country.
And flicked between access to education to the problems with our mines.
To complaints about the ruling party.
It was an all too familiar trajectory. And I was biting my tongue through most of it.
And suddenly, we arrived at Affirmative Action.
Much to the horror of many white colleagues at the table.
Whose faces seemed to suggest that we should be expecting a violent riot any moment now.
By this man went on. In a way I hadn’t heard at this particular table.
He spoke about how he saw it’s function and it’s context.
And immediately lamented, that his son strongly disagreed.
He seemed strained when saying this. Over the course of the conversation, the table began to slowly empty.
Before long we were along in the cafeteria. Albeit for the ladies staffing the kitchens, who I have no doubt were listening in to this man’s loud reflections.
I sat quietly. Realizing that he was not quite speaking to me.
He told me that he was struggling to get his son to understand how he benefited from Apartheid.
He went through his life story, telling me about his working class upbringing. He sounded very torn.
He clearly did not think his upbringing was easy. But he made a point to acknowledge at each point in the story where he had felt he had received a massive boost.
He spoke about the financial support strategies the Apartheid government had to assist White families purchase property.
He told me how him and his wife were able to pay off their house.
“Education though, that’s what we need”
He would say every now and again. It almost became a mantra that punctuated his stories as we went in an out of the stories from his past. To the reflections about our present situation.
I brought up my Pan African-like feelings. Bringing up the need to reconcile and reconnect with the rest of the continent.
This conversation brought us to Angola.
The South African Military and Angola.
Now this is a difficult conversation to have here.
Many young men here were called into service.
Many escaped. Many were conscripted against there wishes.
This man told me about his time in national service.
I don’t recall him saying anything particularly sinister. Admin work? Something like that.
We continued to talk about this country. This time in a different context. He told me about at a scientific expedition he went on. He told me about the amazing scenery. He seemed nostalgic.
Eyes lighting up when he would describe the water samples they had found.
Briefly sharing an anecdote about how they would get samples in the fast flowing rivers, with limited resources in the suffocating tropical heat.
He lamented about having to leave. Leaving behind so much unexplored. Undocumented.
It was a very curious story for me to hear.
This man’s exploration. Under that context.
What must have been the climate.
A space engulfed by war.
To be a White South African.
I realized very quickly.
That I knew very little about what happened there.
Why is this?
How many young people do?
Rushing us back to the present. He leaned back into his plastic chair and said..
“But ja, it wasn’t easy”
I didn’t know what to say.
Part of me skeptical about the things that were undoubtedly left out.
Another part of me wondering. Why this man was speaking to me about this.
He mentioned again. That he struggles to share his appreciation for the injustice of what happened with his son.
He leaned forward.
And told me about his son’s school.
In a prominent area of the city.
He assured me that all is not well there.
Without mentioning it directly. He said made passing mention of “horrible attitudes & behaviour”
The evasive language and general uncomfortableness he was showing as he said this made me fairly sure he was talking about racism.
I kept quite. Now stoney faced.
Drifting off into thought while he continued speaking.
Wondering how many more young white South Africans are being raised by hands that paint injustice in colours that will later, surely, cause us conflict.
Miseducation. And nurturing predjudice and misunderstanding. Happening just kilometers away from my own apartment.
Seeds that are planted. That we will have to deal with time and time again as these young people also begin to grow.
By now almost two hours had past.
And we had finally reached the last few bites of our lunch.
So much had been said between the two of us.
A conversation that may never have happened.
If I responded. At the junctures that in my heart demanded me to protest.
Would I have heard what he was actually saying?
As we walked out of the cafeteria. About to part ways.
We shared a handshake and exchanged names.
He told me he wanted to retire into teaching.
Maybe prop up some of our failing education system.
I nodded and said “Nice to meet you”
Not knowing what else to say.
All I kept thinking about.
Is how much more needs to be said.
Talking past each other. Talking to you.