Sunday, November 21, 2010


Bigger than the Moment (The Remembrance Day Address to Centennial, Nov 10, 2010)

by Richard Michelle-Pentelbury on Tuesday, November 16, 2010 at 12:55pm
 Collateral damage. Innocent bystanders.  It is the stuff of war. It is the stuff of enmity. And it is those who come after us, who are closest to us, that suffer. You and I do things that are horribly human in the moment. We can get ugly. We can lie, cheat, steal. We can feel outraged and angered and brutal. And we each can pick up a gun and defend ourselves. We do not necessarily have to be conscripted into an army before we realize that we too can kill. I happen to know that much. As a young man I was forced into the South African army, 1971 to 1975. That’s what conscription does; it forces you into a certain way of thinking, sends you up the border, into the war, and demands of you that you defend your country. Go fight for your country. Fight for us! Fight for your place. Fight for your name. Fight for your sense of you. And should others be damaged, should the innocent bystanders of war be damaged, should the people, the populace, the children be damaged, well… that’s the collateral damage of war.
Here’s a little demonstration. Hold your hands out to the person to either side of you, like this, palms up and outwards. Connect, and one of you give a little push when I say so. Ready? Only one of you pushes. Push! Good? Now, hands down please. Now, who did not push back? Hands up, who did not push back? Great. Great. Well, pushing back, that’s instinctual. That’s how enmity and wars begin. We almost immediately push back. We push back when someone teases us, when someone is cruel, when someone hurts at us. We push back and do not necessarily allow for time and reason and distance and care and compassion to take its place. We choose to push back. And sometimes we have no choice, or so I thought.
Just over a week and a half ago I was in Africa. There I witnessed the ongoing collateral damage of a country still very much in the birth pains of post-war apartheid. The country is in a fearfully besieged mode. Fear rules. Self protection is constant. There are gates and spiked palisades and barbed wire spirals everywhere.  In the giant city of Johannesburg alone, I was told, there are over 20,000 rapes a day. Think of it, 20,000 ugly awful brutalities in a single city a day, to which we add to the whole country the robbery, the abuse, the murder, the molestation, the drug and alcohol vice, and that insidious and then horribly invasive disease, corruption. In fact, as I was driven through the once posh downtown district, now a third world ghetto of tension and strife and survival-ism, my entire being filled with frustration and heartfelt despair at the lot of the innocent children, so victimized by the ravages of the South African Apartheid past. Innocent children. Suffer the children. Collateral damage. Like the children in the aftermath of the bombing of Dresden, like the Slaughterhouse 5 victims of Kurt Vonnegut’s true life novel, the collateral damage to the innocents goes on and on. War after war.
In my Yotes-Time class last Friday I was talking about the early 70’s, when I was conscripted into the South African Army. Conscription. It means I had no choice, especially not if I wanted to honour my Family’s expectations that I defend them. Or what of the boyhood expectations inculcated in me by my old Pretoria Boys’ High School, where our cadet training was with the purpose of defending our country? Or what of my Church’s continuous urging that we defend ourselves against the very devil, communism? Or what of South Africa, my own Country’s belief back then that racism was to be legalized in the name of Apartheid? Ironic Afrikaans word, isn’t it? Apart-hate. A system of legalized racism. It was not abolished until 1994. Back in the 70’s, when I was in the army, the northern borders were to be defended against the warring insurgency of communist-backed rebels wanting to overthrow the white supremacy of our Apartheid Institutions. They wanted to gain control of our Economy. They wanted to reverse the order of more than a century of Colonialism and Nationalism and perpetuated Legalisms of privileges endemic to an all-white society. And the fact that the whites in question were bent on the self-serving ends of extracting from the invaded country its minerals, its ready and cheap labour force, its blood diamonds and gold was seen as a Right, given the history of nearly two hundred years of occupancy.
Sounds a bit like what we’ve done in Canada, eh? Yet here the First Nations people are but a small group.     
In Zambia, central Africa, where I was born and raised, the Bantu of Africa outnumbered us 20 to 1. And so they rose up against our injustices. They went to war against our perpetuation of incursions upon their freedom, our denial of their dignity, our removal of their opportunity, our economic disincentives for them to prosper. And the wars of Apartheid went on and on. All of my boyhood the war was “up at the border,” and I knew with a certain fearfulness that I would get conscripted to it too. Then, in 1964, we were forced to leave Zambia. Pets were shot. Things were burned. I knew then that one day I too would have to pull the trigger.
“Well, did you kill someone?” a student asked me, just a few days ago. I blinked. And in that blink I knew that my doing it was not as important as his being able to do it. The question for each of is: Could you do it too? Well, I’ve lived long enough and seen enough to know that even the meekest of you can be brought to kill another human being, given the right circumstances. After all, if it’s easy to push back, wait until someone is shooting at you. That’s what I want to address here: your part in all of this. Your choices! After all, we think we have choice, and then we fight or we succumb to the events, to the circumstances, to enforcement, expectations, and to the cultural inculcations of others. We find ourselves a weapon. Any weapon. Even a bad word will do. And we decide to use it. And we fire. We fire! We fire with hate, with thoughts of vengeance, with blows of anger, or with the certainty of self-righteousness. We fire with the self that feels defensive of its needs, its wants, its desires, and its dignity. We fire back if the self feels its aspirations threatened, its ego quashed, its resources overwhelmed. And it is in you and in me to do so, for we are all too human. This giving over to anger will happen ~ unless we be inclusive, assimilative, integrative; in fact, unless we become Bigger than the Moment. Let the other push. Give a little, smile, and work with him or her. Do the dance; give respect. Find your commonality. It all is a microcosm of the macrocosm; the smallest of things symbolic of the largest. It all is a spiral of activity advancing our evolution, the choices we make, one by one, each by each. And one minute of awareness makes all the difference, let alone the choices we make, moment by moment.
Just ask George Lawrence Price, if you could. He is said to be the last soldier to be shot in World War One, on this month, November 11th, ninety-two years ago. One minute made all the difference. A Canadian, born in Nova Scotia, conscripted (without choice) to the army while he was living in Saskatchewan, George Price was fatally shot in Belgium at 10.59 a.m., just one huge minute before the armistice. One minute before the cessation of weapon-fire! Had some miracle of modern texting, a cell-phone, twittering, or even an ancient carrier-pigeon delivered the essential message that the war was over... would the other have pulled the trigger? Strange how in one minute “the other” is the enemy, and then in another minute by some stroke of the pen, some order from above, some word from beyond, some inner call to the private conscience.... one can altogether stop from pulling that trigger. One minute more, and George may well have lived beyond his 25 years.
25 years old. That’s what I was when I went AWOL (absent without leave) from the South African Army. After five years of conscriptions, in and out again, I came to my senses. I made my decision. I could no longer defend racism. I would no longer fight. In 1975 I stowed-away aboard the S.A. Oranje, a Union Castle steam-ship bound for England. In my renunciation I became a fugitive, an expatriate. When I reached London I borrowed an old Raleigh bicycle, got a tent, a sleeping bag, a knife and a camp-stove from the Salvation Army store and cycled all the way up Britain. I traded my sketches for food and the right to sleep in a field, and even bartered my sketch for a ferry across the sea from the northern tip of Scotland to the Orkney Islands. And there I met a Canadian who suggested I come to Canada as a political refugee. And so, in 1980, I became a most grateful Canadian citizen. I made my choice! But then again, speaking of collateral damage, I did not see my mother for over 35 years. Dad died before I could see him. And just 6 years ago my two brothers and our sister and I were at last re-united. And then, just this last month of October, only three short weeks ago, I was reunited for the first time in over 45 years with my youngest brother, Johan. Why only now? Well, having gone AWOL in 1975 I was under too much threat of court martial or worse to go back. And now, this year  invited back to Africa to do a series of presentations on guess what?: Interpersonal Dynamics, I was honoured to be sharing a message about being considerate, being compassionate, being integrative, being assimilative, absorptive and responsive, just as I’m doing with you. Responsive. It is not about pushing back!
Choices. You? We all make sets of predominant choices as we move within the elementary needs of the Self; submit to the dictates of the enclosed Family, adhere to belonging to an esoteric Club or to the dictates of a fixated Clan. Our Egoic nature wants to be the best, even if it means hurting others. We may wrestle with our inability to accept another Group due to their politics, their religion, their beliefs. We may need to have others’ admiration, to Control others, to Dominate others. We may desire to have Fairness, and we may feel anger and revenge at injustice. We have all of these warring things spiralling within us. In simplistic terms, it’s a perpetual dichotomy of Fear, or Love. Choices.  Our world is rather a mess because of it. So much around us is fragmentation, divisiveness, and war. Then too, there is heroism, honour, ethics, and love.
Essentially, it comes down to our Choice. And choice, straightforwardly, is about our Evolving, or not, whether conscious of choice, or not. In the act of meta-cognition, in the very practice of thinking about our thinking, we’re able to make decisions before we pull that trigger, before we say that word, throw that punch, or give that attitude. We do have choice! And the death in wars of every person in the long history of hate and enmity toward this very Today is honoured, if we remember: most of us want Peace. As a Goal it began and continued with each of our Fallen. As a Goal it can find its home in you. Peace. It’s about the Choice to be Inclusive, Integrative. In essence, it’s about being Bigger than the moment. Lest we forget.  Peace. And please, make good choices!

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