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  • Jerry Schuitema

Dancing with death

And changing mirrors into windows.

The past few weeks have certainly given a columnist enough material to keep his or her keyboard busy: recession, rand in free fall, state capture and, perhaps the most important of all – the 10th anniversary of the onset of the great recession. The last in particular received scant attention and yet outranks by far any of the parochial issues we and other countries have to deal with. Has the global economy really come to grips with the issues that plunged it into widespread panic on September 15th 2008? Or are the dark clouds still looming, ready to unleash an economic cyclone at any moment?

All of that for a future column. I turn this week rather to an intensely personal event that made me confront the futility of obsessing with these seemingly weighty things. It may not be the most appropriate topic for a column like this, but overwhelming personal experiences often given insights into the human condition: revealing the things that make us noble or contemptible; the way things should and could be; those powerful forces that are locked in each individual, but that are suppressed by the mundane and socio-economic conditioning;.

In our zeal to be competitive, ambitious, robust and materially successful, we not only suppress, but discourage the finer attributes that make us truly human. Paradoxically, these are the very qualities that are essential to our survival as a species. One such is compassion, and I got only the smallest taste recently of its power to change one’s very being, if only for a moment.

A few months ago, I received a call from the daughter of my life partner and companion for the past dozen or so years. “Jerry”, she said, “my mom is dying”. Yvonne had undergone a number of tests in hospital and was sent home with the prognosis that her vital organs were “shutting down”. She was given some three days left to live.

And so begins a dance with death. You hold her hand and whisper forgettable endearing platitudes as you are drawn into that moment; becoming mesmerized by the music, but not quite a participant in the dance. As you fall deeper into a trance way beyond empathy, you become one with both her and her plight. You discover what living in the moment really means. It’s that state where everything else is forgotten, where no trivia or even other bigger concerns can enter. It’s a state where sad serenity shields you even against grief and where you become aware of the perfection of the moment and the huge promise of being able to live in it constantly.

A few days beyond the three, she started to disengage from the dance, despite the music playing on. Some days later, the music itself started to recede to muted tones in the distance. She could not quite recall what drove her from the dance floor, apart from a concern for the suffering of those around her. Compassion had brought us to that state. Compassion had taken us out of it. Sufficiently strong to defy death itself.

We can still hear the pipes calling from far away. May they never be silenced as a reminder of what our humanity is capable of and the things that are really important in life.

I have often written about the power of empathy and caring for others as a socio economic force and its capacity to foster success even in practical ways. In countless workshops, I used to have the teams play a business game in which they had to build a model for the facilitator as the customer. (See video here) They invariably got the model wrong, simply because on delivery and wrapped up in their own ego’s and competitiveness, they failed to ask the customer what was wrong with it.

The simple lesson was if they cared enough, they would have asked, and immediately they would have escaped the things that keep them small – narrow assumptions, ignorance and insecurity. Still today, I marvel at how people are trapped in the narrow confines of their petty self-interest; unable to look beyond that and grow from understanding others.

Within a day of each other, there were two television appearances which starkly revealed that difference: the disempowering of the self-focus and the empowering of the external focus.

When a dry-mouthed Marcus Jooste had to defend his role in the Steinhoff collapse, he appeared defensive, weak and insecure. The next day, Postal Services CEO. Mark Barnes, was animated, excited and joyful when he appeared on a news show to give feedback on his personal visit to the social grant pay-out sites, and the improvements he could bring about immediately: such as seating for the elderly and ensuring that the terminals remained open until all had been served. True, much still has to be done to improve the mail service itself and the financial state of the SOE. Here Barnes may benefit if he listens to Microsoft’s Bill Gates suggestion: “What I do best is share my enthusiasm.”

We all have so much power locked within us and so much greater potential: at an individual, collective and country level. All we have to do is change our mirrors into windows.

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