#30 Letter to Youth

One day someone is going to tell you to believe in yourself, even though you don’t know what that means exactly. After all, in the first place you mightn’t be so sure of what you are, never mind what it means to think of yourself as something to believe in. So here’s a bit of background. You are the last in an unbroken string of human beings stretching back 200,000 years (1). If that seems like a long time, it’s because it is. And here’s the good news; things are better today for human beings than at any other time in the 200,000 years we’ve been around, which is partly why you are something to believe in.

You might be asking, how do I believe in myself? Its a good question, and many of the people who came before you asked a similar one. They didn’t always ask out loud, but as you’ll come to understand, people do a lot of things without being able to say what it is exactly that they’re doing. Often people are trying to make things better for themselves, and for their families and communities as well. The biggest challenge to making things better is change. Because everything is always changing, kind of like the weather.

Now, there are lots of people, the earth is big, and there isn’t one way to do things. Different people have different ways of finding food and building houses, different ways of speaking and even different versions of better. So one thing we’re always working on is ways to be free. The thing to remember is this; no matter how different people seem, everyone has a place. Even you.

Part of your place is where you come from, the rest is where you’re going, in the middle is your adventure. It will cause you some pain to realise that the place you come from is not as good as it could be. That’s part of growing up, its partly why you try to make things better and partly why you are something to believe in. You’re going to have to leave that place. If you’re lucky, the people there will encourage you. One day you will return.

But perhaps we are getting ahead of ourselves. You’re young, and there is no need to rush these things. Time will have its way of telling you when to move and in which direction. If you’re ever lost, sit down and listen. Take note of what is calling your attention, gather those fragments together and organise them, which might mean you write them down. Or draw them, or turn them into something that speaks to you. Then let that go, which might mean giving it away, lest you confuse yourself with it. Remember you are the process by which the place you come from turns into the place you’re going, you are not any of the things you find along the way, which is partly why you are something to believe in.

From time to time you might encounter groups of people working together to try and solve particular problems. These are causes; and you might like to get involved. Beware of causes that demand self-sacrifice, which are all causes that believe people are the problem. They are wrong. People are not the problem; people are things to believe in. Which isn’t to say that people should always be believed, because as you’ll come to understand, people are always telling stories. 

As they get older, like people, stories get shorter. Two of the oldest stories are also two of the shortest. They are as follows. First, things were better before. Second, the world is coming to an end. Pay close attention to people who tell such stories, there is a reason they're always told, partly as conditions for improvement, partly as conditions for freedom. See, just like you, freedom is something to believe in. Its not a place, its a process, just like you. Its a way forward, a course negotiated between sets of opposing values, which we call the two hands of our body politic.

The right hand is cautious, it holds onto the past, places freedom in the individual and maintains firm boundaries. The left hand keeps those same boundaries flexible, places freedom in collective responsibility and reaches for the future. Both hands are necessary, each protects the other from its particular tyranny, each reminds the other that neither is the head. We make sure neither writes the word truth with a capital T, nor makes people the problem. Such is the nature of our freedom machine, and it works pretty well.

In fact, much of what you’ll come to know will emerge from dialogue, so it helps to have friends you can believe in. That requires learning to play, and the best way to play is fair. Here’s how it works. All games have rules, even though you mightn’t know exactly what they are. You’ll know when you’ve broken a rule because the person you’re playing with looks at you funny, or maybe even tells it to you straight. That’s okay, learning the rules is part of playing the game. If you notice that someone with whom you’re playing is making up the rules as they go, ensuring only they get to decide who’s playing fair, it might be that person is playing a different game to you, one that only they can win. People like that can’t be trusted. If you notice that someone with whom you’re playing is breaking all of the rules all of the time, it might be because that person is also playing a different game to you, one that involves breaking the rules all the time. People like that can’t be trusted either. If you are either of those people, you will find it hard to make true friends. Either your fiends will be scared of you, or they will want to be you. You’re better off playing fair.

Lastly, things are always more complicated on the ground. Its why people keep their feet there. Its where you’ll be most of the time, stumped by ordinary complexity. Then you should know not only that you have a place but that you have a family too. Even if you don’t. I know that’s confusing. But the most important thing is to find someone in whose eyes you see something of yourself, and in whose fears you see something of your own, and to let that person be vulnerable in your presence to the complexity of on the ground experience. There is love in that, and love is something to believe in, just like you.

Its Pretty Big  (2018)

Its Pretty Big (2018)

(1) This line references a quote by Dr Jordan B Peterson. The full quote is ‘you are the last in an unbroken string of successful reproducers dating back 3.5 billion years.’ That line, along with Dr Peterson’s delineation of the psychological significance of paternal resurrection as mythological trope has been of profound significance for me in my own understanding of culture and identity.

Letters Home #11 "Shame"

You can listen to me read this letter here or on iTunes or Stitcher.

In my eyes (Photo Credit: Amber from Godspeed Productions)

In my eyes (Photo Credit: Amber from Godspeed Productions)

On the day of my first hunt I loaded into the back of a tall and boxy work horse called a troopie. Almost always white, troopies have two and a half seats in the front and a pair of bench seats in the back. The bench seats run down the sides of the cab, so for passengers in the back of a troopie the natural place to look is not the road ahead but the person across the way.

Across from me sat four men I’d never met, shoulder to shoulder, their eyes scanning. Their bodies rose and fell and shuddered with every bump in the road. Our eyes would meet and we'd smile and after a few such instances the man across from me spoke three words into the silent cab and everyone turned. “Where you from?” he asked.

It was an obvious question. But I hesitated long enough to notice the wind brush the hairs on the back of my neck. I reached my hand to touch them and felt shame for not knowing what to say. I smiled apologetically - I needed more time.

Suddenly the troopie braked hard and the bodies inside lurched sideways. Someone called out, “Witi!”. We turned and saw a large wallaby hop across the road behind us. In a flash one man handed another the rifle and he got out and took a few quiet steps to a nearby tree. By then the wallaby was forty metres away. The gun fired, louder than I expected, the wallaby jumped and a red mist stood where it had been. I raced towards the body with another man. When we got there he made sure it was dead and looked for his knife. I had one in my pocket so I handed it to him and he slit the animal’s throat and told me to hold it up and let the blood. I gripped its tail, warm and muscular. I pulled back its head and the last of its life spilled on the floor. Then I laid it down and the man removed its stomach and intestines and handed me back my knife. We were thrilled.

At a river we rested and washed the blood from our bodies. The wallaby was hung and butchered, each man was given his portion and more to take home. We cooked on an open fire and ate in two small circles, carving the meat on flat stones and dabbing it in salt. As it was my first hunt I was offered pieces of kidney and sections of bone containing sweet marrow. Also the end of the tail. 

“Where you from?” someone asked. I wanted to say that I’m not from anywhere. But I didn’t. We finished eating and washed again then said words of thanks to the land. We needed to find another animal to feed the families waiting at home. So we set off for a place known to buffalo, one of which can feed five families for a week.

The buffalo was pale grey with hints of blue and pink. Its horns grew straight out of its head, turning at their ends towards the sky. It took four bullets to bring it down. We approached the body with sharp knives and an axe and surrounded it like lions. We took turns and worked quickly to skin the hide. I used my hands to separate the muscles and make cuts along the seams of its rear leg. Beads of my sweat dripped into the flesh and mixed with warm dark blood from a severed artery. At one point I looked to the animal’s head. I wanted to see its eyes. But they were glazed and lifeless, indistinguishable from flesh. Eventually I managed to free the limb and hoisted it between my shoulder blades and carried it to the troopie.

When the work was done we sat in the cab, silent with exhaustion. The dusk light was golden and it lighted the four bodies across from me. I could see their bones and muscles. I could feel the warmth of their blood beneath my skin. I lowered my eyes to my legs then lifted my head and looked in the eyes of the man opposite. “Where you from?” I asked his eyes.
“Me?” they blinked.
“Yes.”
He hesitated. The light was fading now and his body was a shadow but his eyes were bright and some of that light seemed to come from inside. I spoke again, this time with my eyes, “Did you travel a long way?”
He didn’t answer. I fell silent and flexed my hands, they were coated in dry blood. I squeezed my tired thighs. “I was born in South Africa,” I said. “Though I grew up in Perth and more recently I lived in Sydney.”
His eyes listened. His body rose and fell and shuddered with every bump in the road.
“Truth is I don’t feel as though I’m from any of the places I’ve been,” I continued. “My great grandparents left Eastern Europe early in the twentieth century. I'm part of a language group called the Hebrews, destined forever to dwell in the lands of others.”
“Soon we’re going to stop and pray,” he said, this time with his mouth.
“Okay,” I said. But I needed more time. My eyes widened and moistened. My chest rose and tightened at the back of my throat. Through baited breath I said, “I know my ancestral stories and dreams. I read them and try to understand what they mean.”
His eyes were bright and some of that light was from the moon. When we got out to pray, I prayed for forgiveness.

With love,
Daniel

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