Monday, June 9, 2014

Listening and giving

Listening for the birdsong....
IN my long career spanning nearly four decades I’ve witnessed enough triumph of the human spirit and enough of its tragedy to fill volumes. I’ve seen the highs and lows of contemporary history from the fall of the Soviet Union and the Cold War to the ‘War on Terror’.

But this is not about making lists and saying ‘I was there’. That can be embarrassingly self-indulgent. And, of course, lists can be endlessly boring, if not self-congratulatory as well. And so this topic is not about me, but more about the lesson of the times.

Looking at the greed and materialism of the 21st century, one thing that has always amazed me is how mindlessly cruel we can be to each other. Man’s inhumanity to man is a sober truism – and I sometimes wonder what the angels must think. In fact, the celestial beings did once pose the same question to God Himself.

For mortal isms, the altar of the dollar, a dogmatic literalist ideology or a rabid nationalism we are prepared to tear each other apart. Read Palestine, Bosnia, Rwanda, Nazism, Fascism, Ba’athism…read Apartheid, Stalinism, Maoism, Wahhabism, the IMF, the Federal Reserve...well, I did say no lists.

However, the thread running through all this is the personality of self-righteous conviction – I’m right and you’re wrong – a messianic mantra that blinds us to our unbounded arrogance. Indeed, at times, the human can be a scary, if not totally irrational species when blinded by the light of its own vision, which paradoxically, is so often a veil.

But why shoot fish in a barrel? We all instinctively know these things, don’t we? The bigger socio-economic evils are so obvious, so clear-cut and so well-known to us. What I want to get at is the simple, everyday things – the more subtle things that collectivise into undesirable traits that can dehumanise whole societies.

Perhaps the biggest lesson I’ve learnt is that we don’t listen. The modern world, a social media space, has become a noisy virtual world, but within it one cannot hear the tummies grumble, the roofs leak and the babies cry. These are the real voices in society, voices drowned out by a cacophony of distraction.

In another sense, it’s like sitting in a jungle next to a roaring freeway and learning how to hear and understand the birdsong.

For example, just refusing to acknowledge another person who crosses our path – whether it is in the street or workplace – is not only ill-mannered, but cruel. Indifference can be as mean as the torturer or as deadly as the bullet. Don’t we all hate being ignored?

So imagine a stranger at the door, desperately trying to explain to you why he needs help. He is smelly; he is dirty. He stutters and stammers; you become angry. The door is in your hand; for a moment you’re god. In your mind you ask why he is wasting your time. You smile, but you don’t mean it.

Whatever the case, is the stranger – the wayfarer – not going to notice the warm smells wafting over your threshold? Is he not going to notice your comfort? Is he, an outcast in the hard streets, not going to sense your hostile demeanour and start to become resentful of you?

But how many times have we closed the door, throwing abuse or a few coins at the person hoping that he will go away, and not threaten our bubble of well-being again?

I’m the last to preach, but it does remind me that the Prophet (saw) when approached always listened, always responded – and if he couldn’t physically help – always said good words or made a prayer. And, of course, he rarely spoke in anger.

Charity, I believe, is a two-way process. The beneficiary has to honour the benefactor, who in turn has to honour the beneficiary. In other words, if the giver doesn’t receive the mendicant with humility, what is there? Attitude, but certainly not charity.

It’s about attitude. It’s about how you give. A gift given without good intention is what it is, a bad gesture underlined with an ignoble intent. The barakah, or blessing of the event, becomes an empty action devoid of sincerity or reward.

It is for this reason that I believe one of the most important, foundational charities is as basic as the cheery good morning, the warm salam, a pleasant smile, a handshake or a passing pleasantry. If we can’t remember people’s names, the least we can do is remember that they are there.

Surely it’s for a good reason that we humans, social beings that we are, are attracted to those who acknowledge us? This is surely the basis of adab, or godly conduct? Sometimes, when you’re in the proverbial gutter, it’s a good word - rather than a chastening dollar thrown at your feet – that picks you up.

The genuine Sufi leaders, the masters of true mysticism, attract people like honey (rich or poor, black or white) because of their sweet demeanour, the golden light of their humility and their love of the Sacred Law as a communal oasis of reason and mercy.

There’s a good reason why those who shout, condemn and poke others in the eye don’t have many followers.

Our anger, pride and arrogance are like foul, repellent cloudfarts to the delicate inner senses of the spiritual masters. These men, schooled in human nature and acutely sensitive, often have the right medicine – or soul food – for us. Indeed, their job is to cool the egotistical fevers by reminding us who created us.

Now I’m not propagating a mass migration towards tasawwuf or Sufism – it might annoy some – but rather a movement towards values. These are universal, individual values that enrich any society, irrespective of faith or culture.  

As South Africans, who have been wrestling with the demons of a past ism called apartheid, we have to be careful. Some would even say post-apartheid that we have been seduced by Mammon and forgotten the poor. This has caused us to be self-centred, greedy and forgetful of ubuntu – the sense of being who we are through others.

In other words, the material has superceded things like self-worth, personal dignity, inner peace and social compassion. Of course, one can’t eat inner peace or self-worth, but we can at least be kind to the stranger.