Don’t underestimate the power of addiction.

fb-addictedA few weeks weeks into this year there’s a good chance your resolutions haven’t made it this far The idea that we can change our behaviour as easily as making a new year declaration is an ancient but impractical one.

Like the new year fireworks that dazzle for a few minutes and then are overwhelmed by the dark night, our good intentions glimmer with the hope of a different way of being, but soon succumb to the dark ruts of our well formed habits. Perhaps it is time we realise that what we regard as unskillful ways of living may be the only ways we are able to cope with the reality of our harsh lives? Maybe it is going to take more than intention, a self help article or a motivational speaker to get me out of the the rut that is my life?
One reason resolutions for change don’t work is we underestimate the power of our addictions. Many of the reforms we want to see in the new year relate to deeply entrenched habits we depend on to survive.

It is sad that our culture defines substance abusers as the only kind of people to be called addicts. That is a misunderstanding says Gabor Maté MD a Canadian doctor and leading thinker in the field of addiction recovery. Gabor believes that transcending genetics or bad choices, the root of our addictions grows out of childhood pain. His 2010 bestseller “In the Realm of Hungry Ghosts: Close Encounters with Addiction” spells out his perspective.
Addiction is a complex process that involves brain, body, emotions, psychology and social relationships. Addiction is any behaviour where a person craves and finds temporary pleasure or relief in something, despite suffering negative outcomes from that behaviour.
Addiction could be substance-related but it can also be sex, gambling, eating, shopping, work, extreme sports, relationships or cellphone use. It could be anything. It’s not the activity as such but rather that it provides temporary relief or pleasure from our pain? Maté calls addictive behaviour “self-soothing”. It’s an attempt to heal a deep hurt.

Does this behaviour create craving when you don’t have it? Does it create negative consequences, and is it difficult to give up despite those consequences? If those are the case, it’s an addiction.

Maté is clear. At the core of all addictions lies childhood trauma. Adverse childhood experiences increase the risk of addiction later on in life. It may not be that bad things happen, it could be that good things don’t happen when they should. A child has fundamental needs for emotional development and also for brain development and these development thresholds have to be met by the environment. If not met, the brain’s reward circuitry is impaired because when the reward centres should have been nurtured awake, stressed and busy parents did not have the time, energy or skill to nurture their children.

Our culture breeds addictions which may kill us, but they may also be the only way to cope with our alienated lives.

Link to talks by Gabor Mate’


A Tale for Twenty Seventeen

brokentoolsWith all the rage about decolonising and stripping all signs of our European past, I am not sure we should speak about colonial history in 2017? Let’s do it anyway, for despite our hindsight smugness there are inspirational tales worth remembering.

by George Charles Beresford, platinum print, 8 October 1913
by George Charles Beresford, platinum print, 8 October 1913

One of these is of Leander Starr Jameson (1853-1917). A successful British medical doctor, Jameson had Paul Kruger and Matebele chief, Lobengula as patients. Sadly he is best remembered for an abortive raid he led against Kruger’s wealthy Boer Republic, in an attempt to bring the Witwatersrand Goldfields under British control.
The raid took place from December 29th 1895 to January 2nd 1896, one hundred and twenty one years ago. The strategy was to use the unhappiness of expat foreign nationals on the goldfields, rudely called “Uitlanders” by the boers, to back Jameson’s Rhodesian police raiders.

mapJameson set out from Pitsani in Botswana and marched through the night, but by the time he reached Zeerust, Kruger already knew of the raid. The riders managed to get past Randfontein when they were confronted by over 400 boers and were forced to surrender 30 kilometers from Johannesburg.

The failure of the plan meant Joseph Chamberlain and Cecil Rhodes couldn’t admit to colluding, so Jameson was scapegoated as a renegade and shipped to England for trial. His reputation in tatters, this honorary Matebele induna, and Administrator of Mashonaland was sentenced to fifteen months imprisonment by a British High Court. His life seemed over.

Noted for his “Jameson charm”, the disaster did not get him down and after serving just three months he was pardoned on grounds of ill health and returned to Africa. Jameson went on to lead the Progressive Party in the Cape Colony and on winning the election, became Prime Minister of the Cape from 1904 to 1908.

This depth of character led the famous British writer Rudyard Kipling, a frequent visitor to the Cape, to pen a poem for his son John based on Jameson’s example. You know the poem well. It is titled “If”.

kiplingHere are some excerpts. “If you can keep your head when all about you are losing theirs and blaming it on you, If you can trust yourself when all men doubt you, but make allowance for their doubting too; If you can wait and not be tired by waiting, or being lied about, don’t deal in lies, or being hated, don’t give way to hating… If you can meet with Triumph and Disaster and treat those two impostors just the same. If you can bear to hear the truth you’ve spoken twisted by knaves to make a trap for fools, or watch the things you gave your life to, broken, and stoop and build ’em up with worn-out tools:… If you can fill the unforgiving minute with sixty seconds’ worth of distance run, yours is the earth and everything that’s in it, and—which is more—you’ll be a man, my son.”

Sadly, Kipling’s only son died in WW1 aged 18.220px-my_boy_jack_john_kipling

We’ll do anything to appear normal

homeostasis-300x209It’s called homeostasis and describes the process of living organisms to balance their physical and chemical environments to maintain life. It is homeostasis that maintains the hydration of the cells in our bodies, our blood pressure and even the rate at which we perspire.

The concept was described by French physiologist Claude Bernard in 1865 and the word was coined by Walter Bradford Cannon in 1926. Despite originating from the study of human organisms the term homeostasis has expanded to physical control systems like thermostats and even to social systems in psychology and sociology.

What these studies have revealed is that dysfunctional or diseased systems may continue to function with an imbalance through adjusting to disease as if it were a normal state. This happens in the case of smokers and substance abusers where body chemistry adapts to the foreign chemicals ingested allowing the system to function despite the presence of life threatening toxins.

Similarly in family and social systems homeostasis is achieved by the dysfunctional family adjusting to destructive behaviour as if that were the norm. This adjustment is referred to as “equilibration”. Just as we calibrate the instruments of an aircraft to reflect the actual altitude, level and speed that a plane is travelling, so a dysfunctional family will equilibrate to addiction or violent behaviours and assume that is normal life. Imagine an aircraft that has been flying with its wings tilted at forty five degrees for so long that the pilot has adjusted the instruments to define that angle as level. That’s equilibration. The naming of what is abnormal as normal. The problem arises when the plane does eventually fly level and all the instruments start screaming that it is in trouble!

It is because of equilibration that rehabilitation programmes seldom succeed. The “sick” person is removed from the distorted system and “cured” only to be reintroduced to the off balance family where homeostasis demands that the person return to their previous behaviour so that everyone can feel normal again. As bizarre as it may seem this eqilibrating behaviour can be seen all around us.

This past week saw the ANC’s national executive committee equilibrate to the dysfunction of its maverick and unmanageable president, by adjusting for the deviance and pretending that everything is normal within the party. The party that has been losing credibility and contact with its constituency for years decided this week to adjust all its instruments to say that this is the new normal for South Africa. “The fact that we have not forced a president of the ANC to step aside means that we have affirmed him as president of the ANC and the Republic.” Secretary Gwebe Mantashe said in a press statement on Tuesday, after a marathon NEC session where Zuma’s recall was suggested.

Such denial is symptomatic of a diseased system. It’s what stops couples coming for marriage counselling, families of addicts from kicking them out, and what keeps recalcitrant presidents in power. Fasten your seat belts!

We can never go back to paradise

flamin-sword-angel-paradiseWe all want to live in paradise. Americans have just voted to go back there. Something in every human heart wants to return to the wholeness of the Garden of Eden. We long for a place where everything is perfect. A utopian kingdom where everyone is at peace and our daily evils are gone.

Englishman Thomas More coined the word “utopia” when writing his book by that name, creating the word from the Greek, “ou-topos” meaning “no place” or “nowhere”. He was punning on the almost identical Greek word “eu-topos” meaning “good place”. More’s little joke that there is no place that’s a completely good place.

More was also finance minister (treasurer of the exchequer) to King Henry VIII who beheaded him 1535 for opposing his divorce plans. No public protector back then!
Written in 1516 More’s utopia was an elaborate democracy without hierarchies and corruption, similar to the biblical paradise where Adam “walks with God in the cool of the day”. What wonderful equality and freedom!

Just as Thomas More’s utopia referred to no possible place, our dreams of returning to paradise somehow ignore that in the biblical narrative there’s an angel with a flaming sword guarding the entrance. A sad reminder that we can never go back home.
How evident that is in South Africa’s life right now! With almost everything we fear being expressed in some trending hashtag, it seems #paradisehasfallen.

How did South Africa come to this? The rainbow nation in 1994, we were the world’s newest and most envied democracy with an equally enviable economy too. Now we teeter on the edge of being rated with the world’s junk both in economics and political ethics.
Were we deluded in 1994 to think in Milton’s words that we had “regained paradise” from the hell realms of Nationalist Apartheid? Was the “New South Africa” an illusion? Are the 101 ANC stalwarts who back Pravin Gordham against King Jacob, just nostalgic old folks trying to salvage our non-racial democracy? And was Mandela, the ultimate utopian idealist whose dreams made sense on an island off Cape Town, but couldn’t survive the relentless heat of the African sun?

If we aren’t deluded utopians, exiled from the paradise of our democratic dreams, who are we? And how far will we wander into this political wilderness before we become another Zimbabwe ruin? Interesting to archaeologists, but with no practical currency in the unfolding global story.
How the hell we get here? Simple. We gobbled the forbidden fruit of self interest, croneyism and greed.

There is an old joke about Adam and Eve’s sin that got them expelled from the garden. When God called them to account, Adam blamed Eve. She blamed the snake, and the poor serpent didn’t have a leg to stand on.
Outside the gates of our Saxonwold paradise the blaming has just begun. The axe is swinging and who knows who will slither away when it’s over?

Religion is more than promises that are out of this world

It is a truism that no one person suffers in the same way as another. The African-american song lyric made famous by Louis Armstrong puts it like this: “Nobody knows the trouble I’ve seen. Sometimes I’m up, and sometimes I’m down, Yes, Lord, you know sometimes I’m almost to the ground. Nobody knows but Jesus.”

To listen to the songs of the poor is to hear the voices of hope and longing. Somehow faith is fuelled in the deep struggles of daily life. This could be the reason the only place the church is still growing is in the poorer third world. Sadly, in many cases religion has done little to remove the suffering of people in their present situations and has rather deferred the solution of life’s problems to another lifetime. Heaven is promised to those who faithfully bear the pain of the present. Listen to the words of slave hymns and you will hear the delayed gratification for current injustice. “When the roll is called up yonder, I’ll be there” “Oh when the saints go marching in.” A favourite Xhosa hymn is “Jerusalem Ikhaya lam” the first verse translates as “Jerusalem,my home, that which I love; when will you hear my striving, so I may rest in you.”
It is this delayed reward for current wrongs suffered that led Karl Marx to observe, “Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless conditions. It is the opium of the people”.
Despite questioning the justice and ethics of substituting future salvation for current reparation, it cannot be denied that these promissory songs have the power to enable their singers to bear the unbearable. It never ceases to amaze me that the deepest joy is to be found amidst the most abysmal human conditions. The starving child smiles, the penniless widow sings, and the overwhelmed single parent opens her heart to care for others in her community.

Contrast that with the attitudes of the affluent whose entire lives collapse at the smallest inconvenience. A chipped finger nail, not finding a parking space for the flashy car, or the shirt on sale but not in your size. Despite our complete conversion to materialism as the object of our devotion, we seem unable to synchronise our wealth with happiness and contentment. Is there more joy in Motherwell than Mill Park? More satisfaction in Sidwell than Summerstrand? (See note)
How can those with so little of the material have such soulful contentment?
The error materialists make is a simple one. They look in the wrong places. Peace of mind is exactly what it says. If we cannot convince our minds of the intrinsic joy of life in any circumstances we will never be satisfied. Buddhists have known for centuries that suffering exists when we keep resisting the changing nature of reality. Peace arises when we allow the impermanence of life to bring us to that place of non-attachment to anything or anyone.


Note: In Port Elizabeth South Africa, Motherwell and Sidwell are poorer housing areas, Mill Park and Summerstarand are theelite suburbs.

There is nothing wrong with me. I’m just different.

“What is wrong with you?” It’s a question usually asked with exasperation when we just can’t understand another person, their behaviour, their attitude, or their beliefs. Asked of an adult the question is damaging enough, but when a parent uses the phrase as an expression of frustration a child grows up believing there is something wrong with them.

Asking, “What is wrong with you?”, assumes there is an answer. A condition, a label, some explanation of the difference or deviance being experienced by the questioner. A satisfying response might be, “Oh sorry I’m bi-polar” or “I’m British”. Perhaps, “I’m not well”? We want a name, a reason, a label.
I can’t help wonder what would happen if asked “What is wrong with you?” we replied, “Absolutely nothing.”?
Part of counselling is helping people see there really is nothing wrong with them. We come to counselling, as we go to our family doctor expecting a diagnosis and a prescription. In truth we are human beings doing the best we can in responding to the challenges of life. Living with the consequences and choices that precede us and about which we can do very little. Yes, our actions may be more or less skilful. In trying to pursue our needs we may resort to destructive behaviour. We could be less than helpful towards those around us when we are hurting, angry or stressed. But these are ordinary human behaviours.

The #WhatIsWrong? Approach to the world assumes that there is something that can and must be fixed. It is an attitude toward human behaviour that wants to make everyone carbon copies of myself.
There is a ridiculous Victorian hymn that says, “Even now we speak and think the same, and cordially agree. Concentred all in Jesus name, in perfect harmony.” Rubbish! I have never experienced that in any church or other community. It’s just not the way humans are together. We are different and diverse and because of that we struggle and strive. Nothing is wrong, it is just different from who we are and what we prefer. Yet we persevere in our prejudice. What is wrong with students, presidents, teachers, rugby coaches?

If there is anything that characterises human life in the past ten years it is a growing sense of our rich diversity. My parents only ate British and Boerekos (Tr. Afrikaans food) I now eat Italian, Thai, Japanese, Indian, Chinese, African American, and Jamaican cuisine and love the variety.
If we can be so globally inclusive with our palettes why not with other parts of life? What is it about our herd consciousness that wants our viewpoint and no one else’s to exist?

Our religions, political groupings, ideologies, cultures and clans exert huge power over us to be suspicious of anything different.
If we listen only to them we will never transcend our partisan perspectives. We will also not progress beyond language and cultural ghettoes. Much needed global and universal consciousness will never be found in this way.

The origins of “Decolonise the University”

It is said, “Some people change because they see the light, but most people change because they feel the heat.”
Fascinated by words, I have been intrigued by a phrase being used in student protests currently taking place across the country. “Decolonize the University” is a provocative statement that first appeared in the #RhodesMustFall movement of 2015 and is now a slogan for the #FeesMustFall demands of many students.
My search for the coiner of “Decolonize the University” led me to Joseph-Achille Mbembe a native Cameroonian with a delightful Afro-French accent. Born in in 1957, Achille (pronounced Asheel) is married to Sarah Nuttall the director of the Wits Institute for Social and Economic Research (WISER) where he is a staff member.

Mbembe’s academic record is in itself a tour de force. With the Sorbonne in Paris as his Alma Mater (PhD 1989) he has worked at Columbia, Berkeley, Yale, Duke and Harvard Universities. He is currently a research professor at the last. He is referred to as a “post colonial theorist” largely because his central work translated into English is titled, “On the Postcolony” (2001).
Given his academic prowess, Mbembe’s writing is dense but powerful and probably best understood by that ironic-comic story that tells of Africans encountering colonial powers. “When we met the colonists, they had the bible and we had the land. They told us to close our eyes and pray. When we opened our eyes, we had the bible and they had the land!”

Mbembe’s thought is informed by the French Caribbean psychiatrist, philosopher, and revolutionary Franz Fanon (1925-1961) who published “Black Skin, White Masks” (1952) and “The Wretched of the Earth” (1961) in which he justifies the use of violence by colonised populations to root out racist and dehumanising colonial structures simply because the coloniser had no qualms about employing violence in conquering native lands to begin with. Mbembe also employs Freudian psychology to recognise the power of symbols, space and place names that imprint the colonisers projection of inferiority on conquered peoples.

However, the theme of Postcolony is to criticise post-colonial governments as much as the colonisers. Observing his native Cameroon, Mbembe argues that modern African governments have not completed the necessary structural and political transformations that take the diversity of present day African metropolitan nations seriously.

Mbembe is not about iconoclasm and overthrow. He is about building inclusive futures. He provocatively states, “Decolonizing the university starts with the de-privatization and rehabilitation of the public space – the rearrangement of spatial relations. It starts with a redefinition of what is public, i.e.,what pertains to the realm of the common and as such, does not belong to anyone in particular because it must be equally shared between equals.”
He powerfully trashes the argument that Rhodes donated the land to the University of Cape Town by asking, “How did Rhodes acquire the land, and from whom?”

This is an intelligent and reasonable argument driving protesting students.

FYI and BTW texting has taken over our relationships

There was a time when the parting greeting to a friend was, “Call me.” It meant that at some time the friend would make a telephone call and set up another date to meet.
In it’s day the telephone revolutionised life. No longer having to wait for letters to be delivered sped up social interaction. The ringing of a phone was a strident demand to be answered and the very first call made on March 10, 1876 by inventor Alexander Graham Bell was an instruction to Mr Watson, “Come here I want to see you.”
Ever since, telephones have continued to boss our lives. Older people still cannot possibly ignore a ringing phone. It was only in the 1980’s with the the rise of the telephone answering machine that we were empowered to screen our calls and decide whether to answer the call once we heard whose voice was on the other side. Around the same time caller IDaa enabled us to look at the first ever telephone screens and see the number of the caller before choosing to answer.

So when cellphones first appeared they were essentially mobile telephones. Wireless devices that we could use anywhere. Voice remained the medium of calling and because a person could be anywhere it became etiquette to ask, “Can you speak now?”
According to the American Nielsen ratings, 2007 was the moment when the voice call fell from popularity and for the first time ever more text messages were sent than telephone calls made. Voice calls have continued to decline worldwide.
That is why we no longer call them cellphones but rather devices, because making calls is no longer the main application. We email, we text, we check the weather, the stock market, the news and our health. We read books and even use our devices to get directions. I for one, no longer own a separate Global Positioning System (GPS) , because the GPS manufacturer now sells an app that does everything on my phone for cheaper. I used the money I saved on the cheaper app over buying a separate GPS to get a power bank which keeps my phone alive whilst I am travelling.
The question arises who we are becoming as people no longer so keen to talk as to text?
As a writer I know the power of text, but I also know that text has to be carefully crafted and if shot off without reflection or editing is bound to create havoc, conflict and misunderstanding. Racial slurs and embarrassing photos sent to hockey moms are just some recent South African blush-bloopers.
The cellphone networks have fuelled the transition to text from speech. First Mixit and currently WhatsApp are cost effective ways for ordinary people to avoid the prohibitively high costs of making cell phone voice calls.
But what will happen if we only communicate in brief bursts of text? What will our relationships be without prose and poetry?
OMG, BTW, FYI, I’m out of words.

Reform in the ANC is scientifically impossible.

I keep reading calls for the ANC to change or die. Sadly the science of change suggests that the ANC will find that impossible.intellect-anc

A Harvard physicist gives me reason for this position.
The Structure of Scientific Revolutions” by Thomas S Kuhn was published by University of Chicago Press in 1962 and for decades was prescribed reading for Philosophy undergraduates. It remains a useful framework for understanding change.
Kuhn’s work is most famous for coining the phrase, “paradigm shift”. For him there are five phases in scientific revolutions, with parallels in other spheres like politics.

According to Kuhn Phase 1 is the pre-paradigm phase.

This is a time of interesting theories that have not been tested. Characterised by lengthy books and idealistic frameworks out of which a dominating paradigm arises. This would be the beginnings of the ANC as it started in Bloemfontein in 1912 and idealised about a democratic and inclusive non-racial South Africa. The dominant paradigm was inclusivity and non-racialism.

In Kuhn’s Phase 2- normal science begins.

Now puzzles are solved within the context of the dominant paradigm. As long as there is consensus within the discipline, normal science continues. Over time though, progress in normal science may reveal anomalies, facts that are difficult to explain within the context of the existing paradigm. While usually these anomalies are resolved, in some cases they may accumulate to the point where normal science becomes difficult and where weaknesses in the old paradigm are revealed. In phase 2 the ANC came to power in 1994 and following their paradigm, systematically removed the effects of Apartheid which was to blame for everything that was wrong. The anomalies that appeared however were the exploitative elites and nepotistic cabals that cared more for self aggrandisement than democracy and non-racialism.

Kuhn’s phase 3 states, “If the paradigm proves chronically unable to account for anomalies, the community enters a crisis period.”

For the ANC this is the present. The old paradigm of colonial blame and apartheid shame can no longer account for the ongoing suffering of the poor and government’s inability to implement significant transformation.

For Kuhn Phase 4 is the “paradigm shift”, or scientific revolution, where “underlying assumptions of the field are reexamined and a new paradigm established.”

It is here that the ANC faces its nemesis. A new paradigm requires acknowledging that the enemy now is not previous regimes nor our history of oppression. The enemy lies within. The movement itself requires a revolution.
In science only the finest minds like Newton and Einstein (a century apart) were able to create such a breakthrough. Given the current absence of significant intellectuals in the party, I doubt the ANC can shift paradigms.

Kuhn’s framework concludes with phase 5. Post-Revolution, where “the shift is established and scientists begin solving puzzles within the new paradigm.”

You don’t have to be an Einstein, or a scientist to realise that paradigm shifts for South Africa will not be created by the intellectually stagnant ANC.

Protect yourself against the Office Bully

When I think of a bully it’s usually in a schoolyard and the bully is an oversized and awkward, sycophant-surrounded adolescent male. It’s an old stereotype and really needs updating in terms of the places bullying happens. Most readers are aware of the relatively new species called the cyber-bully who, abusing social media platforms continues the reign of terror transferring it from the school playground and toilets to the target’s tablet and phone.
There is however a lesser recognised but equally obnoxious genera of bully many readers encounter every day. It’s the office bully. More subtle than the teenage version, these are older and have had time to hone their deviance. Workplace bullies are every bit as unacceptable and need to be rooted out.
Psychologist, TV personality and author, Dr Michelle Callahan writing in the Huffington post had this to say, “Being a target of a bully not only affects your work life, but can also affect your health, possibly causing headaches, loss of appetite, high blood pressure, insomnia, clinical depression, panic attacks and even PTSD.” Post Traumatic Stress Disorder is the condition suffered by soldiers after combat which goes to show what kind of battlefield some offices have become. 2014 statistics from show that 27% of Americans have experienced abusive conduct at work and that 72% of employers deny, discount and even encourage bullying to get the job done.

office-bullyThe statistics also show that 69% of perpetrators are male and 68% of the targets are women. Of the 31% of female office bullies, other women are twice as likely as men to be their targets.
Callaghan comments that women bullies most likely are threatened and want to stop you before you outshine them or expose them. They have perfectionist personalities combined with superiority about their skills and abilities. They cannot manage stress and may have mental health problems or a personality disorder.
Dr Callaghan offers “Ten Tips For Dealing With Being Bullied At Work”
“Don’t get emotional”. Bullies take pleasure in emotionally manipulating people. Stay calm and rational. “Don’t blame yourself.” Know that this is not about you; it’s about the bully. “Don’t lose your confidence, or think you are incapable or incompetent.” It’s a mind game, not based on your actual work performance. “Do your best work.” The bully’s behaviour will seem more justified if you aren’t doing your best work. “Build a support network.” Instead of allowing the bully to make you retreat into your office, work on building your relationships with your coworkers so that you have their support and the bully can’t turn them against you as well. “Document everything.” Keep a journal (for your eyes only) of what happened when (and who witnessed it) so that if you need to escalate this problem to Human Resources or the CCMA, you have the information you need to make your case. Keep emails and notes.
Bullies always underestimate their targets, prove them wrong when you expose them for the cowards they are.