Robben Island is famous. It is the South African prison where Nelson Mandela and many others were incarcerated because of their struggle to end apartheid. (Mandela served 18 of his 27 years in Robben Island). Margaret Wheatley tells this story of a time that she had the unique privilege of touring Robben Island (now a UNESCO World Heritage Centre).
The tour group stood in a long narrow room that had been used as a prison cell for dozens of freedom fighters. Picture yourself in a space crowded, cramped and barren. The prisoners lived without cots or furniture, cement floors now their beds. The only light entered through narrow windows near the ceiling.
The tour group listened to their guide’s narration. “I was a prisoner in this very room,” the guide tells them. The gravity of his words co-mingles with the cold seeping up through the floor. There is a chill.
The group stares through prison bars, surveys the lifeless cell, and tries to imagine the stories about the suffering from relentless threats and capricious brutality.
The guide pauses, as if remembering, gazing the length of his former cell. Speaking quietly, almost a whisper, he says, “Sometimes, to pass the time here, we taught each other ballroom dancing.”
Okay, when I first read this story, I wasn’t ready for that ending. Even with the gut-wrenching bleakness, I confess to grinning, and then, admiringly, laughing out loud.
Ballroom dancing? A group of demoralized and weary men, beaten down and brutalized, teaching one another to dance. You gotta love it.
And yes, we know that “it is wiser to light a candle than to curse the darkness.” But let’s be honest. Sometimes life is dark and not fun. Adversity is real. Life can be cruel. (People can be crueler.) Suffering happens. Suffering hurts. We reach a tipping point. And prison walls are made of real concrete. And finding a candle is not always easy, let alone the motivation to light it.
This story keeps my hope alive. (Borrowing from my friend, Larry Murante’s song, Nelson, “He took a bit out of apartheid… Nelson keeps my hope alive.”)
And I love this story because it is so counter-intuitive.
So. Let me get this straight, in times of anxiety or fear or suffering or distress–when our equilibrium is catawampus–we are invited to open our heart?
We are invited to dance? The prisoners would say, “Yes”.
That in adversity, the medicine of intimacy allows us to become more human.
That even times of sorrow or discontent can become fertile ground for generosity of spirit, mystery, delight, touch, tenderness, vulnerability, risk and yes, even gladness.
That doesn’t make sense, because our tendency is to shut down. To let our heart constrict. Or to appear tough and self-sufficient. Or to find safe haven. Or at the very least, to find an enemy. With an enemy, at least there is someone to blame for all this muddle. The great irony, is that in every choice above (and they are choices), we relinquish or surrender our very ability to choose.
I know this, because I know what it is like to wish to shut down. And I need the invitation and permission to find a way to reclaim my heart.
Our heart tells us to resonate with this sentiment to dance. (Of course, it would be easier if someone would provide us with the instructions. You know, a check-list. Because with instructions, we tell ourselves, we will learn to dance correctly.)
But here’s the deal: Even though we may not believe it, the dance, the perseverance, the light, the tenderness, the intimacy, the whole-heartedness, is already within us.
Let us never forget this.
The word vulnerable itself comes from the Latin vulnerare which means “to wound,” and so at the root of vulnerability is my own sense of wounded-ness. To be authentic in a moment in which I feel wounded, I have to honestly acknowledge the places where I feel hurt and then muster up the strength to just be with the pain. This takes tremendous courage.
Literally speaking, courage comes from the Latin cor, meaning heart. So, when I open up to any experience fully, with courage—whole hearted—it naturally opens me up to a deep love. And the good news? The blind musician Facundo Cabral said it beautifully: “If you are filled with love, you can’t have fear, because love is courage.” True vulnerability, in its most profound form, is an act of love.
Ballroom dancing indeed.
Richard Rohr reminds us that, “It is woundedness transformed. You still carry your scars forever, as both message and trophy. They still ‘hurt’ in a way, which keeps you mindful and humble, but they no longer allow you to hurt other people. Pain transformed is no longer pain transmitted.”
In other words, pain transformed becomes a dance that fuels a fire that changes the world around me. After Nelson Mandela was released from prison he ran for office and was elected President of South Africa in 1994. His message? Forgiveness.
I gotta admit, that’s not a common political platform these days.
And then cynicism abounded. Many assuming that his declaration was lip service. And yet, something within his core allowed him to rise above situations, and surprise others with strength. He began with his staff, keeping both Afrikaners and Black. There was understandable tension.
In a scene from the movie Invictus, Nelson Mandela models the behavior, telling his guard (who was certain this new integrated South Africa would not work):
The rainbow nation starts here
recognition starts here
forgiveness starts here too
forgiveness liberates the souls
it removes fear
that is why it is such a powerful weapon
so please, try.
Keeps my hope alive. Nelson took a bite out of apartheid.
Keeps my hope alive… wholehearted… we can take a bite out of apathy. Out of intolerance. Out of small-mindedness. Out of unkindness. Out of cruelty. Out of shame. And out of fear.
I hope you are savoring moments in your summer days. And I hope you are finding times to dance. Hugging those you love. And finding ways to keep your hope alive.
Quote for the week…
“Where there is no love, put love and you will find love.” St. John of the Cross
Today’s Photo Credit: “Terry, I’m always amazed at the wonderful pictures you post every day. Thought this fellow from out family trip to Gulf Shores, AL would be worthy of your post one day!” Barbara Selby… Thank you Barbara… Thank you to all, keep sending your photos… send to terryhershey.com
Yes, your gift makes a difference… Donation = Love…
Help make Sabbath Moment possible. I write SM because I want to live with a soft heart; to create a place for sanctuary, empathy, inclusion, compassion and kindness… a space where we are refueled to make a difference. SM remains free.
(NEW address by check: PO Box 65336, Port Ludlow, WA 98365)
Letters that do my heart good…
–Terry, I love this story of yours about the summer ‘options’ of your boyhood. As a berry farmer’s daughter, mine were hours and hours of picking berries, changing irrigation, canning and freezing for winter from the magnificent yields from garden and fields, and an un-ending etcetera of work. To this day, I am grateful for the love these labors begat in me for growing flowers and food, for making jam and canning tomatoes, for the awe and joy of nature. Wishing you a happy summer, Mary
–I so enjoyed your words and the photo as well of the barred owl. It even made me wonder how it came to be named that. Have they been barred from other bird gatherings or does it refer to their attorney privileges? It also reminded me of a bird I hear sometimes that chirps what sounds like “Girl Scouts, Girl Scouts” and I look around wondering if I’m going to be approached with a list of their cookies to buy. Now I’ll probably be writing another poem about that light. Terry
–Hi Terry, Very much enjoy the challenges you present to us in your weekly Sabbath. Was reading today an article in the NYTimes today June 20th in the D-6 Well Section called “Be Grateful. Say So. It is good for you” and thought of you and some good material for a future article. While the article deals a lot with the physical well being, it could easily translate to the spiritual as well and your words connecting to us all about gratitude as God is the giver of everything. I thought the “gratitude jar” was a great idea. Just thought you should hear about it. Best to you and God’s abundant blessings to you. Vincent
POEMS AND PRAYERS
To become a musician
The limbs of a tree reached down and lifted me,
thinking I was its child
And in the meadows, my spirit becomes so quiet that if I put my cheek against the earth’s body I feel the pulse of God
“Tell me the way you do that, birds —
enter the private chambers of my Lord?”
And they all sang, they just sang.
I gathered it was time to become a musician, and I did.
Years passed, and the sky reached down one day and lifted me,
the birds noticed and spoke,
“How do you enter the Sun like that and know the pulse of God?”
St Thomas Aquinas, trans. Daniel Ladinsky
May God bless you with discomfort,
at easy answers, half-truths,
and superficial relationships
so that you may live
deep within your heart.
May God bless you with anger
at injustice, oppression,
and exploitation of people,
so that you may work for
justice, freedom and peace.
May God bless you with tears,
to shed for those who suffer pain,
rejection, hunger, and war,
so that you may reach out your hand
to comfort them and
to turn their pain to joy.
And may God bless you
with enough foolishness
to believe that you can
make a difference in the world,
so that you can do
what others claim cannot be done,
to bring justice and kindness
to all our children and the poor.
A Franciscan Blessing