….I do my thing, and you do your thing
We live in interesting times. America’s election campaign is punctuated with unheard of vitriolic debate between Republican Party and Democratic Party candidates, even by the less than exalted standards of general election campaigns.
Donald Trump, the presumptive Republican nominee for president of the United States of America, is actively propagating building a wall (to keep Mexicans out), banning Muslims from entering the United States (ostensibly to keep terrorists out), and generally making unsettling random statements which emphasize an “us versus them” approach to the new world order (presumably to keep Americans in). Europe is battling a refugee crisis (brought upon, at least in part, by a destructive policy of foreign military engagement in Iraq, Syria and Libya).
The United Kingdom voted for “Brexit” to leave the European Union. Right wing political parties are gaining traction in France, Switzerland and Greece feeding on job insecurity and perceived loss of cultural and national identity. The after-effects of the 2008 financial crisis left many reeling, and many ordinary people have yet to recover (or may never recover) from the financial losses inflicted upon them by reckless retail and investment banks.
Closer to home, we are bombarded with radio, television and newspaper articles that expose our most glaring challenges as a nation. Poverty, corruption, crime, lack of economic development, racial tensions, tribalism, lack of basic services, inadequate healthcare and an acute housing shortage all seem to dominate our headlines and shape our national and political discourse. No wonder the Namibian house can seem cold sometimes.
Everywhere we look, the world seems to evolve into a more insular, less tolerant, more divisive place to inhabit. Some will argue that this has always been the case, and that we are now simply more aware of it because the camera lens through which we see prejudice and injustice has become more sophisticated. Either way, whether it is a perception or reality, many people are certainly exposed to a world that does not always seem very welcoming.
In the face of this “new world order”, few would argue against the comfort of withdrawing into our own shell. After all, collective engagement takes effort. And who has time for that in a messy world?
Psychotherapists will be familiar with the “Gestalts prayer”, a philosophy which, at a simplistic level, essentially emphasizes personal independence over collective engagement. The “prayer” reads as follows: –
“I do my thing and you do your thing.
I am not in this world to live up to your expectations,
And you are not in this world to live up to mine.
You are you, and I am I,
And if by chance we find each other, it’s beautiful.
If not, it can’t be helped.”
But is this approach to self-preservation really the answer? Is the answer really to become more insular, less involved, less accepting of others’ opinions and beliefs? I would argue that this couldn’t possibly be true. We live in a dynamic society and each of us is shaped by external influences. Some are good, some are bad, but certainly none are irrelevant.
The common thread is that we are all enriched by our experiences, by our exposure to different cultures, opinions, languages and beliefs. This, however, requires us to reach out from our comfort zones, and to actively engage with our fellow human beings. It requires us to be tolerant, and to truly listen when others speak.
What exactly does it mean to be tolerant? Tolerance is sometimes defined as “the ability or willingness to tolerate something, in particular the existence of opinions or behavior that one does not necessarily agree with”. It is the opposite of always being right, and of forcing our own opinions and beliefs onto others. In that sense, it presupposes a willingness to listen to different interest groups, and requires real empathy. The Greek philosopher Aristotle is quoted as saying “it is the mark of an educated mind to be able to entertain a thought without accepting it”.
There are certainly things we should never be tolerant of (corruption, racism, bad governance, to name a few). However, when it comes down to it, despite our differences, we do not become truly content by only looking after our own narrow self-interest. In that sense an injustice to one should be an injustice to all, and we all need to play our part and be collectively engaged (or, to borrow a phrase from Harambee, to “pull together”) to make this beautiful country a place where all Namibians and visitors feel welcome and at home.
We should be critical and opinionated where it is warranted, but we should not become so disheartened with the magnitude of our challenges that we do not even try to engage and make a positive difference, in whichever way we can.
. Erik Muthow obtained an LLB from Stellenbosch University in 1996 and LLM in commercial law from UCT in 1997. He worked as a lawyer in South Africa, London and Dubai for about 15 years. In Dubai, Muthow was a partner at one of the largest law firms and headed the international transport and trade department.