In the process of exploring the narratives of older people living in Hangberg (a marginalised fishing community above the harbour in Hout Bay, Cape Town) I am struck by something that I find particularly difficult to describe. The stories are filled with hardship that is almost impossible to fathom and at times very hard to listen to. Time and again I find myself deeply moved when I look at the person in front of me, trying to think how they managed to absorb all this pain, to survive, to still be kind and gentle. The word that comes to mind is resilience, yet it is not quite the right word. “The capacity to recover quickly from difficulties, toughness” is how the dictionary defines resilience.
I don’t think this is what I am seeing, for the people I speak to are not necessarily tough, and I am not sure if they would consider themselves to have ‘recovered’. Yet, they have something almost mystical about them that fills me with awe and makes me incredibly humble. I would not have survived had I been exposed to what they lived through. In their telling me their stories there is not a hint of negativity, no hatred, no accusation. Apartheid meant that they were forceable removed from their homes (where I now live), that they we displaced to a life of hardship. To this day the properties on which they live are not theirs. And since their fishing quotas were taken away from them, they had to resort to “poaching” which makes them “criminals” in the eyes of the law.
“Based on a review of the literature, eight constructs (purpose in life, self- esteem, life satisfaction, cognitive flexibility, proactive coping, social support, locus of control, and stress management) were identified as the most common constructs theorized to underlie resilience.” Of course the research was done in the northern hemisphere where these constructs could possibly make sense. In Hangberg, I am not so sure…
Something that stands out stronger than anything else is grateful acceptance. Whatever life threw at them, and trust me some of it was terrible, is now on reflection gratefully accepted. They live under circumstances that can be described as inhumane. And yet, they are content. When they look at their lives, they say “it is good”. And then there is their gratitude towards God or Allah, something not necessarily religious (at least not in the way that I was brought up with religion). There is an acceptance that this was the life they had to live, they want for nothing, they seem to have few regrets, and feel that their lives “pleased the Lord”.
Of course I want to find that “magic ingredient”, I want to know what is it that so many of us are missing, what do we not see that could make for this level of Being-in-the-world that often eludes those that have everything that their hearts desire. For I know so many people who are rich, have everything that they could possibly need or want, and yet cannot attain this level of Being. Spiritual retreats, holidays in far-off exotic destinations, meditation and therapy of any shape or kind, and yet they have no or little inner peace.
Amongst my friends I see many who are deeply struggling with COVID-19, some who are kicking and screaming against authority, questioning the experts. I see others who are paralysed with and by fear. And yet others who seemingly think that they are “above all of it” and continue with their lives as per normal. I see us making videos, recording our sermons, preaching to the world – whether our audience wants to hear or not. And then I listen to the stories of older people in Hangberg and think “we have so much to learn”. With all our degrees, our wealth, our possessions and so-called knowledge we are not doing too well.
Perhaps it is time that we listen to the truly wise amongst us, the so-called “poor and the downtrodden, the marginalized”. I am not yet sure what their secret is, but I want to find out. Because in listening to their stories I hear that which I can only aspire to – grateful acceptance, being at peace with the world outside and a deep, profoundly deep inner peace which no amount of meditation has ever afforded me.
Rayne Stroebel MSc (Dementia Studies)
+27 82 455 5300 Rayne.Stroebel@mindsmatter.co.za www.mindsmatter.co.za