Tuesday, March 17, 2015

The Meaning of Life. I Think.

Having changed my mind about the old certainties my faith and church handed down to me, I wonder more than ever about the meaning of life. I have some ideas. In fact, I’m writing a book. I may call it The Meaning of Life (I Think). The title is tongue-in-cheek. It will increase curiosity while dampening expectations.

Many people—sometimes whole societies—get the answer to the question, “What is the meaning of life,” dead wrong. I certainly think that I have, in the past. We do so because we cannot escape the prejudices of our time or the loyalties we were schooled in.

It’s a common problem, not unique to us. Take Pieter Schuil, for example. Pieter is a first cousin of mine, four generations back, on my mother’s side. I know about Pieter because I have a copy of his diary.
Pieter Schuil c. 1899

Pieter immigrated to South Africa as a single young man in 1898. In his diary he hints that he emigrated out of a sense of religious duty. The Boers had been recruiting Christian School teachers in the Netherlands. Pieter writes as if he was answering a divine call. But—given the way he describes what he saw and did in South Africa—there is also something of the Romantic wanderer in Pieter. It is possible that he rationalized this wanderlust with a fine religious argument. It is hard to tell.

But Pieter also loved literature. His favourite poet was Heinrich Heine. He wrote his diary with feeling and sensitivity. After reading it—stories about his steamer trip to South Africa; of riding a mail cart to Rustenburg with a secret policeman as his companion; of getting caught in a raging thunderstorm, at night, on the veld—after reading his diary I found I really liked my distant cousin. Even more, I saw something of myself in Pieter: romantic, a writer, religious, introverted, a bit of a dreamer. Someone who wanted to get just far enough away from his roots to find true meaning on his own.

It was a valiant effort on Pieter’s part, but he failed, I think. He was drafted into the Anglo-Boer war. He mostly served as secretary for his commanding officer. When his commando—his guerrilla unit—went off to fight, his fellow soldiers usually made him hang back, to watch the horses. That’s what he was doing when the English overran his position. They claimed that Pieter then lowered his Mauser rifle, with a white flag of surrender attached to it, and blasted away. He and his fellow Boer soldiers denied it. He was court-martialled that night and shot by a firing squad the next morning, October 2, 1901. The novel and the poems he had written before the war, and buried for safekeeping, have never been recovered. A suburb of modern Rustenburg sits over his old schoolhouse.

Pieter’s execution was tragic. So too the disappearance of his life’s work. But the tragedy was actually far worse. I discovered, reading his diary, that Pieter was also a deeply racist person whose attitude mirrored the systemic racism of his Boer compatriots, his church, and all of his wider society—including English South Africa. He fought to establish a Republic where Africans would be treated as sub-human.

Pieter consistently uses the racist term “Kaffir,” or sometimes “Kaffir Boy.” It means “person without religion,” and so, more properly, “someone less than human,” or “a soulless person.” It was a term that allowed Pieter and other whites to deal with Africans as if they were animals rather than people. He describes the Zulu as “uncivilized” and “notorious for their bloodlust.” He condemns the English for arming Africans, because this shows far too much trust and respect.

Pieter also willingly, if not enthusiastically, fought in an unjust war. Granted, the judgment of history is that the war was especially unjust on the English side. They invaded two independent Boer republics mostly because gold had been discovered in them. The English habitually conquered nations and territory for the glory of the Crown and private economic benefit. That is the whole idea behind Imperialism.

History’s judgement on the Anglo-Boer War is also deeply coloured by the fact that the English used it as the occasion to invent modern concentration camps. During the course of the war, tens of thousands of Africans and Boers, the latter mostly women and children, died in them amid absolutely appalling conditions.

But beside the petty geopolitical concerns of England and the small Republics, both the Boers and the English fought their war without any regard for their African neighbours. It was a white man’s war that brought ruin, death, hunger, and disaster upon all the Africans it touched, in large measure because neither the Boers nor the English seemed to believe that Africans were fully human.

Boers shot Africans in the employ of the English forces as a matter of course, like dogs. The English rounded up Africans who worked on Boer farms and threw them into concentration camps. And when, at war’s end, the issue of reparations for devastated Boer farmers was discussed, nothing was forthcoming for the Africans who suffered as badly—or worse--than anyone else. During the final peace negotiations, the Boers even managed to exclude Africans and coloureds from receiving the franchise at the end of the war. Voting rights were based on wealth and property, so very few Africans even in the English Cape Colony had the wherewithal to vote, and even fewer would have been able to do so in the old Boer Republics. But still, it was another case of showing complete disdain Boers like Pieter had for Africans, their humanity, and their rights.

And as he sought to make something of his life, wrote his diary and poetry and novel, none of this seems to have dawned on Pieter. He was used by all the prejudices of his age and tribe. For all of his other qualities, he lived and died for causes that we today recognize as badly mistaken, unjust, and even evil.

I liked Pieter, as he spoke to me across the years; but I was horrified too. How could such an intelligent, sensitive, Bible-believing idealist be so wrong about almost everything?

Well, he was merely a child of his time and place, some will say. And yes, of course, that’s true. And perhaps it even helps us empathize with Pieter a little bit, forgive him even, for his racism and miscalculations about what was most important in life.

But there’s the rub, too. We’re all children of our time. Perhaps the single most difficult task for anyone who really wants to explore what life is all about is to figure out how to set our time and place aside, so that we can see things as they are.

It is almost impossible to do so. How do we set aside the entitlement, for example, that allows us to consume earth’s resources, raise its temperature, eat well while millions go hungry, and so on? How do we set aside our own racist, or patriotic, or faith-based presuppositions long enough to recognize them, let alone weigh them?

When our great grandchildren learn how we built our suburban mansions, fought overseas wars with pilotless drones, ate meat, treated First Nations, coddled the banks and big corporations, fished the sea empty, frittered out time away playing games on TV or shopping, and argued about original sin in our cozy churches—will our great grandchildren think we understood the meaning of life?

Living in a specific time and place is like sleeping under a heavy blanket in a bedroom where the window has been left open in February. I used to have to do that, because my parents thought it was healthy. So, I pulled the blanket tight around me, and even buried my head under it. In fact, I found that sleeping in this warm cocoon was actually a real joy.

That’s how it is for most of us, even today, when it comes to finding meaning for our lives. We usually sleep through it unawares, dreaming fractured dreams, bundled in our churches and tribes, hopeful that nothing will disrupt our reverie.

Not very helpful when it comes to truly understanding what life is really all about. And probably one of the biggest challenges I face if I’m ever going to get started on my book, The Meaning of Life (I Think).


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