This post is a response to a beautiful post by Dr Kelly Flanagan on the Website “Untangled” (www.drkellyflanagan.com) The post is called “The only two things you’ll ever need to know about people” (http://drkellyflanagan.com/2013/10/16/the-only-two-things-youll-ever-need-to-know-about-people/)
He inspired me with a simple comment, to document something that I have not ever written down. May it bring hope.
I was driving home one day in the late afternoon and had offered to drop of a friend of mine’s 12 year old daughter, Emma. I drove a white BMW 318i, at the time a highly sought after vehicle in South Africa, at least, by the hijacking fraternity…
We turned off the highway onto an access road, and a young man crossed slowly into the road and stood in front of us. Pretty much blinded by the late afternoon sun, at first I thought “Drunk pedestrian”, so I slowed to a stop. But as my eyesight cleared I saw him fiddle with something in his right hand and then he leaned over my engine hood and I was staring down the barrel of an automatic pistol. It must have been a metre from my face through the glass.
I screamed at Emma to get down. Her seatbelt was stuck, and she couldn’t get it loose. I reached over with my eyes fixed on the barrel and tried to loosen it for her. Eventually she slid under the waist belt and crouched in the footwell of the front passenger seat. She was screaming and crying. I just kept looking at the barrel of the gun.
It was shaking, and nothing was happening. He looked to the right and I knew then he was looking to other people, probably hidden in the grass. I knew, if they were not helping him, then he was probably being initiated into a gang, and his initiation was to hijack the car, and probably also to kill me. But for some reason he hadn’t done it. Then I saw him fiddle with the gun and shake it, and I realized something was wrong (or right!) and I had a small chance.
I remember clearly having to decide – do I run him over – “He deserves to die, the dog!!!”; – or do I try get away in reverse. The gun could work at any time, and I had no idea when that might happen. But I knew, no matter how much I hated him for what he was doing right then, that I would hate myself more if I killed him, or even if I tried to. I guess I found out then that I was not built for murder, even in legitimate defense. And I knew, if I died, Emma would have no chance. She would in all likelihood be raped, and then murdered too.
I hit reverse, and just about revved the pistons through the hood as I floored it backwards into the traffic. I didn’t even look. There were cars all around me, but somehow I missed them all. I watched him run after me and try to shoot again but nothing happened. Then he couldn’t get into the traffic and turned away.
Emma was terrified and sobbing. Only then did I realize just how psyched I was with all the adrenaline. We called the police and her mom, and went somewhere to calm down, and then later we made our way home when we were able to…
On both sides of that road, were communities and families that I loved and spent much time with. Alexandria Township was – and is – a shanty town of 750 000+ people in an area 2km by 2kms. I used that road every day. Some of our church cell groups met there, our food missions delivered there, and I drove the minibus every Friday night that took children home safely after youth meetings.
My allegiances were there; my friends, and my spiritual family.
Some people face death every day, and those I have spoken to (policemen in South Africa, for example) become inured to it. Numbed, and sadly, sometimes laissez faire. The alternative is to become a nervous wreck! Some see it every day (paramedics, or nurses) and they too can acquire a distance, a reserve that prevents them being emotionally drained by each individual case.
But Joe Average, like me? I was devastated by it. It shocked me to my core that I had faced death, and had been spared. Not just an accidental close shave. I had stared into the barrel of a gun that somebody WANTED to use, WANTED to kill me with. It revolutionized my world, tore away the veneer of safety and security that protected me and exposed my raw unpreparedness. It hollowed out my soul, and left me agonized, and violated.
Facing that personalized aggression, that callous disregard for my life, I was shaken. But, it gave me something else, far more lasting. And precious…
It changed how I saw the world. Not just how I saw the world, but how I saw the world.
It changed how I read the news, and how I felt about crime. It changed how I felt about the victims. I would read about a murder and I would see the person. Their family, their social activities, their value, their sense of humour. And then I would see that all cut off for ever by someone’s callous act.
I read about rape victims, and saw beyond the violent act that the newspapers reported, to the darkness in their world that grew and grew until it consumed them. Their loss of dignity and value, their distrust and fear.
I read about thefts, and more than just the goods taken, I felt the violation of their safe and sacred space. Someone’s security and safety, their home, where their children should be able to rest unprotected, had been penetrated and prowled through by evil, maliciousness and unkindness.
Going through that, gave me empathy for the victims of crime. It made bland details real, and gave me the ability to care deeply about total strangers in their valleys of shadows and death.
The strangest thing? I began to care about the perpetrators as well. I wondered what kind of a person could do those things. And instead of writing them off as monsters, I talked to my friends from the townships, and read books, and tried to understand objectively.
What happened to a young person so that killing a man was a reasonable thing to do, to get into a gang? What made raping a girl OK? How had those sensitivities been dulled and destroyed? And I began to see how apartheid, and broken families, absent fathers, etcetera had fed them with isolation, and fear, and loneliness, destroyed their trust and hope. My heart began to break for the broken who in turn broke others.
They were simply perpetuating their realities. And as with dysfunctional violent realities, they destroy other realities, and beat the world into submission. They perpetuate themselves by recreating the same dysfunctionality in their victims. And somehow, my own experience showed me that they were not so different. We are all broken. Some worse than others, some far, far worse than others. But we are all broken. And we break others with our brokenness.
Our only hope is people who can heal. Heal themselves when they get hurt, and heal others who are hurt. We need those beautiful healers more and more every day.