|My friend, Audrey, in Diepsloot|
There is no gene for the human spirit.
Emily Dickinson is said to have lived a neurotic life, rarely leaving her home in her 55 years, wearing white and hardly speaking. She is said to have suffered from "Bright's Disease", not really a disease, but a term invented to describe medical symptoms including kidney disease and hypertension. In the days she lived, however, she was a prolific writer of heavenly verse, penning words that have an other-worldliness about them, floating like clouds to describe everyday thoughts we all have had. She explained, in poetry, eternity in a way that was beautiful and thought-provoking.
George Washington Carver was born into slavery in Missouri, his exact birthdate unknown, since he was more property than he was a person. When he was only a week old, he and his mother were kidnapped by night raiders. His master , Moses Carver, tried to get them back, but was only able to find the baby, George. After slavery was abolished, Carver and his wife raised George their own, teaching him the basics of reading and writing. His schooling consisted mostly of reading, since blacks were not allowed into public schools. After applying to several colleges, and being rejected because of race, Carver finally achieved a Masters Degree at Iowa State. He then became a professor at Booker T. Washington’s college. In his day, through much adversity, Carver developed and promoted alternative crops to cotton, ( peanuts, soybeans and sweet potatoes), aided nutrition for farm families, published 44 practical bulletins for farmers, developed and promoted about 100 products made from peanuts (including cosmetics, dyes, paints, plastics, gasoline and nitro-glycerin) and received numerous honors for his work.
Stephen Hawking is a physicist and writer, born with a motor neurone disease that is related to ALS. In its progression over the years, this disease has left him almost completely paralysed. Still, his interests in astrophysics and subsequent degrees and writings have called attention to his brain, and have inspired others to ask questions about the universe. His strange and unusual curiosity of space, have produced many elevated theorems, including one that says black holes should emit radiation. To this day, the radiation of black holes is called “Hawking radiation”.
The eternal benefit of the lives of Dickinson, Carver and Hawking was not genetic. It wasn’t especially passed down from their parents. It was imparted from another source, squarely into their spirits.
Today, I was reminded of this as I handed out taxi fare to people at church who had made their way to church and were now looking for the fare back home. Taxi fare to church from the local township is eight rand, or in American money, about a dollar ten. This is a lot of money in South Africa, and those who come to church are determined to get there, regardless of cost. They inspire me.
As I was waiting on the line of people, I was realizing that I had no help (my friend who helps every Sunday was expecting guests at home and had to leave early). I asked my friend, Portia to help me. She agreed, setting down her Jimmy Choo bag and letting her kids play soccer on the outside courts while she followed me upstairs to help. Portia speaks four languages, and I value this, especially when it’s time to hand out taxi fare.
“Are you part of a CMG?” she asked those in line as they signed for taxi fare. The City Ministry Group is where the church meets in homes mid-week, supporting each other and praying for each other like a family would. The people who are not part of a CMG are given the opportunity on Sunday mornings, to connect with a CMG leader. As Portia connected with folk, I handed out money, making the line shrink down to a few older ladies with children.
I got to a woman who held out her hands to me, gnarled from arthritis and worn from washing. She smiled and asked me to pray for her. She had waited at the back of the line so that she could talk with me, after hearing that I had long ago been healed of arthritis. We prayed together, and I hugged her, touched at such an incredible opportunity to get to know her better. As we talked, Portia joined in, encouraging the woman not to give up. The woman broke down in tears, and we all comforted her, telling her that we are all living with things that hurt, but we must go on.
She left after awhile, a little encouraged, but in her face, I saw how tired of life she was. The whole thing made me sad, and Portia could see it.
“Shame!” Portia said. This saying, ‘Shame!’, is a South African colloquialism for ‘Poor thing!’ or ‘What a sad story!’
I nodded, cleaning up the cash box. Flata, our friend was with us for the whole exchange. She agreed, “That woman is tired!”
“Yes,” Portia said. “It’s difficult, living without a husband in poverty, but you must laugh and go on.”
I looked at Portia’s face, so young and beautiful. She glows from optimism not seen in this world often. It is sometimes hard to believe that Portia is poor, and living in a shack, and a widow at 31. Her two boys are stars on the soccer field and in the classroom and she has favor wherever she goes. She just looks like a winner, someone who will conquer life, no matter what it throws at her. Why would Portia be this way, and that poor woman we had just prayed for seem so defeated?
We all walked downstairs to the Family Day we were hosting, saw kids bouncing around in Jumping castles and two fields of soccer games being played. People sat on the patio under shade umbrellas sipping drinks and eating snacks, talking and laughing. It was the most wonderful picture of a spring day: so colourful.
My eyes scanned the scene for our lady who left weeping. She was nowhere to be found. I thought of her face, her eyes, her sideways wig and her painted on eyebrows. What would make her feel happiness? What would make her wake up in hope tomorrow?
The desire to go on is not a desire that is learned or is given genetically. It comes from a different place. I can only think that it comes from God, knowing that the next day will be better, possibly spectacular. The human spirit is a powerful, amazing thing. We can bounce back from a terrible incident and decide to go on. We can live without things we never thought we could live without...and still laugh or find happiness. We can think or create or read or write and bring beauty to the world.
Or we can give up.
Depending on our spirit... and the spirit we take from God.