Retribution: Giving Life Where It Was Taken.

October 13, 2011

I woke up this morning with a heavy heart. I couldn’t put my finger on why. Was it the rain? Had I dreamt something disturbing? Was it the full moon? Was it just “one of those days”? It took a few minutes, and some coffee, before I realized today is Clinton‘s birthday. He would have turned 18, had his life not been taken in May of this year. I miss him so, so much.

I’ve done a lot of wrestling within my heart, mind, and soul about Clinton’s death. I’ve tortured myself with the “what ifs” and the “if onlys”. I’ve wished for a time machine to go back and change things. None of that helps, but I guess it’s part of grieving. The untimely death of a young person is never easy, especially when that person’s life is taken by another angry, confused young person. God knows I saw my fair share of those in my ten years of living in Cape Town. It never becomes easier to see.

It’s convenient to direct our anger towards the young, emotional girl who stabbed Clinton in an act of rage, especially knowing that she is currently serving no time for the murder. I think it’s human nature to crave vengeance, to want retribution. We want people to feel what we feel, lose like we have lost. In my most emotional moments, when it comes to those who I care the most about, I might succumb to the quick fix of thinking I desire retaliation, but my logic usually comes to my rescue and tells me otherwise. I realize (at least in this situation) the problem is systemic, and even the young girl who took Clinton’s life is a victim herself.

Don’t get me wrong! I’m not letting her off the hook. I never believe killing is justified, ever! I definitely believe people should be held accountable for their actions, and taking someone else’s life is a colossal deal. But knowing the complexity surrounding the youth growing up in the communities of Cape Town, it is important for me to remember where to direct my anger. The lack of support structures, the drug and alcohol use, the prevalence of abuse and violence, the mistreatment of women and children, gangsterism, unemployment, poverty, lack of social services, a failing education system…all of these things, and more, creating a big, bad, ugly monster called “the system”, holding our children hostage, and raising them.

It is therefore immature of me to be angry at a young girl who grew up in an environment, governed by this corrupt “system”, where violence is the answer to many problems. It is human to seek retaliation, but not fair. The warped part of me, telling me that, “Clinton would want me to want vengeance,” is a voice that comes out of ten years of living within that very system, and a depraved part of myself. At times, even Clinton himself succumbed to pressures of the system he found himself in, but for the most part he was a loving, tender, caring, kind-hearted, wonderful young man, who brought life, love and laughter to those given the pleasure of knowing him.

So, when I meditate on his life and death, and what it might mean to truly honor him today, I can’t help but think the most productive form of retribution is not to allow emotion to take control, and wish ill-harm on anyone else. Misdirected anger or sadness won’t bring back lost lives, and will only contribute to more. The most life-bringing memorial we can have for Clinton, and others like him whose lives have been taken, is to direct our vengeance towards the corrupt system that surrounded them; use the emotion we feel, whether it be heartbreak or anger, as fuel for positive action in battling the system itself, seeking change. Positive retribution is not taking another life, or wishing harm to the one who took it, but rather giving life where it was taken.

Though I’m thousands of miles from Cape Town, and feel even further, I choose to honor Clinton on his birthday today, with positive, hopeful, life-giving thoughts and wishes to the millions of children living in the cracks of the corrupt system of Cape Town, and similar communities throughout the world. We cannot bring back those already lost, but we can put our effort and energy into protecting the young people who are currently living within the system. We can give life where it was taken, offer hope and restoration where there is devastation. I think Clinton would want that.


Lessons from a Rabid, Hyperactive, Mystical Horse

August 29, 2009

Yesterday when we showed up to the Equine Session we were greeted by a mammoth, dark brown horse, stomping, snorting, jolting, and galloping up and down the fence line, head erect and tail sticking straight up in the air. As we stepped into the arena this horse, who I will call Free Will, made his presence known. He clomped, and snorted, raced loudly past the group, jumped into the air, dug in the sand with his giant hoof, shook his head dramatically making a growling-type noise, and at one point, he even laid on the ground and rolled around in the sand like a dog trying to scratch its back.

This mystifying creature that towered over us reminded me of a cross between a hyperactive kid, a rabid dog, a wild stallion, and a playful dragon. Needless to say the guys were a bit intimidated by Free Will. The other horse in the arena, fairly unnoticed was a short, stubby looking light brown Palomino, unassuming, not calling attention to itself, calm, and just chilling in one place. The guys were asked about why they felt Free Will was acting the way he was. Some thought he was angry, others thought he was happy. Some thought he was showing off, others thought he was just curious about a new surrounding. Some felt he didn’t want to be there, others felt he felt free there. They all mutually felt that working with, and most definitely conquering, Free Will would be a challenge bordering impossible. And they were intimidated and terrified of him.

The facilitator gave them their challenge of the day. There was an obstacle, two poles (approximately ten meters in length) crossing each other and propped up (standing about two feet high) by buckets, right smack dab in the middle of the field. The guys were asked to, decide as a group, and name that obstacle as an obstacle that they regularly come across in day-to-day life. Then, as a group, they must try and get one of the horses to jump over the obstacle, conquering it. The guys named the obstacle “temptation”; resembling different things for different guys. They were told they could start with either horse.

They chose snorting, stomping, racing, Free Will and fearfully yet confidently went straight for him.

Free Will

At first they did not really work as a group very well. Free Will teased them, running all the way to one side of the field and waiting until they got there, then running to the other side, whinnying what I am sure was a horse laugh. The sensitive animal also picked up on their nervousness of him, which made him even more high strung than he already seemed. Eventually, the guys adjusted their strategy, became calmer, worked as a group and managed to contain Free Will in a specific area of the arena, not far from Temptation. This was the interesting point.

Free Will completely calmed down and began to eat grass. He was no longer stomping and snorting and running, but he also was not budging. They had Free Will restricted to a certain area but not controlled, and they could not get him to move. Free Will was happy exactly where he was. He lacked motivation and was content with his grass. They guys were patient, and for the next hour they kept Free Will contained, but could not get him to move towards the obstacle. Early on, three of the youngest guys became frustrated with the task, and maybe also bored. At first they goofed off, pushed each other in the direction of the big scary horse, laughed, made jokes, tickled Free Will on his belly with grass, and were generally disruptive towards the goal of getting Free Will to jump over the obstacle of Temptation. The other group members became frustrated with them. The youngsters didn’t care. After a while they gave up and went over to sit on the fence.

Then I watched as the remaining group members, totally absorbed in their task, tried to get Free Will to move. They were determined to get Free Will to overcome Temptation and it seemed that they forgot another world existed around them; some of these guys I know have overcame enormous temptation in their own lives, and some I know are still struggling with huge temptations on a daily basis. Those guys saw the depth in the challenge, and it meant more to them than getting a big horse to go over some stupid poles. It was more than an exercise, this was their life. 

I thought about the three youngsters sitting over on the fence, whose group involvement had actually been counter effective. All three are around the age of 16, and have maybe not been burned by the temptations of life the way the other older group members have. I actually know for a fact they haven’t. Even with the temptations they do face daily, the youngsters are still in that flirty phase, where they are not so sure they don’t want it in their lives. They did not seem to care much about getting Free Will to overcome Temptation, and actually ended up being a distraction for the others that did. The others, they remained focused and unwavering. They tirelessly tried, but in the end time ran out and they never got Free Will to jump over Temptation.

They were disappointed in the end. In feedback they mourned that they had not accomplished the task, getting Free Will to overcome Temptation. The facilitator disagreed. She first of all noted that they had taken a huge challenge in the first place, choosing Free Will and not the docile palomino. Then she explained that Free Will was a race horse, and a champion at that, and he is not easy to work with. She said that merely getting him contained like they did was a huge victory, because a group of addicts she had worked with in a previous group had not even been able to get the snorting, stomping, running Free Will contained. For the addicts, Free Will ran from them, pushed them, intimidated them, and controlled them. So the group being able to simply contain Free Will, and calm him down, was an enormous success. I saw the guys’ chests begin to swell back up a bit from their deflated stature.

My thoughts and reflections from watching the group of young men trying to get Free Will to jump over that Temptation are endless; some of their actions impressing, some insulting. But I can’t help but see the great semblance between this exercise with a horse, and the challenges I see the guys face in life, as I watch them trying to get their snorting, stomping, racing free wills contained, but then not stopping there and getting their free wills to overcome the obstacles and temptations of their lives. It’s a painful privilege to be a part of.

Scary Horse

August 25, 2009

I realised something pretty powerful and maybe very obvious today, through some young men and a couple of horses. Yep. You heard me. Young men and horses.

I am privileged enough to get to attend Equine Assisted Therapy and Life Skills with some young dudes I am friends with. I know that is a mouthful, and the word “equine” makes me feel funny for some reason. I dont’ like to say it. And the word therapy can also be scary for us guys.  But man! Don’t let those words put you off because this is one powerful thing to take part in!

For those of you that don’t know, Equine Therapy is basically therapy using horses. So the people taking part interact with the horses and the horses, being the incredible creatures they are, do all the work, allowing the human facilitators to merely observe and feedback what is happening in the arena.

The horses are incredibly sensitive and intelligent animals. They pick up on every little feeling, attitude and motive the participants have. And they simply reflect that back through their behaviour. For example, last week when we showed up to the first session, all the guys (15 in total) were a bit nervous, and the horse stood straight up, body completely erect, in front of the group, wide eyed, ears sticking straight up, looking something like a horse crack addict.

The other amazing thing that happens during the group sessions is to see how the participants work with and behave with one another, and the horse, as they try and carry out the tasks they are given. Tasks like, “get that enormous, stubborn horse that stomps and bites, to walk through those two poles…without touching the horse! Yeah! Pretty difficult. But it can be done! How the participants approach the task, and deal with the fellow participants, is also a mirror image of how they interact with the world, and others they regularly come into contact with. And all of this is debriefed and talked about throughout the session, and in the end. Very enlightening! 

I hope I am not boring you, but I assure you words can do it no justice! You have to see it and experience it for yourself. But until then, back to my point: the powerful, yet maybe obvious thing I learned today.

The young men were given the very task I mentioned before, to get the horse to walk in between two poles, without touching it. They were given no advice, no help, and just told to work as a group. At first it was an unorganized chaos. They were all just doing their own thing, making noise, throwing grass, going in their own directions, and they made no grounds with the horse.

But then they regrouped, and made a plan. They assigned a leader. They spoke about how calmer body language would help and also agreed not to make loud noise. They said they must trust each other and they must not be scared of the horse, or at least try not to show it, and in the case that they feel scared, take a step back and allow the braver ones to be in front. They had a plan.

They went back out to conquer the horse with this new strategy. They made a little ground but were still struggling, but this time, they communicated properly, and changed their strategies as they went. They spontaneously decided to all hold hands and surround the horse and walk it into the poles. And after a few minutes, that is exactly what they did.

During the feedback session one of the guys was talking about how he felt vulnerable and scared because some of the group members would teasingly hold his hand and pull him closer to the horses backside, a known dangerous area of a horse. The young man perceptively pointed out that the guys who acted like that, goofing off yet putting others in danger, were actually just scared, and that is why they acted like that. They were scared of the horse, scared of the task, and so they just messed around. Man!

How many young people have I seen do the same in life?! They have all the potential in the world, but do things that look like self sabotage, through negative behaviour patterns. But what a realization to think that negative behavior actually stems out of a fear. A fear they won’t succeed. A fear they will never reach their goal. A fear that the goal is way to high, or far, or big to achieve. A fear that they do not even have a goal.

I know I have done the same thing at certain points in my life. And I know manypeople that have, and still do it as well. But how wonderful is it, when we are in a place of fear, to know that the person beside us is there to hold our hand in support, and not to pull us closer to danger. We have no control over the guy whose hand we are holding, but we have control over our self. Maybe we can’t change the behavior of the person holding our hand, but we can be the supporting hand that he or she may need. Because he or she is probably just scared.