Matt black metal bars with snake-tongue tips gird the fancy shopping mall. The fence keeps unwanted elements of society out of the polished travertine interiors. On the other side of the fence two black milk crates sit on the dusty side walk. One is covered with a taped-together cardboard box onto which a greying blind man has lowered himself. His sign — “Born blind” — is tacked onto the metal fence, facing the parking lot filled with shiny luxury vehicles and prettied people walking briskly towards the mall.

I am back in my home town of Pretoria. I find the friction between poverty and privilege to be extremely hard. The most difficult aspect of this dichotomy resides within my own mind. When I am confronted with someone resembling either side of this spectrum, the metal bars of my beliefs snap into place. Instantly I feel guilt or judgement rise inside me.

GUILT & the need to be absolved

For most of my life, I identified as able-bodied, straight, white and privileged. Boom! There you go: four things to feel guilty about just by waking up in the morning. Pair this with the super highway of guilt-driven neural paths constructed by my religious rearing and you have someone who feels blameworthy most days.

When I am faced, as a human on the street or a facilitator, with someone I perceive to be suffering under our current system (much of which I personally embody), I go grey with sticky feelings of guilt. My interior process looks something like this:

  • I get entangled in a story that I (the meta-me representing white privilege people like myself) am wrong, that I have wronged.
  • Instead of seeing a worthy human being that is an equal to me, I see someone that I have unintentionally hurt. I see a story I’ve constructed, I feel sorry for them.
  • Instead of being in a state of ease and curiosity, I lose my authentic openness. Feeling guilty sucks. Through my interactions I am looking to be absolved of my guilt. I am looking to feel better. Sometimes I avoid the discomfort by ignoring the reality of the other. I turn myself awkwardly inward and pretend I don’t really see. Other times I reach out offering sympathy, money or service in exchange for feeling that I am somehow a good human being.

JUDGEMENT & the need to shape the world into my image

I was raised to believe my religion, my race, and my academic training were all superior and right. I was taught that my Western way of understanding and working in the world was right too. The people who did not believe the way I did were wrong. When I was faced with “those people who are other than me,” my job was to help them see the world as I do.

This is a difficult nest to roost in, especially when the people I judge are my friends and family. Friday evening I allow my inner world to surface. I tell my friend, “Janine, I am judging you. You and people who focus myopically on their own success only. People whose attention and resources seldom touch anything outside their lives. People whose lifestyle perpetuates our current socio-economic system. A system that kicks our planet in the chin and keeps millions disempowered, displaced, and poor. People who seem to have no sense of the collective need for change.”

When I engage from a place of judgement, I drive a wedge between myself and the world. I pit myself against what I dislike – in myself and in the world. In my mind, this polarity can only be dissolved when the other person sides with my thoughts. I remove myself from a reciprocal conversation and set out to teach, persuade, or educate, with the intention of winning them over to be and think like me.

Being surrounded by people who support my cause, who think and act like I do, feels good. Yet, when I live inside my fortified belief system I am unable to participate in the transformation of the world. My way of interacting with the world is one-way: I try to shape it using whichever force I can. In the process, I alienate and oppress people. People I care about deeply. People who are the future I care about.

If we are to engage in creating better social outcomes, I believe it is critical for us to be aware of our own worldview and the effect it has on us. When I as an artist take a piece of clay into my hands, I enter an alchemical conversation. I look at it through a lens of possibility and appreciation, open to see and be affected. I recognize the process that has formed the clay, I honor its current state, my fingers listen to and learn from the way in which it wants to take shape.

It is difficult to cultivate such openness when it comes to humans. Yet, the most transformative conversations happen when I am in this artist mindset. In this stance, I suspend my story about the world. I open myself to see the highest possibility of this person and situation. I appreciate what is, as it is, without resistance. I rest into the knowledge that this situation is in the process of becoming something, and I find myself open to listen for and participate in the collective process of becoming.

The blind man stands up from his milk-crate seat. He pulls a bamboo pan flute from his crate and places it gently on his poised lips. He blows carefully into the sliding instrument. The song flows out, it moves over the metal fence and touches the pristine mall corridors. The music flies into the dusty street and over the sidewalk commuters. When the song ends I express my appreciation for his artistry. I walk away. I hope the bars of my beliefs will soften, I hope the song of my life will move freely and create more life for the people it encounters.