Food for Thought...

Food for Thought...

Monday, 24 September 2018

My God of Connection

Finding God amidst the hardship of human suffering and disability

Sometimes people come across our path that bring change within us; they make us better than we are. I have the type of job which allows me to connect with all sorts of people from all walks of life. Today I was reminded of beauty of these connections when a very special patient of mine shared his story with me. After 3 months of intensive rehabilitation, he shared his testimony of how God is working in his life despite overwhelming circumstances. As he shared these God-encounters, the tears rolled down my cheeks and I thanked God for the blessing of my job. I get the opportunity to openly talk about God with the people I encounter in my vocation – what an incredible privilege that is!

This encounter today drove me into a reflective space as a looked back on previous patient-encounters that have really impacted my life. One of them was a 12 year old boy – one of my very first patients as an occupational therapy student. With 85% of his total body surface area burned, this child’s deformities were almost too much to bear. But with his suffering came hope, as he engaged in therapy despite agonising pain and made great improvements within the isolated burns unit at Red Cross Children’s Hospital in Cape Town. That child changed me. He forced me out of my self-consumed space as a student and made me see, really see, what life is all about. It’s not about being a “good person”, getting good grades, living a healthy lifestyle or any other priority we may have. Life is about living to love other people, in whatever way, shape or form that takes for each of us.

Another such patient who will always have a special place in my heart was a lady who suffered a partial spinal cord injury. Instead of cursing God, she saw her disability as a gift – a new perspective graciously given to her when she needed it most. Her motivation and enthusiasm for her new disabling life astounded me. She reported to be happier disabled than she had been when she was able-bodied. She got her priorities straight, started to take note of all the joyful moments in her life and learnt to be content in her altered body.
I have also had patient’s whose situations have left me broken and despondent. One such patient, a young man with a wife and a small son, really wanted to improve his situation but his life was taken from him when the government hospital I worked for failed to provide for his basic needs. He passed away from sepsis as a result of a poorly treated pressure sore. I still cry for the unnecessary life we lost that day. His death forced me to take a long hard look at our broken world and I ended up writing a blog on suffering – check it out here.

After that something kind of snapped in me and I walked a long road of healing to a place where I could feel safe enough to connect with patients again. A little boy held my hand along that road – an angel in the body of a special needs child. After my husband and I had to move to the Free State for for his job, I was unable to get a full-time OT post within a government hospital – clearly God knew that I was not yet ready to get back into that harsh environment – and I took up a post as a facilitator for a special needs child (see one of my previous blogs for more on that). This child loved me with such unconditional love – a pure, sweet, wholesome love that can only come from that kind of a child. God worked through him to restore something in my soul. That child taught me how to love again.

When we moved to Johannesburg in March of this year (2018), I ended up taking a post as in neurorehabiltation in a private practice rehab clinic. This has been such a refreshing step for me as I have really been challenged to improve both my knowledge and skills in physical rehabilitation. Within my first few (very hectic) weeks on the job, I was assigned to rehabilitate a man with Guillen-Barre’ Syndrome – a neurological disorder where one’s immune system mistakenly attacks one’s own nerves often causing complete paralysis. In most cases, people recover from this condition after months or even years of pain-staking therapy and patience. This man and his wife bring such light and positivity into our rehab clinic and allow me a space to learn and grow while he continues to heal. Today, as mentioned in the beginning of this blog, he shared his story of how he has encountered God through a variety of experiences, including this debilitating condition. His story left me speechless as I thanked God for His work in this family’s life and their devotion to Him despite the odds. I praised God for opportunities to speak about Him so naturally within my work context – something that is not easily done in other career paths. This patient, his wife and so many other like them, keep me humble and profoundly amazed by the ability of human nature to overcome the odds. Through the beauty of human connection and sharing of stories, I am allowed glimpses of God’s work and grace in the world around me. I am so grateful to all the people who have allowed me to walk a road with them, to share in their joys and sufferings, and to come out on the other side, a far better person than what I was before.

The above encounters, as well as many others I have not mentioned made me reflect on the idea of living a missional lifestyle – no matter where we are. All too often as Christians, we place the emphasis on taking God “out there” to people and places where He is seemingly not present. However, the longer I work with people living with a disability, the more I realise that living as a missional Christian is often more about opening my eyes to where God is already at work, rather than trying to squeeze Him into a workplace conversation. God doesn’t need me to tell people about Jesus – He invites me to glimpse Him already working in places where I least expect it. Yes, my workplace is a mission field, but the wonderful thing is that God is already at work - I just get to be there to enjoy the ride. 

Thursday, 23 November 2017

There's No Place Like Home

As my parents pack up our old family home in preparation to move to a smaller, more suitable space, I couldn’t help but reflect on how we are humans can become so attached to physical places. I don’t consider myself a particularly sentimental person but the old saying from the Wizard of Oz “There’s no place like home” has never been more pertinent in my life than at this moment of departure from this particular space.

While my brother and I moved out of the house years ago, there has always been something special about going “home home” – back to our roots and the comfort of childhood roles. It is the kind of safe space into which one tends to just melt as one walks through the door. Our family home just oozes with memories and has proved a space for us to love, connect and find rest for the last 25 odd years. In the process of saying goodbye to this old comfort a few weeks back, I decided to have a quick run around the property, sat on the garden bench and then dipped my feet in the pool – activities I have done thousands of times throughout my childhood, adolescence and even adulthood in this space. These simple acts caused my mind’s eye to be flooded with joyful, cherished memories. I had the type of idealic childhood that they write about in children’s books – high tree swings, muddy banks, explorative garden spaces, a beautiful blue swimming pool and a home filled with love, laughs and ice-cream. While my parents can take most of the credit for creating those special memories, I can’t help but salute the actual structure and space of the house as I truly believe it played a large role in creating such meaningful connections.

As I have grown older and have had to create my own home in a variety of places, I have come to realise the importance of creating a sense of “home” as quickly as possible. Coming home each day to “my home” is an important part of the human experience and without it, I can attest that one feels a bit lost and out of joint. As I consider the current number of worldwide refugee crises – from Syria to Myanmar to Southern Sudan – my heart breaks for people who have been forced to leave their family homes as a result of war and oppression. Someone once said that “The home is the chief school of human virtues.” What are children learning as they are born and grow within the confines of a refugee camp? How can we create humans who understand peace and safety when they have no home to call their own? We must never take for granted the privilege of having a space to call our home.

As an occupational therapist, I believe in the importance of finding and creating meaning in all sorts of spaces. No matter where we are, we can do well to encourage and create physical spaces that bringing us into an enriched place of memory-making. Whether it’s incorporating certain colours, pieces of furniture, smells, textures, artwork or décor, there is some so comforting about establishing a meaningful place of rest, hope and peace within our busy world. I want to come home to a place where I can let out those deep contented sighs as I sip on a cup of tea (or wine!) after difficult days in the demanding 21st century lifestyle. Let’s create spaces where people can come into our homes and find a sense of peace, a safe space to share their souls and join in the joyful process of memory-making.

May God bless our homes.

An Ode to my Family Home

Goodbye old friend, how wonderful it’s been
The memories we’ve shared; the changes we’ve seen

You’ve held my family in a close-knit hold
Allowing us to play, love and grow old

You’ve bid us farewell on adventures afar
But welcomed up home like a guiding star

You’ve housed our animals - fur and dirt abound!
You’ve stood firm as we’ve buried them in your healing ground

You’ve been such a comfort: a safe space to unwind
After a long, busy day, in you peace we do find

You’ve witnessed our joys and experienced our pains
You’ve held us fast though sunshine, clouds and rains

You provided a safe space for all my childhood joys
Hide-and-seek, Monopoly, Lego and stuffed toys

You’ve seen me change; Oh how I’ve grown!
Childish games to teenage talks on the phone

You’ve watched me breaks hearts and have my own broken
You’ve listened carefully to all the prayers I have spoken

You’ve allowed me holiday rests during university
And helped me figure out the person I want to be

Your presence has been a simple reassuring measure
Coming “home home” to you is a feeling I’ll always treasure

You now have a new family, new hearts to hold
New memories to make, new futures to unfold

The tears flow easily and I let out a sigh
It is finally time to say a bittersweet goodbye

Thank you dear home for this journey together
We’ll treasure the memories and remember you forever

Sunday, 8 October 2017

Living Simply

My reflection on my time living in (yet another!) small town.

God seems to have an agenda in my life that I have yet to quite understand. He seems set on making me a small-town kind of girl! The last nine months have been both frustratingly difficult and incredibly refreshing at the same time. I know in my previous blog, I touched on the process of learning to accept my circumstances - something that doesn't come naturally to me and how I am slowly developing the art of being content in the space in which I find myself. I have continued to journey with these concepts, with some success and failure along the way. 

One of the biggest differences that stands out from my year in Kroonstad (Free State, South Africa) is how simple my life has become. From an occupational therapy perspective, I have started to understand the concept of just "being" rather than "doing ". As a natural go-getter, I have found the endless time I have a bit of a challenge. What does one do with all this free time? The first 2 months really shook me as I was confronted with a severe sense of meaninglessness...a lack of purpose and fulfilment in my life. Without a full-time job, social circles or prospective outreach activities, I was left feeling quite clueless. I had to take a hard look at my life and think about how I could this opportunity (because getting a year off is an amazing opportunity if one decides to use it!) to better myself as a person and hopefully rub off on those around me. 

Slowly, I started to engage in a number of new activities. I began a few woodworking projects which were great growing experiences for me. I have learnt how to play the guitar (and need continuous practice), cook new dishes, build puzzles, repair clothes on my sewing machine and read copious amounts of life-giving books. I have been able to develop my paediatric OT skills through some charity OT sessions as well as challenge myself to run a few sessions a month at the local private psychiatric unit. I have engaged in so many activities that have helped me to broaden the scope of who I am and what I can do. Many of these simple activities have now become meaningful occupations in my life. Without the opportunity to have time off to search for purpose, it is highly likely I would've never learnt these skills.

I have another daily reminder to live simply through the life of a little boy. This child has a severe learning disability and obvious challenges in his daily life. With a complicated birth history, he spent the first few years of life surrounded by much support and prayer. He is now an adorable 7 year old who has no idea that he is different and enjoys the small pleasures of going to the local pre-school, learning to use scissors and playing in the sandpit. His joy is completely intoxicating at times as he runs around the classroom squeezing with delight from a new Bible story he just heard or the prospect of an upcoming cake sale.  He epitomizes living life simply and reminds me on daily basis what pure joy and love look like. As his classroom "facilitator", I thought that taking this half-day job would make me go crazy. After working in a hospital with so many different types of patients every day, how would I be able to cope with the same monotonous routine of just one special needs child? Instead of being the prescriptive OT who informs the caregivers of specific activities to do with a child, I became that caregiver, forced to do daily repetitive tasks for the sake of the child's learning. I prepared myself for a mundane, mindless-numbing year. But God had a plan and reached down into my purposeless life and gave me a love for this child which overwhelms at times. I look forward to each day and the potential things this little boy is going to learn. I have been amazed with how much he has progressed and marvel at how excited he becomes with new learning concepts. We are currently working on the number 5 and boy does it bring much laughter and clapping when he gets it right! I now consider being a part of this child's life a huge privilege and appreciate each day we have together. He has changed me for the better and I am so grateful for this opportunity.

This year has reminded me to live simply, to appreciate each day for what it has offer, to see how I can be Gods love and light to everyone I meet and to find peace and rest in the space of a day. I encourage you to live a bit more simply, no matter where you are and how busy life may get. Whether it's to learn a new skill, take up a hobby or choose to engage in the life of someone who will likely make you a better person, go and do it. Live simply.

Sunday, 9 April 2017

The Art of Acceptance

I resolve to be content.

The last few months have been growing ones for me (a watered-down euphemism I’ll admit, but one which aptly describes the development of my understanding of what it means to be truly content). During this time, I have once again been reminded that I need to stop making my own plans for my life, because the more I plan, the more things just don’t seem to work out. God is clearly in control and I need to learn to accept that His ways are always, always better than my own. I need to let go of my hopes and dreams and place them into the secure hands of a providing God who has yet to let me down.

I’ll be the first one to admit that the process of becoming content within one’s own reality is no easy task, particularly when one feels so far from where one had hoped to be. There is no quick fix, but rather an intentional change of both perspective and attitude within each new season of one’s life. Acceptance and contentment are skills that need to be chosen and adopted and then slowly applied and mastered through each demanding life experience. I know that I am still in this growing (there’s that word again!) process because every now and again, my desire for control rears its ugly head and I am filled with such intense frustration and disappointment regarding my current situation.

I indiscriminately aim these unnecessary emotions at the ones I love the most -  God, my husband and the Church, blaming them for my current circumstances. [Quick disclaimer: I never wanted to be a pastor’s wife. I never wanted to live in a small, rundown Afrikaans dorpie in my mid-twenties (or ever really!). My current circumstances seem to be a far cry from where I had hoped and dreamed to be at this stage in my life…but where is that exactly?] I feel a sense of anger towards these role players who have changed my plans and placed me in situations in which I really don’t enjoy. But what is the point of dejection? It really serves no purpose. I quickly realised that I needed an intentional change in perspective and attitude if I was going to survive this season of my life. I am now in the process of learning to understand the disappointment of my current circumstances and to accept and embrace them for the joy that they can bring.

This post is all about the beauty and joy one can find in accepting the realities of life. I give full credit to a book I have recently read for the happy ramblings that are to follow. The Book of Joy is a truly remarkable collaboration between his Holiness the Dalai Lama and the Archbishop Desmond Tutu with author Douglas Abrams at its helm. It is their gift to the world of how to create lasting happiness in a changing and harsh reality.

So here I am, stuck in a small town in the Free State province of South Africa, not particularly sure of what I am doing or how I can find a sense of purpose and meaning in my situation. How can I learn to accept the reality of my situation without being morose? How can I accept my life in all its pain, imperfection and beauty?

In the Book of Joy, the Archbishop and the Dalai Lama remind us that we are meant to live in joy, but this does not mean that life will be easy or painless. In actual fact, life is constantly unpredictable, uncontrollable, and often quite challenging. But we can choose how we react to this reality. We often experience a sense of suffering because of the way we react to people, places, things and circumstances in our lives, rather than accepting them. It is impossible for us to experience joy with this perspective. Acceptance is the sword that cuts through all of our resistance, allowing us to relax, to see clearly and to respond appropriately.

Acceptance means that we can turn our faces to the wind and accept that this is the storm through which we must pass. The acceptance of reality is the only place from which real and lasting change can begin. We need to realign our thinking, no longer asking the question, “How can I escape this?” but rather “How can I use this as something positive?”

My acceptance of my reality allows me to engage with life on its own terms rather than rail against the fact that life is not as I would wish. My anger and disappointment arose of my expectations of how I thought my life should be. When we accept that life is how it is, not as we think it should be, we are able to move from suffering, stress, anxiety and dissatisfaction, to a place of greater ease, comfort and happiness.

I’m not saying that if one is in a bad situation, one should do nothing to get out of it and rather just accept it for what it is. Acceptance is not passive. It is the opposite of resignation and defeat. It is a powerful, active force; a paradox in and of itself. Christian author, Priscilla Shirer, puts it like this, “Contentment is the equilibrium between the enjoyment of life now and the anticipation of what is to come…it is the key to unlock you from the bondage of unrestrained longing that wells up within your heart and inevitably begins to control your life, making you a slave to what you don’t have instead of a fully engaged participant with what you do. It is the faith-filled belief that what God has bestowed now is worthy of gratitude and appreciation, not merely because it is enough but because it is good…Contentment is the ticket to live with goals and ambitions inspired by His expansive, mid-blowing will, without having to sacrifice today’s blessings.” 

Acceptance does not deny the importance of taking life seriously and working hard to change what needs changing, to redeem what needs redemption. Look at the Archbishop and the Dalai Lama…they are two of the world’s most tireless activists for all its inhabitants, but their activism comes from a deep acceptance of what is. For example, the Archbishop did not accept the inevitability of the apartheid system, but he did accept its reality. Often, once we have come to a place of acceptance of our reality, that we can really start to make a difference to our lives and the lives of others we encounter.

As a Christian, I have faith in a God who is in control of my circumstances and creates and uses situations to bring about the best for me. More often than not, the difficult situations in my life have caused for the most growth, the most compassion and a more genuine me. I need to stop trying to hurry through this current season but rather learn to pay attention to how God is working, because there will come a time in the future (maybe at the end of time itself?) when I will truly see the fullness of joy in all the situations that have passed. As Philip Yancey once wrote, “Our lives are the raw material through which God can work and create beautiful pieces of art.” But we have to let Him. One of the hardest things to do is to learn to be present in each moment– to accept the vulnerability, discomfort, and anxiety of everyday life. Being content with the messiness of life is one of the most relinquishing, refreshing and hopeful things a person can do. There is so much beauty in the mess, we just have to learn to look for it.

The Serenity Prayer:
God, give us the grace to accept with serenity
The things that cannot be changed,
Courage to change the things which should be changed,
And the wisdom to distinguish the one from the other
Reinhold Niebuhr

Saturday, 29 October 2016

My Painful Journey

A glimpse into my sense-making of working with suffering people in a damaged government health system.

Gone are the days of my reckless naivety, when I openly criticised those health professionals who fled the public sector for the grassy pastures of the private world. I looked down upon people who could no longer stand to work in a broken system and thought them weak and passionless. How wrong I was.

I realise now that many of those health professionals made the choice to leave the public sector with a very heavy heart, knowing that they could have helped thousands of underprivileged people through their work. They weren’t passionless, cold-hearted, or selfish. They moved to save themselves from the pain they had to witness daily: the unnecessary suffering of unfortunate people in a failing organisation. This is my painful reality.

I seem to survive by existing somewhere in the middle of passionate perseverance, disillusioned madness, frustrating resilience and dejected apathy.

There are days when the overwhelming “bigger picture” fractures the very centre of my heart and I am left a defeated mess trying to figure out the reason I am still here. I listen to stories of unnecessary suffering at the hands of health professionals who just don’t seem to care; of overworked staff who have become numb to the pitiful cries of their patients; of corrupt departments who have ‘lost” millions of Rands; of dysfunctional systems where people are lost in a depressing cycle of referrals; of situations that have caused great disability or death when that needn’t be the case. Once in a while I am able to help, but more often than not, the situation is destitute and I find myself fighting a useless battle against a monster that has already won. How much suffering can one person witness before they too become part of the problem?

But then there are days when I force my heart and mind to focus on the restorative aspect of one-on-one interactions. Where my role in the life of a particular person is one of value and worth. It is in these rare precious moments that my soul is retrieved from its dark, fearful hiding place and I am reminded that I can find hope, meaning and life in what has become more than a job for me. I wish those days would last forever.

Earlier this year I received an email from a highly respected South African occupational therapist. The questions she asked me have niggled in the back my mind ever since….

Can the unchangeable really be changed?
How does one know when it is time to fight and when it is time to let go?
How do I remain true to my convictions in a broken, unjust system?
How far should I push without losing myself along the way?

I seem to have come a full 360 degrees since I first started practicing OT. I started out young, passionate and hopeful; I lost myself somewhere along the way as the numbness spread like an icy poison; I am now thawing out and learning to melt the cold walls around my heart so that I can better understand the pain I witness. I can’t quite pinpoint the moment I cracked and could no longer cope with the weight of other people’s sufferings. Maybe it was when a thirty year old patient of mine passed away from pressure sores he didn’t have when he arrived at the hospital. He was a father of a happy-go-lucky three year old. Or maybe it was when I listened to the pleading cries of another man as he begged to be discharged from “this place of death.” Or maybe it was the time when I heard about how some of the elderly community members marched from our local township to the nearby government buildings in protest of the lack of basic health care that is afforded to their fellow citizens – the hospital is killing their friends. It could have also happened after I met a man who had a simple shoulder dislocation that, due to poor medical management, has now caused him to lose the entire functioning of his right arm. He is a right-handed painter who can no longer earn a living. These are just a few of the many moments that could have caused for the growing ache within my soul.

I begged God to change the path of these, and many other people’s, lives. I pleaded with him to end the painful stories I kept hearing and help me to stop feeling so ridiculously helpless. I was angered that my loving God could allow such suffering to take place and do nothing about it. Where was God in all this suffering?

Through a process of reflection, prayer and a whole lot of grace, I have started to realise that the suffering I witness has less to do with a silent God and more to do with a broken world. I have begun a journey of understanding pain; of learning why exactly there is suffering in the world and how the heck I can cope with it. Much of what I have learnt comes from the Biblical book of Job as well as the musings of Christian writer, Philip Yancy in his books “Where is God when it hurts?” and “Soul Survivor.” His words, alongside those of other authors such as C.S Lewis (The Problem of Pain) and Dr. Paul Brand have helped me to begin to piece together some sense in my seemingly bleak reality. The reflections below outline my process of sense-making and are by no means imposed upon anyone else who reads this. I do not expect you to agree with me and I realise that the problem of pain is one of the major stumbling blocks in Christian theology. It is my hope and prayer that whoever decides that this is worth reading, will consider their own understanding of pain and suffering and be challenged to look past them to an unmistakable hope and freedom beyond.

Here’s what I now believe about the relationship between pain and God: (this may very well change in years to come – understanding pain is a gradual process.)
1.       Pain is a gift – it shows us when we have a problem and without it, we would never change the way we are living.
2.       God created a perfect world, put humans in it, we messed up and now live on this disordered earth, groaning under the strain of our own actions.
3.       Focusing on the cause of suffering will likely only cause more pain, confusion and bitterness; the more pressing matter is to focus on how we react to the circumstances in which we find ourselves. The Bible consistently changes the questions we bring to the problem of pain. It rarely, or ambiguously, answers the backward-looking questions “Why?” Instead, it raises the very different, forward-looking question, “To what end?”
4.       We are not put on earth merely to satisfy our desires, to pursue life, liberty and happiness. We are here to be changed, to be made more like God in order to prepare us for a lifetime with him.
5.       Suffering can provide an opportunity for growth that will add extra layers of depth to life – it has a sense of “soul-making” to it, if we choose to respond to it in a particular way.
6.       God, because of his character, cannot possibly desire atrocities such as the Holocaust but these events still happen. His apparent lack of action in these circumstances should not be aligned with an apparent lack of power. God loves us and has chosen to give us free will – the power to love others as well as the power to inflict pain and suffering. God’s love is deeper than the sloughs of human depravity.
7.       At the instant of pain, it may seem impossible to imagine that good can come from tragedy. We never know in advance exactly how suffering can be transformed into a cause for celebration. But that is what we are asked to believe. Faith means believing in advance what will only make sense in reverse.

I am amazed by some of the perspectives of some (but not all) of my patients. While they have undergone intense suffering and pain, become emotionally isolated and physically helpless, they seem to have used that pain to deepen their spirituality and appear to have a new lease on life. They seem to exude a quality of strength that most of us privileged, healthy South Africans will never get to experience.  One patient, a paraplegic with an insurmountable perseverance, recently told me, “I’m grateful that this has happened to me – it has made me a better person.” Another patient who lost 4 fingers on his dominant hand in a nasty farming accident sought me out after many months just to tell me how the accident was a blessing in disguise as it forced him to turn to God and focus on the more important things in life. These patients’ reactions are not unique to the problem of pain – we can meet millions of others who now cherish their times of suffering as they have produced in them stronger characters, persevering faith and brighter perspectives of life. These are the types of people which bring me hope and joy amidst insurmountable suffering.

Martin Luther once said, “Christianity has always insisted that the cross we bear precedes the crown we wear.” It is through our sufferings that we turn to God and become more like him. Pain, suffering and poverty can serve as instruments for God’s greater purpose – to teach us the value of dependence and therefore the humbling experience of grace. While God is not the cause of our suffering, He is able to use it for our good, if we choose to respond to it in the right way. Without suffering, we may never understand the power of God.”

As I have muddled through the problem of pain and suffering, I have come to realise I am first a Christian, then an OT. Sometimes just listening to the stories of my patients and loving them in the moment is all I have to do. Further, when I have the opportunity within my professional capacity, I can assist people to regain a positive outlook after the event of a tragedy. Paul Tournier, a Swiss physician, once wrote, “The right help given at the right moment may determine the course of [someone’s] life.” I now understand why there was such an emphasis placed on treating “the whole person” at university – not just their physical ailments. We have an obligation to help our patients channel their suffering as a transforming agent by focusing on their emotional and spiritual needs as well as their physical ones. As a Christian, an OT, and a fellow human being, my role is to keep the suffering of painful circumstances from destroying hope and rather assist each person to see that even the worst hardships open up potential for growth and development.

I guess I started out this journey from a vicarious perspective - to understand the suffering of others from an outsider’s perspective. But as I went on, I was forced to confront my own sense of suffering and pain (albeit minor to the suffering I witness at work) which allowed me the truly gracious opportunity of sense-making within my inarticulate feelings. I have been compelled to turn away from my own sense of self-sufficiency and reconnect with God in a new, incredibly humbling way. I have been forced to share my emotions with those around me, lean on them for support and be reminded of the fragile nature of life. I have had to remember the importance of daily gratitude for the life I have and the way God intercedes in my weakness. Without this painful journey, I wonder how much I would have changed, grown and developed as a person. Maybe there is hope and joy in suffering after all.

My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” 2 Corinthians 12:9

Thursday, 10 March 2016

How High Are Your Hopes?

A positive look on South Africa’s future

I think I have left this post long enough…long enough for me witness university students go wild over escalating tertiary education fees and a lack of transformation in our universities; long enough for Zuma to vote in (and out) 2 different financial ministers in a matter of days; long enough to watch politicians rip into the failures of each other; long enough to hear all kinds of racist comments, xenophobic attacks and hear every second white person threaten emigration.

It has been long enough.

As a Christian and an occupational therapist, reflection has become second nature to me. It has taken me quite some time to process what I have observed occurring around me on a national, regional and even local community level. Maybe you are like me and are wondering where South Africa is headed. Maybe you have even ventured into the social media sphere to proclaim your views. The more I have watched the more confused I have become. I consider myself a fairly patriotic South African (to the point where I find myself tearing up while listening to fellow South Africans reminisce about magical moments in South Africa’s history – queue a quick recap of Mandela getting released from prison, the 1994 rugby world cup; Shabalala’s opening goal in the 2010 soccer world cup, etc.) so when I hear people talk about my country with such a pessimistic outlook, I all but want to punch them in the face. Where has our hope, resilience, unity gone? After all we’ve gone through, are we really going to give up now?

So I prayed. I prayed for a new perspective; for my eyes to be opened to what exactly God has got planned for this incredible country of mine (because there is no way that this South African has any plans to emigrate).  And you know what I found? Hope. Hope. Hope.

Within a matter of days, my prayers were answered and I was bombarded with stories of unity despite our current circumstances and grace beyond measure. These stories (both in my own life and on social media) appear to be our nations way of retaliating against the racism that seems to be pulling us apart. While a lot of nonsense has plagued our nation recently, way too much limelight has been given to people with skewed perspectives and underlying agendas. (And let’s be honest…bad news sells). God knows that we all feel the drag of negative comments pulling us down and it takes a lot to swim against the current tide of toxic words and perceptions. Do you need a little hope for South Africa? It is my prayer that by the time you finish reading this post (and the others I recommend), I will have reminded you of just how amazing this country really is.

Below are a few simple ‘pick-me-up’ stories of normal South Africans moving past the tide of negativity to remind us of our own humanity - something we seem to forget so quickly in times such as these. It is my hope that these stories will have them same effect on you as they did on me – may they create a swelling in your heart, a glistening in your eyes and a restoration of your hope.

·         Check out this incredibly encouraging post about the future of South African written by an economic analyst:

·         Read the views of a Cape Town businessman on the fact that we are obsessed with negativity and how he believes South Africa is doing right now:

·         Click here to read the account of Find out about how a South African man chose to see the best side of our country on his way to work:

·         Learn about a young man’s unique Valentine’s Day experience where his love for people who are different from himself radiated through his actions:

·         Read about Helen Ziller’s optimistic view after the State of the Nation address:

·         Check out a website definitely worth following on a regular basis. SA Good News focuses on posting positive articles regarding our country and helps to keep us from being dragged down by pessimism and sensationalism. This particular article is full of some hard and fast facts about South Africa to keep you hopeful.

As mentioned in the first article I recommended above, “South Africa is not sliding into the abyss – rather it is turning the soil so that it may grow again as a functioning society.” As much as us ‘whities’ love to think that we are all now equal, gross inequalities are still so glaringly present and it is time to lean into the discomfort of the truth behind our privilege. Personally, my white privilege confronts me on a daily basis and I am in no way disillusioned to the suffering that goes on around me by people who were simply born into disadvantaged situations. Whether we like it or not, decades of white superiority have placed us in very advantageous positions and we need to do everything in our power to ensure that inequalities in our nation are addressed.

We are all in need of transformation and it is time to be bold enough to understand our own positionality, let go of the fear of change and stand up to be a part of the new South Africa. Yes, the next few years are going to hurt and those with children seem to keep wondering if it is time to move on. Rather than shielding your children from the seemingly apparent destruction of our nation, I challenge you to teach them to be a part of the transformation; be a part a new, united generation of South Africans who fight against segregation and racism. I encourage you to become aware of your own privilege (there are plenty articles to be read about it) or click here ( to see a simple, yet powerful cartoon on the reality of privilege.

Personally, I have the honour of working in an incredibly diverse group of people. Within our government rehabilitation department, we are a bundle of people working for the good of others. This mishmash of black, white, young, old, male, female, Muslim, Christian, Zulus, Ndebele’s, spenders, savers, loud-mouths, silent participants and everything else in between makes for some chaotic group dynamics but I wouldn’t have it any other way. I get the opportunity to live and breathe our rainbow nation on a daily basis and what a privilege that is! I get to be a part of this shared journey where we are trying to understand our diversity, choosing to change our attitudes, working together despite our differences and looking beyond ourselves for solutions that best serve the needs of those around us. I choose to remember the good stories I witness in my community and challenge you to do the same – the goodness around us is so glaringly obvious when we decide to search for it.

In closing, to all those fearful, pessimistic South African’s out there, I challenge you to post something uplifting on Facebook this week; speak to someone who is completely different to you about how we can make our country a better place; make an effort to read good stories and lastly, have a little hope for goodness sake!

Sunday, 5 July 2015

A New Kind of Bush Life?

I have been putting off writing down my thoughts for many weeks now. It has been over 6 months since I moved to my new life, home, work and roles and my need to explore and release my thoughts and emotions is at an all time high – there is no other reason I would write this on a Monday night at 11pm.

Let’s start with a bit of an update:

  • I have moved away from the raw beauty of the KZN coast and its somewhat magical rural hospitals. In January 2015, I embarked on a glorious adventurous outlet to the unexpectedly beautiful Zambia to spend some much-need down time and spiritual upliftment with two very special friends. But I returned to start a new life, a new home and take on a very new role as fiancé to my now husband in a small town called Middleburg, Mpumalanga.
  • As of February 2015, I have been working at a local government hospital in the Mpumalanga province of South Africa – a far cry from my rural experience last year. While the town itself cannot really be considered a city, it is one of the wealthiest towns in the entire country (Click here to check out this recent Mail and Guardian issue on where South Africa’s richest people live – Middelburg is the 7th wealthiest town in the country!). The town is oozing with fancy cars, expensive gadgets and luxurious people, yet the hospital is considered an eye-sore: a dilapidated, corrupt infectious pool where people go to die rather than be healed. My hospital makes the front page of the local newspaper on a weekly basis – and never for a good reason.
  • I am now married to a humble and fiercely faithful man who is studying to be a Presbyterian minister while working as a ministries co-ordinator for the local Middelburg Presbyterian church. The role of wife to a man of this standing in the church is not an easy one to which I must adjust and I am still finding my feet in this regard. I love my husband but do I love his job that has ultimately become my life too? These are some of the issues I must face in order to remain faithful to God and to His calling on my life.

I guess the URL for this blog should ultimately change right? I am no longer living the “OT bush life” as the name suggests. But maybe this is a different kind of bush life? A bush filled with unknown experiences, novel ideas, difficult challenges and branches filled with growth and potential. Maybe I am living the “bush life” but in a whole new kind of way.

So this is where I find myself tonight: in a place desperately trying to find meaning, purpose and a sense of reward within my current occupational therapy job. The journey has not been an easy one thus far and I question my reasons for wanting to work at this particular hospital on a weekly basis, but...I invite you to be a witness, an encourager, a participant, in this journey of mine. For something tells me, if you are willing to stick around, we may all find a sense of hope and meaning at the end of it. Are you ready for this?

I arrived at Middelburg Hospital with guns blazing, OT passion oozing from my every pore and a heart-wrenching desire to bring change to the crumbling hospital that stood in front of me. Within a matter of weeks, I realised my blazing guns were being met with sheer determination to see me fail, my OT passion was met with apathetic laughs and my desire to bring change was squashed like a bug beneath some very corrupt, lazy feet. The bundle of energy that entered the hospital a few weeks earlier was rapidly beginning to disintegrate. I was losing my way, and fast.

What was worse was the obvious racism that sounded me on a daily basis, both at the hospital and within my local congregation. I continue to struggle to make sense of the clear division between black and white, the subtle racial undertones beneath respectable peoples’ words and the blatant discrimination I observe around me. My heart breaks for the disunity I see – in the hospital, the clinics, at the shops, at church and throughout this affluent community. There is a real sense of division here. What breaks my heart more is that I often remain silent, inactive, when I am confronted with by both subtle and blatant racial remarks. I am immobilised with confusion, frustration and the knowledge that my words will never truly reflect the emotion I feel. I am all too aware of how easy it is to become complacent, even acclimatised, to the racism around me and it is my hope and prayer that I do not lose my own moral compass in this regard. I will be the first to admit that I benefit from White Privilege on a daily basis and subtle racism often rears its ugly head in my own thoughts and actions. But being aware of this is the first step and I encourage you all to reflect on your own discriminatory thoughts towards others, be it about race, gender, sexuality or even age. We need to make a conscious effort to move forward as a nation, away from ignorance and persistent discrimination to a place of unity and openness. 

I would love to now tell you that five months down the line, I have managed to drag a fairly apathetic, selfish department up from the ground and place it on a pedestal for all to see, but that would be a lie. I am the youngest and most inexperienced OT out of the six in my department. My ideas for change have fallen flat on their face on numerous situations. I have cried at work on more than one occasion. I have often succumbed to the apathetic attitude of my colleagues and have found myself sitting in an uncomfortable chair for a good portion of the day, just because I can. I still struggle with the blatant racism I observe and still tend to hold my tongue rather than speak out against it. Who is this person I see in the mirror? Where did I go so wrong? My thoughts drift to the times I have reprimanded skilled professionals (both direct and indirectly) on their desire to leave a failing government health system and flee to another country with greater opportunities. I think about the times when I have passionately spoken out against the blatant and subtle racism within my country. Have I started to entertain ideas that I don’t actually need to put up with the nonsense the surrounds me and that I deserve a more rewarding job? Have I become indoctrinated with the subtle racial undertones of a divided community? Oh how ashamed the 2014 rural Caryn would be right now.

But it is not all doom and gloom – I wouldn’t be writing this if it was. A timely testimony from a minister focused on community development, a well-phrased word of encouragement from a friend and the reading the perfect passage from Psalms, have all reminded me that I serve a faithful, just God. If I can just keep perspective; just learn to survive the mess and somehow continue to fight against the wrongs I witness, there is hope for me; there is hope for this hospital; this community. I don’t know how, I don’t know when but I do know that things may change – be it in me, the hospital or the broader community. My God has placed me here for a reason and I will do everything in His power to make sure I make the most of it. As mother Theresa once said, “God has not called me to greatness, but to faithfulness.”

As I reflect on what I have written, an old poem I had wrote for a different time in my life popped into my mind. It’s one of those pieces of writings that have universal relevance to anyone in a tough situation. It is all about keeping perspective in the midst of trying times. It's based on the idea that as humans we often struggle to see the bigger picture, like a beautiful tapestry, and rather end up seeing the other side of the tapestry with all its loose cords and ugly threads. It is my pray that you will find some encouragement from it, just as I did.

Sometimes the lines get blurred and I tend to lose my way
I start to lose perspective on what God's Word has to say

His grace and love I forget; His promises a distant thought
With me in my despair, I lose everything I've been taught

My self-centredness consumes me with no thought for others around
I fail to see God's work in this and how His love abounds

The threads of the tapestry: continuous ugly lines
Where are my God glasses to see the beauty behind?

But in this mess comes clarity from my Father above
Understanding in my suffering; relinquishing control to His love

And even in the midst of stress, the pressures of daily life
He stands, He falls wherever I go and walks me through my strife

With every single step I take, He leads me down His path
He builds me up when least expected and reminds me how to laugh

He knows my blood, sweat and tears...He's sacrificed much more
His body and blood poured out for me, of this I am sure

In His death I am renewed; in His strength I am made whole
He refreshes me and picks me up, water for my thirsty soul

So through these trials I turn to Him as only He knows the way
He comforts me and guides me, His loving arms do not delay

He draws me in when I'm downcast and to my knees I fall
Loving God forgive me for acting big when I'm so small

Give me Godly perspective in my overwhelmed state of mind
Show me that you carry these burdens; Your freedom help me to find

And now dear Lord here we are on the other side of the tapestry
You've opened my eyes to your beauty and showed me how to be free