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Real and imagined suffering

17 January 2012

About 45 years ago I read Venture to the interior by Laurens van der Post, and was impressed by something he wrote on real and imagined suffering.

It has always been one of the more frightening ironies of Afrikaner life that people like my father, who with Smuts and Botha had fought and actually suffered in the war, could forgive and begin anew, whereas others, alive today, who were never in the heart of the conflict, can still find it so hard to forgive an injury that was not even done to them, and how can there be any real beginning without forgiveness?

I noticed something similar in my experience with war crimes officers, who had neither suffered internment under the Japanese, nor even fought against them. They were more revengeful and bitter about our treatment and our suffering in prison than we were ourselves.

I have so often noticed that the suffering which is most difficult, if not impossible to forgive, is unreal, imagined suffering. There is no power on earth like imagination, and the worst, most obstinate grievances are imagined ones (Van der Post 1964:26).

At the time I was living in semi-exile in a bed-sit in Streatham, South London, and working as a bus driver for London Transport. At the time I read it I wrote in my diary (4 June 1966):

This seems to touch on the core of a rather big question of human behaviour, One is that we so often find it easier to forgive those who injure us than those who injure others; and this imagination business. Reading about life in Nazi Germany conjures up all sorts of horrors, but they are imaginary horrors, I have never experienced them. In South Africa there are probably the same horrors, but one gets used to them. This is why so many people emphatically deny that South Africa is a police state, because it does not fit their mental image of a police state. But Germans probably felt the same 30 years ago.

I seem to recollect Trevor Huddleston in his book Naught for your comfort saying how much harder it was to forgive things done to other people, because one can only imagine how they feel. And John Aitchison, questioning the value of Liberal Party rural meetings, because you know that you go to encourage them in the face of SB intimidation, but by going you only encourage the SB to step up their campaign of intimidation. But it is a selfish martyrdom attitude — a sort of “I alone can bear the suffering” kick. But they too must bear their share of suffering — we are not the ones to deny it to them. It is their privilege as members of God’s kingdom.

It is so also among the Jews. The ones who keep harping on the Nazi concentration camps are not the ones who suffered there, but those whose relatives did. In a way this is the root of altruism — a willingness to suffer for others. But it can also be selfish and self-glorifying.

It is something which deserves further thought.

And 45 years later I wonder what further thought one can give it. A lot has happened since then, not least the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, where the sufferings of many people were laid open to the world, and closed up again and shelved, and stored away out of sight.

A phrase from the Psalms keeps repeating in my mind as I write this: “Oppression and fraud are in its marketplace.” And some things seem in some ways not to have changed over 45 years.

Some things have changed though. Nowadays people use the word “closure” in relation to suffering, though no one seemed to use it 45 years ago. It started with journalists asking people, usually those who were close to thise who had suffered, whether they had “closure”. Now the people who are interviewed by the journalists seem to expect the question, and often answer it before it is asked. “We are looking for closure,” they say, or “now we have closure.”

I wonder about this “closure”, and what it means to those who say it, and what it means to those who asked about it. Does it mean that they are closing the book, and putting it away on the shelf, where it can stay dusty and unread, like the Cemetery of Forgotten Books in the novel The shadow of the wind, which I read recently?

Forty-five years ago we did not have the word “closure” as part of our vocabulary. No, I lie; we did. At a meeting when there was a debate and people were making interminable speeches and repeating the same old points, someone would propose “closure”, and, if accepted, the chairman would take the names of those who still wanted to speak, and when they had had their say the debate would be over, no more speakers would be allowed.

But that is not the same as the “closure” mentioned by journalists and those they interview. The new closure seems to mean something like forgetting, and 45 years ago we did not know that meaning of the word. Or perhaps it does have a similar meaning: that once you have had your say, there is to be no more talking about it.

Laurens van der Post’s thoughts seem to indicate one reason for a Truth and Reconciliation Commission being better than a war crimes tribunal. Forgiveness and reconciliation are important, but closure? Closing the book on it and forgetting it is not so good. What we forget, we will be doomed to repeat.

Forty-five years ago another saying would churn around in my head, and it seemed to mean the opposite of closure. It was a saying of Kierkegaard: “Only one thing can be remembered eternally: to have suffered for the truth.”

At requiem services we sing, of those who have died: Memory eternal!

And especially of those who have suffered for the truth: May their memory be eternal.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. Irulan permalink
    17 January 2012 11:46 am

    Significant insights, Steve – I’ve reposted on my blog. Thanks!

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  1. Real and imagined suffering « Khanya « are we dancer?

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