Antjie Krog

Crying. “Honouring Our Pain.”

<written March 19/10>

When I was a child, my older siblings used to call me a “crybaby.” They were right; I was! Of course, they teased me unmercifully & delighted in making me cry. Ah well, eh? They had their reasons for resenting me, hmm? Families are complicated critters…

Eventually, & it took me a humiliating-to-admit number of years, I finally learned to not cry in the face of the teasing. I became “tough.” Being tough – & resilient – is good, on the whole, I think, & my toughness & resilience have served me well, & will very likely continue to do so.

But we are human beings, are we not? Along with our toughness, our thick skins, we need to be able to feel deeply in order to be truly human. (Perhaps if we all felt more – allowed more deep & disturbing feelings in, there would be fewer wars & less violence in general, hmm? Oh there I go again – always aiming for the stars; don’t mind me…)

I do know I’ve been learning again to cry, & how good it makes me feel afterward. The old (or more recent) scars & wounds are still there, but magically, the pain of them is vastly diminished. I feel lighter. Free-er.

Joanna Macy says we need to “honour our pain.”(1) When we simply “stuff” it – push it down, pretend it isn’t there, it sickens us from the in-side out. Dulls us. Saps our energy.

Lots of us harbour plenty of old pain. Childhood wounds. Relationship heartbreaks. Ancient resentments. It’s good to let loose all this old…shit. Let the pus out of the wound(s), as it were. A good cry – even a wrenching howling session – would probably do wonders for most of us!

As Macy & John Seed learned in their despair & empowerment work, we actually free up energy when we speak out loud about our fears & our despair.

In Country of My Skull – Guilt, Sorrow and the Limits of Forgiveness in the New South Africa,(2) a book I’m reading at the moment, author Antjie Krog talks about the tears of a woman testifying in front of South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission, whose crying has a huge impact on those who hear her testimony. Krog says “The academics say pain destroys language and this brings about an immediate reversion to a prelinguistic state – and to witness that cry was to witness the destruction of language…was to realize that to remember the past of this country is to be thrown back into a time before language. And to get that memory, to fix it in words, to capture it with the precise image, is to be present at the birth of language itself. But more practically, this particular memory at last captured in words can no longer haunt you, push you around, bewilder you, because you have taken control of it – you can move it wherever you want to. So maybe this is what the commission is all about – finding words for that cry of Nomonde Calata.”(3)

When I re-read those words, I came/come close to tears myself (confession: I still don’t cry very easily). So many people I know had (I pause as I write this, looking for the definitive adjective)…awful…horrid…painful…nasty…soul-destroying things happen to them in their childhoods. Some of us can recall & articulate some of these so-painful things. Many have spent a lifetime repressing the memories (which chews up a fair chunk of our energy & vitality, as it happens).

Women often seem more able to articulate & thus wrestle with these ancient wounds, whereas men are often unable to do so. (For a variety of good reasons! I recommend that everyone on the planet read the book Becoming the Kind Father – A Son’s Journey(4) in order to understand why so many men have so much trouble getting in touch with their feelings & their pain. It’s a wonderful, wonderful practical & compassionate book.)

We don’t & really cannot let the pain & baggage go until we articulate it.

It is such a catharsis to say out loud something like (in my own case, to make this very personal indeed & no, I had no intention of saying this when I sat down to write this; the words are simply flying right off the end of my pen!) “My father didn’t give a rat’s ass about me.”

I can say that now with so much less emotional freight attached to it (& no, as it happens, that isn’t the only childhood wound, there was other stuff too. But for me, that was the most crushing thing, the one I pushed down the hardest, for sooooooooo many decades…).

Phew. Didn’t know that’s where this little essay was heading!?

Well. Your friendly local anarchist (that’s me!) says, have a good old wrenching cry from time to time. It will make you feel ever so much better.

As Joanna Macy advises, we need to honour our pain.(5) This does not make us weaker, it actually makes us stronger. More resilient. Maybe even a little more fierce…but in a good way, I think….

Flonda Scott Maxwell said, “You need to claim the events of your life to make yourself yours. When you truly possess all you have been and done, which may take some time, you are fierce with reality.”

Reality is a little fierce these days. I reckon we need to be a little fierce to wrestle with it! (Fierce, but kind. Compassionate. Caring. Active…)


p.s. There are two authors who write wonderfully well & whose wise & compassionate words help unleash the tears for me when I know I need to cry but the tears aren’t coming. Rachel Naomi Remen’s awesome book Kitchen Table Wisdom – Stories That Heal is … awesome!! The essay called “In Flight” will do it for me every time… Elizabeth Lesser is another emotion-unlocker for me (you must read Broken Open – How Difficult Times Can Help Us Grow). I swear by both these books & their respective writers. I wrote about my introduction to Ms. Lesser in the essay “Lonely & Terrified: Just Another Bozo on the Bus.”

p.p.s. I’ve been “sitting on” this essay, but figured it was time to post it. Weeks after writing it, I’ve now come in contact with two books by Alice Miller – hooey!! Did these books ever jump into my arms! & right at the right time. From Rage to Courage and The Body Never Lies – The Lingering Effects of Hurtful Parenting. Haven’t read the 2nd one yet, but am sure looking forward to it!

'Quote of the Day' with this post: “The privilege of a lifetime is to be who you are.” – Joseph Campbell


(1) There are several posts on this blog about Joanna Macy, a Buddhist scholar/writer & activist I greatly admire.

(2) Times Books/ Random House, 1998. Such a great book!!

(3) Pages 53 – 57.

(4) Becoming the Kind Father – A Son’s Journey, Calvin Sandborn, New Society Publishers, 2007.

(5) Embracing Pain - 4-minute Tim Wilson film featuring Joanna Macy. You can find it here

Courage, Apathy...& Evil

*** Quotes on courage here! <March 18/10>

I’m reading a book called Country of My Skull – Guilt, Sorrow, and the Limits of Forgiveness in the New South Africa,(1) by Antjie Krog. Bit of a tough read, at times – but very well-written, provocative & rife with interesting thoughts, insights & quotations. Rough because one learns in detail some of the horrific acts of violence & cruelty visited upon so many citizens of South Africa in the apartheid era. Its recounting of the operations of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission makes for fascinating reading (parenthetical thought: I ought to let the author know of my deep appreciation for her book!).

We human beings are certainly a curious lot. We can be so marvellous, generous, compassionate, creative, loving & wise – & by the same token, so thoughtless, self-absorbed (2), cruel, violent, homicidal, and … dare I say, evil?

I will leave it to the philosophers to debate whether or not evil really exists. (though I personally feel we are a bit short of time here on Planet Earth for long-winded philosophical debate & time-consuming study; seems to me more like a time for concerted ACTION.)

I will add that I have encountered my fair share of nasty (even homicidal & sociopathic & kind of scary) characters in my time – in a professional capacity, shall we say – so I am not unfamiliar altogether with the sheer nastiness capacity of some human beings…

Anyway, whether or not evil exists, I will say that I think the apathy of so many people I know & meet – in the face of the most serious & horrendous crisis our species has ever known – borders, to my way of thinking, on evil. (Edmund Burke said “All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing.” I rest my case…)

It frightens me.

It astonishes me that most people I know would be more upset to hear me describe myself as an anarchist (3) than they would to hear that our robot-man prime minister is quite knowingly destroying a huge swath of Canada (read up on the tar sands ) in the name of profits for his corporate buddies (George Monbiot has described Canada as a ‘corrupt petrostate’).

It surprises me that the thing most people seem most curious about when they ask me about my sit-in/arrest experience last Nov. 30th, just before the Copenhagen meetings, is what it was like to have to wear a diaper all day. They are dying to ask me whether or not I peed in it. (The answer, for the record, is no. I skipped my morning coffee that day, which for caffeine addict me was frankly the most challenging aspect of the whole experience!) But the experience wasn’t so much about using a diaper as about getting outside my comfort zone – something I think a lot more of us need to start doing.

I know there are a lot of reasons for our apathy.

But it scares me.

I heard a report on the CBC (Canadian Broadcasting Corporation) radio yesterday, on ‘The Current Review.’ It was about a TV show in which participants were asked to cause fellow participants to be given electric shocks. Apparently, most did order the shocks.

What kind of people are we?

It worries me.

Author Antjie Krog asks in Country of My Skull (in reference to the goings-on in South Africa during the apartheid years, & afterward, during the time of the Truth & Reconciliation Commission, which began operating in December 1995), “What the hell does one do?”(4)

& I wrestle with this question myself, pretty much daily. What the hell does one do?

I am not a philosopher, dear Reader, nor any kind of “expert” nor (supposedly) brilliant scientist.

I’m a woman, mother, environmental activist & writer (a person who is unpaid for the work I do; that’s not a complaint, just a statement of fact) – & I am no longer confident about the ability of our species to survive.

We have made/are making such a frightful botch of things.

Still & all, what is one to do??

Throw up our hands?

I say, Take action.

Let’s raise our voices.

Let’s quit stepping over the elephants in the room, & start calling them.

Let’s grow some courage. Grow some it were. Shake things up a little.

In Country of My Skull, Chilean philosopher & activist, José Zalaquett (who served on the Chilean Truth Commission) is quoted as saying, “The most important lesson the struggle taught me and my friends is that no one is endowed with remarkable courage. But courage is another name for learning to live with your fears. Now, after eighteen years and the Chilean Truth Commission, courage has again evolved a new definition: the guts not to give in to easy justice. To live within the confinements of reality, but to search day after day for the progressing of one’s most cherished values. Merciless. Accountable.”(5)


I wonder, might we all try growing a little more courage in the face of the grave dangers now facing us? I surely do hope so….


p.s. A buddy of mine said to me in an e-mail message recently, in reference to the sorts of people who defended tobacco use until they were finally wrestled to the ground, & the people who were responsible for trashing the ozone layer (fully aware, btw, that they were doing so), & the ones who are now defending the oil business with their criminal conspiracy (do read Climate Cover-up: The Crusade to Deny Global Warming, by James Hoggan, with Richard Littlemore), “These big business issues, like the pro-smoking debacle, are beyond my capacity to understand – it’s like there is a parallel universe of animal things that look like humans but behave like something else.” Rather nicely put, Richard!!

I’d say it’s time we turfed out politicians who look & act like robots (& criminals), & bring in some real human beings for a change!!

p.p.s. Shortly after I scrawled this essay, riding the GO bus to Oshawa, I resumed reading Country of my Skull. Author Antjie Krog relates on page 159 that just before midnight on May 10th, 1997 (the deadline for amnesty applications), “six black youths walk into the Truth Commission’s offices in Cape Town.” She goes on to explain that they had decided at the last minute to apply for amnesty because they had realized it had been wrong of them to be apathetic, & do nothing. “So, here we stand as a small group representative of millions of apathetic people who didn’t do the right thing.”


Quote of the Day’ with this post: “Moral courage is a rarer commodity than bravery in battle or great intelligence. Yet it is the one essential, vital quality of those who seek to change a world which yields most painfully to change.” ~ Robert F. Kennedy, in a speech in Capetown, South Africa, June 6, 1966.

(1) Times Books/Random House, 1998.

(2) I have a very rude name for a condition I feel all too many of us suffer from. “Terminal heads-up-our-own arses” disease. (Sorry; I did try to warn you!)

(3) The Collins dictionary defines anarchist as 1. A person who advocates the abolition of government and a social system based on voluntary cooperation. 2. A person who causes disorder or upheaval. Kurt Vonnegut has a character in his novel Jailbird say “Anarchists are people who believe with all their hearts that governments are enemies of their own people.” I think a lot of us are anarchists, by this latter definition…

(4) Page 118.

(5) Country of My Skull – Guilt, Sorrow & the Limits of Forgiveness in the New South Africa, by Antjie Krog, Times Books/Random House 1998. Page 32.