(A lesson learnt, Cape Town – 17/12/2017)
Sabbatical years are a gift and a wonderful thing to experience. But the reasons behind the decision of taking such a major step are not so pleasant most of the times. Sabbaticals on people who are on their mid life transition are normally the result of reaching a point of exhaustion or no go. A point where a change is needed.
My developing circumstances leading to my sabbatical were quite hard. But I will cut the story short.
Our lives are cyclical. Things start and end. But the cadence of the different cycles embedded is different. Some parts of your life end at the same moment than other areas of your life thrive. You could end up a job or being unemployed but your love life is booming. Or your family life. Or you could go through a divorce, but your work life is at its peak. So there is always something that keeps you going.
That was the case for myself in the past. But for some reason, my entire life crumbled in the period preceding my sabbatical. Age, work, health, love….. everything just crumbled front of me and a new start was needed. There was a clear rift in the timeline of my life, from which everything has to be new after it.
Like in a storm, clouds built up quite quickly. And torrential rain takes you almost unprepared. If you are a weather expert, maybe you could guess what was brewing in the background. But for most of us, it is hard to notice these things until they are imminent.
So I could not foresee the storm that came onto me. Although I do have now a clear understanding of what happened in my life. But it is only after you hit bottom that you react and start to process the events. The period preceding my sabbatical was therefore, dark and painful. There was lots of pain I was burning and processing, most of the times without noticing.
During that difficult time I received support. Lawyers, doctors, therapists and friends. Some of the help I paid for, some of the help was free. In both cases, I was extremely lucky to be in a system that could offer me that free help and to be in a system where I was able to afford the help I needed.
We, first world citizens, and middle classes are extremely lucky. What we think is just a basic service, is a luxury and an out of reach possibility for the majority of the population in the world. And when, for some reason, we fall off the cliff and crumble down, we have lots of cushions and safety nets around us to mitigate the crash. The majority of the people in this world do not have that.
I was very aware of this when I started my sabbatical. And because of that, I wanted to give something back. It was not a trip of pampering myself with all the luxuries my money could afford, but a journey of knowledge, spiritual growth and giving as well. That is why I wanted to do some volunteering. And South Africa was perfect for it.
Although I tried to sort out volunteering work before my arrival, the fact was that nothing was arranged when I arrived to Cape Town. So after my initial days trying to resolve my accommodation and settling, I started to search for some volunteering work again.
I cannot remember how I came across to Ladles of Love. Someone mentioned it and I searched for the Facebook page. They provide food for the homeless people of Cape Town 3-4 times a week. There is a specific location for each of the days, so they cover the entire city. No qualifications or experience is required. Neither a commitment. You just turn up the day you want to help. That’s all.
I have to admit it was not what I initially expected. I wanted to work with kids. But on the other hand, the setting for Ladles of Love was perfect. Easy and flexible. And in any case, I could go there and help until something else is found.
My experience with Ladles of Love lasted 6 weeks, until the end of my time in Cape Town. Feeding the homeless people taught me many things.
When we see a homeless person in the street, we tend to see him/her as an isolated case. Hard to place that person into perspective. But when you see 200 homeless people in a single moment, you dramatically change your perception of it.
In these moments, you could see the whole spectrum and all the phases of the journey of social exclusion. From people who you could not guess they are in such a situation if it wasn’t because they attended to the event, to people that have gone so far in the road of being homeless and socially excluded, that you could hardly feel that they belong to this world.
Obviously it takes time to get use to the contact with these people. Initially you feel grossed and approach them in a ‘colonial’ way. You are the wealthy man doing a charitable act towards people of another world. But as you get more and more exposed to them and started to see the process behind (how pretty ‘normal’ these people looked at the beginning of the journey to end up transforming themselves in almost ghostly creatures), you end up feeling that there isn’t much difference between you and them.
They are not aliens from another planets. They are just humans who were born in a more fragile and hostile environment than you. Some of them never fell off the cliff, because they never had the chance to be up. But some of them, had their life crumbling. Same as me. But with the difference that there wasn’t a safety net to cushion them.
When I looked into their eyes, I saw the same thing there is inside of me. A soul burning and processing its pain. And their pain, is our pain. Society tends to make us believe we are isolated individuals. But we are not.
My attitude towards the volunteering work shifted as I progressed through it. I preferred to do the tasks that entailed more contact and interaction with them. I know that I did all of that from the comfort that my first world citizen position provided me. At the end of these feeding sessions, I went back to the comfort of my nice accommodation to eat kind of food that these people would never eat.
And at some point you feel that you need to stop your exposure to it because it is something that drains your spirit. So much unnecessary pain that we create and it is impossible to help everyone. My actions would not change the fate of these people (that is the hardest thing to process), just mitigate their suffering.
I learnt that I am not different than them. That is the most valuable lesson I got from it. I am just privileged person living in a system that enables the comfort of some people at the cost of the sacrifice of others.