A letter to Myself on my 40th Birthday

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I can actually be fun sometimes.  You may need reminding as you read.

I turned 40 last month.

In the days leading up to my birthday, my friend said “how exciting? You must feel great!” I need to point out that she is actually my friend’s younger sister and in her mid-20s. It makes a difference. She’s still attractive and energetic and optimistic and shit.

I asked her what is exciting about being chubby and middle-aged? “Your life is all the things you want it to be at 40. You’re married with kids, you have a job, a house, family, friends”.

I replied that this is all true but I am in fact in my darkest place ever about humanity. I then proceeded down the ‘we are handing our kids a fiery ball of hellfire and damnation’ route. She agreed with everything I said, with a super cute smile and no grey hairs.

In November I went under general anaesthesia for the very first time. Apparently most people wake up sentimental. I woke up ranting about humanity and telling everyone in the room how we are the worst and treat each other like crap. The anaesthetist eventually said ‘we all treat each other very well in surgical theatre’ to which I replied, ‘I bet the cleaner would disagree’.

Something in me broke in my 40th year.

I was hip to humanity long before 40. I just generally subscribed to the ‘arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice’ school of thought. In fact, it never really occurred to me to measure progress; I just knew a million mountains needed moving and focused on putting in the work. The best people I know and the qualities I most aspire to are in the trenches, I just do my best to follow their footsteps.

This year, decades of learning came together with an ugly click.  A metaphorical blindfold came off and revealed that, you can fight it all you want but humans are a trash species.

The devastating truth is that the closer you get to see how decisions are made, the darker it gets. If you disagree with me, it is not because you are more enlightened it is because you just do not know any better. Sorry. No volume of inspirational examples of love or resilience dents the damage we do.

One of my projects this year involved interviewing African women migrants in South Africa. When I started, the head of a refugee organisation told me I might need counselling of my own. I shrugged it off. I have close to 20 years of experience in ‘the field’. I started community work with gang-affected youth in Los Angeles, wrote my Honours thesis on Bantu education in rural schools, earned my professional stripes in the townships during the height of the HIV pandemic, wrote my Master’s thesis in a flood-ravaged parts of Haiti, recorded thousands of refugee testimonials from persecuted Afghans, and studied Boko Haram. I could do this.

One of my interviewees was a Congolese woman who has been raped more than 100 times. She was married at a young age to a husband who worked as a government spy in opposition territory. The community figured it out when he disappeared suddenly. Then the soldiers arrived too when he fled the service. Sexual violence is high in areas of the DRC where they do not have heavy artillery. They know that if you break a woman, you break the whole community.

Another woman essentially walked from Uganda to South Africa after ‘they’ attacked her family home, threw her baby in a burning building and locked the door.

(In the event you are thinking that this is particularly uncouth, just remember the ‘West’ invented contact-free war. More women and children have died from airstrikes and drones in countries we go to war in but cannot find on a map, than from any enemy factions in any country.)

Many of them looked at me with hope that telling their stories to would lead to change in a country that treats them with disdain. The rape victim had her refugee claim dismissed as ‘unfounded’. She had to look the word up in the dictionary. She said it was like being violated all over again.

I lost count of the times I left in tears, pounded my fists on the steering wheel and screamed with impotent rage.

For much of this year I have walked around telling people that we are animals, only sicker. Healthy animals do not thrash their own habitats, hurt and rape children and destroy their own. This has resulted in some very interesting lessons on animal behaviour.   FYI goats ruin everything they see including their own homes, captive tortoises have hierarchical gay sex/rape structures just like human prisons, bottlenose dolphins gang rape females from different pods and as rats multiply they become self-destructive to a point where they eventually annihilate themselves.

We are animals. But we have unchallenged access to power, the most dangerous force of all. This has always been true, but population and technology explosions have industrialised everything, including pain and destruction. Billions of people are suffering. They are kept out of sight and out of mind while people make money and gain power from our ignorance.  Make no mistake, everyone believes in climate change; they are just relying on being able to protect themselves from the effects.

In Vukile’s Ninjutsu class they play a game called Mad Dog. One person starts on all fours and tries to tag the others while they run on two feet. Once someone is tagged, they join Mad Dog #1.…. until everyone is a Mad Dog. The goal seems to be to teach strategy. If Mad Dog#1 tries to get everyone, he or she often just sits in the middle swatting at the air while everyone runs around him or her. The best strategy is to focus on one person and work them into a corner. Once you have co -Mad Dogs, the game gets exponentially faster.

I am Mad Dog. Perhaps even the Maddest Dog.

At one point this year I had to restrain myself from telling a parent that pirating is actually a very serious issue and not an appropriate theme for a 4-year-old birthday party.

I am overwhelmed with sadness by the sheer volume of suffering among people.   I am sure it will just get worse.  I am terrified of how we are destroying our planet. I am paralysed by how little we can do to stop it. I am gripped with fear for my kids and the world we are handing them. I feel helpless to protect them from this fuckery or even from participating in it. I am tired. I have a permanent headache from grinding my teeth. I wake up nightly with anxiety.  I look and feel like crap too.

This is the real me at 40. I am all of the other things too, in case you are about to send help. I did not break at 40, something in me broke at  40. There is an important distinction.

When having this conversation in person, my dear friend Tuesday, who is smarter and better than me in every way despite seeing even more darkness, looked at me with a hint of desperation and said ‘you need to keep fighting’.

Of course I will keep fighting. Giving up is not on the table, will never be on the table.

But I cannot do a good job if I am being Mad Dog. I need that counselling after all. I need to come to terms with the fact that arc of progress may actually be a downward spiral.

I do not know what any of this looks like.  I am here because writing is one of the best ways for me to find any of the above and I resolved to do more when I turned 40.  It took me close to a month to write this because I pretty much hate everything I write these days. I still hate it, but know I need to write my way out of that funk.

So here I am dusting off the ol’ blog. The one about other people that is apparently now about me. I do not know how much of it will be public, but I do believe that saying things out loud helps make them real so I suspect I will be over-sharing.

For now, Mad Dog Out.

PS If you have read this far, please do NOT come at me with words of encouragement about me or my ability to impact.  I appreciate thoughts of this nature, but fundamentally they do a ton for my own reputation but nothing for the people who are suffering.

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