While Nelson Mandela was incarcerated on Robben Island, he painted. Barbed wire, a watchtower, the indoor tennis court were all subjects he drew. So was the hospital. ‘I remember the stark hospital wards with fondness,’ wrote the artist in some notes about the pictures. ‘These memories, like this sketch, are filled with joyous colours.’ He describes the hospital as a vital link with the rest of the world, where news trickled through to inmates.
It was in the place where inmates were taken when they were at their weakest that they received strength from beyond the prison walls. St Paul too says that in his experience, it is when he is weak, that he is strong (2 Corinthians 12.10). Many people discover unexpected reserves of strength when they are up against it. Sometimes these come from outside, and many Christians vouch for the support of Christ’s energy in these situations. Sometimes it is inner resources that are revealed by the need to cope with a crisis.
Let’s today rejoice in the mystery of the human capacity to find strength even, and perhaps especially, in times of weakness. Perhaps in our own lives, we can recall such occasions and, whether we are aware of the source of the strength or not, be grateful for it.
Today is Sheila Hancock’s birthday and yesterday was the third anniversary of the death of her husband, the greatly admired British actor, John Thaw. Perhaps wherever he is, he’ll do as he used to do at rehearsals when the atmosphere needed lightening and burst into singing The Sun Has Got His Hat On with an accompanying tap dance.
There was a gruff side to him too. Sir Tom Courtenay tells of their first encounter, in the queue for the canteen: "He was wearing a grey sweater and a manner that did not invite conversation. I was the only one in our class who dared speak to him. All I got for my pains the first time was a grunt."
Brusqueness and humour are two ways of dealing with emotional pain. John Thaw had his fair share of this – perhaps more than most because his mother left the family when he was seven, a hurt he always struggled to come to terms with. His wife says: "He had a rough time. Not that he agonised, he just ignored it. He was able, if something didn't please him, to turn his back on it. That stood him in good stead with his final illness."
The danger with any of these methods of handling pain is that, by suppressing it, it gains a greater hold on us. This didn’t happen to John Thaw. Sheila Hancock described what she sees as his greatest triumph: “He was a boy who wasn't taught to love as a child, but learned to love as an adult. I think that is a mega triumph.”
Perhaps today, as each of us seeks to transform the building bricks of our lives into something beautiful, we may choose to forget our pain by having a laugh, withdraw into ourselves and appear grumpy to others, or refuse to let it get to us. But however we deal with it, our aim is to emulate John Thaw’s triumph: to use our struggles to learn how to love.
Humpty Dumpty counted to ten
Then Humpty Dumpty got up again.
Not the ending we know but a new one created for a Mothercare CD of nursery rhymes. A spokesman was asked about the new happy ending.
“It’s sometimes difficult for parents to explain death and injury to a young child,” he said.
It’s not just parents and children who find it difficult to understand human suffering. The original ending gives a more accurate description of even adult attempts to get our minds round human fragility and pain:
All the king's horses and all the king's men
Couldn’t put Humpty together again.
Such recognition of our ignorance and powerlessness is painful. Christians try to keep believing that, though we are ignorant, God is still loving. Belief in God’s underlying purposefulness does not diminish the pain involved in experiencing or watching suffering. But it does create the possibility that there might be value in accepting and living with the mystery of it.
For us all, Christian or not, ignorance is uncomfortable. But it is all we have. The way to deal with it is not to count to ten and hope all will be well. It is to acknowledge our inability to put together our fragmented and broken world and trust that it is in that very honesty that there lies a way forward.
In Gaza at the moment, there’s plenty of work for painters and decorators. In accordance with the roadmap, the Palestinian Authority is removing from public view anything that might provoke violence against Israel. Every wall containing graffiti is being whitewashed. Some of the slogans being removed were designed to encourage people to take an active part in the struggle; many were memorials to those who have died doing so.
It may well be a contribution to peace to remove graffiti which incite violence. But you can’t whitewash over pain. The anger and frustration and loss, which many of the slogans revealed and expressed, can’t be dealt with by pretending it doesn’t exist. The fear of the authorities on both sides is that continuing to allow this means of expressing that pain will only lead to more.
Fortunately there are few communities in the world which have endured such terrible corporate agony, for so long, as the Palestinian people. Our individual pain, though sometimes equally agonising, is of a different order. Yet the same issue emerges. If we express the pain we are feeling, whatever its source and however we choose to share it, there is a danger that others will be hurt. We feel that if we bury it, we shall be successfully protecting others from the suffering they may experience if we tell them about it.
The removal of graffiti may, we hope, contribute to peace, though it will not deal with the deeper oppression that causes such pain. Let’s recognise that, in our own situations, whitewashing over our pain may give temporary respite to those around us, but it will not bring a peace which lasts.