In the Epilogue to his remarkable personal testament When they Came For Me, The Hidden Diary of an Apartheid Prisoner, John Schlapobersky writes
I have learnt to harvest the gifts of adversity from my own experience…
The sentence went straight to my heart.
It reminded me of Edgar’s words in Shakespeare’s King Lear when, disguised as a bedlam beggar, he leads his own father to Dover. Blinded, and ignorant that the peasant guiding him is in fact his own son, the old man asks, ‘Now, good sir, what are you?’ Edgar’s answer is unforgettable:
A most poor man, made tame to Fortune’s blows,
Who, by the art of known and feeling sorrows,
Am pregnant to good pity. (Act IV, Scene VI)
Edgar’s next words are ‘Give me your hand.’
After suffering torture in prison followed by expulsion from South Africa, John Schlapobersky trained as a therapist in Britain. Together with Helen Bamber he was instrumental in establishing The Medical Foundation for the Care of Victims of Torture(renamed Freedom from Torture). One of the many profoundly traumatized refugees he helped during decades of work there said to him at the close of a year of treatment:
Yours is the hand of humanity that has reached out to save me from drowning in my own sorrow.
We do not face equal difficulties during our lifetimes. The world is unjust and full of cruelty. As a family friend who’d served as a medic in the British Army in India used to tell me when I was small: ‘I saw terrible things, Johnny-boy. Suffering is not distributed equally in this world.’
But none of us are untouched by any troubles; at some point we all must struggle with challenges from without and mental turmoil from within. Can we too turn our learning into ‘good pity’ and hold out ‘the hand of humanity’? Can we, when we need it, find the help and friendship which will one day enable us to befriend and help others? Perhaps that’s what being human truly means.
This is Refugee Week. Lord Dubs sent the following tweet; my mother, ten years older when she came here, would say the same:
I am a refugee. When I was six, the UK saved my life and gave me a home and hope. My plea is for the UK to live up to its proud humanitarian tradition by giving hope to the refugee children of today.
The hand reached out to us may become the hand we reach out to others. Further, one day theirs may become the hand which reaches back to us.
Yesterday, I overheard two people discussing the words (from Proverbs) on our synagogue’s foundation stone: olam chesed yibaneh, which we translated as ‘the world is build on loving kindness.’ They were questioning whether this was an accurate rendition. It struck me that what we had written was correct, but incomplete. The verse is a declaration of hope: ‘The world should and shall be built upon loving kindness.’
A much-quoted passage from the Mishnah teaches that every life is equivalent to an entire world, therefore every person should be able to say: ‘For my sake the world was created.’ (Sanhedrin 4:5)
Loving kindness is more than presence in adversity. It means enabling one another to feel that the world has a place for each of us, so that we can look out at life with wonder and look forward with joy.
Another refugee helped by John Schlapobersky spoke afterwards about the group therapy which had formed such a critical part of his journey towards healing. He compared it to being put in a washing machine into which the therapists climb too:
We come out each week cleaned by talking and listening so we can go home safely, love our families and give thanks to God.