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We need ‘everything is not OK’ spaces

Eight years ago, on the day a friend of mine died suddenly and inexplicably, we, her friends, gathered in her Killarney apartment that Monday evening and stood together in her dimly lit living room. Those who spoke did so in hushed tones while the rest of us endured it in silence with Woolworths cakes in our hands. I was 22. My friend was a year older.

As we stood, I remember praying for somebody to start singing. We needed the help of a hymn in that hour. That is the thing our mothers had done when pain had brought them together. But our fledgling model-C womanhood had not yet taught us to look to God and sing when we were collectively overcome by grief. In that moment, even though there was nobody to fault, I felt we had failed to honour the terms and conditions of being a community.

I was reminded of the need for community, for the congregation of people going through the same kind of pain this week when I looked on social media and considered how many members of my social and virtual community are grief-stricken, depressed, suicidal, on medication, functioning alcoholics and suffering in a shame-filled silence.

Coming out with depression on social media is the new coming out. We get through the days by taking bathroom breaks to cry muffled tears into the office toilet paper. We have mastered the fake smiles it takes to disguise the fact that we can’t call in heartbroken and fatigued. Our relationships are crumbling inside the trap of modern life.

Meditation has been captured and sold as a mechanism to cope and survive rather than a way to be. We stay later than we need to at the office and attend midweek church/gym/drinks sessions because our homes are not safe either.

Anxiety has become a verb. The edge is a thing we take off every evening when we open our mouths to imbibe the contents of a glass, a little friend manufactured by the GlaxoSmithKline company or the things that live inside a sheet of Rizla paper. Our bodies know. Our stools are oddly coloured and shaped. The people shall share therapists’ numbers. This is how we are doing.

We are in need of community in these times, spaces that render people not alone. I know a woman who goes to church during the week because she got tired of going to clubs to escape her life on the weekends. She says the people she has met there are divorcées or women whose men are refusing them. So they are bound to the Holy Spirit because of their collective pain instead of for its own virtues.

When she puts on her church uniform for umanyano, she steps into a society where her pain has friends, where her ex-husband becomes just another character in a common narrative.

Earlier this week when my friends and I were feeling sad, we got together to try something new in our nearly decade-long friendship. For the first time, we did not get together to eat and drink and dance and tell funny stories all night. With different things causing us pain, we came together to make vision boards and to sing along to an album we had, until that moment, been listening to alone in our cars and on our phones.

It was a therapeutic way to express our listlessness without talking or doing something about it. In those quiet moments when we were cutting out and sticking down images on scrap pieces of paper, we held each other.

We aren’t the praying in groups type of friends so I could not, as I so desperately wanted to, hold their hands and say a prayer for us. I was afraid of talking about the pain with people I know and love or, worse, appealing to the uncertain, to a seemingly supine higher being to help us.

Because, in the same way that our successes have become individual feats, so have our failures and bewilderments.

We may belong to virtual communities where likes can be both genuine and an absurd metric for accomplishment, but I wish for our generation to take the momentum of our intellectual achievements, and turn that into physical spaces — to institutionalise our feelings and ideas in healing ways.

I don’t participate in traditional religious practices but I respect them for their ability to make humans commune and build lives under certain beliefs. I respect their ability to remind them of these values at every congregation.

I wish for the same kind of community for those of us who may not find solace in the traditional religions but are looking for something greater than ourselves to house and make sense of our lives.

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Milisuthando Bongela
Milisuthando Bongela is the Mail & Guardians arts and culture editor. She is a multi award-winning writer, blogger and collaborator. She has experience in the arts having worked in fashion, music, art and film as well as a decade-long career in consulting, entrepreneurship, blogging and cultural activism. She is also directing a documentary about hair and black identity, a film she calls the report card on the rainbow nation project.

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