Opinionista John Clarke 13 January 2015

How not to be a ‘douchebag’: A tribute to Robyn Burger

Why should anyone weep over the death of a woman one has never actually met in person, has only known via written communications and with whom one has only corresponded for a brief five-month period?

Because she was more compassionately Christlike than many Christians (despite having given up faith in organised religion) and because her way of dealing with online serial violators of human rights was much sharper and much more effective than anything the Human Rights Commission could ever do. She helped many within the heady-hearty, arty-farty virtual-reality space of the Daily Maverick commentariat to confront reality. And she helped me sharpen my pen and find its target without having to commit suicide or cause collateral damage.

Robyn Burger described herself as a retired “head mechanic”, but that only meant she wasn’t being paid anymore for her services as an educational psychologist. She never stopped being true to herself and her vocation as a healing force. Her Disqus profile speaks volumes of witty, engaging, sharp, concise and appropriate counsel to the writers, readers and her fellow commenters in the ill-disciplined and raucous spontaneous assembly of the Disqus Commentariat. She spanned all the online media sites that use Disqus, but Daily Maverick was her favourite. This tribute is intended for that particular subset (and to see if Greg Nicolson perhaps rethinks his decision to stop reading the comments that appear below his and other Daily Maverick articles).

Last Monday, when Rebecca Davis’ article was published, on President Zuma’s donation of R500,000 to the Catholic Diocese of Marianhill to fund a fresh Zulu translation of the Bible, I held back, waiting for a comment from Robyn making reference to the confessional as perhaps a more appropriate forum for President Zuma to engage with my Catholic bishops and priests. Alas, she never did, because something more terminal was happening in her life. She was facing death.

In our brief five-month friendship, we connected quickly and deeply in a strange spiritual way. Strange because Robyn theoretically professed the creed of the atheist but to my mind practically confessed the creed of my own faith. She reminded me of one of St Augustine’s classics. “There are many whom the Church has that God does not have. There is many whom God has that the Church does not have.”

After one or our first exchanges (over someone else’s article), realising that I was a Catholic, she wrote: “Hope I didn’t offend with my use of the confessional metaphor to illustrate the ‘be quiet’ and ‘don’t tell’ injunction-duo that underlies all psychological games involving abuses of power… Also, I am so politically/ religiously incorrect that I would characterise myself as being deformed by today’s standards.”

In reply I teased her with my standard riposte to my many atheist friends. “Robyn, I also have times of doubt and despair, but whenever I am about to give up my faith, God sends a wonderful, compassionate, loving atheist like you to restore my faith in God.”

It now occurs to me that she could have responded with ample justification with the logical inverse. She could have said, “Whenever I find myself inclining to religious faith along comes a dogmatic, Bible-punching Christian like you to restore my faith in Atheism.” Of course Robyn was far too kind a person to do that. Instead, she suddenly revealed herself in a Facebook profile, in the incarnation of Griffith Spag, to complement me.

This friendship only started last September, after I had made a few Opinionista contributions to this site. Robyn’s special quality of both appreciative and evaluative comment prompted me to make personal contact, to ask her to be a forge upon which I could sharpen and ‘enmighten’ my weapon of choice – my pen. I wanted to ensure the ‘ink’ within it would be tonic rather than toxic. Pens can be mightier than swords: mighty destructive. Even when one wields it with intentions that are as pure as the driven snow, there can be unintended consequences.

As a relative newcomer to the ranks of those who earn their living from writing, constrained by my prior professional accountability as a social worker to Primum non nocere (first do no harm), I anticipated that she would also understand the quandary that helping-professionals face when they venture into the public domain to try and ‘write’ (pun intended) the wrongs of society. I enlisted her as my personal agony aunt, one to whom I could unburden my fears, and could trust to hold confidences, as well as strain out the excesses of my writing BEFORE going to print.

Good teachers must teach what learners most need to learn, not what they most need to teach. Writers must in turn write what their readers most need to read, not what they indulgently need to write. Social workers who aspire to be educative writers are in special need of experienced “head mechanics” like Robyn to ensure that when we probe beneath the decorative ‘bonnets’ with which people adorn themselves to hide their greying hair/balding pate, that the clutch isn’t slipping and the gears don’t grate.

Good social workers do good work, not ‘good works’. The goal of any therapeutic intervention is to promote self-reliance, autonomy and insight, not create dependency. The measure of success is not the extent to which the therapist wins high praise and obsequious thanks. That only serves to flatter the ego and stimulate the ‘dopamine effect’ and amplify the Hubris Syndrome. I would never have had the courage to broach these topics in my public writings were it not for Robyn’s guidance and encouragement. “Every pathology has its own ecology,” she counselled me. “And remember, there is no room for two narcissists in one relationship.”

To illustrate, Robyn features prominently in the 223-strong commentary thread on Jani Allen’s controversial piece last October and showed just how to turn a dynamic around from tender-mindedness and tough-heartedness to tough-mindedness and tender-heartedness in a way that would have impressed the late Rev Martin Luther King Jnr, who once preached a sermon on that theme. Ms Allen’s article was solicited by Daily Maverick to give her the chance to respond to Ferial Haffajee’s remarks at a Daily Maverick event during the Open Book Festival last September, which compared the EFF’s current disproportionate share of media attention and the coverage the late Eugene Terre’Blanche once received thanks to Ms Allen’s affair with him. Allen felt “it was a cheap and puerile shot at me made in an attempt to garner laughs from the audience. Those present were in no doubt that Haffajee was slut-shaming me.”

The commentariat were evenly divided in a raging debate, with one commentator, Maggie J Taylor, and Robyn making a head and heart connection after Robyn offered a neat synopsis of the Hubris Syndrome as a possible framework to better understand the psychodynamics of what was going on between Jani Allen and Eugene Terreblanche at the time.

Maggie: Interesting. Thanks Robyn. You’ve just solved a mystery I’ve been mulling over for about 10 years. Long story!

Are you a journo?

Robyn: Nah A retired headmechanic who loves theory but who found the rituals of the academe too tedious to go beyond just qualifying to practice solo.

Also love the English language but I’m not disciplined enough to turn out 3/5,000 words per day/week to write articles/books for money.

The exchange tapers off with Robyn and Maggie exchanging emails to discuss how they can keep smoking to get the ‘medicinal’ benefits of smooth nicotine but give up on the rough carcinogen that accompanies the habit. (There is an instructive metaphor in there somewhere.)

My last interaction with Robyn was when she chimed into a conversation I was having with one of my few illustrious Facebook friends, the renowned cosmologist Professor George Ellis on the film The Theory of Everything, about his friend and scientific collaborator Professor Stephen Hawking. She was so pleased to participate in the exchanges about Fractals and the Mandlebrot series, and implicitly in what the film is really all about – relationships between people who have apparently incompatible faith positions, but get on well without trying to convert the other. Robyn showed us that the Universe is large enough to accommodate both theists and atheists of every shade.

I told Robyn the proper meaning of the term ‘religion’ was to ‘re-connect ligaments’ – re-ligio – and that therefore according to this understanding, because of her passion to make and re-make connections she was deeply ‘religious’. She understood as a psychologist a truth that the disgraced former columnist for The Independent Johann Hari only discovered from his own bitter experience. “The opposite of addiction is not sobriety. The opposite of addiction is human connection.”

She connected me up personally to her friend, another regular Opinionista, Vashthi Nepaul, and I in turn connected her up personally with my friend Denis Beckett, who has also joined our hallowed ranks. The three of us are all there, proud to be seated in the larney panopticon of the Daily Maverick Opionionista box, but I only feel worthy of the elevation thanks to Robyn’s endorsement and support coming out of the large, raucous gallery of the commentariat. Those are the seats that matter, even if they are occupied by the odd racist, bigot and idiot. She showed them how not to be douchebags.

Robyn helped me understand, with her excellent thin slicing of words, that “the opposite of love is not hate. It is apathy and disinterest.” Far better that the hate-filled and embittered ventilate their invective in words instead of plotting, planning and executing violent massacres with bombs and bullets sprayed into newsrooms by people suffering from religious psychopathology.

It is my confident prediction that after this tribute goes up, Robyn is going to get the highest praise from those with whom she disagreed most. Some of them might even confess to be former racists, having been converted by her in the only way that such addictions are healed – by caring enough to confront, in the process of making a deeper ‘re-ligious’ connection.

Robyn’s life provided confirmatory evidence of an article of faith that has become stronger over the years. No, not whether or not God exists, but the belief that Human Rights do not acquire grounded meaning by running to the Human Rights Commission for investigations, nor by awaiting the learned bench of Constitutional Court judges to hand down rulings. They acquire meaning by being human, being truthful, being connected, being aware and becoming ever more engaged.

Robyn eschewed ‘organised religion’, for what I jokingly suggested was ‘disorganised religion’, where spontaneity abounds and people are helped to find meaning in everyday life experience, rather than in the pre-packaged, pre-digested ‘processed food’ that professional priests peddle from pulpits (Is that Robyn’s laughter I hear cackling away at my alliteration, as she waits outside the Pearly Gates, with St Peter wondering if he should let her in?).

With that, it is now over to the Daily Maverick Commentariat to have the last word, and sound their last posts to a wonderful woman, whom I never even met! DM


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