Spiritual teachers from an unexpected source.

Cornelius (Con) van den Berg, 11 April 1929 - 18 March 2014

To me, Ram Dass (my spiritual teacher), is an important person in my life. He is someone who positively influences me a lot. His teachings, through his published literature and being with him in person, changed the course of life forever. His teachings continue to refine and polish me. Nelson Mandela's spirit of forgiveness, his courage and determination inspires me to move beyond my fearful reluctance to unleash my fullest potential. But, there are other archetypes too: Buddha, Jesus, other ascendant masters like Gandhi, Sri Ramana Maharhsi, Yogananda Paramahansa and countless men and women who helped me make significant choices that determined the way I chose to live. Each influenced me differently; collectively, they brought about new states of liberation, heartfelt contentment and spiritual grace.

But, we sometimes overlook a second group of teachers made up of people from whom we'd prefer to disengage. Some of our toughest lessons come from those who know how to push our buttons. They abuse us in numerous ways, sometimes irrelevantly, at other times chronically. I have a short list of just such men and women who, over past decades, consistently rubbed me up the wrong way. I had to find ways of dealing with their jostling, belittling and undermining. My interactions with them opened up opportunities for me to discover and hone skills I might otherwise never have acquired, like inner strength, courage, bravery and the art of forgiveness. The acquisition of these abilities helped me accrue wisdom. Just the tiniest amount of wisdom is as useful as the comparatively small rudder which keeps the world's largest oceanliner on its course across the high seas.

So, we have our superheroes, those iconic figures in our lives, men and women that we look up to. They are formal agents in our lives, the ones we turn to as primary teachers and mentors, when we seek change. But there are also the villains whose role it is to push and stretch us so that we might find ways of transcending the meanness of their endeavours.

But, sometimes we seek too wide and too far for our spiritual teaches. Sadly, we often easily overlook those that are close to us. Our superheroes and nemeses are at polar ends of the spectrum but there is a middle tier of important people we should never lose sight of. They are neither iconic nor oppressive. These folk are unexpectedly found everywhere. They are often special friends, a kind face we meet at the supermarket or an inspiring travel companion we sit next to on an aircraft. One such person who had an immense influence on me throughout my adult life is Con van den Berg.

When the Jehovah's Witnesses excommunicated (disfellowshipped) me as a young man in my mid-twenties, I fell victim to their dreadfully cruel and callous punishment of shunning. It was then when I 'lost' my family. Any association was forcibly prohibited under Witness dogma. Having come from a kind and loving home, shunning tore us apart. Hearts were shattered, spirits doused. I fled Johannesburg to a more obscure life in Durban to escape the judgement and criticism of those back home. In Durban, I met my first life partner, Johann. This was a relationship that would last for fourteen years and a cherished friendship that still continues to this day.

Johann's parents, Con and Christine, took me in. It was more than just accepting my connection with Johann — they 'adopted' me as one of their own. I entered and joined their family and Con and Christine became my surrogate parents. That was in 1980.

Over the past three and a bit decades I got to know Con very well. He, like all of us, had his foibles which he stumbled over. But despite the occasional misstep, to me, he symbolised old-fashioned family values. As a couple, he and Christine stood by each other, literally through thick and thin, illness and health, wealth and poverty. Through all these undulations, Con was always stoically cheerful. He'd drop everything to help mend, fix and renovate — skills that were defining traits of this gentle man. In his acts of kindness, he showed how easy it is to live life selflessly. In a very humble way, he lived his life in service of others. He recently became gravely ill, yet even through all of his illness and frailty, he and Christine stood by each other. They propped each other up as they wobbled their way into states of ever increasing infirmity. Even when Con's health faltered, approaching too closely the precipice of death, he rallied, impelled not so much by an intrinsic will to survive, but by his determination to be with his beloved family. He avoided all forms of external help and support so that he might provide the same for Christine, Johann and his extended family of grand- and great grandchildren.

Con left his body on the 18th March 2014. Since then, I've admired the profundity of his understated teachings. Con was well liked by all who met him as he was easy to befriend and humble. His selfless love extended outwards in palpable ripples to those close to him. There were many occasions for him to judge the world askew, especially regarding me and Johann, but he never did. He was innocently accepting and generously welcoming. He held firm to his personal religious beliefs but the differences in the manner of our worship never inhibited the love he showed me.

Loosely quoting Shakespeare: 'The world's a stage and all the people actors thereon'. I cannot help believe that Con and I (and everyone else I know) have some cosmic contract with each other. We're like travelling minstrels. We decide upon a script, step on the world stage of life and play out our respective roles. The script is written as it unfolds and as we enact the scenes. We as actors often lose perspective, believing we are the character we play and forget the being we truly are. But, as each actor exits, having completed their part in the play, he or she steps offstage, takes off the wig, wipes away the stage-makeup and waits for the other players to finish. Finally, when all the actors gather backstage, they thank each other for playing their respective parts so well, for if one hadn't played their role convincingly, neither could any of them.The time will come when I will meet with Con again. Who knows, we might travel together to other towns and cities. We might play different roles in a multitude of different plays, teaching and helping each other find further wisdom.

Until then dear friend, father, tutor, soulmate — may you find peace!