I remember the first time I heard the words of the Jesuit martyr Edmund Campion’s famous ‘Bragge’, written not long before he swung at Tyburn; “the expense is reckoned; the enterprise is begun”. Why does that fire my blood? Why does it ring so thrillingly round my head like a yell down a well? Probably because I’m reflective by nature, both in the nerdy list sense and the meditative one. Reckonings tend to fortify me for the future as well as reconciling me with the past.
Valuation is a skill- necessary, and therefore delegated to experts in most fields; wine, gem mining, art, counterfeiting, training courses, antiques. But placing any kind of sensible value on work done is a task requiring humility, realism and a lot of contrasting opinions. We’re all replaceable, until we believe it, at which point no-one is. Humility is as fleeting as it is delicate. Public recognition is a very bad indicator of actual value, but it’s probably the commonest and certainly one of the most seductive. “Doers of good have their seasons of weakness. They know that there is no spiritual vulgarity equal to that of expecting gratitude and admiration, but they allow themselves to be seduced by the sweet fantasies of self-pity”. Thornton Wilder embarrasses me with his acuity. I am a shocker for taking myself at other people’s valuation, especially when I’m feeling weak.
So if I try to do my own reckoning, to think through what has been valuable about the time in Guyana, it is easiest to start with what has been valuable to me, because I KNOW that to be true. So here are three things I will treasure that have changed in me, and changed me.
* I am learning perseverance: not just persistence, bashing my head off a worthy brick wall, but trying and trying and trying to do or comprehend things in different ways until something actually takes.
* I feel a freedom from belongings and attachments greater than any I have known before. It’s facile to say that possessions own you: wealthy people can maintain a healthy open-handedness (although I wonder how many do). But it feels lovely owning so little to be anxious about, having a home completely bare of trophy or kudos items, and being able to make no statements at all with my appearance except involuntary ones. I wonder how long this freedom will last?
* I am slowly coming to understand how easily my own passion and articulacy and competence can disempower other people. This is a painful lesson, as counterproductiveness tends to be. “If I understand all mysteries and all knowledge... but do not have love, I am nothing”. When I work at maximum efficiency I am most apt to cause damage. Going back to a country where efficiency is an unquestioned virtue, this new and rather fragile seedling is likely to get crushed. It’s my job to see that it doesn’t.
In terms of other people, I cannot measure what has been valuable and to whom. But it helps me to ask myself what will last. The funding bids are Patek Philippes as far as I’m concerned; did I take the opportunity to plant any coconut palms? These are three palm trees that did get planted, and I hope are rooted deep enough to survive.
* While most of the work in Aishalton was ostensibly about passing on knowledge and techniques, the manner in which it was done was the heart of the work: by showing people what is possible and then giving them a chance to practice, I think the skills gained are interwoven with self-esteem and with confidence into a cord that will not be easily unwound.
* But humbling as it was, in Aishalton I came to realise that simple presence is the most valuable gift an outsider can bring. This is what it means to stay- a statement of optimism. Humans dignify mundane and back-breaking concerns only by sharing them. And that is an embarrassing privilege: why should something gain dignity just because a white person does it? My politically correct instincts cavil, but if the gain is genuine, it’s best that I swallow my pride and get hauling that bucket. Just to survive, to live in local conditions, is enough. We have to accept that, we work-focussed idealists, especially on days when we lie in bed sick, or there is no power to charge the laptop, or when a project fizzles into nothing.
* I think people will remember our personalities and our friendship longer than they will any of our work. Ten years ago I would have been too stupid and too success-focussed to value that. But hold a baby, watch someone you love sick or dying, weep for joy or yearning at an airport or a wharf or beside a cold road, and you will know unarguably and profoundly that nothing matters as much as people. What could be more heartening than to be told “you guys will always be in our memories as long as ever”?
And to anyone who asks if I have “made a difference”, an expression endemic to volunteer circles that I am violently allergic to, I guess I would ask them if THEY have. Isn’t a bit patronising to think that you somehow have a miraculous ability to make more of a difference to ‘poor people’ than you would to your friends and neighbours in the country of your birth? I like Ralph Waldo Emerson’s yardstick for making a difference: it has nothing to do with where, a little to do with what, and everything to do with how.
“To laugh often and love much;
to win the respect of intelligent persons and the affection of children;
to earn the approbation of honest citizens and endure the betrayal of false friends;
to appreciate beauty;
to find the best in others;
to give of one's self;
to leave the world a bit better,whether by a healthy child, a garden patch or a redeemed social condition;
to have played and laughed with enthusiasm and sung with exultation;
to know even one life has breathed easier because you have lived --
this is to have succeeded”.