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Recapturing a society based on values

Talk given to Rotary Club of Nairobi, 10 November 2005

Ladies and Gentlemen

Thank you very much indeed for inviting me here. It is a privilege to address such an array of learned and accomplished people.

Because you are learned and accomplished, you might agree that at some point in the process of learning, accomplishing and accumulating, we all come to a point of hesitation. We get a sense of unease, a lingering suspicion that all is not well, after all. The cars are in the garage, the house is expansive, the TV is wide and the children have the correct accents. But something is amiss. If you’ve seen the movie The Matrix, you will have heard this:

“You’ve felt it your entire life, that there’s something wrong with the world. You don’t know what it is, but it’s there. Like a splinter in the mind, driving you mad.”

I am here today to place such a splinter in your mind. But I hope to drive you away from madness, and towards sanity.

A wise man once said something along these lines: “We spend the first 25 years of our lives learning pointless things. We spend the next 25 earning enough to ensure that our children learn the same pointless things. And the final 25 years (if we’re lucky enough to have them) watching the clock wind down and wondering where we went wrong, and why we didn’t do things differently, and what the point of it all was.”

Allow me the indulgence of quoting from something I wrote two years ago:

“Most of us operate in this way. We build a web of relationships with ourselves at the centre, and we place spouses and offspring, relatives and friends, compatriots and countrymen progressively farther away from the centre. The farther someone is away from the centre of the web, the less we are willing to do for him or her. And the truth of the matter is that only the relationship right at the centre – the relationship with oneself – is sacred. All others are expendable.

And so we live in cocoons of self-centredness. We feed and clothe ourselves and our offspring first. Everything else is somebody else’s problem. The ‘me-and-mine’ syndrome is an ugly thing to see. People will run out into their gardens if they hear their own children screaming, but not into the street if they hear their neighbour’s child. They will feed themselves to bursting point whilst starving street-children watch from the other side of the railings. As long as ‘we’ are OK, ‘they’ don’t matter.”

You will have noticed ‘me and mine’ behaviour on Nairobi’s roads. All it needs for the whole of the city to come to a halt is for there to be a brief drizzle in Hurlingham. Or for the university students to riot for a few minutes because the power went and they couldn’t finish watching The Bold and the Beautiful. Or for the President to take his motorcade out for a spin.

Why does this affect the entire city? Because we don’t give a damn about each other. It’s all about me and mine. At the first sign of trouble, this is what enters our heads: I must get home quickly. I must get to that junction first. I will drive on the wrong side of the road to do so. I will intimidate every driver around me. I will exchange obscenities and even blows if needed. I must gain a few metres on everyone else.

The best thing to do, of course, is to sit patiently in your lane and wait. But this is beyond the grasp of the average Nairobi driver. And so people will drive on pavements and on incoming lanes. They will have accidents. The result: total gridlock for everyone. No one gets home on time, even the idiots. But no one learns from this.

We can laugh, because we are not the idiots who do this. But are we not? Idiots exist in life for a very good reason: to demonstrate the extremity to the rest of us. To give us a glimpse of where we might be heading. The truth is, most of us will live a life of push and shove, of pain and gain, of winning while others lose. And then we will die, having lived a life that rarely extended beyond our own noses. A life in which we secured our own comforts and nest eggs, yes; but one in which we failed to connect with the true riches of the universe around us
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The truly wise men and women who have passed through this planet have all asked us to seek a higher plane of existence. They have assured us it is there: we simply have to learn to see it. From the Buddha to Jesus; from Socrates to Einstein; all have told us the same thing: there is a better way.

How does one find one’s way to this higher road? Paradoxically, by first lowering one’s eyes. We must first learn to submit. We must consume our own egos, and become part of the totality of life. I am not referring here to submitting to the will of God, to the dictates of your religion, or to your guru. I am talking about submitting to the higher self within you, within all of us.

The first step is to recognise our own unimportance. In the Indian classical singing tradition (which goes back for centuries) there is something that even the most accomplished, the most famous singer is taught. You are always beneath the song. You are always beneath the audience.

This is a lesson many of us need to learn, particularly those with some fame to their name, some achievements of note. No matter how high you go, you are still nothing. No matter what prizes you win and what fortunes you gather, you are still nothing. You are a nonentity, an all-too-brief combination of molecules that will soon be dispersed. A good man once told me: “The planet Earth is but a mere speck in the huge universe. You are but a mere speck of life on this Earth. So that is what you are – a speck on a speck. Don’t take yourself at all seriously.”

To have any meaning, we must be part of a bigger whole. To have any importance, we must be an element in a bigger idea. In themselves, our lives are irrelevant events in the maelstrom of existence.

We have just come out of the celebration of Diwali – as your ears may have told you. Diwali has been reduced to the senseless squandering of money in loud explosions. But it was meant, of course, to be about much more. It is the festival of light, and light, in all cultures, symbolises knowledge. This light, this knowledge, can only come from the submission I have mentioned. We are told that the oil in the lamp represents the cravings, aversions and self-centred behaviour that we must burn away. The wick is the ego, which must be consumed for light to emerge.

This exhortation is found in all cultures. St. Francis of Assisi asked for himself:

“Grant that I may not so much seek
To be consoled as to console,
To be understood as to understand,
To be loved as to love”

And therein lies the secret. The truly happy moments in our lives are when we give happiness to those around us. No one has ever received long-lasting happiness from buying the DVD player, or from beating the traffic jam, or from opening the new deposit account. There is an inner being in us yearning to connect with the larger whole. The only way to do this is to give: give love, give kindness, give help.

This, I would presume, is why you all became Rotarians. The splinter in your mind urged you to organise yourselves to give more, to give more effectively, and to give so that you make an impact. But you will also know that it is not enough merely to join up and start giving. You must ask yourself: what is my intention in giving? Is it to appear charitable, to gain status, to network amongst important people? This is not a question I expect you to answer today, amongst your fellow Rotarians. It is one to ask yourself when you are alone with your thoughts, and are able to be utterly honest with yourself. Why do I give?

True givers do it to generate happiness around them. Happiness sustains life and bestows blessings on all. It also comes back to he who gives it. It is the best reason to give.

True giving is not about what is extra, unneeded in your life. It is about getting out of your comfort zones, out of comfortable hotels. It is about giving more than you can afford to give. It is about giving without calculating. It is about giving time, effort and skills, not just the spare change in your pocket. It is about giving promptly, when needed. Perhaps most importantly, it is about giving with great humility. Giving is a privilege, not an act of charity. It is an honour, not a corporate event. The audience is higher than the singer, remember. You are not doing anybody a favour by being generous. When you give, you are merely returning what was never yours in the first place – and in the process you are recapturing what it means to be truly human.

In Kenya today, it is all the more important to give. The harsh truth is that there is not one Kenya; there are two, very different from each other. In one Kenya, people meet for lunch at the Grand Regency and shop at The Junction. In the other, people live in temporary dwellings and lose their belongings every time it rains. In the other, people die when they get a minor, treatable disease. In the other, people have no access to meaningful education, and so have no chance of joining the first Kenya.

This is the result of the brainless culture of ‘me and mine’. It is the natural consequence of making our personal worlds narrow and small. It is where our self-centredness has led us.

The two Kenyas are growing apart, and most people live in the ugly, and dangerous Kenya. If we, who live privileged lives in the nice Kenya, stay above the fray and keep our focus on ourselves and on what is ours, soon both Kenyas will sink. So if you can’t give to make people happy, give for their survival. And yours.

Giving through an organisation like Rotary is often a more effective and impactful way of giving. But it is neither the beginning nor the end of giving. We must make a habit of giving in our daily lives. We must give a smile to every person who seems unhappy. We must give an ear to those who need to talk. We must give an eye to the plight of those who are trapped at the bottom of the pyramid. We must give our mind to the problems of the world. These are not platitudes; they are things to do, every single day of our lives.

You called me here to challenge you, and I have given you two challenges: First, the challenge of submission, of realising that in ourselves we are nothing, and of harnessing a bigger power than is available to us alone. The second is to recognise that giving is both bigger and smaller than it seems. Bigger, because it has the capacity to transform the world. And smaller, because we must not forget the little things – the ordinary gestures, kindnesses and appreciations that make life worth living.

Values in society are merely the summation of the beliefs and practices of the individuals that make up that society. We can carry on the way we have, and keep driving towards the cliff: some in matatus, others in Mercedes – but the destination is the same. Or we can open our eyes to a bigger and better world, and start working to attain it. It’s our choice to make.

Thank you.

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