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My encounter with a life of modesty after power

Last year I happened to be visiting the United Kingdom. I found myself in a department store, looking through the clothes section.

A lady passed by me, and I caught a glimpse of her face. It seemed vaguely familiar, but I couldn’t quite place it. Had I seen her on the news in years past? I was just about to move on from the thought when a man in a dark suit also passed by, talking into an earpiece. I turned to follow him with my gaze, and saw a second man, similarly dressed, standing by an exit door, acknowledging the first with a small gesture of his hand.

I now knew who the familiar-looking woman was.

The first gentleman went to stand at the payment counter behind the lady, who was now paying for her purchases. After she was done, the pair moved quickly towards the side exit door being held open by the second man.

As soon as they left, some muffled whoops and high-fives broke out from the sales counter. The assistant who had served the famous woman now abandoned her traditional English reserve and gushed forth as her colleagues gathered around her: “OMG I just served our former leader!”

Yes, the famous lady was Theresa May, until quite recently the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom.

I sat down to reflect on this event. So the highest leader of the land can, after relinquishing the role, mingle anonymously amongst ordinary shoppers in a middle-class store, guarded only by a couple of discreet minders? She can shop for her regular, mundane items by herself, and depart without addressing anyone or even looking to make eye contact?

Because it’s not quite like that where I’m from.

Further research revealed that Theresa May has had a low-key, quiet life since her exit from the highest office. She speaks out occasionally on matters of conscience, but generally leads a low-profile existence, focusing on charitable work around her home area.

And then there are leaders who are larger-than-life caricatures who cannot stand the loss of the spotlight when the office is vacated; who are given ridiculous perks and allowances long after retirement, no matter how ignominious or ineffective their tenures; who crave relevance and publicity and applause for as long as they live.

I am not here to argue that Theresa May’s country is above unnecessary shows of ostentation for its leaders. Its royal family has absurd ornamentation and frippery lavished on it. But its public servants are expected to be just that—servants. They are appointed in the service of the polity, to work for its advancement—not to lord over the people.

The real, wider point I’m making is about humility. We are all—no matter how rich, powerful, or popular—merely human. Even with the greatest of achievements, we remain merely mortal and mostly irrelevant. We lead a momentary existence, and most of our accomplishments are illusions and delusions. Even our kings and queens, our emperors and autarchs, are just “momentary masters of a fraction of a dot,” as astronomer Carl Sagan put it. We are specks, living on a speck in the universe.

To accord ourselves vulgar finery and foppery and pageantry is to be ridiculous. To feel more important than any other human is to live in a realm of mental delusion. Sure, we can have our unique skills and our meaningful contributions, but that does not make us gods. We are, all of us, small and short-lived.

A truly wise person actively avoids too much applause or too much privilege. Even when being praised, the enlightened are in touch with the truth of their own foolishness. Even when being granted enormous favours or entitlements, true sages know that these are mere ornamentation. To be given a perk is to be given great responsibility. The gaze of proper leaders is not stuck on their own accoutrements; it is fixed on the only real point of being a leader: the uplift of the collective.

Someday the common people will wake up to this truth: that even those who lead are as common as everyone else. The only privilege they have is the right to serve—to make decisions on behalf of others, for the common good. We should give them every opportunity to engage in that service, and reward them well should it bring wider dividends. But that is all. Giving public servants thrones and processions only fuels the delusion that they are special. When we give leaders too much—attention, rewards, privileges—we actually weaken them. When we give them huge entitlements without any link to actual performance…well, that’s just burning the money of the masses.

And those whose time in the leadership seat is over? Let them fade away gracefully, to a simple, unadorned life away from the cameras, a life in which contemplation and reflection take prominence. Now that is worthy of respect.

(Sunday Nation, 5 November 2023)

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