Sometimes you learn from an unexpected source. When I lived in Grand Cayman, I came to know one of the older boat builders, an interesting man named Ira Walton. Mister Ira – I always called him that – was a master at the traditional Caymanian cat boat (the name comes from the type of sailing rig) and he was rebuilding one at the time. I was at his yard one day gaffing with him in his boat shed. It’s laborious work, hand fitting the curved ribs, spokeshaving and sanding to get them right, overlaying the planking, closing the seams, hours and hours of attention, and I made some comment about it to him. Mr Ira turned and gave me one of his gentle smiles.
“Well, you know, almost everything in life that’s worthwhile takes time. There’s no way around that. You hurry up mekkin’ a boat, it won’t last; you get in rough weather, she’ll sink. This don’t happen, overnight. You gotta take your time, mi boy.”
It was a lesson I had learned before, Mr Ira just reconfirmed it for me, and I was reminded of his point in the recent outpouring of comments, public and private, in the upheaval of political deliberation and accusation and recrimination that is going on in Guyana. Essentially, we seem to want to have every problem here, political or social, fixed overnight by this newest Parliament. “We voted for change, so why is it taking so long?” That’s the frequent lament.
The brief answer is that the attitudes and policies and conditions that confront us now in Guyana took decades, at least three decades, to develop; as much as we are understandably anxious to see it, the shift cannot happen overnight, because what we see as a simple change is a complex alteration process in our structures, and, more critically, in the people who lead us and also in ourselves. Wanting it done quickly is natural human impatience, but that is not the reality course.
No more vivid example exists than the current ‘Arab Spring’ revolutions. There we have several countries throwing off the shackles of dictatorship in place for 35 years or more, and doing it practically overnight, but the assumed transition then to something else is now clearly going to take several years to become reality. If social change was predicated on machinery, those overnight shifts in Egypt, Libya, Syria, etc, could be accomplished quickly, but substantial social change is predicated on alterations in human behaviour and aspirations that affirm themselves over time. In Guyana, too, expecting speedy solutions will leave us frustrated. And for those who believe that we can achieve sustained change by force, the historical fact is that even when violent revolution propels it, as in the Arab examples, substantial change in societies takes considerable time. No significant transformation in societies or in cultures, takes place simply because it has emerged as a logical course. It still has to be processed by individuals, as leaders or citizens, and in some cases, when ideas emerge, the final expression of them can be quite different from the original one.
In a column shortly after the general election, I made the point that in this new dispensation of government, we were going to learn a great deal about our new leaders as to “who they are” in the areas of maturity, tolerance, patience, etc. And that is precisely what is going on now. We have already seen several examples of leaders reconsidering or re-evaluating; we have seen errors made and recognized; we have seen hardened positions either ameliorated or even abandoned; we have seen compromise by some and belligerence by some. And while the process may be sometimes spasmodic, and even frustrating, the important thing is that it is engaged. Hard on the heels of recognizing the engagement, it is more important to recognize that the process will require time; the alterations involved are not of the 24-hour variety.
Looking at the current political exchanges with a macro view, we see that apart from the obvious requirements for knowing the subject, doing the homework, etc, our leaders, in order to be effective, must also bring personal qualities (maturity, tolerance, patience, flexibility) to the table if they are to succeed. With very rare exceptions, persons do not arrive at maturity or tolerance overnight. We are not born with such attributes. We learn them from personal experience, sometimes bitterly so, and many of us never learn them. We may be persuaded of such demeanours intellectually, but those who exhibit them have come to that stage through life experience, through interactions, through observing successes and failures, through learning by being wrong and recognizing the mistake and avoiding it in future.
In the current narrow margins of political power here, another vital factor in play is the art of negotiation and compromise. We have seen it in operation already. There is more to come. But those abilities, as well, do not spring full blown. They are the result of explorations in that vein, imposed or self-propelled, where individuals acquire those skills by living through situations, sometimes taking years, that lead to successful negotiation and comfortably accepted compromise. While the big stick gets attention in the press, it is largely in reasonable negotiation, by persons accomplished in the art of it, gradually coming to know each other, that processes move forward, in both business and governance, both here and elsewhere. Such skills come from long and repeated exposures; one can only learn them by doing, and sometimes failing, and doing again; speed is generally not in the equation.
Finally, as I noted in the earlier column, for the ordinary citizen, it will take time for us, too, to begin to suss out these deliberations, these proposals, these comings and goings, before we begin to find our own conclusions forming, and, perhaps, our own previous positions changing. In these upheavals, radical changes are in play, and as one headline this week put it, “The changes will take getting used to.” That, too, will not happen overnight. Certainly the pressure must be there for the rectification, replacement, introduction, etc, that we want, but to expect them generally to happen overnight is to court disappointment. By definition, a reasoned and sustainable shift will not come from knee-jerk reactions – it will take time with reason eventually coming to bear.
In the words of the song by the late great Nina Simone:
Everything can be replaced
Every distance is not near.