Guyana is in a period of gloom, who can doubt it. The economy is approaching recession and is likely to suffer further as the global financial turmoil continues and gets much worse. The educational system, despite the results of a handful of outstanding young Guyanese, continues in crisis. The future of GPL remains fragile with all that may mean for a new purgatory of unreliable electricity supply. Guyana has experienced a wave of shockingly brutal crimes which, though slackening now, unnerved us all. Emigration continues with no sign of slackening – this is one of a very few countries where the population is not increasing.
This doom-laden list could be extended. The political animosities based on race still lurk below the surface and, unless there is a miracle of mutual goodwill, the two or so years left between now and the next general election campaign are bound to be a troubled time.
As I describe the depressing scene, you may think I must be joking when I say that what is needed is hope and enthusiasm in the living of our lives. But that is exactly what is needed.
For a start, neither personal sorrow nor personal happiness flows only or even mainly out of national difficulties on the one hand or national success on the other. Long ago, in 1591, an Italian writer, Giovanni Florio, counted the ten pains of death for any man; they do not contain any obvious political distress.
To wait for one who never comes,
To be in bed and not to sleep,
To serve well and not to please,
To have a horse that will not go,
To be sick and lack the cure,
To be a prisoner without hope,
To lose the way where you would journey,
To stand at a door that none will open,
To have a friend who would betray you,
These are the ten pains of death.
And of course, the opposite also is true. We can find within our individual selves the means of deep satisfaction, sensual and intellectual and spiritual, without the slightest recourse to political stimulus or state favour.
What we do privately is all-important. Look into Sigmund Freud’s famous book Civilisation and its Discontents. He wrote this near the end of his life and in it he says that he found that “work and love” were the only ways in which human nature can come close to real satisfaction: “work and love” are the sovereign remedies. I think Freud was right – love certainly, and work also, if you include in work the hard but marvellous disciplines of sport.
Yet, as always, for me, Samuel Johnson is the best teacher on the human condition. “It is by studying little things,” he wrote, “ that we attain the great art of having as much happiness as possible.” And he went on to write: “The main of life is made up of small incidents.” The fact is that too much of any bitterness in our lives comes from impossible expectations. Johnson was himself quick to irritability and despair but he saw clearly where the truth lay. The great sin to fight is “a refusal to be pleased,” with its sour determination always to find fault, always to look on the gloomy side of things, always to seek out the worst in people.
We have a duty to ourselves and to our children not only to try and create good standards of personal performance and behaviour around our own lives, but also to enjoy, make the best of, what life offers us day by day. There is really no other sensible way to live.
I was once asked to give an address and I called the talk Public Recovery through Private Performance. It is a theme I believe should run through the life of the nation. Amidst public woe there is always space and opportunity for private satisfaction and private achievement. I believe it is perfectly possible for the country to recover from any low point in its fortunes. But if the improvement I see as perfectly possible should happen – and I think we must do all we can to make it happen – it will take time.
In any period when things are bad, when life is hard, when incompetence and corruption and unbelievable nonsense exist, when stubborn mutual animosity, violence and brutality wring the heart of the nation, I commend again and again the advice of Dr Joyce Jonas in an excellent article called Limbo Dancing written a considerable time ago which I often quote.
“Where the moral and ethical values of a society offer no sure foothold, the solution has to come from within. The individual must create values for himself, and for herself. Courtesy, punctuality, a gracious manner, concern for others, refusal to speak negatively, cultivation of a loving home, honest work – these are some of the values you see in a few wonderful people you meet everyday. These values are the web of hope and faith they have woven for themselves in the moral emptiness of a changing society.”
In the end it comes down to private faith and personal performance – a strongly held private faith that life must be lived well whatever the circumstances. In this depressing and dangerous time I think each of us must individually decide to create around each of our lives, through our daily efforts, a patch of honesty and efficiency and good will and helpfulness and creativity as far as we are able. We each can try to clear such ground every day of our lives until one day the patches will grow in number and extent and merge at last into a land that is bright with promise and achievement.