A gentle, holy and wise man, his words sounded odd at the time. “You start out thinking you are going to change the world and very quickly realize your are not, but as the years pass you realize that it does not matter”. It seemed always a bleak piece of advice, if there was no chance of changing the world, then why bother at all? The gentle man’s words were probably more worldly wise than ambitions to be ‘significant’, to be someone who made ‘a difference’.
The brilliant Paul Eddington, whose acting career brought laughter to millions, seemed to share the perspective. In a television interview when very ill, he commented:
“A journalist once asked me what I would like my epitaph to be and I said I think I would like it to be ‘He did very little harm’. And that’s not easy. Most people seem to me to do a great deal of harm. If I could be remembered as having done very little, that would suit me.”
To aspire to do little harm seemed odd, maybe it was easy for someone who had reached the top to make such a suggestion, or maybe it was an understanding that only became possible because he had reached the top.
The passing years slowly bring an appreciation of the gentle man’s words. Few people change the world and fewer still change it for the better and Paul Eddington’s minimisation of harm becomes a more realistic ambition. The achievements become personal ones; ones that do not even merit mention in conversation and certainly merit no public attaention.
It is a week which prompted returning to the pages of a forty year old book. “Our Late Member” by Ernest Raymond was the prize for getting top marks in the exams in 1976. Published in 1972, the novel traces the story of a Liberal Member of Parliament through the 1930s and the Second World War until he loses his seat in the Labour landslide of 1945. It is more than thirty years since I read it yet its storyline remains fresh. Roddy’s life is marked by tragedy and grief; one son is killed on active service, the other is hanged for murder; his years of constituency work are of no avail in the changing political climate; and finally his wife, the only person he has left in the world, is in danger of losing her life through illness. Yet the character triumphs and finally delights in little victories.
Failed ambitions do not matter, they were probably never feasible in the first place. Contentment is in causing little harm, in the little triumphs.