Sitting one night on the Filipino island of Negros, in a house that had walls made from assorted pieces of wood and a roof of corrugated iron, I wondered at the teenage girls clustered around a black and white television. The programme was from Manila or somewhere and seemed to be about people living show business lifestyles; having not a word of Tagalog, I couldn’t be sure.
It seemed bizarre; there they were, sitting in a shanty, watching pictures of people who lived unimaginably extravagant lifestyles; why weren’t they organizing to change things? Why weren’t they protesting? Perhaps you reach a point where you realize that there are few people who can change the world and that you aren’t one of them.
A month ago, I sat with a friend in Bujumbura, the capital of Burundi, one of the poorest nations in the world. Looking out at the streets through which we drove, at scenes of unrelenting poverty, I leant against the window and said, ‘Clement, do you never get depressed?’
He laughed aloud and looked at me. ‘Depressed, Ian? Depressed? This is Africa, there is too much to do to have time to be depressed’.
Maybe he was right, maybe pondering things achieved nothing. Maybe the best you can do is to do what you can and try to sleep at the end of the day knowing that you couldn’t have done anything more. Perhaps you have to create your own reality. Perhaps the best to which most of us can aspire is being able to sing with integrity the opening verse of the traditional Irish song The Parting Glass:
Of all the money e’er I had, I spent it in good company;
And all the harm I’ve ever done, alas was done to none but me;
And all I’ve done for want of wit, to memory now I can’t recall,
So fill me to the parting glass, goodnight and joy be with you all.
To be able say, with honesty, that one hadn’t done much harm in the world would not be such a bad conclusion. Wasn’t that the epitaph the actor Paul Eddington sought? ‘He didn’t do much harm’.
Perhaps the young Filipinas had a wisdom beyond their years; perhaps they knew there was not much they could do to make the world better, but, for certain, they would not make it worse. On a New Year’s Day, perhaps the best resolution is to try not to cause much harm in 2013.