21 February 2017

The end-point of giving

Thirty three years ago I scrawled a quote from Herman Hesse at the top of the blackboard in the Prefects’ Room of Royal College: “To act is all; reputation, nothing”.  Panduka Karunanayake, a fellow prefect back then and now a doctor and a senior lecturer at the Medical Faculty, University of Colombo found fault with it.  He said, ‘you could say “the act is all” but then you have to say “the reputation, none” or else say “the act is everything and the reputation nothing”.  

Panduka was looking for grammatical consistency.  I wasn’t a student of literature and hadn’t heard of the term ‘poetic license’.  He was correct but I was not in error either.  Rather, Hesse was not in error.  

Such quotes were scribbled on the blackboard.  Some remained for a week or more and others were replaced in a day or less.  Not too long afterwards the following quote appeared: “Do what you think is right, whether or not the world appreciates”.  

These lines came to me this morning as I was reflecting on what has become an annual event organized by a small group of people.  Their organization, ‘Heal the Life’ was born when the mother of one of them died of cancer.  The family had thereafter organized various programs for cancer patients in her memory.  Friends had joined later and they had formed a group called ‘Heal the Life’.  

Small interventions.  They have a home-based palliative care program where doctors take medicine to patients.  They also conduct medical camps.  Most importantly they conduct awareness programs which increase the chance of early detection and therefore timely medical intervention to save lives.  

They are soft, these people.  They believe, for instance, that music can play an important role in the overall curative process.  Every year they organize a concern called “Sonduru Rathriya” to raise funds for the various programs they conduct.  This is the fourth time they are doing this.  

Reflecting on the work that these exemplary human being do, I was reminded of a film and more precisely a quote from the film.  That’s what took me to those two quotes.  

David Gale is the main character of the intriguing exploration of capital punishment in the film by Alan Parker titled ‘The Life of David Gale’.  Gale is a professor who is on death row.  He was a professor of philosophy at the University of Texas.  What’s relevant to us here is not the discussion on the pros and cons of the death penalty or how the plot unravels but a classic quote from one of the professor’s lectures.

After a short comment on fantasies where, following Pascal, he contends that fantasies are necessarily unrealistic, Gale makes an interesting observation on happiness.  He borrows from Lacan.   

“So the lesson of Lacan is, living by your wants will never make you happy. What it means to be fully human is to strive to live by ideas and ideals and not to measure your life by what you've attained in terms of your desires but those small moments of integrity, compassion, rationality, even self-sacrifice. Because in the end, the only way that we can measure the significance of our own lives is by valuing the lives of others.”

Disappointment is written into acquisition, whether it be wealth, a life partner, future(s) for children, honors, status or anything else, as Pascal points out, for the moment you get what you seek you cannot want it any more.  Pascal claims that desire must have its objects perpetually absent.  We can also add, that this disappointment often engenders other desires usually in the form of seeking the same object but in greater volumes or better quality. We want more money, a better position, a car that is of higher value, more adventures sexual, romantic and otherwise; essentially things that end with ‘er’ such as better, greater, higher or things that are preceded by ‘more’.  It simply doesn’t end, and if ever we look back at the journey carefully and honestly we’ll encounter a road cluttered with disappointments.  ‘Enough’ is in our vocabulary and even in the deeper precincts of our consciousness but in our day-to-day, in our ‘this very moments’, it just does not figure.  

And so we have the Lacan proposition.

To this I would like to add something.  The gift or the act of giving can of course make us happy.  What then?  Following Pascal, once the act is done, there’s disappointment or rather a quick waning of joy.  If this leads to more giving and if a large number of people taking the ‘giving’ route rather than the ‘getting’ or ‘acquiring’, then of course it’s wholesome.  I would like to propose that the giving should be prompted not by the prospect of experiencing happiness or witnessing the joy that the receiver experiences, but instead by the simple matter of doing what needs to be done, regardless of the consequences, regardless most importantly of whether or not the world appreciates.

That’s something that the late Christie Gunasekara, then the Vice Principal of Royal College, ‘Kataya’ to one and all, taught me.  Facing a possible embarrassing situation after being arrested and locked up in the Cinnamon Gardens Police Station (and released a couple of hours later thanks to Kataya’s intervention), I asked him what could happen.  I was a prefect.  I knew enough about hierarchies to understand that there would be some who would salivate at the prospect of ridiculing a prefect.  The ‘crime’ was that I had jumped into school around midnight with a bunch of other prefects and rung the school bell.  I got caught and those who apprehended me probably didn’t even know that others were involved.  

‘It’s a schoolboy prank.  It will be news for a couple of days and then it will be forgotten,’ he told me in all his wisdom acquired through decades of dealing with schoolboys and being immersed in ‘school culture’.  

That was a relief, but that is not what remained with me.  He added, ‘you do what you believe is right, whether or not the world appreciates’.  

Today, 33 years later, I realize that ‘the world’ includes myself and that following Kataya’s Principle, the ‘doing’ should not involve a consideration of possible appreciation by anyone, including oneself.  One does, not because the doing makes one feel good about oneself but because it is a ‘has to be done thing’.  Do it, move on.  It is about valuing the lives of others; not ourselves, in fact whether or not anyone values our lives for the particular act.  

That’s probably what is truly meant by the Buddhist notion, Daana Paramithava or ‘the perfection of giving’.   It’s about being able to give and about someone worthy of receiving.  Give and with the act of giving end it.  No advertisements necessary  — not of the intent nor the act.  To act, as Hesse observed, is all.  The reputation? Nothing or ‘none’ as Dr Panduka Karunanayake would have it.