Because he lived, the earth was a better place

By Dr R Neerunjun Gopee

At different ages and stages of our lives, and also at different times because change is constantly occurring around us, our priorities and perspectives too change towards, we hope, the better.

Since there are so many of us, and each one of us is unique, our thinking as individuals is likely to be unique too. But we also share a commonality, that of being human, and therefore there are bound to be some broad similarities, perhaps because the experiences we undergo are often of the same kind, although there may be differences in how we react to them.

As the end of the year approaches, I am among those who tend to take stock of the year gone by, and before I make any resolutions for the coming year try to draw some lessons from what I have seen, heard, done and read – the latter in particular, because like all domains mine too (medicine and health) is specialized and therefore limited. This means that I can never know everything, and therefore must keep an open mind and learn from as many sources as possible.

I always make it a point to note down, as far as possible, whatever strikes me as being stimulating, insightful or inspirational. By the same token, I tend to go back to these notes around this time of stock-taking as it were, as this provides an opportunity not only for deeper reflection but also to share with others in the hope that they too will appreciate and who knows, benefit, from the rich experience(s) of those who write about them.

Thus, in a preface to the biography (1999) of the famous late astronomer Carl Sagan, author amongst others of ‘Cosmos,’ his biographer Keay Davidson noted that ‘Critics had accused science of robbing the cosmos of old enchantments – gods, angels, astrological forces. …I must say that I not only still like him but respect him more than ever; his personal foibles are far outweighed by his virtues. BECAUSE HE LIVED, THE WORLD IS A BETTER PLACE.’ (capitals added)

Leave the world a better place

There are many well-known people of whom this can be said too – but what about each one of us, at individual level, even if our names never make it to the halls of fame? Don’t we have a duty to leave the world a better place, in however small way this might be? Even if we are able to make a difference in the life of a single person by a considered act, methinks we would still have contributed something.

More than a century ago, writing in the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) of January 20, 1909, Dr Louis Flanders wrote: ‘Let us always bear in mind that the thing that will comfort us when we step down into the valley of the shadow will not be the size of the estate we shall leave behind, not the places of honour we have held; but rather, the reflection that we have been able to relieve some poor sufferer of his mortal pain, that we have been useful men in our generation, and that we may look forward with confidence to the reward which awaits honest labour.’

There is an echo of this same attitude 100 years later almost to the date by Dr Paul Rousseau in JAMA of Jan 18, 2009 writing about the turning off of the ventilator for a 45-year old man suffering from terminal cancer, stoically wished and accepted by his pauper wife with three children whose life and that of the dying husband had been one of unceasing struggle. ‘I wonder,’ observed the doctor, ‘of the thoughtless arrogance, the righteous paternalism, and the perceived self-importance that suffuse our lives, and of the simplicity of life that we seem to have lost. But for this man and woman, the meaning of life transcended the socio-ethnic struggles of a small town in the rural South, for in the end they had nothing, yet they had everything.’(italics added)

Sustainable environment

Another way of thinking about the earth is a major concern of our times: the sustainability of our environment, on which our very survival as a species increasingly depends as we are coming to realize more and more. Global thinking about it was triggered at the Rio Conference on the subject in 1992. Ten years later, in 2002, the French magazine Le Figaro dealt with the topic. One expert referred to the term Homo sapiens, ‘homme sage,’ applied to the human species by the Swedish botanist Carl von Linnaeus who related us, in the 18th century, to the primates, ‘ceux qui sont au premier rang.’ This has been confirmed by genetics, for true enough we are monkeys or simians belonging to the hominid group comprising chimpanzees, gorillas and orangutans.

Unique by virtue of our way of communicating, we consider ourselves the most intelligent of creatures: only man can apprehend the concept of the universe and its biodiversity. Only he can also destroy it or, if he is ‘sage,’ preserve it. We are really gifted for speech and writing… but ‘Qu’en est-il du concret? Pour l’homme moderne, la diversité du biologique s’énonce surtout en termes de destructions ou extinctions d’espèces, de pollutions, de déforestations…Homo sapiens? Et si Linnaeus s’était trompé?’

This worry is reflected in the interview of Nicolas Hulot, whose foundation launched campaigns ‘SOS Mer propre’ and ‘SOS Planète Eau.’ He elaborates on the ‘grand fossé qui s’est creusé entre nos civilisations et la nature,’ and pleads for a rethinking of our relationship with nature, arguing that ‘la question est culturelle. Il n’y a pas d’un côté l’homme et de l’autre côté la nature. Nous devons prendre conscience que les ressources dans lesquelles nous puisons ne sont pas seulement produites par l’industrie, mais qu’elles ont pour source la nature. Cette absence de conscience est à l’origine d’un grand nombre de nos maux.’

Continuing, he notes that ‘on se fourvoie à confondre performance et progrès, croissance quantitative et croissance qualitative,’ adding that we must ‘produire en préservant notre environnement’ but this requires a ‘changement dans nos habitudes’ – which is vital even for our health as it also impacts our environment by the way we consume. And the advice is that ‘ce début de troisième millénaire doit être un nouveau départ. Et tous les actes entrepris devraient tenir compte de leur impact sur les sociétés de demain.’

A sound future

Exhilarating thought, but also fraught with a heavy responsibility — perhaps the more so since we are au premier rang — which we must assume singly and jointly: live today in such a way that there will be a tomorrow to look forward to! Right now we have a wide enough knowledge base that allows to make the small and big changes in the right direction, and science and technology keep expanding that knowledge with innovative ideas and solutions that, more widely adopted, can certainly assure us of a sound future.

But we need patience and perseverance, and must engage in profound thinking before we undertake anything or direct what is to be done. For, as Leoh Ming Pei, a well-known sino-american architect said in an interview to a French magazine ‘il en est du traitement des grands projets comme de la philosophie du bon gouvernement selon Confucius: gardez-vous d’aller trop vite dans la conduite des affaires, et n’ayez pas en vue de petits avantages personnels.’

All decisions must be well pondered, but once one gets down to implement of course one must then be expeditious. He gave the example of his assignment to refurbish the Grand Louvre Museum in Paris. He had to research deeply ‘couche après couche, descendre dans l’histoire’ to get the necessary perspective whence ‘l’intuition surgit spontanément, mais provient du puids très profound de la connaissance.’

He explained his plan to Francois Mitterrand ‘qui a tout compris, et accepté’ because of his ‘grande rigueur intellectuelle.’ The implication is that without leaders possessing such intellectual rigour we may well embark on projects which run counter to our genuine needs. And it would be well to remember that by intellectual rigour is not meant the parrying of shots by sophistry in debate but rather the genuine engagement in high-level, serious dialectic that has the potential to lift us way beyond the pedestrian level. Even if populist discourse is a necessity, it must perforce be preceded by profound thinking – the equivalent of the Vedic satsang which seeks to discover metaphysical truth.

On this issue, the fundamental quest of life, Leoh Min Pei seemed to have given some thought. Asked whether he would like to draw the gate of hell or of paradise, ‘vous qui dites ‘respecter mais tenir à distance des dieux et des démons’ he replied, ‘j’aimerais visiter l’enfer pour voir à quoi cela ressemble. N’ayant pas la foi, je ne le crains pas; en revanche, je doute de beaucoup me plaire, entouré de soixante-dix vierges, au paradis…’

Another problem that is unsettling many parts of the world is violence of all kinds, best exemplified this year perhaps by the uprisings in the Middle East and the conflict in Congo which seem to be the most widely reported and therefore the more visible. Interestingly, in its issue of March 1998 the French magazine Quo had an article on what it called the ‘mal du siècle’ – ‘Devenons-nous de plus en plus violents?’ and concluded in the affirmative, seeing endemic violence across society in schoolyards, underground trains and stations, the big and small screens, in suburbs of major capitals of the world, and involving younger people, including children.

However, boldly optimistic, Steven Pinker of Harvard University has, as I mentioned in my article last week, written a book titled ‘The Better Angels of our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined’, described as an exploration within psychology, neuroscience, politics and economics, and arguing that all forms of violence have seen huge long-term declines.

I am prepared to end on that hopeful note, that maybe after all the earth is becoming a better place, and wish our compatriots of Christian faith a Merry Christmas.

* Published in print edition on 23 December 2011

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