Experience Is Not Enough



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            HAVE YOU EVER DIALED a wrong number and been answered rather irritably by the person on the other end, as if you had done it on purpose, and they had never done the same thing? How do you react if someone calls your number by mistake?

            Not long ago, my phone rang, and when I answered it, the voice of the elderly lady caller was most apologetic, and said: "Oh, I'm dreadfully sorry; I've got the wrong number. Please excuse me for disturbing you." I hastened to assure her not to worry; it wasn't a problem. But the politeness and sincerity in her voice made me feel good; it was as if I were talking with someone I knew well; I felt that this was the kind of person that one could easily get along with. In an age where brusqueness and couldn’t-care-less-ness is all too common, it is pleasant to meet someone ― even if it's only over the phone ― who respects others enough to be polite and sincere; it kind of restores one's flagging faith in humanity.

            Once, in Sydney, while sitting in a car waiting for the lights to change to green, I heard a tremendous sneeze, and, looking around to see who had made it, my eyes locked into the somewhat embarrassed look of a man in the car next to ours. What passed between us was a sort of communion that remains in my mind, for it was as if, having sneezed so loudly, and drawn attention to himself, his barriers were down for a moment. We smiled at each other knowingly, and then the lights changed, and we drove off. But I felt that because of such an opening, a friendship could easily have developed between us, complete strangers to each other though we were.

            A year after this, I was in a crowded bus in India, and had to stand up for over an hour, as there were no empty seats; but I didn't mind as I had no choice except to stand, as people in India seldom give up their seats to anyone, and it wasn't a long trip anyway. Standing there alone, among so many people, with no companions but my thoughts, into my mind ― though why, I can’t say ― came the memory of The Great Sneeze, and I felt a sense of joy and lightness come over me. It was hard to restrain myself from laughing out aloud about it, and if I smiled to myself no one seemed to notice or care; in India, they probably think you're mad anyway, no matter what you do or don't do!

            Now, anyone with a bit of imagination, and who has experienced the sudden and unexpected upsurge of a fond memory that made them feel warm and good ― and I'm sure it has happened to most people, if not to everyone, at one time or another ― will understand that I hadn't had too much of the hot Indian sun on my bald pate, and will probably empathize with me.

            And how have you felt when, out on the street, you almost walked head-on into someone coming from the opposite direction, and each one, in an effort to make way for the other, turned aside, only to come up against each other again; so, once more, both parties dodged, with the same result, until finally, you managed to disengage yourselves?

            It is really quite funny, though at the time maybe a bit exasperating; but, because both parties dodged, it showed a willingness to consider each other; if one or the other had been stubborn, and kept on walking straight ahead, the other party would have to give way, sort of like in a game of 'chicken' or brinkmanship. Try to observe the situation next time it happens, if my telling of it here has not robbed it of its spontaneity by then. And my talking of this brings to mind the well known incident from the story of Robin Hood, where Robin was about to cross a stream by means of a narrow plank, but saw a giant of a man stepping onto the other end. Both men, unwilling to give way to the other and 'lose face' thereby, advanced onto the plank, where they met in the middle and attacked each other with their staves, and were knocked into the stream. Fortunately, they saw the funny side of this, so became firm friends instead of enemies, as could easily have happened, and John Little ― for such was his name ― was renamed Little John by Robin Hood, and has been called so ever since.

            What a lovely thing it is to communicate with others on the same frequency, and to know that you are being understood! What a lovely thing it is to meet someone and smile, just for the joy of communication, and with no other motive! The fact that we live in such huge communities today, where there is a lot of fear, tension and suspicion, should not prevent us from seeing the possibilities of such communication; we need it so much, and so should open ourselves to it, even though we will probably sometimes be rebuffed. Some of us lock ourselves up within stern facades, pretending to be other than we are, and, after a while, we forget that it's only a masquerade, and take it for real, thus becoming prisoners of ourselves. Certainly, we all know that appearances can be deceptive, and that if we always take people at face value, we might sometimes be cheated and disappointed; but, we should not conclude from this that all people are cheaters. Are you a cheater? And, if you have suffered painful experiences at the hands of others, that is all the more reason for you not to cause suffering to others in similar ways: you know how it feels.

            Now, because no one really wants to suffer, we may suppose that some people ― even though they may be only very few ― have learned enough from suffering to have made up their minds not to hurt others in any way. There are good people in the world, and we should not allow the publicity about the crazy people, who commit all kinds of crime and folly, to blind us to this.

            Everyone experiences many things as they pass through life. But it is not enough just to have had many experiences; we must learn something from them; only then is experience useful. Unfortunately, not everyone does learn, and some people who have had many experiences might have learned less from them than people who have had fewer than they. So, to say of someone: "He's had lots of experience," might not really mean as much as we suppose it to mean.

            Looking back on the five years that I spent in the Refugee Camps of Southeast Asia, the thing that saddened me the most was not so much the suffering of the refugees, which was a result rather than a cause, but the fact that many of them seemed to have learned very little from all their pain and suffering. Was I too naive and idealistic to expect refugees not to take advantage of opportunities to exploit and tyrannize their own people? There were many instances of refugees stealing mail ― and sometimes huge amounts of it ― from Post Offices in the Camps while they worked there as volunteers; there was large scale pilferage of food supplies, theft of private property, and generally, where there was an opportunity for self-gain at the expense of the community, there would be no shortage of takers. Was it too much to expect them to consider the feelings of their fellow refugees, having undergone the same difficulties in their escape from a common enemy ― things like being attacked, robbed, raped, terrorized and killed by pirates, running out of food and water at sea, with people in the boats dying of starvation and dehydration, overloaded boats being hit and swamped by storms, and so on? Obviously it was, for all this had failed to create a bond between them, and unite them in their adversity. Thus, life in the Camps went on as it did outside, with corruption flourishing wherever it could, with people quarrelling, fighting, stealing, cheating, and sometimes killing each other, people drinking to excess if they had the money to do so, without a thought for those who had no money and couldn't afford to buy basic necessities, or give their children a little treat. No, not everyone learned from their pain, and some used their good fortune at being safe and free to cause more suffering to others. Many were quick to blame others for their situation, and complain about it, instead of looking at it intelligently, to see what they might make of it Many were very lazy, and would not lift a finger to do anything to clean or improve the Camps, unless ordered to do so by the Camp authorities, but would sit around all day long, smoking, drinking, gambling, quarrelling, or feeling sorry for themselves. Then they wondered why Western countries reached saturation point from taking in refugees, and began to suffer from 'compassion fatigue; no country needs or wants people like that, already having plenty of its own. It is not a right that people who flee their countries should be accepted for resettlement by another country; it is not a right, but a privilege and a blessing !

            One time, in Bataan Refugee Camp, the Camp having become excessively dirty because of the carelessness of the refugees, and overgrown with long grass because of the monsoon rains, the camp administration summoned the representatives of such refugee groups as the Boy Scouts, the Catholic Youth, and the Buddhist Youth (known as 'The Buddhist Family,' or 'Gia-Dinh Phat-Tu’ in Vietnamese), to a meeting, and asked them to 'volunteer' to clean up certain areas of the Camp. Having no choice but to accept an assignment, the Buddhist Youth were given the job of cleaning up the cemetery area. On the day appointed for this, they assembled in the temple, and someone came to ask me for the Buddhist flag. When I asked them what they wanted it for, they said that they were going to clean up the cemetery. I remonstrated, in vain, that they didn't need the Buddhist flag to do something useful for the community, but they insisted on having it, and off they marched through the Camp to the cemetery, with the flag held high in front of them. If they had not been 'asked' to clean up, they would never have done it on their own initiative, and I say this from my long experience of them. All that I ever saw them interested in was playing and singing, and, while this is alright for small children, many of these were young adults. Then, when there was no alternative but to do it, they made a big show of it, and let everyone see what they were doing by carrying the Buddhist flag! They and I obviously had different ideas about Buddhism, and I must confess that my understanding of Buddhism seemed rather out of place in the Camps, where any mention of social service or community work was often met with a look of disbelief. There were exceptions to this, of course, but they were exceptions, not the norm. It has amazed me, therefore ― but I'm very happy about it ― how so many Vietnamese refugees have made out extremely well in the West, in both study and business; many of them have worked very hard, and have succeeded in what they have undertaken. But it has been largely for themselves; to get them involved in community work is very difficult, and Vietnamese who have tried have told me of their frustration therefrom. Might their reluctance to do something for others be a result of the forced labor programs imposed upon them by the communist regime in their homeland? Has this killed or stunted their ability to feel and care for others? I don't know, but I do know that my attempts, by word and example, to get the refugees in the Camps to do something for their community had little success.

            Once in Palawan Camp, I called some of the young people who frequented the temple to help clear a plot of waste ground behind the temple, so that we might grow some vegetables there. Nobody had used this ground for anything except dumping garbage in all the years ― almost ten ― that the Camp had been there, so it was heartening to see it becoming clear and its potential revealed as the work progressed.

            I had only a small group of people to work with me, and it was a bit difficult to maintain their interest and attention as the days passed; there was a marked tendency for them to stop work and drift away if I went off to do something else, and almost none of them took the initiative to begin work without me, although there was nothing at all technical about it that required supervision.

            To counteract this tendency, I explained to them that they shouldn't think they were working for me or because of me, but with me for the sake of others, because if they thought they were working for or because of me, they would stop work when I left the Camp, whereas if they understood, clearly, that we were working for the community, out of love for others, they would continue working and working with joy ― long after I had gone. Sadly, they didn't seem to understand this, and so, after I was no longer there, the work ceased, and the ground went back to garbage, which meant ― did it not? ― that they had been working for or because of me, which is not what I wanted at all. (In actual fact, I had been working for them!)

            If we see something that needs doing, and if we have the capacity and time to do it, it is infinitely better to do it on our own initiative than being told or asked to do it by someone else; we do not always need to depend upon authority if we use our minds and accept the responsibility that comes from being members of a community; we do not need someone standing behind us with a gun, telling us what to do and what not to do.

            This particular task of cleaning the waste ground had a number of interesting side effects: not only did we transform something that no-one else had thought of using into something useful, but there were several lessons in it for those with eyes to see. Palawan Camp is situated on a beach on an island in south Philippines. It is not a very nice beach, of course, otherwise there would have been a tourist hotel there instead of a Refugee Camp. Because of its situation, the ground was full of hard coral rocks, and so our work of clearing the ground necessitated digging up and smashing some of these rocks. This was quite difficult, and we found that if we just smashed away at them with a sledge hammer, it entailed a great expenditure of energy, whereas if we looked at the rock from different angles, we might be able to find a weak spot which, when struck, might cause the rock to split easily: a case of mind over muscle.

            Then, on the other side of this ground stood the residence of a French-Canadian Catholic nun who was noted for being a bit fierce; someone had also told me that she was not very sympathetic towards the Buddhists in the temple because the sound of their chanting (which, I will be the first to admit, was a bit difficult to bear, as they often insisted on using a microphone and amplifier for it, even when there were only a handful of people; it was totally unnecessary!), was not music to her ears. Anyway, while we were at work one day, she came out to me and said: "I'm so pleased with what you are doing; it looks so good! And I would like to offer you something to buy refreshments for your workers," and she pressed a 100-Peso note into my hand! We became quite good friends after that, because she, at least, had understood that what we were doing was not just for ourselves. And the best thing was, we had no idea, when we started work, what kind of effect it would have upon the nun; indeed, we didn't even think about her, let alone expect anything from her. So, when she came out with praise and a gift, it was so much nicer because it was unexpected.

            On top of this, other refugees, seeing what we were doing, were inspired to do something similar around their own quarters, and soon there were several tiny garden plots, where there’d been only garbage and weeds before. And the vegetables that were grown and harvested from our plot of ground were only another result of our efforts (and, in my opinion, not the most important result either).

            The coral rocks lying around the Camp were regarded by most people as obstacles or nuisances, I suppose, and as far as I could see, no-one had found a use for them. But, following my life long commitment to recycling, and finding uses for things that are wasted or regarded by others as useless, I began to look at these rocks and wonder what could be made of them. There were some trees in the Camp, but no seats for people to sit on in the shade and relax. Wooden seats would not have long withstood the voracious appetites of the ubiquitous termites, or the careless usage of some of the refugees. Seeing the need, therefore, and how to fill it, I asked some people to help me to drag out some of the rocks that would serve our purpose, set them in place beneath the trees, then cemented their tops flat, so that they might be used as seats; and then, before the cement dried, I wrote various 'messages' in it that I thought might be edifying. Thus, what had formerly been useless became useful, and, while most people would only use them to park their butts on for a while, some would, I am sure, learn something from those 'sermons in stones,' and they have probably been carried all over the world since then.

            If we will just break away from convention and the 'herd mentality' at times, and look at things somewhat differently than others look at them, we shall probably make some surprising discoveries, from which will flow a feeling of joy that surpasses the happiness we seek; it is not really far away.

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Last Updated on:  03/02/2001 05:38 AM