NEW: John Addis

I have been guilty of it myself – forgetting that there is more to this existence than the balance sheet and the business plan.

Solitary refinement

No matter what you do, nor the possessions you have, contentedness will prove elusive if you’re not engaged by a wider world.

Last Monday my son came home, dragging his bag along the ground as if it were a cat on a lead. Spilling from his fingers was a sheet of wrinkled paper.

“What’s that?” I asked.

Recognising that it was an object of no inherent significance, he replied in the way that kids often do: “Just something.” He handed it to me, disposing of his obligation.

The sheet was folded into three, the size of an envelope, promising a bill. On the visible panel was what appeared to be a black and white picture of the head of a very elegant bird.

As I unfolded it the image became clear. It was a bird — a wading bird — perched resolutely on one leg as water rounded its only contact with the earth. I wasn’t sure of its breed — it was too small for a flamingo, the only such bird that I can claim to recognise — but even as a photocopy it was obvious the image had been carefully chosen. It had a purpose to fulfil, a message to carry.

I turned the sheet over to see an intelligent, warm, open face. It wasn’t a shot that was posed. There was no effort to make an impression on the part of the subject, nor had the person behind the lens acted spontaneously. Someone was happy to take a picture, someone was happy to have their picture taken.

The face wasn’t vain or forceful in the way adolescent boys of his age can sometimes appear. He seemed like a man happy within himself, a man who had found his métier before he had started his search for it.

Beneath the face were a few lines of text: The date of his birth, his death and the time when his friends and family would gather at his school to honour his passing.

This isn’t an uncommon story, but its telling has a purpose.

Perhaps you’re having a really bad day. Perhaps your most important staff member has just resigned, or you’ve just surpassed your bank overdraft limit and you’ve yet to pay your staff. Or you’re exhausted from yet another 70-hour week.

Perhaps you’re taking your frustrations out on others: Can’t be bothered with a courteous smile for the person who hands you your coffee in the morning? Blowing your horn at every driving indiscretion you witness? No time for small talk with the postie, or the checkout chick, or your children?

By venting our frustrations on others — even if it’s only through our silence — not only do we deny a grieving mother the opportunity to take strength from our empathy, we also exclude ourselves from the possibility of judging our lives by more meaningful yardsticks than the material.

In Western countries, suffering doesn’t wail or scream. Unlike in the Middle East or Africa, it has no public face. It exists quietly, painfully, behind front doors and within the capsules of cars. If we don’t listen for it, engage with it, we miss the opportunity to affirm not just how lucky we are to have the lives that we do, but to actually be here at all.


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Keith Peel at writes: These are inspiring, admirable and noble thoughts, and I’d argue commonly held wisdom, yet we are paralysed as a society to act on our best intentions.

Precisely how do we take the great leap into the abyss of immaterialism and trust an uncaring world, where survival of the fittest seems to be the dominant ideology, where governments and fund managers scare us to death with the idea that we will live an undignified life without a million dollars in super, where quality education will be the privilege of the asset rich and a new class of land owners will hold older, poorer, if soul searching citizens, to mercenary bricks and mortar knifepoint.

Pity the middle class poor, who have no choice but to fight on for economic survival. We are at the mercy of an increasingly voracious competitive, measurement-based society. And we are many.

In the towers that shade the city streets there are thousands of people secretly harbouring a desire, a penchant, for a menaingful life, yet afraid to look over the edge. (Probably becuase they’d lose their job, as much as liberate their soul!)

We toil away quietly in the vaults and corrdiors of banks and telcos, serving the tape measurers and technocrats, driven ever onward by the lure of performance bonuses, trapped in the omnipresent state of anxiety and held to emotional ransom to being good parents for our beloved children.

We are not seeking an ostentatious life, but a just, equitable life. A secure life. The class war has changed. It used to be war between the owners of capital and the hands of workers; it’s now a class war between those who can afford to think and act meaningfully and those who can’t.



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