A few years ago I was invited to speak to the employees of a large international environmental NGO. On the basis of my briefing and some research I formed an initial picture of the situation I was connecting with. Lightly held, no rx it was helpful as a platform upon which to build ideas, purchase seek a way of entry, page and develop the talk’s content. It’s not always possible, but I like to arrive early, have a look around the premises, chat with a few people, and allow my senses to excavate the non-verbal, cultural field along whose corridors I prowl before the appointed time.
On this occasion I was given a walk around the building, before my host drew me aside and abruptly confided that she was intending to hand in her notice. She felt sidelined and her confidence was suffering. She felt that the organisation gave only lip service to her department’s endeavours and that her job was little more than ticking boxes and administrating the logistics of a few poorly regarded in-house development programmes. It didn’t feel like an entirely balanced perspective but it also rang true for many similar organisations that I’ve encountered in the third sector. With a purpose that dwarfs the small considerations of individuals, they have a reputation for being more exclusively task-orientated than the for-profit corporations, and do not always tend to the learning, welfare, and sustainability issues of their own, often very dedicated, people.
I was left to continue my wanderings, gazing at photographs of poignant beauty, the iconic symbols of past campaigns and feeling the depth of pathos behind this organisation’s brave and ambitious mission – a King Canute, hurling invocations at the rolling incoming surf. It was time for me to enter the hall and make my offering. Palpable and raw, I could feel the undercurrent of self-doubt, anger, frustration, fear, and grief, alive and moving in the room. The confident, professional assurance of the organisation’s reception foyer felt paper-thin, riven and peeling. Like so many similar organisations pledged to tackling environmental and social collapse at scale, the air was thick with the unspoken thoughts of those who have peered into the future and found it frightening. Elephants crowded the room but none were named. Like warm breath on chill air my initial impressions misted into form, assumed shapes, dissolved, and then became more easily visible. I began my talk.
“You scout the terrain, gather your research, deploy the honed professional skills of your people and mount another campaign. You have some impact, win a few small victories but ultimately retreat, retrench, re-gather, and try to hold ground. Eventually overwhelmed you fall back. You assess the situation, draw on the latest science, develop new tactics and mount a new campaign. You reap some success, snatch some early victories, struggle to maintain a footing in the shifting, collapsing sand upon which you stand, fall back to the next redoubt and …..retrench, re-gather, and try to hold ground. Ultimately, you retreat, searching the terrain that will favour another stand.….”
I don’t think they found it gloomy. I think they felt relief at having it named. In any case this was just the beginning of the talk.
Today, in the news, yet more data spewed into our homes showing that the number of men viewing child porn on their screens in the UK is vastly in excess of previous estimates. The police, swamped, are submerged under a different kind of incoming tide. Two days ago, the reporting of a single village in Romania losing one or more girl children every week to traffickers; a convicted trafficker interviewed in prison, smirking, tells the interviewer he will re-commence his ‘business’ once released from prison. Two of our volunteer assistants, here at Embercombe, raise money for the Oinofyta refugee camp in Athens, as thousands more displaced people arrive daily on the shores of Italy, Greece, and Turkey. Perhaps less attention grabbing yet frequently criticised and only very partially appreciated, more than five million public sector employees struggling daily to administer the infrastructure that glues our society together. Those whose career choices have guided them to some kind of vocational work that is motivated by the desire to protect, care, and serve, have the quiet satisfaction of knowing that their efforts count towards the greater good. The price, however, is not always fully accounted.
Whether you stand by the coral reefs as their dancing, slanted colours bleed into the warming ocean, scoop lifeless young bodies off the pounding shore of the promised land, clasp and rock the agony of a people whose blood was shed by weapons our country made and sold, battle with grinding cynicism as yet another government twists and squirms in its efforts to find scapegoats, for the sake of all that is beautiful, do not turn away from the sun.
Anyone who has risked loving, lost, and then loved again, knows that feeling deeply comes at a price. Even if we lived an entire life saturated in awe at the resplendent glory of fully knowing and experiencing what it means to be alive on Earth, one day we have to say goodbye. Worst of all for those who are left behind to learn what depths loneliness encompasses. This is the greatest gift our human experience offers. To travel the full circle, taste it all, wrap our arms around life, laugh and cry, and howl. The behavior of the truly sane. An entirely appropriate reaction to the unfathomable, revelatory journey of standing in the vortex of a life, eyes open, conscious, and feeling it all.
This is why, if you have chosen work that in some form or another gives to society, to nature, to something bigger than the fatuous, narcissistic, selfish altar of consumerism, then you have sprinkled holy water on your own head, and one day when the hilltop beacons are lit and the people’s stories rise again in gratitude, we will sing to you.
You see, you were right when you put your hand up and stepped forward. You were right when you came with gifts to the new-born child, you were right when you planted that garden, you were right when you said ‘Can I help?’ Perhaps the silence of one hand clapping feels insufficient, but there are few gifts we can ever grant ourselves outside of knowing what the right thing is, and then doing it, irrespective of the outcome.