History never confesses.
“Guyana cannot be allowed to slip into a state of ethnic division or social polarization. Every leader, organization and citizen has a duty to prevent a widening of the gulf.”
I recently read an account of the life and work of the Russian writer, Anton Chekhov. In a time when, above all, the country needs civility in discourse and relationships, it is good to consider the life of one of the most sensible, open-minded and civilized men who ever lived.
Anton Chekhov, born in 1860, became a doctor and practiced his profession with great devotion. But he also turned himself into one of Russia’s greatest writers. In a wonderfully creative life of only 44 years he was able to divide his time between “medicine . . my lawful wife and literature . . . mistress.” He wrote perfect short stories of shining lucidity, and his plays – the celebrated Uncle Vanya, The Seagull and The Cherry Orchard, among others – revolutionized the theater of his day and have provided succeeding generations with vivid insights into how men and women suffer and exult, love and hate, when living even the most ordinary and uneventful lives: “People,” Chekhov pointed out, “eat their dinner, just eat their dinner, and in the meantime their happiness is taking shape or their lives are being destroyed.”
As a doctor, Chekhov tended thousands of peasants in a clinic on his estate, planned and helped build schools, endowed libraries, and scraped together money and support for a multitude of other causes. This first-hand involvement with day-to-day practicalities made him scornful of all-or-nothing recipes for universal salvation. He was once accused of writing a story that lacked “ideology.” “But doesn’t the story,” Chekhov responded, “protest against lying from start to finish? Isn’t that an ideology?”
In a famous letter to the editor of a journal which had begun to publish his work, he outlined his credo: “I am neither liberal, nor conservative, nor gradualist, nor monk, nor indifferentist . . I look upon tags and labels as prejudices. My holy of holies is the human body, health, intelligence, talent, inspiration, love and freedom from violence and lies, no matter what form the latter two take.”
What shines through in Chekhov’s life is his plain humanity, the allowance he made for peoples’ weaknesses and foibles, the understanding he showed for beliefs he did not share, the respect he cultivated for the personalities of others, his disposition to seek arrangements which brought out the best in all whom he encountered.
Would that the spirit of Anton Chekhov might preside amidst the tense debates to come in Guyana! The dialogue between the contending parties, to put it mildly, will not all be plain-sailing and free of heat. Matters of great moment will be at issue and entrenched positions will be defended to the hilt. After all, the dialogue will be about the whole future of Guyana, the basic way in which the society and governance is going to be organized. Party contention, even bitter contention, will sometimes be the order of the day. Given the rifts which recently reopened so dangerously, it is going to be extremely important that tempers are held in check and that some minimum of patient attention to and consideration for the other side’s point of view is maintained.
In other words, a certain underlying civility is going to have to prevail if the dialogue is to bear fruit. My thesaurus gives a wide range of words and phrases associated with civility: common courtesy, consideration attention, graciousness, politeness, tactfulness, diplomacy, amiability, obligingness, benevolence, agreeableness, kind words, generosity of spirit, respect, attentiveness, good temper, amity, peacefulness, fair-mindedness – to list some of them.
None of these words describes states of mind or behavior patterns which have been much in evidence in recent events or indeed in the reporting of recent events in much of the media. In fact, let’s face it: civil is not exactly the word which describes the state of relationships between the parties and people contending for power in the nation at the moment. But if dialogue is going to lead to progress in resolving the great political issues then a basic civility is going to have to accompany the debate.
Solutions are difficult to find when suspicions and resentments and insults are kept on the boil and people speak at each other but do not listen. At this state, it is crucially important that a basic civility exists between our leaders as they conduct their deliberations on the nation’s future. If nothing else such civility may become contagious among those more extreme followers on both sides who are always the ones most likely to put any delicate negotiation at risk.
In times like this, I would like to believe that a little Chekhov can go a long way.