It all started with a conversation I had with a good buddy of mine, Amanda Gareis. I’m a very passionate philosopher and I have very strong views on how the world works. I believe the world is all about balance. That you cannot have good without evil. You cannot have light without darkness. We live in a dualistic reality of cause and effect. Typical woman she disagreed with me totally! Shocking I know but in this case I’m glad she did. She shared a little anecdote about her childhood that changed my view on life. She was from a strong Catholic background but her grandparents were Protestant. As you know religions can be very unforgiving in their beliefs and it was very shocking to her as a small child to learn that they are now in hell according to the Catholic church. She asked the priest why. He told her that’s just how it is but he assured her that she did not have to worry because she will go to heaven. She was inconsolable. How can she be happy in heaven if her grandparents are in hell suffering? This story was so simple yet so profound. For the first time in my life I understood what it means to be compassionate. How can I just sit back and accept that people will suffer and think that this is just the way it is? How can I possibly condone this? All my life I have believed that nothing is impossible yet I never imagined a world free of suffering.
A year later I found myself on the cross roads of life. My previous life had fallen apart and I was feeling very lost. I moved from Ireland to New Zealand with the idea of a fresh start. I wasn’t sure what to expect or where to look. All I knew was that I needed a change and this change had to be an improvement on my previous life. I started with the typical things you do when you move. You start looking for a place to stay and work. I was talking to recruiters about my career plans. As a software engineer the world is very accessible and all I needed to decide was where I wanted to work but something was nagging me. I’ve done this before. How is this an improvement? This is exactly what I was doing in Ireland, UK and South Africa. All the work prospects seemed too hollow and empty. They had no meaning!
The next bit sounds a bit like a mystical fantasy story. I was at Lake Taupo visiting my sister and contemplating life like any good philosopher should. I need a purpose! That night I had a dream. I was talking to Obama about the problems in the world. I was very upset. Somehow all these problems seemed so simple. All that is needed is that people get off their arses and fix them and stop complaining. I woke up with a sense of urgency. I was one of those people! There are so many people that are suffering in the world and I have the means to help. I heard a little mocking voice in my head saying “You wanted a purpose? How about saving the world?” I sat there wide eyed in my bed. I’ve had all these ideas in my head on how to improve people’s lives and save the earth yet I have never acted on any. For 3 years I’ve had this great idea on how to cheaply generate electricity from the ocean's waves. It could make a realistic difference to the world’s energy crisis and what have I done with this it? Nothing. Just another great idea for the shelf. Time I stand up and do something about that.
I was so fired up! I was going to save the world! I even updated my facebook status! I have a purpose! So you all know what happened next right? A week later I was back in Auckland drinking flat whites starting my job hunting process again. Yeah right! Like I’m going to get out of my comfort zone to help others. As if! But the idea didn’t want to get out of my brain and some ideas you just can’t ignore. The world will go against you until you stop to notice them. That’s exactly what happened. I found out that to work in Kiwiland I needed police clearance from South Africa. Not a problem except for the fact that it’s South African bureaucracy we’re talking about. This means weeks of waiting. I just smiled at this and had a little internal giggle at the expense of my life. I wanted more time to think about life and now I had it.
New Zealand is an absolute paradise and there is so much to explore and I needed to think about the meaning of life. So with portable camera in hand I hit the road with the scent of adventure in the air. I arrived in a Corremandel peninsula with a list as long as my arm of places to see. So much to see and so little time. Run, run, run! Typical rat race mentality. Again life had different ideas for me. There was a Buddhist retreat / backpackers on the northern tip of the peninsula. Little images from 7 years in Tibet were replaying in my head. I wanted to go but it was completely out of the way of the main attractions. I had more important places to see and I’m not even a Buddhist. “Maybe...” I thought “I’d see it on my way back if there was time”. So the next morning I got up early packed my stuff and promptly missed my bus. Fine! Not sure what to do I went back to the hostel where I stayed the previous night to make other plans. Here I met this German fellow and I told him about my predicament. You laughed and said that if I’m stuck I might as well go see this Buddhist backpackers up north and he handed me this little free booklet he got there. It was entitled “Compassion”. I sat down and read it. It had a striking similarity to the main reason I set out on this quest in the first place. I’m a firm believer of fate and this seemed like something I should not ignore. Next I picked up a National Geographic from the common area and opened at a random article. It was all about how the Chernobyl nuclear power plant explosion in Ukraine had crippled the country for decades. 15% of the whole countries GDP goes to the clean up every year. I thought about Amanda’s childhood tale about compassion. People are suffering and I can do something about it. All I need is the conviction and moral courage to go through with it. So I decided I’d test fate. This retreat is in the middle of nowhere and there are no busses or transport there. If I’m meant to go there then a solution will present itself. I picked up my backpack and set out. I would just hitchhike there! Something no sane South African would ever do. In my experience hitchhiking gets you killed. Come on! We’ve all seen the movies. You never come out of these things alive. Yet there I was sticking out my thumb. It obviously was meant to be because I wasn’t even out of the small town when a car pulled up to me. This older lady from Scotland told me to hop in. As it happens she was on her own journey looking for the meaning of life. At this stage I couldn’t contain myself anymore. I blurted out my whole power generator concept and that I’m finding it hard to commit to it. She looked at me and very wisely told me “You talk too much”.
The retreat turned out to be exactly the place I was supposed to be. It was absolutely isolated and serene. I realized then why this place was important. My original travel plan had all my time filled to the max leaving no time for reflection. Not only that but it was a place of pristine beauty. To give you an idea: I found a 50 ft waterfall in the local mountains. It was hot and sunny with the spray of the water making a permanent rainbow. And the best part was that I had this magical place all to myself. Have you ever had a shower under a waterfall? I definitely recommend it! I found paradise! So my idea of “I’ll go check it out” turned to me staying there for 3 weeks.
In this time I discovered some more truths to life. One is that in order to act you need to discover what is holding you back. What is holding me back? Money being a regular excuse, giving up its security is very hard. Fortunately I’ve already learned to let go of this fear. In Ireland I lived with artists and as we all know they are not known for their wealth. They were doing what they loved and even though things were tough they all got by. Not only did they get by but with the little they had they laughed more than many rich people I know. I’ve given up everything I own a few times and knew that material possessions are not important to having a good life. As long as you have enough to eat and a warm place to sleep life is good.
The second thing that I discovered shocked me to my core - the real reason why I haven’t acted on my idea of compassion. My ego! What would people think if I give up my cushy job as a software engineer? Not only that but what would I think of myself? This title was something I’ve worked hard at and it has defined me for a long time. Here is a good example. It’s you school reunion, what is the first question people ask? “So what are you doing with your life these days?” That hated question. You know that what you answer next defines how this person will categorise you, loser or winner – classicism at its best. What people think of me scared me. What if I’m not worthy of connection? I don’t want to be a loser! What if I try making the world a better place and I fail? Very scary indeed.
So how do you get over this fear? First thing that I realised is that in order to get rid of this fear is to face it. Just like spiders. Just squishing it under your boot will not solve the problem; the next one will be just as scary. So I raised my head and took a leap of faith. Face my fear. Face that spider eye to many eyes and say to yourself – “You have no hold over me.” The power it has over me is only in my head. The spider has no interest in me apart from hoping I won’t kill it. It’s just going about its little life hunting mozzies (Hopefully. Really don’t like them).
The last thing holding me back was laziness. You know how you think “It’s someone else's problem,”? Psychologists call this the bystander’s effect. If I ignore the problem I'm sure someone else will do it or “Isn't that what governments are for?”. But obviously this isn't working. I need to do something. I have the idea and it is up to me to spread it.
So here I am. The business plan might not be perfect but the intentions are good and I believe there are enough smart compassionate people in the world that can help me take it the rest of the way - as long as I act on the idea. If I don’t act on my aim to be compassionate how can I expect others to do it? Hopefully this document will make you see the good that you can do. How you can have a meaningful life. So help me start something bigger.