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113. A Lesson in Duty

I'm just back from a wonderful trip to Myanmar. When I say Myanmar people look at me quizzically, so I have been using its old name, Burma, but I felt a little ashamed when I discovered that the country has been called Myanmar for nearly twenty years! There was so much to enjoy in Myanmar, the people were warm and friendly, the culture interesting, the pagodas splendid and prolific and the countryside beautiful, but in addition to all this we had one unforgettable and extraordinary stroke of good fortune. We saw Aung San Suu Kyi. Aung San Suu Kyi, referred to affectionately as Daw Suu or The Lady by her followers, is a long time hero of mine, as I'm sure she is for many people. The daughter of Aung San, who fought for independence from the British in the 1940s, she is often dubbed as Asia's Nelson Mandela. She is the leader of Burma's National League for Democracy, which has cost her 17 years under house arrest and all contact with her husband and two young sons. Refusing to compromise on her passion for democracy, she held weekly meetings while under house arrest, over the high perimeter walls of her home. The closest my daughter and I expected to get to this extraordinary woman was to see the house from the outside. Imagine our astonishment then, when we arrived in Mandalay to find that she was due to be interviewed at the Irrawaddy literature festival, by none other than our own Joan Bakewell, the very next morning! And in our hotel! Well, I won't go into the story of what happened next, suffice to say that a certain amount of stress and shameless self-interest was involved in ensuring a seat for ourselves. But eventually there we were, four rows back, every square inch of the room crammed with people of every hue, creed and age, the aisles packed, people jostling for a view on the balcony, hundreds of people crowding round two large screens outside. Anticipation buzzed in the air like an electric current. Then suddenly there was a stir at the back of the room and everybody craned their necks and stood on tiptoe to see. A string of local organisers lined the central aisle, hands held to keep people back, and through the narrow channel appeared a procession of people. Peering through a gap in the throng I saw her, a little buffeted from side to side by the crowd, but upright and unperturbed, The Lady herself. The room went wild, cameras flashed, ipads and phones had their own congregation above the crowd, heads bobbed and ducked, desperately trying to find a little gap through which they could see her. Finally she sat at the front of the room, and gradually the flashing and craning of necks settled down and we were able to listen to her speak. She had a low melodious voice, calm and unhurried; her answers were clear and economical, words from someone who is secure in her beliefs but never dogmatic or closed-minded. There was much to report from this 50 minute interview but certain things stood out for me. Joan Bakewell asked her about the challenge of introducing democracy to a people who have never known it. 'The most important thing I want to say to the people of Myanmar,' she said, 'is that you must participate in this process. Don't assume other people will do it all for you.' One crucial part of that participation, she said, was voting. 'I have spent a lot of time in the West,' she said, ' where the right to vote is taken for granted and many people don't use it.' 'I have never voted in a free election,' she said. 'I hope to see the time when we can have free voting here, in a full democracy. And people must vote, they need to understand that along with rights come responsibilities.' Perhaps the most surprising part of the interview was when JB asked her about being separated from her family, in particular from her husband who died of cancer while she was under house arrest. She was given the option by the military junta to leave the country to see him, but she knew they would never allow her back and so she turned down their offer. 'Not seeing your husband, and not being there when he became ill and died, how difficult was that for you?' said JB. 'Not very difficult,' came the surprising answer. 'I knew that this was something I had to do, and so did Michael,' she said. 'He totally supported what I was doing. I was born the daughter of Aung San,' she said, 'it was and is my duty to continue his work.' (Ahh, duty, now there's a word...) 'Duty is something that we don't really talk about much in the west,' said JB, 'perhaps it is different here?' 'Yes, duty is important here,' she said. I confess that I have always balked at the word duty. For me it conjures up stiff upper lip Brits from the past, people who never acted from passion or love, but from something dry and dull, duty. Being on the receiving end of actions done out of duty never feels as good as actions done out of love or care. Duty is what made Nazis do their jobs in the concentration camps, without questioning. It was what made Japanese pilots deliberately crash their planes into enemy targets. It is what executioners talk about when they do their terrible work, and what armies cite as a reason for killing people. For me, the word duty has always seemed to me to be the opposite of personal responsibility, involving obeying a set of rules that has been laid down by someone else. 'When a stupid man is doing something he is ashamed of, he always declares that it is his duty.' George Bernard Shaw But listening to Aung San Suu Kyi, I began to wonder if I'd got it all wrong, if we in the West have got it all wrong. I could see that, in her, it was not stiff, not unthinking and not devoid of love. It was following a prescribed path, certainly, but for good reasons, and the product of following that path was the greater good. I could see, too, that her sense of duty made her strong, it was that that had sustained her through all the terrible years of solitude and of being separated from her loved ones, of having someone else bring up her children. Suddenly I could see how easy her sense of duty had made those otherwise impossible decisions. If there was ever an ambassador for duty, there could be no better than this remarkable woman in front of me. And yet duty sits so uncomfortably in the west. It feels too much like a cage to the average westerner, who is much more concerned with individual fulfilment and the pursuit of happiness. We are horrified, for example, by the idea of arranged marriages and of parent insisting their son takes over the family business. We favour freedom over duty, individuality over family, and we assume that fulfilment and happiness will only come if we achieve, earn, and have the right partner, job. house, children and so on. Look at the bookshelves labeled 'self help' and you are unlikely to find books on how to fulfil your responsibilities, honour your family, contribute to your community or country. Perhaps because we have so little sense of duty, a large percentage of our population don't vote. People have died in order to gain that privilege for us and yet so many can't be bothered, or say they are too disillusioned. People want free health care and yet how many people simply don't turn up to their hospital appointments? We are great on our rights, as humans and citizens, yet where do we stand on our obligations and responsibilities? So what if we've got it all wrong? Or at least partly wrong? If you look at Aung San Suu Kyi you will see a calm certainty and integrity that comes with knowing what your job in this life is, and carrying it out. While she will be well aware of how hard her choices have been on her family, she does not, I would be happy to wager, have regrets or doubts about those choices. She did what she had to do, and her reward has been the enormous contribution she has made to the newly emerging democracy in her country. 'When a man has done what he considers to be his duty to his people and his country, he can rest in peace.' Nelson Mandela Searching for what the great and good have said on the subject of duty, it is interesting to find that the majority of quotes are old, and the vast majority are by men. Most recorded quotes on any subject are by men, so that is not surprising, but the imbalance is not usually so profound. Do men have a stronger sense of duty than women? Maybe. Was duty once more fashionable? Probably. Would we be happier and more fulfilled if we were more dutiful? Who knows. 'Infinite striving to be the best is man's duty; it is its own reward.' Mathatma Gandhi Try this 1. What is your attitude towards duty? Does it feel like an unwelcome pressure or obligation, or is it a support in your life, a structure that gives you strength and purpose? 2. What do you feel you have a duty to do in this life? Earn a living, work hard, contribute, be decent, make a difference, take care of your children, take care of your parents, do your job, use your talents, vote, give to charity, take care of your health and well-being, be kind to others? 3. If duty does not play much of a role in your life at present, what would it be like if you allowed it to do so? What difference would it make? 'Happiness and moral duty are inseparably connected' George Washington With love Anita