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My wish this Christmas

The world is in a mess, a terrible mess. Decisions being made in the hallowed halls of power in one country are affecting the lives of ordinary people in another. Natural disasters are occurring all too regularly, depriving many of their homes, their jobs, their livelihoods. Unnatural disasters like mass shootings have become so frequent as to warrant little more than a raised eyebrow and a tut-tut from those not affected. Our morals are skewed and our values warped. We have relinquished control of our lives, lives that are now dictated by a constant search for success, be it material, fame, or power.

I can do nothing to change the world at large. I can’t stop the wars. I can’t reverse climate change. I can’t eradicate poverty. And much as I would like to, I can’t turn the clock back to an era where family and friends came before work and progress on our list of priorities. But that doesn’t stop me wishing it would all get better, that we would find a way to live together in peace and harmony, to share our resources, and to look out for our fellow man. Yet where would we start?

I’m writing this from India. I’ve been here for a week now and have been struck, once again, by the hospitality of the people, the pride they take in a job well done, and their constant good humour. When they smile their infectious smile, it’s as if someone switches on a light inside them. They’re quick to laugh, and seem to take genuine pleasure out of ordinary, simple interactions.

Take the service industry as a case in point. Nothing is too much trouble. Everyone is so obliging. And the attention to detail is meticulous. Whether it’s the auto-rickshaw driver or the hotel chauffeur, the concierge or the officer janitor, the shop assistant or the restaurant manager – each one seems to want to do what they can to make my life better. And the more I express my gratitude ‒ a simple thank you, an acknowledgement of what they’ve done ‒ the better it gets.

I made a lot of comparisons with Hungary and Ireland over the first couple of days, mostly unfavourable ones. If I could wave a magic wand, I would arrange for customer service everywhere to be like it is in India. It’s so refreshing not to see miserable faces, not to have to deal with recalcitrant attitudes, not to be dragged down by bad moods and foul humours.

And it’s not just the service industry. I’ve met a lot of different people in different cities and circumstances, people from all over India. And each one delights in the ordinary. It’s contagious. It’s hard to complain when all around you are actively looking for the best in everything. It’s hard to be negative when those with so little can still smile. It’s hard to be unhappy when everyone you meet finds joy in simply being alive.

None of this is new. As far back as the fourteenth century, Amir Khusro, poet-courtier-soldier-chronicler-linguist, nailed it:

How exhilarating is the atmosphere of India!
There cannot be a better teacher than the way of life of its people.
If any foreigner comes by, he will have to ask for nothing
Because they treat him as their own,
Play an excellent host and win his heart,
And show him how to smile like a flower.

My Christmas wish is that we might be infected by the spirit of India and learn to take delight in the ordinary, to appreciate those around us, and to count our blessings rather than our burdens.

Nollaig shona daoibh go léir.

First published in the Budapest Times 11 December 2015