My motivation has often puzzled those I work with so I will try to explain it. I often do things without payment. I don't drink too much, do drugs or drive fancy cars, and I never chase the camp followers. So what is my angle? Sometimes these people wonder how they can stop me doing work unpaid when their organisation could have been paid for doing it. At other times they try to get me to join their organisation so that they can benefit from my drive and from any kudos that attaches to my having a name for insight and honesty. Sometimes I have been appointed by a leader who wants the team to be pushed into improvement by my criticism, and sometimes I have joined teams that are hamstrung by remote leaders unwilling to hear any criticism at all. Several times, I have been part of a team that is genuinely doing its best – and have made real friends who I will always try to help, but friendship is not a sufficient motivation for my work.
Motivation is a complex part of the psyche. Yes, I have got pleasure out of doing things for others, especially if they don't know that I did it (which is rare but very satisfying when it happens). But why?
Age has something to do with it. Unlike most entering demining, I was in my early forties when I first went into a conflict zone and found a mine. My wife had a good job (working for OXFAM) and our children were leaving home. The mortgage was small and I had not wanted a fast car, casual sex or a nightclub life since I was a somewhat wild young man busily challenging the incoherent authority that surrounded me. By the age of forty I had grown out of my adolescent delusions but I never gave up questioning bad arguments, received wisdom and silly or arbitrary rules imposed by an authority that I could not respect. That said, the passing years had helped me to become a better judge of what really was silly and arbitrary (partly as a result of the intellectual gymnastics required of me when I studied philosophy). Whatever our consumer society might have me believe, I knew that measuring my success by how much money I had accumulated would be to reduce success to a measure of my willingness to exploit others. Measuring success by how many people were beneath me in a hierarchy would be as immature as competing to be a school prefect (an honour I had been happy to accept at the age of 11). I had worked inside the academic community and been a teacher long enough to know that measuring my success by the accumulation of paper qualifications would be an entirely self-centred delusion. Development work had introduced me to the pointlessness of ‘tombstone aid’ interventions, those designed to leave something behind by which the aid-workers would be remembered. Like the graves left in a cemetery after the end of colonialism, what they left was usually a monument to foreign nostalgia, unwanted and abandoned. My time in psychiatric hospital (as a nurse) and in detention centre (as an inmate) had erased any notion that I was somehow ‘special’. Unique, yes, but no better than anyone else. No worse either, or at least of ‘no less value’. I remember Hutchings, McKenna, Hawkins, Jones and Harrington from my time banged up, each one a minor maverick chosen as an example worthy of punishment by the system. Unseen for more than 45 years, at that time they had more humanity than many who guarded them. I hope that they have had good lives but doubt that they would remember me, A Smith. Having the most common name in Britain may be why I have never thought it worth wanting to be famous.
My refusal to respect the myths required to grow a consumer society to the point of its inevitable implosion is one reason that I cannot find the pursuit of wealth a sufficient justification for my existence. Another is death. From the time I had an unintentional hand in my father's death when I was fifteen years old, death has been sitting on my shoulder. He’s been especially busy lately but for all of us as we get older the rattling down of family, friends, and colleagues accelerates, bringing the blue devils and regrets. When you are holding a cold hand there is never anything remotely important about the wealth and social status of the deceased. Eulogies concentrate on what they did for others. Regrets concentrate on what we failed to do for them.
I think that most people will do anything to avoid confronting the inevitable deletion of themselves because the total absence of self is a truly terrifying concept - the core of existential angst that finally drove Sartre into the Catholic Church. Social media, bungee jumping, ice-cave tourism, having kids, buying some junk you do not need, giving in to drugs and alcohol, just about anything can be a welcome distraction. Busy, busy doing things that I will not regret has been my chosen distraction.
So am I religious? Of course I am. Without subscribing to a creed or joining a congregation, I have an absolute faith in a metaphysic that cannot be proven – which is the same foundation as all religions. My article of faith is probably a species meme dating back to protecting the others in the cave: "look out for the others and prioritise those who are unable to look out for themselves". Status, ethnic origin, religion or political belief are irrelevant because we are all in the same global cave. I know that is both 'right' and 'good' but I could only prove this logically if you were to first accept my premises. I feel it's truth and no amount of internal rationalising can shake that feeling so I present it as an article of faith. It is obvious to me but if it is not obvious to you, there is nothing I can say to change that, and I have no right to try to do so.
Having no right to push my liberal humanitarian ethos onto others is another article of faith, and one that has helped when working in demining alongside good people, some of whom had done vile things in the past. If they accept my right to be me, I have to accept their right to be them. We were all doing our best and often getting it wrong – and who’s to say that I would not have done the same as them if I had been born alongside them? I found that I had become "fundamentally opposed to fundamentalism of all kinds" - political, religious and even naively idealistic (a description that has been applied to me). I know from experience that the well intentioned and self righteous Politically Correct fundamentalists seeking to impose alien liberal values in unfamiliar cultural contexts have often done great harm. Better to set an example and let others believe whatever makes them comfortable until they decide to try the example you have shown them, if they ever do. No one should presume to judge people from other cultures until they have lived their lives and done it better, which is impossible. Of course, being fundamentally opposed to fundamentalism is an illogical cycle that leaves me opposed to myself but, having left the limitations of logic behind, I am comfortable with the odd unavoidable paradox.
Honesty, fairness and a sense of honour are often treated as optional luxuries by those driving our world today. They rule over a moral darkness lit by technology toys that distract many from recognising the catastrophe ahead. But I still have hope because I have been privileged to spend time in many countries when central government 'law and order' has collapsed. When there are resources that can be lawlessly exploited, that tends to happen, but from Afghanistan and Angola to Iraq and Libya I have seen small communities impose their own 'law' based on a shared understanding of fair-play, honesty and honour. Odd individuals might seek short-term selfish gain but the natural leaders, often women, have always had enough control to stop the excesses. Real security depends on having neighbours who, regardless of the squabbling and petty gossip, make a community of shared values. Those values are often lent authority by a traditional religion of one flavour or another, showing how religion can foster social cohesion. I have seen how honesty, fairness and a sense of honour are human characteristics of greater value to species survival than the selfish short-term greed dominant in today's world of convenient 'truths'. Here in the dystopian post-Christian world where the people are only 'enlightened' by their screens, I think the species really does need faith if it is to open its eyes and face the challenges it has brought upon itself. But I also think that this is happening.