05 May 2016

I CAME across this great quote the other day. It’s by a filmmaker called Pierre Sauvage who, as a child, was saved by German villagers during the Holocaust. Interviewing the villagers as an adult, he found out one thing: “Those who agonise, don’t act. Those who act don’t agonise.”

In other words, when it comes to doing the right thing, people who do take action don’t spend a lot of time thinking of what might be reasons not to do it.

That’s probably true about all the people who want to do good in society. If they see someone in need, they start thinking of how to help them, not hoping that someone else will.

That’s how people start soup kitchens, collect clothes and essentials when disasters happen or read for the blind. Or get into boats to run supplies to refugees stranded at sea.

People like that don’t think about how much work it would take, how much it would cost or what risks they would face. All those are just problems to solve, not barriers to action. People like these are can-do people and a lot of the time, they are quite effective.

On the other hand, there are the agonisers who may have good hearts but spend so much time agonising over every possible consequence of their potential action that they wind up being too slow or not doing anything at all.

If Pierre Sauvage’s saviours had agonised about saving him and several thousand others, he would likely not have survived to become a filmmaker.

I remember one reader’s response to a column I did about the late Princess Diana who had not hesitated to hug HIV-positive people in hospitals and consequently set an example against the stigma and discrimination that such people faced. “We can’t do that,” said the indignant reader. “What if they are a different sex from us?”

Suffice to say that one of the reasons we remember Diana to this day is because she did not agonise over such matters. Every human in distress needs comfort. It was not about her, it was about them.

Most of us, me included, spend a lot of time agonising over the big decisions in our lives. If it’s going to cost money, change our usual life or involve some personal risk, then of course we are going to think it over thoroughly. Few people rush into buying homes, marrying someone and moving to a foreign country or undergoing major surgery without mulling over many factors, and taking our time about these decisions.

But when we’re thinking about other people and doing right by them, then mulling too much may not be the best response. Especially when the mulling involves thinking up imaginary reasons not to do something.

I know people who worry about whether they should put their thoughts in a blog, for instance, before they write a single word. They believe that it would attract negative reactions from the authorities because they’ve seen what happens to other people’s blogs.

That’s exactly the type of self-censorship that the authorities want, where people worry so much about consequences that they don’t write a single word. The thing is, it may be that what they write will attract not that much attention at all from the people they fear, or very little relative to other people. That may sound disheartening but if you’re worried about nasty consequences, then why should it be an excuse for not expressing your thoughts?

Similarly I get lots of people who say that they cannot do what I and a lot of other activists do because they stand to lose so much. Well, so do we. Being locked up, even for a night or two, is tough and something I hope I never have to experience. But activists do what they do because they believe in it. They don’t agonise, they act.

If we see something terribly wrong happening around us which will lead to so much future suffering, it would be so easy to close our eyes and ears and wish it would all go away by itself. But it won’t unless we act.

That’s why there are people who, regardless of race, religion, age, station in life and political beliefs, are taking action to try and right what is wrong. It may seem futile to some but it’s a lot better than doing nothing. People who act can always hold their heads up high that they tried to do something, and not passively let misery rain upon them. Foolish they may seem to some but a lot of people are, as Nelson Mandela once said, making choices that reflect their hopes, not their fears.

So, ask yourself, are you an agoniser or a person who acts?