Sustainable engagement: The art of making one’s self progressively unnecessary


(This may also be found here on the Daily Mirror)


Today, I will tell a story that is of great use and therefore, I shall limit my reading of it because my views on it are not that useful. The dialogues are not a perfect lift because memories such as these are long and rambling as they flit across one’s mind but… the essence is there. Indulge me folks.


Mrs. Seelan (not her real name for reasons that will become apparent),  is a small scale farmer in the Vanni. Back in 2012, I was on a project to uplift the lives of farmers and looking for people who were already on their way without my intercession. I was chock-full of NGO-ese gunk like “empowerment”, “micro-entrepreneurship”, “value-chain enhancement” and a whole load of additional blah. Looking for champions for case studies, I heard of this lady from people in one area as I was rooting around with my Tamil speaking buddy Damien. They were doing fine with a bee-keeping collective but flat out refused to speak about it. Instead, they named another. “Go see Mrs. Seelan” was the stock statement within the community and try as I might, they pointed to none other. Yet, their directive was anything but casual, as noted by the lowering of the voice, the glazing of the eyes, the tiny smile at the edge of the lips.  This then, was one of significant standing among them. A lady held in honor by all to the point that everyone else felt they were not quite as good, quite as enabled. A formidable person, I decided, as we parked our big bad vehicle in front of her gate. A gate  which was one by name only for it was not designed to keep anyone out. We proceeded through into her small haven.


As I stepped out of the super-heated sunlit blaze into her cool, green-twilight, elven-fantasy land it didn’t take me more than a second to realize that our very presence there was an aberration. A break in some complex internal harmony within the place. A distraction at best. An irritation at worst.


We wandered in. We wondered in. There was no hurry to the process of walking across the acre from gate to house and much wonder swirled around us as we did so. Her two acre land was dense and dark with shockingly luscious and green foliage. Birds tweeted in the trees. Lizards and monitors sat, straddled and waddled across the ground. Insects zinged, hummed and chirped in that strange, constant concord of intermingled harmony and cacophony. The very air seem aware, excited and enthused by the idea of life.  Seated in front of her house and bound up with it all was Mrs. Seelan, a tiny tiny lady with many smiles and few words.


Despite our fractious intrusion, she did by us because the great hospitality of our people was not be denied. Indicating a rough seat in her garden, she stepped into her house and returned with two sizable slabs of honeycomb fat and dripping with golden goodness. I sat there, holding it in my hand, and spoke to her with Damien translating.


The people call you the bee-lady, although looking around, it seems to me that you are an everything lady”.

She didn’t reply for a while then “… they call me that because I was the first to teach them the art and they are quite successful now”.

Oh??” The penny dropped.  “So it was you who introduced it to them?

No Sir, many came with the science. They failed. I gave them the art. They succeeded”.

I nodded. “They have formed a very profitable business group but you are not a part of that. Why?”.

She said nothing.

“They respect you a lot you know?”

She said nothing.

Perhaps they would love it if you lead them?”.


She said nothing.


I dropped it. Not entirely insensitive to these things and I saw that I was very quickly going from being a mere irritation to being a downright nuisance so I decided to shut my notebook and concentrate on the honeycomb instead. That honey had a unique sharpness, caused no doubt by the mix of flowers in the area. Tricky thing, eating honey from the source. Much care is needed to extract it and its certainly not an “on-the-fly” type of food that is preferred these days.


In that place, the taste seem somehow enhanced by an infusion of the essence of its multifaceted aliveness. So concentrated was I in the task and the ethos of the place, that it was a while before I realized that she was speaking in a slow, casual monotone, murmuring to no one in particular, almost as if she were revealing something to herself.


Once they understood, my task was done. Some will teach their children. Others will teach their relatives in other villages. All will enjoy benefits. The art can only be taught if the student owns the process. Otherwise, the knowledge is with the teacher. This is the big mistake of teaching the science. The teacher always tries to be bigger. Always wants credit for the skills. Then the student becomes lesser. Less interested. A good teacher must become progressively unnecessary. I never had to teach them the full art. The last third, they figured out for themselves. I was not needed and that was good. I did not need to be known. I did not need to own. I did not need to belong. I was only the source of the energy. They used it to light their own lamps. It is well. My task is done. The benefit of the action is theirs. The recognition for the action is theirs. The respect for the action is theirs”.


Damien was silent for a long while before he translated and I understood why. If roles were reversed, I would have wanted to hold to her soliloquy for as long as possible myself.


When he finished, I said nothing. All was well. All was very very well. We finished our treat, he exchanged a few words with her, we all exchanged many smiles and then we took our leave, walking slowing out of a piece of mini-magic.


As we retraced our steps, Damien said “do you want to know why she spoke?”.


It’s just… well, in all the time I have known her, she has never spoken that much”.

I shook my head. “Drop it bro, it doesn’t matter”. I was not in the least interested in making her into a case study or a report on “best practices”. But he couldn’t let it lie.

He made a mistake, that one…” she had said.

“…but then he realized and he stopped. Many have come here. He is not the first. But he is different this one. He is wiser. He put his book down. I spoke because I saw that he was eating honey as it should be eaten”.

I smiled, nodded, opened the door of our SUV and tossed the notebook inside.

Damien glanced quickly at me, pointing at the discarded book. “You will write it up later?”.

I shook my head as I got in.

Such things are to be passed from person to person. Not report to report. Someday, if I am in the mood, I might tell someone the story. For now, I am satiated”.


“Satiated…” the driver started the engine. “…full, complete, aware. Aware that the world is not really all that bad”.


Mrs. Seelan, by example, exposed the root of sustainability, continuity, durability. She showed the point of takeoff for a more equitable and contented future for us all, less fraught with danger, less driven by fear. To get there, we must understand three things. First, that our base dynamic energy should kindle the potential energy of many. Next, that our capability must trigger innate capability in many. Finally, that when many people benefit a little, entire communities and nations benefit a lot.


Moreover, we must honestly recognize and unequivocally reject our past lives of shame and sham.


Lives where the extent to which we were able to hoard and guard our very minor stores of wealth, knowledge and power defined capability. Where the extent to which we were able to viciously suppress any who dared threaten them, using policy, acts, rights, politics on one hand and lying, cheating, manipulation and thuggery on the other defined ability. We must understand that if we are the reason for the contentment and happiness of many, we are automatically giving ourselves a reward a hundred times greater without any requirement to be counted as those who started it all. As Mrs. Seelan is well and her world is well, so, we, too, can make our worlds well. When we do that, we will heal the planet.


As Mrs. Seelan proved without ever setting out to do so, honor, recognition, power and above all –respect – does not come to people through demand or command or because of what they are but rather, because of what they make others see in themselves.

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