Wednesday November 29, 2006


Several years ago I was travelling in Indonesia, doing research on woodcarving in the Tanimbar Islands, and spending my time getting involved in all kinds of scrapes (sea voyages by dugout canoe, malarial sicknesses, exorcisms…) many of which have now become woven into the plot of my forthcoming novel Cargo Fever. Anyway, being in a foreign country, speaking a foreign language, being cut off from all my usual frames of reference, and relying upon the good will of others for hospitality was an experience that was at times uncomfortable and at other times liberating.

I remember seeing in Buddhist text the recommendation that any aspiring bodhisattva should live away from their homeland. As far as I recall, it was pretty high on the list of recommendations, somewhere around number two or number three. And it is true: there is much insight to be had when you find yourself somewhere other than your homeland, and when you begin to see how contingent all of your assumptions and beliefs are. Anyway, it was not that long into my visit that I stumbled across an interesting insight into the workings of my mind. I was meeting a lot of people, every single day, and it was pretty exhausting. And what I noticed was this: that my initial response to others was a kind of aversion. It was only a brief flicker, a fleeting recoil at being faced by another human being, but it was there; and once I noticed it, I also noticed that it was always there, in every single one of my encounters, as if I started off every relationship with every other being I encountered with a brief, and silent “no!” It was only fleeting, and once I was engaged in conversation, very often this “no” passed away entirely, but it was there, a grumpy gatekeeper trying to hold at bay the possibility of deeper human contact.

Of course, there is perhaps good reason for this aversion. We are vulnerable, and afraid of our vulnerability. Quite reasonably, we don’t like pain. Any new encounter brings with it the possibility of pain. Yet it is also an aversion built upon a futile hope: that if we insulate ourselves sufficiently, we can insulate ourselves from pain. So, noticing this response, I began to pay closer attention to it, watching it arise in each new encounter. As I watched it arise, over time it began to fade so that, whilst I would not want to claim that I now encounter every new person or every new situation with a kind of joyful affirmation (this, alas, would be a fib!), I don’t think that “no” is the default response in the way it once was.

I was reminded of this the other week by reading Danny Wallace’s book Yes Man. Wallace’s book is based upon the question: “What if I said yes to absolutely everything for a few months?” This, he’d have us believe, is what he does, and the book follows his adventures, from London to the Netherlands to Singapore to Australia to the obligatory visit to a Buddhist retreat centre, as he refuses every temptation to say no. Now, I must confess that the book didn’t entirely ring true. There was a curious mixture of sincerity and contrivance, so that I couldn’t stop myself thinking that some of the more self-consciously wacky moments were constructed for the sake of the book that Wallace no doubt knew he was going to write. Nevertheless, despite this somewhat knowing naivete, the book raises important questions about how we tend to limit life because saying “no”, recoiling from life, seems to us to be so much easier than saying “yes”. If not a point that is subtly made, then it is at least a point well worth making.

Yes Man, I think, would have appealed to Nietzsche, who amongst all Western philosophers is the champion of all that affirms life. If any philosopher wants to root out those disdainful little inner mutterings of “no” whenever we meet with each other or with a situation that does not suit us, it must be Nietzsche. And whilst I don’t think that affirmation of life is quite the same as saying yes to everything – there are many ways of saying yes that don’t amount to the affirmation of life – nevertheless reading Yes Man has reminded me that, yes, life is so often limited by the way we habitually and unthinkingly say “no”.

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