There is a Greek proverb which states that “a society grows great when old men plant trees whose shade they know they shall never sit in”. Parsing this with all syntactic rules compromises the significance of its inner meaning, and the romanticism that lie beneath the metaphorical use of words. Proverbs invite acuity and suggest values, often touching life-changing sensitivities that are worth musing about. Clearly, they are products of creative minds provoked or inspired by keen observations, riveting experiences and events.
There was a close-up shot of a Zimbabwean fleeing across the border into South Africa. The barbed wire was nothing but what separates him from death and hope. He has no luggage, no belongings, except the dirty clothes that cover most of his parched skin and a pair of tattered shoes obligated to extend its service in this one unforgiving moment. Others follow; all of them no better than animals in a prey/predator chase. They are engulfed with the fear of Operation Murambatsvina (Operation Getting Rid of, or Drive Out the Filth) or perhaps, the extension of the supposedly forgone Gukurahundi, the approved militant process of consolidating political power and suppressing opposition. Both unconscionable exercises equal Pol Pot’s and Ceausescu’s grip on power. Perhaps, money would have had possibly afforded the poor inhabitants of a better balance of hope in less challenging circumstances. They could have left the country by plane much earlier with appropriate preparations before an erratic conceptualization of a victorious election had gone berserk. Ironically, what could have helped them is more likely the same reason behind the perpetrator’s brutal understanding of authority and power. From this, a Zimbabwe in turmoil has emerged.
In lighter circumstances, a female “kababayan” has caused childhood best friends to separate with unexpected bitterness. The heartbroken sought the publicized advice of an expert. The bride, with the blessing of her love-struck groom, unabashedly announced in their invitations, that no less than $100-cash nuptial gift is requested. Since she was in a foreign country, marrying into a dissimilar race, she thought it best to cite such specification as inherent to the Filipino culture. The groom’s best friend thought that it was his duty to express the impropriety of the gesture; after all, they were like brothers. It was truly embarrassing and he would not want his friend to be at its core. But best intentions do not always work, true love is often blind, and opportunists have compound eyes. This incident is of course tame compared to other numerous, distinct cases, unfavourably discerned as characteristic of a certain society.
Moving into the culture of labour and management, the work environment of the 21st century is colourful with remarkable labour laws, ultramodern technology, and enviable benefits. Yet, with serpentine scheming, workers are deprived of fair employment agreements and/or can be conveniently terminated for reasons other than misdemeanor, authentic restructuring or declining revenues. Engineered excuses eclipse any of these duplicities and shameless prejudices : nepotism, a facial structure that deviates from the beauty-driven sensibilities of management, ageism, refusal to surrender integrity in support of unethical, sometimes criminal work practices, and racism. These are callously dismissed and quite disturbingly accepted as plain vicissitudes of life. Good performance is not always valuable anymore. Neither is a good reputation. Termination is assuaged by an equalizer : money, a separation pay; but, even this has a hint of insidiousness. More often than not, it is still open for negotiation because they never intentionally give the right amount instantly, should one be hard-pressed to just accept.
And going further into the business sector, it is difficult to follow the adroitness of those silently embroiled in derivatives or options or futures, equities, commodities, etc. Some of them seemed able to shroud their questionable practices with feigned finesse and smooth rhetoric, and should these fail --- arrogance. Regulations and lengthy jail time have become fragile reminders. Markets go nuts; indices fluctuate, striking the vulnerable, helpless.
Observing national governance, it is easy to find a heightened activity of graft and corruption, coldly matched or aided by fraud, embezzlement and even violence. These have spawned more destructive activities. The citizens’ inertia, which is well rooted in a misguided, often abused notion of realism, is an invisible entrapment that deprives them of the capacity to promptly distinguish the main plot from the subplots of man’s devious machinations. Though acerbic, “Welcome to reality” or “Welcome to the real world” have become favourite quotes, and should anyone be dismissive or naïve, the chance to recognize these words as a prelude to something more disdainful is lost. Those with ethos of humanism have become noticeably sluggish without the much needed support mechanism. The moral and civic development of the young has been staggered and hampered by what they see, hear and feel. Youthful confusion with no sincere, sufficient guidance to rely on is another silent entrapment, though perhaps more worrisome. Others have already disappeared; those that survived are different, and the societies they created have vitriolic ways of handling life. I am reminded of subduction, the process by which the Rocky Mountains were formed thousands of years ago. With strong forces, plates met and the heightened energy pushed some to go underneath, while others were buoyed. What remained on top acquired a new form, some wrinkled; others, seemed to pile one on top of the other. The pushing force initiated a chain reaction in other plates and when everything settled, alas, it was a long stretch of the Rockies, 4,800 kilometres, from British Columbia to New Mexico. Imagine if these plates were the members of society and what remained buoyed were the objectionable ones!
The list goes on for similar circumstances and activities with comparable impact on how societies are structured, changed and passed on to the next generation. It would seem that the above choices were predicated on the desire for money, power and authority. It is said that money is the root of all evil. On the other hand, it is the same medium used to uplift the unfortunate, to provide for necessities, to facilitate progress. Since money is directed by man, simple truism then points to his flawed, weak character as the cause. What a misfortune indeed when money lands in questionable dispositions!
The above proverb puts the onus of building great societies on “old men”, not exclusively on those with time-touched faces and with silver-pigmented tresses. The main responsibilities of societal structuring, administration and governance are placed in the hands of the more capable, matured, experienced and educated. The process of acquiring such credentials takes time, and relatively proceeds with the ages (varied) of those involved. Members of societies are born to have responsibilities. Initially, parents nourish and nurture their offsprings; therefore, setting the basic, essential foundation that should gradually prepare them in facing bigger tasks by altruistic, civilized ways. From the age of reason, an individual slowly acquires communal obligations, the proper execution of which should be guided and strengthened by family, the community, learning institutions, the church and the government --- all with greater duties, all assumed to have reliable wisdom and character. How these vast duties are attended to, is what makes the difference.
Societies are great when guiding members turn against opportunism; when capable members share; when educated members invest their knowledge unselfishly towards progress; when matured members retract from divisiveness; when experienced members withdraw from incessant procrastination and sloth; when senescent men utilize their wisdom not to breed confusion among the young, but rather, pave the way in establishing a strong foundation from which character and integrity are built; when old men sacrifice, but are content and happy with the rewards they pass on.