Self Control and Continuity
When my family gets together for our annual reunion, we invariably linger over old photographs and videos. One video goes back to 1988: we’re driving towards Parika and I recorded some shacks built on the swampy reserve adjoining the Zeelugt public road. In my running commentary I predicted that within a decade those shacks would be transformed into comfortable homes. And so said; so done.
I could be so confident with my prediction because I felt I knew the mentality of the people, who, at the time were taking a huge risk that the government would not bulldoze them off the land. They still retained much of the cultural trait brought by their forbears from India that impelled them towards owning a house rather than renting one. VS Naipaul captures the drive in his epic, “House for Mr Biswas”; the house was a trope for a particular view of life. To rent a house was to somehow accept that you did not have the self control to save in order to build your house: that you assure continuity for your children – your future.
This capacity to save, by people who were at best grubbing out a day to day existence from cane cutting, farming or fishing, was sustained by a willingness to delay their gratification. Conspicuous consumption was not a part of their repertoire. The old cultural trait to look to the future to ensure that their children lived ‘better’ was reinforced by the newer immigrant mentality adopted after their arrival in Guyana. They were here to ‘make it”.
Today this willingness to imbibe self control, plan for the future and defer gratification to ensure that the plan gets accomplished in the face of humble circumstances, is fast disappearing. We are now generally living and consuming for the moment, but still want to see our lives improve over time. We want to “suck cane and blow whistle at the same time.” It can’t be done so we end up frustrated; sink into despair or demand handouts. Some, of course, use force and take what they want.
From where have we imbibed this new ‘don’t give a damn’ attitude? For one, in any group there will be some that go against the grain. But generally it’s as a result of outside pressures and influences – cultural and otherwise. In the Caribbean, there are aspects of the dominant Creole culture that present some of these pressures and influences. And this has been part of my rejection of the assimilationist imperatives in the present dominant mode of ‘integration’. As Malcolm X said in an analogous context, “Why integrate into a burning house?”
Back in 1984, there was an International Roundtable in Guyana to commemorate the 150th anniversary of the abolition of slavery. Then Prime Minister Desmond Hoyte delivered an address: “Towards 2034: A Deeper View of the Horizon” in which he made some pertinent remarks on the refusal to live for the future. Because my assertion about Creole culture can be (and have been) egregiously misinterpreted, I quote rather liberally from Mr Hoyte’s address.
“…one of the most pernicious consequences of slavery was that it bereft the slave of a vested interest in the future by imposing upon him the need to be constantly preoccupied with the exigencies of the moment. Indeed…the African slave on a WI plantation found himself in a world without horizons. His condition circumscribed within very narrow limits not only his physical but also his spiritual being. It deprived of the cohering and creative influences of his social organisation and his culture.
“Uprooted from his natural milieu, no longer able to fulfil his civic and religious duties, he was robbed of his spiritual points of reference. His personality disintegrated and, in a word, he suffered “social death”. It is not to be wondered at, then, that his outlook was little informed by any curiosity beyond the immediate, by any speculation about the distant future.
“And so, lacking a social motive, he developed no interest in, or aptitude for, making long term arrangements. Moreover, the colonial polity which succeeded the era of slavery did not provide the former slave and his descendants with significantly greater incentive or opportunity for cultivating these pursuits. Thus, there persists in our society, even to this day, a reluctance to focus too intently on the future.
“It is critically important, I believe, that we should analyse and understand this phenomenon of our lack of interest in the future and our failure, generally, to plan in a serious methodical way with respect to it.”
While Mr Hoyte’s address focused on the need for planning at the country and international level, it is important to note that he grounded the fundamental lacuna at the individual level. And it is here that I believe that in the present, twenty-eight years after his warning we must begin. The question is, “Can we teach our selves how to live for the future?” The evidence shows that we can.