reflections on Sri Lanka and the cost of progress

Ian and I have been back in the UK for two weeks now, after a two-week holiday abroad. Week one was Sri Lanka, the 25,000 square-mile “Venerable Island” south of India in the Indian Ocean. Sri Lanka touched us both deeply. Its people touch me still.

This morning I am thinking of our driver Kamal. Ian and I have heard from him a handful of times since we parted ways in Wadduwa on September 19th. His heartfelt communiqués disturb me as, now that I’m back, I strive to make a home for his beautiful world in my Western mind and heart.

J. Kamal is a 40-something Sinhalese father who got us there and kept us safe on life-threatening roads to some of Sri Lanka’s most sacred and historic sites. He is one of 20 million native Sri Lankans (Sinhalese and Tamil predominantly) struggling to build better lives after 25 years of devastation from a deadly civil war that ended last year.

Kamal and Victor, our elder gentleman guide, touched our hearts more than most, and we touched theirs. They invited Ian and me into the heart of Sri Lanka by opening their hearts to us. Our contact with them gave us our most precious souvenirs, deeper and more memorable than all the remarkable things we saw. In our final moments together, with their broken English and my few words of Sinhalese, with eyes and tears and gestures, we expressed the deep connection that had surprised us all. Why we had connected, I cannot say; but it was no accident, of that I am sure.

On our plane ride from Sri Lanka to our next stop, a timid young Tamil man sat down beside us. He held his bag on his lap, not knowing to store it in the overhead bin. I am sure it was his first flight. We showed him what to do and spoke with him in basic English, learning that he was on his way to London to get his MBA.

Like many others we met, he is leaving home to earn what he can in the larger world, to make a better life for himself and his family. According to the World Bank (2009), the gross national income in Sri Lanka is just over $1,990 per person – per year, that is. And so, Sinhalese and Tamil alike, they leave for years at a time, for jobs, for education, for opportunity.

In Kamal’s last email, he said he would like to come see us if he could. Our instant reaction, much as I hate to admit it, was fear. Our cultural differences glared at us. What fit so well in Sri Lanka would certainly fit differently here. What could we do for him? What would he expect of us? In the usual Western way, I feared for our security. In the Sri Lankan way, I feared to keep my heart that open. I hope to see him again next year.

The thread that ties me to Kamal, Victor, the young student, and others I will never forget, is certainly not cultural, as culturally we could not be farther apart. So what is it?

At the surface, I am moved by the earnest, eager and fragile spirit of a people trying to climb out of national and personal devastation. They sparkle. The most beautiful shimmer of childlike vision gilds their deeply inlaid strength of spirit, both nurtured through having nothing (material, that is). I have never witnessed this before.

At a deeper level, I am moved by the precariousness of living in the modern world, which we all share. The young student has no idea what he will find in London. The distance from his island’s tea plantations to the heart of the world’s most cosmopolitan city is unfathomable. What will his MBA actually cost him? What must he lose of himself to become what he dreams to be? It is a question he does not know to ask, a question he cannot afford to ask.

Perhaps what ties me is a deep desire to help, to encourage and support. Even as I write, I know the danger of infecting this unspoiled culture with the incurable American zeal in my bloodline. Some of what the people of Sri Lanka need now must come from outside, but some of it never can. And I pray that, in their efforts to secure progress for themselves and their country, and our efforts to help them, they do not lose what makes them great.

What I covet for the people of Sri Lanka, as they do what they must in the larger world, is what I covet for us all. It is the depth of self-awareness to move ahead through life without losing ourselves. Progress without personal impoverishment.

What will my “progress” cost me? How do we move ahead in our lives, move ahead as different but connected societies, without losing that which is our most important unique contribution? How do we support each other without compromising the diversity that makes us strong? These are questions we cannot afford not to ask, for this is how species reach extinction. And we must each answer for ourselves.

How do you answer? If you are reading this (which clearly you are), I invite you to give five minutes to this question for yourself, and write a comment. My heart is open and waiting to hear.

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  1. Katherine says

    I’m glad you like the site, Lane. The ideas were mine, but a friend helped me develop it in WordPress. There will be more improvements coming, so please stay in touch!