How to save the environment

“O Lord, deliver us from these turkeys,” is not an orthodox prayer. I cannot imagine a single Catholic saint (or saint of any of the Eastern Churches) muttering it. But then, like Pope Francis, I deny being a saint. Better, I think, to recite the Jesus Prayer, if we are in need of a one-line mantra. (“Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.”)

When in need of profanity, there is Rudyard Kipling. (“If you can keep your head when all about you / Are losing theirs and blaming it on you …”, &c). He had a gift for the discovery of profane ideas in happy symmetry with the Christian teachings. It was a message instilled, not only in the noble jingle of his verses, but between every line of his epic, Kim, which mesmerized me as a child. You take your lumps, you note your own failures. And you resume your journey along the Grand Trunk Road; resume your search, for the red bull on a green field.

A volume of the Bibliotheca Himalayica, which happens to reside on my shelves, was by G. A. Combe. He was one of those British colonial officers, and his work, first published in 1926, gave an account of Tibet through the eyes of a remarkably perceptive Tibetan, a certain Paul Sherap (formerly Dorje Zödba). While the book is mostly an “insider’s” account of Tibetan ritual and custom, as it was before Western and Communist subversion, it begins with Sherap’s exhilarating biography. It is a kind of Kim that has been strangely inverted. (Tibetan child runs away from home; the bonze he eventually meets is Christian.)

But it is not Sherap’s Christian qualities that are so impressive; rather his inherited Tibetan virtues, that arrest Combes and his reader. There is a quality of fatalism that is, in itself, divine.

Sherap never complains, about anything, yet he endured considerable privations. To every inquiry about his sufferings, he shrugs. Extreme cold is in nature, so is shortage of food and fuel, wild animals, or bandits for that matter. Why should we whine? And if, as a Tibetan, one is captured and tortured by bigoted Chinese — still, nothing to write home about. These things happen.

Combe tempts Sherap with questions to elicit his thoughts on the Chinese. He cannot possibly like his ancient racial enemies, but will confess to no opinions. Only, “eh” and a shrug. He implies: they are people, and people do things like that. It is hardly surprising.

Pushed, to give his candid opinion of what, if anything, might be wrong with the Chinese, he finally obliges. He throws his interlocutor a sop: “I think their women are a bit loose.”

But then he looks ashamed of himself, and the conversation moves on.

As I suggest, this fatalism, or rather, this aspect of fatalism, is something I find profoundly impressive. In my own youthful, Asiatic travels, I sometimes glimpsed it; never in the cities, but in remote rural places. Had I travelled, instead, in mediaeval Europe, I’m sure I would have encountered it there; or in rural Canada, during the dustbowl years; or anywhere far away in space and time from Parkdale, where I live, in the constant state of critique.

It is mimesis, I swear. One picks up one’s habits from one’s environment, and by condemning that environment, one condemns oneself.

Therefore: environmental change begins with not whining.