Just be the way you are, don’t change, a Pakistani friend told me on New Year’s Eve. How kind and generous of her, I thought. And I could only tell her them same. We were both very pleased. I more, probably, because I had reached a more advanced age than my friend and we both come from different backgrounds and lands. We are probably quite different, but we both appreciate the positive sides to the other person.

It was a time when we reflected on the year that was ending, standing on the threshold of the New Near, with a clean slate and new opportunities. Some of us had new year’s resolutions, too, specific things we wanted to change, such as stop smoking, get rid of some excess kilos, go for a walk every day, or at least, a couple of times a week. Perhaps we also would like to become better family members, do a better job at work or school, or become more devoted in our religious life. All this may be important, for me and perhaps also for people in my immediate surroundings. But how important are really the small things?

Psychologists teach us that we human beings must live in relative harmony with ourselves and others. We must accept ourselves the way we are, with our strengths and weaknesses, and we must learn to live in our local contexts with our family, friends, and colleagues. The small things are basic before we can “go out in the big world”. And it also means that it is in the private sphere that we must retreat to rest and recharge.

Some years ago, my friend Father Tony Barrett who had worked as a Catholic priest in Kenya for many years told me, one day when he was tired and exhausted, that he thought that he in his type of work and calling was always on duty. The only time he was free was when he could close the door to his modest abode, a sparsely furnished room in an annex to the church. As a Catholic priest he had promised to live in celibacy and not marry or have own children. He had given his vow but as he was getting older and noticing that his physical and mental energy was more limited than before, he had begun to miss someone to confide in and talk to about life’s small things, and probably also the big issues. I remember he said that he thought that Protestant priests were better off because they could “put up their feet” in the home with a wife and children. Obviously, this does not mean that the priest’s relationship with his God was to be questioned. It just explains that we also need close and intimate human relations.

When I began working as an international civil servant and diplomat some twenty-five years ago, I remember I was surprised to discover that that even my senior colleagues, bosses and visitors from headquarters were concerned about the small things, not only the big principles and structures. And they, too, would once in a while pull out a popular magazine, not only serious documents and office reports, and they too would gossip about unimportant issues and people.

Now when I have grown older myself, and I have understood that we all need to relax and recharge, I don’t find this surprising any more. As a matter of fact, I would find the opposite surprising and strange. For example if a visitor from headquarters or an evaluation consultant fly in from abroad at three o’clock in the morning and remains stressed, buckled up and only able to talk about his  meeting programmes and itineraries. I always feel sorry for such visitors, taking themselves too seriously and forgetting the human dimensions. I wonder for how many years they can go on working like that before they get burnt out and maybe even need professional help to “learn to rest”.

Now then, many of all these small things should probably remain private. We should not discuss all “family secrets” in the office and at seminars. Nobody needs to know what the Secretary General in the visiting NGO, or the Ambassador from a major donor country prefer to have for breakfast or what kind of magazines they read, or how superficially they may glance at official reports. In our time, though, we all and the media in particular seem to be obsessed with Bill Clinton type side-steps. Yes, it may be fun to know that Albert Einstein had similar “flaws” in his personality. But it rather makes them more human and we shouldn’t spend our time judging them and gossiping. Besides, there is hypocrisy in all this, too. We all like to show a polished façade until we get exposed. However, if there wasn’t anything “juicy” to find in my life, I would be less human and I would probably be a more superficial person than I should have been. Perhaps I would have been afraid to live?

Let me refer to my Catholic priest again, Father Tony Barrett, who was also a Professor in anthropology. He often said that he would try to do his best. “That is all you can do”, he said. If the results were not perfect, he always said that he had given his best, alone and in cooperation with others. Yes, we shouldn’t even listen too much to criticism. We should just get up again and try anew, and hopefully do better the next time. To become shy and lose self-confidence would be wrong, and to give up, would be unacceptable. There would be people who depended on our perseverance. It would be our duty to go on and do our best.

In my home country Norway, it has become a “wave” that young women from the capital marry fishermen and farmers in remote villages of the country, often up north in the long land. They have their advanced degrees and urban habits, but they seem to find their newfound love and involvement in all the small things more meaningful than academic talks in the city. It was the same reasons, I suppose, that made my friend from Norway, a senior researcher marrying an “ordinary man” from Gujrat, without much education and no university degree, and besides, he was many years younger than she. They have now lived happily for a number of years. It is the small things that make us tick and give us foundation and purpose in life.

As a social scientist, however, I also believe that the big issues in the big world are important. We must analyze and study those, too, and we must plan and implement solutions that can make life better for the large masses. Yet, I believe that it is the many small things that are basic. Our character is evidenced by how we live with our nearest and dearest. And as a social scientist, I must not only know my professional books, I must also have values and attitudes, so that I can put my competence to work where it can help the people who need help.

I wish that in 2012 I can become a greater man than I was last year, not necessarily in the big world, but in my own community and daily world. I pray that I will let others, too, be given the opportunity to do their best, so that they can become truly great and live to the best of their potential in the New Year we have just begun.

The writer is a senior Norwegian social scientist based in Islamabad. He has worked with research, diplomacy, development and humanitarian aid. He is the author of The Know Norway Book, just published in December 2011.   

Email: atlehetland@yahoo.com