It is said that we should plan is if were to will live forever, but live as if we were to die tomorrow. It was Mahatma Gandhi who said it. He said we should learn forever, which I modified to plan forever. In any case, we must know that life is unpredictable and that anything can happen any time, so we should be prepared for that, yes, even if we plan as much as we can. Man plans but God has the last word, we also say, with reference to the Holy Books. Now as the year draws to an end, we may become more still, as the hustle and bustle calms down for Christmas and New Year celebrations.

An elderly couple in USA who had been married for over fifty years said that they were still in love, yes, sometimes they thought more so now than when they first met and got married. They said that the secret behind it was that even if they had disagreed on something during the day, quarrelled and been angry with each other, they would always set aside time to sort out everything before going to bed. Imagine if it would have been the last day for one of us, that the other one would never have woken up the next morning. That would have been terrible, the wife said. How would my husband have been able to live on, or I if it was he who would be gone?

The husband added that they would certainly also make long term plans, pay insurances, make investments, build and maintain houses, and so on. Even in old age, when they should know that they wouldn’t be around in this world to see and experience the fruits of all their plans and actions, they still keep living as if they would live forever, at least many more years. But then, they said in unison, the children and grandchildren would enjoy what they had invested in and built, including those extensions to the vacation home in the mountains they had just completed. Furthermore, we also do things selfishly for ourselves, for immediate gratification, they laughed. When we take our travels, cruises, and visits to new places, which we still do, indeed to places where there is warm weather and sun in winter, then we usually go alone, without children and grandchildren. We take trips to the Caribbean or South America, away from the snow in New York is, beautiful as that too may be. As old people, we are always worried about tripping on the ice and snow of the sidewalk; no one would like to fall and break a limb or two and end up in a wheel chair.

Across the Atlantic Ocean in Europe, specifically in Norway, lived a famous politician named Thorvald Stoltenberg (1931-2018). His career included a lot, indeed being head of UNHCR and deputy minister and a full minister of defence and foreign affairs. His son, Jens Stoltenberg, did even better than his father in politics; he was minister of finance and prime minister before becoming NATO’s secretary general, now in his second term in that high office. A few days ago, in an interview in the Oslo newspaper Aftenposten, ‘young’ Jens Stoltenberg (b. 1959) spoke about the small things in life. Yes, those things that he and we all think are small, yet, they may actually be the most important ones in close human relations. Often, it is the small things that make a big difference in the long run. Jens Stoltenberg’s father passed away earlier on 13 July, 2018, and Jens said that one of the things he missed was those daily telephone conversations with his father between Brussels and Oslo. They were mostly about everyday issues. And then he said that when his father was alive, he had sometimes thought it was he as the ‘young’ man who did something for his father when calling him, or being called on phone every day. Now, he had come to realize that it was rather the other way around; it was his father who had done something for him every day, just by calling him, and simply asking him how he was. He knew, too, that his father could hear in his voice if things were indeed alright or if the son had too overwhelming worries on his mind, if something was wrong.

The Stoltenbergs have said in earlier interviews that they are not religious. In an interview a year or two ago, Jens Stoltenberg said that he sometimes envied those who have a religious faith. When having sombre reflections in my article today, allow me to say a few more things about the public Stoltenberg family, based on information in books and newspaper articles. (Thorvald Stoltenberg wrote about his family and political life in several books; Lars Lillo-Stenberg wrote about Stoltenberg’s youngest daughter in a book published at the beginning of 2018; Jens Stoltenberg wrote a memoire book published in 2016.)

When Thorvald Stoltenberg’s wife for 55 years, Karin Stoltenberg, passed away in 2012, he said that he thought this was the end and that he did not believe in a life hereafter, yet, Karin would always be with him in his thoughts. Besides, he was so glad that his daughter kept up the Christmas traditions and decorated and prepared all in the apartment the way his wife would have done. And then, he found a new companion, too, embracing life’s waning years, with actress Anja Breien (b. 1940).

This year, the son Jens Stoltenberg reflected more on people around him who had passed away; this he did also since his wife ambassador Ingrid Schulerud, had lost her brother recently – and a few years ago, he had lost his younger sister, lawyer, TV personality and activist Nini Stoltenberg (1963-2014) as a result of effects from heroin addiction earlier in life. She was the kindest person on earth, father Thorvald Stoltenberg said about her.

The lesson is: life is not possible to foresee and plan, not even for top politicians; the small rivers do indeed run unpredictably. In the end, we are all small rivers. Yet, the small rivers flow into the big rivers and the sea – as we all form part of everyday life, community with others and eternity.

My article today was not meant only to be sad and about people who have passed on. Yet, realizing the fact that we will all have to go one day, may make life richer as we walk on this earth; maybe that would remind us to slow down, be less fuzzy in everyday life and see better what is really important. Maybe we can realize that it is not always important to have worldly gold and glitter, wealth, prestige and power? True, it may make life more comfortable to have some of that; I think the couple in New York that I wrote about in the introduction is quite wealthy – and the Stoltenbergs too. Many of us have less, either we are Pakistanis, Norwegians or belong to any other nationality. We all know that it is human relations and our efforts in trying to do what is good and right for those nearest to us, and even those we meet briefly, that counts most. We get to realize that seemingly insignificant telephone and personal conversations may indeed be important.

As I have grown older (and I turned 68 in 2018), I have been reminded that I must focus more on what is really important in life, not only for myself but more those around me, the people who have to deal with me or just meet me. I believe we can learn to be better human beings than what we often are if we ‘run too fast and are too busy’. In Pakistan, where I have spent most of my time for almost two decades, I have so many times seen true concern for others, even directly for me, a visitor from a rich country who should rather offer help and comfort than to be comforted. But after a while, people see no cradle, colour, origin or any other difference. We all live the same life, with one destiny, one hope. We try to make everyday life bearable and good for each other and do what is right – realizing that the small things can indeed make a big difference in the long run.

Dear Readers, finally today, let me wish you a Merry Christmas, irrespective of religion or denomination. The universal message of Christmas, as of all other major religious events, is that we should all do good and be good. We should try to do God’s will in everyday life, in the small things, and then have faith in God Allah’s eternal power of good over evil, light over darkness, hope over despair. In all religions, we know that it is in giving that we receive; it is in forgiving that we are forgiven; and it is through God’s mercy and our good deeds that we may receive eternal life.


The writer is a senior Norwegian social scientist with experience from university, diplomacy and development aid.