Novelist Pico Iyer on what makes him an eternal optimist
Our circumstances don’t define our lives; it’s what we do with them that does
Nature has been putting us in our place with unusual ferocity of late: every day seems to bring news of some terrible earthquake or hurricane or forest fire, which reminds me too vividly of the wildfire that wiped out my own family home in California some years ago, leaving me with nothing but the shoulder bag I was carrying. Meanwhile, acts of man are hardly more benign than what insurance companies think of as “acts of God”: blowhards come to power in East and West, and we can feel the forces of tribalism trying to push back the free movement of people and ideas that has been such a liberating sign of the new millennium.
So why am I an optimist? Partly because I’ve been working in the mainstream media for 35 years now, and I know not to trust it. It’s always a single act of brutality that captures headlines, while a hundred acts of everyday kindness are ignored, and more and more, in the global neighbourhood, our “news” is just the equivalent of small-town gossip. We’re living in the age of Pope Francis and the Dalai Lama and more charitable efforts than ever before, but it’ll always be the Las Vegas gunman or the ISIS operative with a knife who knows how to dominate our attention.
My optimism comes from a deeper source, though, than simply knowing that what we hear and read isn’t a fair register of what is really happening. As a traveller, I witness every day people whose lives are much more nuanced and often brighter than our notions of them. Visiting Iran, I came upon a glamorous, subtle and rich reality that no number of images of black-clad women and frowning ayatollahs could convey. In Mongolia, two years ago, I witnessed both the excitement of what is often the fastest rising economy in the world, and the pride of a traditional culture that is not going to abandon its pastoral ways soon. I’d never want to live in North Korea, but even there, on a return visit, I saw how one million mobile-phones were slightly easing the lives of the privileged few in Pyongyang.
A statue of a ping-pong player outside the Kim Il Sung stadium in Pyong Yang, North Korea
We all have double standards in our lives, I think, whereby we tend to remember the traumas—that forest fire—more than the many, many happy things all around it. Every writer recalls one bad review after a hundred good ones are forgotten. “If only…,” we think, forgetting that another set of ‘if onlys’ could have ended our lives many times over.
I reflect on my cousins and uncles in India, and see them leading lives of opportunity far beyond what any of them imagined when growing up. I look around me in Japan, and see neighbours who were eating rats and sawdust during the war, and begging for scraps for years after, now dwelling in a comfort that’s the envy of almost anywhere. I spent this August in Canada, which—unlike its great neighbour to the south—realised 40 years ago that two million heads are better than one, and began to create a global community far greater than the sum of its parts.
My Buddhist neighbours here in Japan’s ancient capital of Nara believe that the first noble truth of human existence is suffering: all of us (if we’re lucky) get ill, grow old and die. But that isn’t a reason for despair. If anything, it’s incentive to celebrate the fact that right now I’m neither sick, too old nor dying. I still remember the shock I felt the day after the forest fire reduced everything I knew and planned to nothing. After a few months of adjustment, I realised I could now live more lightly, move to Japan and, in the absence of my notes, try to become a novelist instead. Suffering, as they say around Nara, isn’t the same as unhappiness. The first words the Dalai Lama delivered to his younger brother when they arrived in India, in 1959, leaving their homeland and seeming destiny behind, were, “Now we are free.” Our circumstances don’t define our lives; it’s what we do with them that does.
Photographs: Jalsa Urubshurow (Pico Iyer), Pico Iyer (North Korea)