My father was never a great intellectual. He was brought up in the ‘school of hard knocks’, the ‘University of Life’ where anyone who was not a Royal Marine or at least a Para was a big girl’s blouse! (And even Paras could sometimes be classed as big girls blouses if you can believe that?) I never bothered to listen to him much until he mellowed in his old age but the one and only piece of advice from him that I took to heart was this; ‘Any Idiot Can Be Uncomfortable’.
I recounted it back to him once in a begrudging act of homage and discovered that even this piece of invaluable advice he had forgotten. Hence I understood clearly that he could not be relied upon as a store of ancient wisdom and so it was that I have saved for posterity this singular piece of lost military knowledge.
As a young man determined to travel the world and to experience everything, I tried to imagine the most uncomfortable, testing situations and to dramatically fall foul of them. Enduring a long spell in a foreign prison was the most stupid of those ideas and fortunately it never happened. (Thanks to my efforts, my wife Jill got the closest to that singular piece of discomfort – I have been far better at running away as she will so often testify). The key piece of common sense drummed into me by my father and by growing maturity was that you do not need to go looking for trouble since it will no doubt find you in the end, and of course ‘any idiot can be uncomfortable’. This maxim then applies to riding atop a train in the Indian sub-continent, traveling for hours with chickens on buses with no brakes that drive too fast round Andean mountains, playing football in the midday sun with no sunscreen and very limit access to clean water, knocking on the doors of water cannon prior to riots kicking off and asking for a sneak inside preview and not least bungee jumping off rickety foreign bridges? The list goes on and yes most of those things I have indeed attempted and thought better of shortly after. I still have bungee jumping to avoid.
Working for a number of aid agencies and overseas for many years provided me with ample opportunity for discomfort. More importantly I have witnessed first-hand the unbearable discomfort suffered by those who have no choice about it. Suffering in solidarity with ones fellow human beings only serves a purpose when there are no other options for your fellow human beings. If there is any way for you all to avoid discomfort then do. Simply try your best to lead them out of it.
In the 1990s I remember getting on a plane from Bangladesh to the Gulf and feeling immense pity for my friends dressed in blue overalls, all with one piece of hand luggage and ready to disembark rapidly at the other end to toil away in a foreign land. Ghandi-like I imagined sitting amongst them, commiserating with them all the way to the Gulf where we would separate as life-long buddies understanding fully each other’s agonies. Then I discovered the leg room had been severely reduced in cattle class and the delightful stewardess had unwittingly stumbled upon a lost ‘Bideshi’ in economy. She immediately and instinctively offered me a free upgrade to business class. I considered my Ghandi-credentials for a second and concluded that my new friends would probably not miss me much (and if the roles were reversed they would be up there too sitting next to the pilot). Any idiot can be uncomfortable but it is less likely that a free upgrade is coming your way so don’t be perverse!