The Definition of Success

In 2013 Angelina Jolie won a humanitarian award at the Governor’s Awards, which celebrate lifetime achievement in film, and form a part of the Academy Awards in Hollywood.  Her heartfelt, at times tearful, utterly inspiring speech, started out acknowledging various people including friends and family.  She then went on to honour her mother, who had been her biggest support, encouraging her artistic ambition and spurring her to live a life of meaning and use to others.  A video of the full speech is here .

<My mother> gave me love and confidence, and above all, she was very clear that nothing would mean anything if I didn’t live a life of use to others.  I didn’t know what that meant for a long time.  I came into this business young and worried about my own experiences and my own pain.  It was only when I began to travel and look and live beyond my home, that I understand my responsibilities to others.

When I met survivors of war and famine and rape, I learned what life is like for most people in this world, and how fortunate I was, to have food to eat, a roof over my head, a safe place to live, and the joy of having my family safe and healthy.  And I realised how sheltered I had been. And I was determined never to be that way again.

We are all, everyone in this room, so fortunate.

I have never understood why some people are lucky enough to be born with the chance that I had, to have this path in life, and why across the world, there is a woman just like me, with the same abilities and the same desires, same work ethic and love for her family, who would most likely make better films and better speeches.  Only she sits in a refugee camp.  And she has no voice.  She worries about what her children will eat, how to keep them safe, and if they’ll ever be allowed to return home.

I don’t know why this is my life?  And that’s hers?  I don’t understand that.  But I will do as my mother asked, and I will do the best I can with this life, to be of use.  To stand here today means that I did as she asked, and if she were alive, she’d be very proud.  Thank you.

My own mother would have been foolhardy to encourage me into a life of art, although I do remember the occasional ludicrous suggestion such as joining a marching team and getting involved in local theatre!  Otherwise, Angelina’s words about her mother’s love and encouragement reflect my own experience, for which I am eternally grateful.

More than that, Angelina’s words echo my own daily thoughts around how and why I – over so many others equally and more deserving – was born to such incredible good fortune.  Not a day goes by now, when I don’t have at least one jolt of astonishment at my pure luck of birth.  It also amazes me daily, that despite my education, world travels and easy access to information through all forms of modern media, I had led such a sheltered existence as to remain steadfastly unaware of my windfall in life.

Since 1979 when the Khmer Rouge were overthrown, a total of over 64,000 landmine victims have been recorded in Cambodia.  There continue to be approximately one casualty every couple of days in the country, reflecting the inordinate number of mines planted in the country and the great difficulties of landmine identification and clearance in a resource-stricken, systemically chaotic nation.  Surviving victims live almost exclusively in extreme poverty, with even more limited means of income than their able-bodied peers.

I knowingly met my first landmine victim during a holiday with my own mother, visiting from New Zealand, and the mother of a good friend, visiting from France, in January 2014.  We were sitting at a bar enjoying an alcoholic beverage one afternoon when he appeared before us, a small basket hanging at his chest via a rope around his neck, filled with books for sale.  One arm amputated below the elbow, the other missing part of his hand and one leg amputated below the knee, standing upright on an old fashioned flesh-coloured, leg-shaped, rubber prosthetic.  Not used to such sights, his appearance came as a shock to us.  We did not want to purchase any books and he departed, placing an A4 page on our table with his story typed out in English.  We read it and I put it in my bag.  Injured by a landmine as a teenager in the Cambodian army, his only income is from selling books to tourists, he tries to feed and send his children to school but it depends on sales.

For hours I thought about how life would be if there was no way to earn an income, if my limbs and hands were deformed or missing, if I were impoverished and every day I had to bravely approach wealthy people who look shocked at my physical appearance and who have no perception of my reliance on their generosity.  The inequality and indignity seemed inexcusable and so from our hotel room that night I sent him an email offering to help in some way.  He replied with gratitude and about a month later we met.  I bought his wife a sewing machine and I send them US$50 each month – a perfectly affordable contribution from my first world income and yet significantly valuable to the life of a disabled man and his extremely grateful family.

When I visited them again last year, the sewing machine was in a corner of their tiny room, smaller than my own bedroom but which serves as bedroom, living room and kitchen to four people.  On the wall above it was a poster in English reading “donated by Madame Helen from Australi”, next to a framed photograph of Mum and I sitting together in a cafe in New Zealand!  Across from our framed photograph, on the opposite wall is a photograph of Cambodia’s much revered King Norodom Sihanouk (now deceased) and his wife Queen Monineath!!

Since leaving Cambodia I have sensed a fear in my friend, that he may lose me to the unknown world where I come from.  He maintains irregular contact with me on Facebook, apparently when he can afford to visit an internet cafe and find someone to help him with an English message.  I regularly assure him of my ongoing assistance.  Our communication this week is a good example:
Hello Madam how are you and your family ? I’m good thank you, Today, I a,m, never without tourists broken today any where to pay more rent, I do not deWhen tourists visit Cambodia, Thank madam Good luc to you and you family and good health from my family !!
Hello Kosal. I am sorry to hear about the tourists not coming to Cambodia. I always remember that you need my help and I will send some money soon. Probably next week $50. Every month I send you $50 but I have to wait until my pay day. I promise I will never forget. Stay strong!  I hope the tourists will return to Cambodia soon!

I feel acutely aware of the power I wield over someone who simply lucked out around the same time that I lucked in.  Not only is it my responsibility to maintain the help I have offered, but helping offers me a sense of reward that my good fortune in and of itself, does not.  The fact that we cannot help everyone in need does not mean that we should not help anyone when it is within our means to do so.

Success in Life


3 thoughts on “The Definition of Success

  1. I can only imagine how far your $50 stretches to, each month – and the gift of the sewing machine (sitting proudly beneath the photo of you and your Mum!) It’s such a lucky, lucky thing, to be able to help someone, because half the world simply don’t have the means. Giving is a gift in itself.

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  2. I am honored that our photo has pride of place on the wall with royalty!
    I remember that afternoon when he came past trying to sell books. There were so many others who appeared to be in similar situations & it was hard to say no to any of them. I did buy books in Cambodia & read the terrible stories of what happened to the population. In a lot of ways, history seems to be repeating it self in Syria. Give him my very best regards when you are next in touch.

    Liked by 2 people

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