I was ten years old when we repatriated to the Netherlands. An incredibly short part of life, considering that I am just short of eighty now. So why talk about my rules of survival now?
The answer is that those first years taught me some useful lessons that set me on a path through the many years that followed: through my college studies in the Netherlands, England and Italy; through my ministry in India; through my time as vicar general of the Mill Hill Missionaries; through my subsequent lecturing in many countries and setting up various international networks.
During all those years I faced challenges of many kinds: pressures from students, colleagues and friends; attacks by opponents; condemnation by institutions; physical dangers; setbacks in my health; organizational nightmares and financial worries. Somehow I survived – and often succeeded. As I look back I discern in myself principles and action codes I began to shape during those earliest years, and refined in what happened afterwards.
So bear with me as I round off this first section of my story with a reflection on survival strategies.
- Trust your own intelligence
I have never seen myself as a champion bush tracker hacking my way through the undergrowth of dense forests. If anything, I am more of a schemer, working my way out of tangled webs by planning and diplomacy. Scheming sounds awful, I know. And it is awful when it thrives on lies and deceit. But those are not the only tools of scheming. Scheming relies on using your own intelligence, taking control of events by understanding what is happening and plotting your own way through. Which is why I was amused when coming across the writing of sharp-witted arch-schemer Gao Lee Ji.
Gao served as prime minister and army chief of Emperor Li Ping of the Chinese state Wang Chung in the 5th century before Christ. He stayed alive in spite of a despotic ruler, treacherous rivals, rebellious soldiers and unreliable advisers. His answer was to be as treacherous, rebellious and deceitful as everyone else. Later in life he recorded his rules for survival in a book entitled “The Art of Groveling”.
For Gao, survival requires giving in to superior power, humbling yourself if needed, ‘sucking up’ as he called it.
- “My head feels good touching the cold floor before the Emperor’s throne” – he means: at least then my head is not being chopped off.
- “When you grovel, you present a smaller target.”
Don’t commit yourself totally to just one course of action, he says. At all times you should be prepared to extract yourself from the danger of defeat.
- “A skilled general draws up a good battle plan — and seven escape routes.”
- “A careful general keeps one foot in the stirrup even when urinating.”
- “In war there is no situation too dire or problem too thorny that you can’t run away from.”
Don’t shy away from dishonesty and deception, he counsels. A lie is good when it serves your purpose. It will promote your status and political power.
- “A great leader doesn’t fix what is broken. A great leader breaks it in order to fix it and take the credit for it.”
- “When your council, after months of fruitless deliberation, is about to make a decision that may cause you problems, it is time to enlarge the council with new members.”
- “I send out my tax collectors knowing that the peasants will curse them and throw dung at them. Then I flog my tax collectors and give the peasants half their money back – they hail me as their hero!”
You get the picture. The kind of craftiness Gao recommends aims at ruthless self promotion, regardless of what happens to others. One day General Gao dropped his scepter of authority during an inspection of the army. The Imperial Chamberlain chuckled. Gao judged that this might endanger his standing with his troops. So Gao said to the Chamberlain: “The superior man forgives all slights”, then ordered him to be carted off to the beheading grounds.
When rebels were on the point of overrunning the fortress of his Emperor, Gao shamelessly chose the rebel side. Emperor Li Ping was impaled on his banner over the gate of his own palace. Gao records: “It’s hard to describe how honoured I felt that, during the impalement, the last thing the Emperor did was look up into the sky and scream out my name.”
Cynical, disloyal, two-faced, unforgivably cruel to others. No ethical principles. Just hard-nosed flexible opportunism. Hardly an attractive role model. But while rejecting Gao’s morals, I agree with his central tenet: “You are an individual in a complex and often hostile world. Your best ally is your own intelligence. Use it!”
Of course, we have to seek up-to-date information. We need to listen carefully to advisers. But at the end of the day it is our own intelligence that should save us.
I could give numerous examples of how I have applied this principle. One may suffice. In 1972 the Papal Encyclical Humanae Vitae forbade the use of contraceptives in all circumstances. At the time I was lecturing in Hyderabad, India. The prohibition was a blow to Indian Catholics. With its exploding population and hundreds of millions living below the poverty line, India needed planned birth control. Repeatedly I published letters in the Catholic New Leader to point out why the Pope was wrong. I was told my public opposition to the ‘superior wisdom’ of authority created a scandal. I should submit my own mind to the superior mind of the Church . . .
Around that time, when on a personal retreat in Mahabalipuram south of Chennai, I wrote down the following resolution:
“I assert my right to live my own life and follow my own convictions. I nourish my mind with the spiritual traditions of the Christian community to which I belong. I am grateful to others for the guidance and support they offer; but these can never substitute for the judgment of my own mind and the decisions of my own free will. I consider myself a freethinker; in the sense that I do not want to exclude from my thinking anything that is true and valid. In all moral questions I regard my own conscience as the last norm of good and evil. I trust that God who created me and made me his child, will one day welcome me, the way I am, into his everlasting joy.”
However, while sticking to my public opposition to the Pope’s view on birth control, like Gao I was conscious of needing to survive. I made sure that everyone I depended on fully understood my reasons: college authorities, superiors of the missionary congregation to which I belonged, the local Archbishop Arulappa Samineni, colleagues in Catholic centres and theological associations, and so on. I had to cover my back!
- Act fast and decisively
I learnt from my mother never to give up. I recall how my father, Niek Wijngaards, in 1951 wrote a book on “How to Appreciate Art” for use in high schools in the Netherlands. My father was eminently qualified, being a teacher himself (doctorate in literature) and an artist as well. The book was the first of its kind with illustrated introductions to painting, sculpture and architecture, setting out how works of art should be assessed and enjoyed.
My father submitted the book for publication to the Gregorius Publishers in Zeist. The book was rejected with a dismissive note stating ‘the author is not competent in the matter’ . . . Fortunately for him it was my mother who opened the packet. Without further ado, she sent the manuscript for consideration to a much larger publishing house: Malmberg in s’Hertogenbosch. My mother knew the negative response might have put doubts in my father’s mind.
Malmberg accepted. When a representative came to negotiate the contract, my mother made sure to be there. The publisher offered 8000 Guilders for the total copyright. My father was ready to jump at it. My mother was not.
“We insist on a royalty on every copy sold”, she said.
“Ten percent”, my mother insisted.
“If it doesn’t sell 5000 copies, we will lose on the deal.”
“It will sell more than 5000 copies”, my mother said. “Alright. 5 percent on the first 5000 copies sold, 10 percent afterwards.”
The salesman protested, but finally agreed. My father told me afterwards he kept thinking: “I will lose the publisher”. But my mother’s determination paid off. The book appeared in 3 volumes and was an immediate success. It saw a dozen reprints, selling tens of thousands of copies.[i]
When you know what is right, act immediately and don’t give up. I have followed that principle dozens of times. It makes me feel sympathetic to another survival strategist: Niccolò Machiavelli, a politician and diplomat in early fifteenth-century Florence. His book The Prince became a classic guide for the despotic rulers of the time. Violence should be used if necessary, he says. Eliminate political rivals, purge your community of men who threaten your leadership. If required, discard ethics and do whatever is needed to secure your objective; a political principle now known as machiavellian. It is small comfort to know that Machiavelli put popes and bishops among the ‘princes’ who should follow his advice nor that it was printed in 1537 with permission of the Medici Pope Clement VII.[ii]
What I admire in The Prince is Machiavelli’s recognition that a leader should not allow himself to live in a dream world. He should reject flattery and find out ‘reality’: the true state of things. And then he should act resolutely and without hesitation. When planning a coup, for example, the machiavellian principle demands that you eliminate all your opponents in one fell swoop. “Don’t drag out the process! Do the whole job at once!”
Macchiavelli is wrong when he maintains that the end justifies the means. It does not. We may not advance our purpose through harming others. But he is right in praising unadorned realism, unreserved determination and the will to act decisively and fast. It has been one of the principles of my life, encapsulated in Dutch sayings my mother taught us.
- “Launch the ship now, while the tide is high!”
- “Grasp the nettle firmly by the hand!”
- “The bold hold half the world in their pocket and the other half they grab!” – refers to Dutch merchant ships opening up overseas countries for trade.
- “What’s in my head does not sit in my bottom!” – I am determined to execute my intention.
- “The first blow (in a fight) is worth a daalder!” – the daalder was a Dutch coin of great value. The American dollar derives from it.
- “Don’t let a bully eat the cheese off your bread!”
- Make everyone you meet a friend
When, six years old, I entered the concentration camp, I was suddenly forced to live with hundreds of other people in small, cramped spaces. I had to share their anxieties, hopes, disappointments and joys in ever changing circumstances. I soon discovered that the world a human being lives in is not so much determined by the earth we tread on and the air we breathe as by the social tribe that surrounds us. Survival required getting on with people.
When I wake up in the morning, I remember my dreams. They are always about strangers, hardly ever including someone I know. The people I meet I real personalities with varying but specific characters. My dreams create complex situations in which I somehow manage to get on with these strangers – to a greater or lesser degree.
In one dream I am attending a conference to give a lecture. Professors from all continents are present, all strangers, some sympathetic, some critical. I mingle with them, worrying about my talk. When, in the conference hall, the moment comes and I am walking up to the microphone, I suddenly find that I am holding the wrong papers in my hand. I smile at the audience while the chairman introduces me but my mind works feverishly to establish how much I remember of what I had prepared. I find that I even don’t remember the exact topic. I begin to speak making up things as I talk, looking at people’s faces as I do so. Fortunately I get a break when the shrill sound of a fire alarm is heard and the meeting is adjourned . . .
I have similar dreams about hordes of strangers in a park, in a shopping mall, at a friend’s jubilee (even the ‘friend’ is a stranger), on a railway journey, during a high mass in church, in the swimming pool, etc. etc. Venues change, but crowds of ever novel strangers are always there. Somehow I cope. I struggle but always survive the encounters. You see why I am convinced my experience in the Indonesian concentration camps is at the bottom of it all. And yet, in real life, I am never afraid to meet people I don’t know, I address new audiences without worry, I typically believe I understand what others think and what they feel about me.
After all this you will not be surprised to find that I studied Dale Carnegie’s bestseller How to Make Friends and Influence People with great interest. I absorbed all the advice he gives on learning to see things from another person’s point of view. Showing a genuine interest in him or her. Smiling. Remembering his or her name. Listening. Giving the other a chance to talk about what he or she considers important. They are all things I regularly do.
Communication, I found, is crucial in all circumstances. In a larger group don’t allow yourself to become isolated. Seek out persons who normally do not speak to you and open a conversation. It works miracles. If someone seems hostile, crack a joke and cut off contact. If someone hurls abuse, reply strongly, immediately. As the Book of Proverbs reminds us, a potentially large fire can be put out at its beginning if you spit on it.
I realize the dangers of Dale Carnegie’s advice, of course, if social skill becomes a sales technique. The British salesman Jim McCormick was convicted on 2 May 2013 of having sold ‘bomb detectors’ to Iraq and Afghanistan. He conned police commanders and army chiefs in buying 7000 of the fake devices for $ 40,000 each. Copies were also put to use in Georgia, Romania, Niger, Thailand and Saudi Arabia. Expert witnesses estimated that thousands of innocent lives must have been lost as a result – when people, trusting the detector, came too close to unexploded bombs or mines. Jim owed his ‘success’ to his ‘unsurpassed skill’ as a salesman. Which brings me to my next principle.
- Be prepared to die for what you hold sacred
The Gospel contains this mysterious axiom:
“Whoever tries to keep their life will lose it, and whoever loses their life will preserve it.” Luke 17,33; Matthew 10,39.
It is unusual advice for those seeking survival.
What did Jesus mean?
Let us begin by noting that we have here a typical chidah: a riddle. Chidahs are enigmatic and perplexing sayings which Aramaic teachers used in Jesus’ days to make their disciples think. The meaning is not supposed to be obvious. Reflecting on its contradiction should help us come to a deeper insight, a truth we do not learn from a textbook but from a more profound grasp of reality.
We should discard the superficial interpretation some preachers give to it. “If we lose life in this world, we will save it for heaven”, they say. Sure, an end-time dimension is there. But it does not go to the heart of what Jesus was trying to make us discover.
In early tradition, the chidah was joined to another radical saying: “If anyone wants to be a follower of mine, let him renounce himself, take up his cross and follow me” (Mark 8,34-35). This formulation goes back to the post-resurrectional Christ, when earlier sayings were re-phrased. To be a follower of Jesus means putting your life on the line, being ready to be crucified for your convictions, as he had been. The early Christians saw Jesus’ chidah about losing life in the light of a very existential decision.
I might paraphrase it like this: there are higher values in life than physical and social survival. Truth, love, living for others are worth much more than fame, wealth, health and comfort. Jesus was prepared to die for the higher values, and so should we be if we truly want to be his followers. The paradox, Jesus promises us, is that by renouncing the life of fame, wealth, health and comfort as our highest priority, we find life in a more precious way. It may cost us our physical life, but it will give us a truly worthwhile life: as genuine human beings, as untainted children of God, a God whose priority is selfless Love.
I will talk more about ‘God’ in a later section of this book. I am not sure to what extent I have been able to implement Jesus’ advice for survival in my life. I do recognise it, and try to honour it, as a principle.
[i] Niek Wijngaards, Kunst, kunstenaars en kunstwaardering, Malmberg, ‘s-Hertogenbosch 1951.
[ii] Later, in 1559, the book was put on the Index of Forbidden Books by Pope Paul IV.
John Wijngaards, My Story – My Thoughts, My rules for survival