El-Rufai’s post, Reza’s comedy

This Sunday (April 24, 2016), Governor Nasir El-Rufai’s post on Facebook made my day. The Action Governor wrote: “The most vicious evils in the world have been perpetrated by those who believe with absolute certainty that what they think is the right way is the only way. We must open our minds to the possibility that our long held beliefs may not be correct. In this constantly evolving world, we must listen to all views and evaluate them to increase the chances of getting public policy right. May God Guide and Guard us aright. Amen.”

We cannot live happily in the world without conceding our views and opinions on some occasions in order to achieve something bigger. This message is apt because much of the problems we have in the world would be solved or averted if we don’t believe that our own way is the only way and our own truth is the absolute truth. Just as one man’s meat is another man’s poison, one man’s truth is another man’s fallacy. There is nothing we can do about that.

Governor El-Rufai’s post summarises in a way the message that struck me on January 27, 2006 at Illinois Theater Center through Yesmina Reza’s comedy (translated by Christopher Hampton as “Art”). As part of a course, “American Culture and Media”, I was there with a few colleagues and our Professor to see the play on stage. The message was touching and it is worth sharing.

Reza’s “Art” is about three middle-aged friends, Serge, Marc and Ivan. The bone of contention among them is a work of art, from which the play is given its title. Serge has just bought what appears to be a useless white-on-white painting for hundreds of dollars, which he proudly shows to his friend, Marc. Marc looks at the “painting” with contempt because he can see nothing there. He does not hide his feelings to let his friend know that he has wasted his money on a piece of nothing. Serge, however, believes that he has made a “best buy” and tries to let Serge see the beauty of his latest collection. Marc, on the other hand, attempts to make his friend understand that what he has bought is worthless.

The burden that rests on Ivan is to mediate between the two, persuading both parties to be less assertive in their views. There is a good message in the character of Ivan as a mediator: he does not take sides; there cannot be effective conflict resolution when the mediator or arbiter is biased. The arguments reach a climax as the two friends want to achieve superiority with their fists. The good Ivan would not allow this childishness to happen and prevents the fight as he becomes the victim of thrown punches. The injuries he sustains distract the combatants who have to apologise to their friend and thereby allow their rising tempers to simmer down.

It is at this point that Marc “sees” what Serge is trying to portray. The blank painting at the end of the day is a symbolic representation of the wide space and the peace that permeates it. In that blank painting, the audience too can “see” a happy young man skiing down the broad plain that is at the same time a snow-filled cliff.

In essence, as Marc realises and as the audience is also made to believe, there is always something in what may appear to be nothing. Even zero is an important number, not just nothing. The key to friendship and harmony is attaining concord, to a large extent, even if just to please the other, and avoiding discord and unnecessary antagonism. If Serge is much concerned about a piece of art for which he has paid a lot of money, Marc has nothing to lose by making his friend feel good that he has bought a treasure. After all, as it is said, “beauty is in the eyes of a beholder.”

In sum, both Governor El-Rufai’s post of 2016 and Reza’s comedy I saw on stage in 2006 are pointing towards the same direction. No one is a monopoly of wisdom and it is not in all instances that we are right. This is why we should be open-minded enough at every instance to receive alternative ideas to complement ours. The sky is wide enough for all birds to fly without collision. That you are right does not automatically mean I am wrong. The sky can be white; it can also be blue.

The end-result of our misplaced priority is the dark cloud of tension, conflict and war that pervades the global horizon. Flying to the space will be meaningless if the earth is not made conducive for its inhabitants through the cultivation of friendship, camaraderie, compromise and cooperation. It is part of education that we realise that ego is the only requirement that can destroy any relationship. We should always be bigger by skipping the “E” and letting “GO” of issues that degenerate into hair-splitting antagonisms in interpersonal relationships.