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Embracing our dark sides: Why the Heart Must Break

Embracing our dark sides

Why the Heart Must Break

If you're looking for a good book to curl up with in bed tonight, The Heart Must Break, by James Mawdsley, is not it. You won't sleep. Instead, you will begin to wonder why you didn't do more to help that homeless guy on the street, or why you didn't choose the fair-trade bananas in the supermarket. This is a book about JUSTICE. This is a book I needed to read.

The title comes from a quote by Sebastian-Roch Nicholas Chamfort: 'I'm leaving this world where either the heart must break or turn as hard as iron.' Mawdsley describes the previous few years of his life, engaged in a 'fight for democracy and truth in Burma'. Much of the book is set in prison; he spent two periods locked up-a total of 400 days, or 14 months, of a 17-year sentence. Most of this time was in solitary confinement. His crime was distributing leaflets opposing the ruling junta and playing pro- democracy songs. But how did he come to chain himself to a school fence in Rangoon and shout slogans at the soldiers?

Like many of us, Mawdsley spent a large proportion of his first year at an English university drunk. That's why he was disillusioned when he received good grades: 'I understood next to nothing of [quantum and relativistic physics] and here was the university awarding A-grades. What was it for?' Halfway through his second year, he decided there were more important things to be doing, though he was not yet sure what they were.

He attempted suicide in '93, but wondered before the end whether his desire for death came out of 'a more personal weakness' than the world's suffering: 'fear of failure, disillusionment or the feeling of being intensely alone'. Having survived, he vowed never to contemplate suicide again (though at one stage in prison the idea was cruelly tempting) - life was too precious, and he could use his to alleviate even a little of this world's suffering.

Aged 13, Mawdsley had befriended a Burmese boy new to his school. So began a connection with this oppressed people and their region that became that most important thing that a university degree was not. 'Could it possibly make sense for me to pursue a degree, a career, a mortgage, a happy family life while all around the world people were starving to death and living in unspeakable fear?'

What I read in the following pages challenges me - first, to think hard about what I really believe in and what kind of a world I want to bring my children into; and second, to stand up for that world, even if it means sacrificing my personal comfort, if not safety. Mawdsley is not an 'irretrievable idiot', as some of the aid agency officials who visit him in prison, apparently believe. He is an exceptionally rational thinker, who weighs up all possibilities and implications before embarking on any course of action. In particular, he asks himself (and the Burmese themselves, whenever possible) whether what he is doing is in the best interests of the local people. And he considers the impact on his own family-although their love for him does not stop him from doing whatever he believes to be right and just, whether it be facing Burmese soldiers on a trek through the jungle, or a twenty-day hunger strike (one for each year of student leader Min Ko Naing's prison sentence). He does not believe in suffering for its own sake, but 'God wants us to seek the truth. If we encounter suffering in our sincere effort to do that, it will be such suffering as makes us stronger and makes us rejoice. We will be given what strength we need to see it through.'

Mawdsley is no saint, thank goodness. If I'd read about the personal sacrifices he makes for the sake of a people and a region not his own, without reading also about him as a real, twenty-something British male, I might wonder about his sanity. But as he admires the beauty of two local female doctors at Minthamee Camp in the Burmese jungle or draws blissfully on a cigar on Christmas Day in prison (admittedly less for his own sake than for the sake of the prison officials, to let them know that they cannot crush him) both his deep humanity and his absolute human-ness are clear.

Despite the cruel conditions, Mawdsley says that 'ninety per cent' of his struggle in prison is against himself. With so much time to think (he speaks of prison as a kind of monastery-simple conditions and contemplation time) he has to face the darkness inside himself. His answer as to why there is evil in the world is 'because there is sin in every single one of us and if we would fight evil then let us fight that wrong within our own being'.

Mawdsley's main aims while in prison are to give the other prisoners hope, even if that means repeatedly shouting out 'ridiculous slogans' in the hope that they understand him; and to treat everyone as equals. So, he fails to respect the hierarchy of the prison officials (though he always remains respectful of their humanity), while symbolically raising the status of the lowliest prisoners by, for example, inviting the prisoner with the job of emptying his latrine bucket to leave his shoes on instead of removing them before entering the cell. Mawdsley is appalled by the conditions under which many of the prisoners are held, and cannot let these injustices pass him by, despite his own appalling circumstances. 'We gain nothing at all by buttoning our lips in the face of injustice. We put the brakes on progress every time we fall for self-censorship.'

Although Mawdsley is held in solitary confinement most of the time, he manages to communicate with a number of people on a daily basis. Some of those guarding his cell are other prisoners ('trusties') and show their support for him by conversing discreetly when possible, and bringing him extra food. (At one stage, during his first period of imprisonment, he is so desperate for food that he eats mangoes rotting in the mud in the prison yard during his daily 45 minutes of exercise.) He becomes close friends with a couple of the trusties - even though, several times, they are compelled by the officials to beat him with wooden clubs, until his eyes are black and his nose broken. When one particular friend is taken from the prison to do labour elsewhere, Mawdsley 'retreated to the corner of [his] cell and cried. It was only the second time in the whole of the first year.' And, incredibly, his predominant feeling as he leaves prison upon release is one of sadness, not only for those particular friends, but for all the prisoners.

Sitting in my local bookshop, listening to Mawdsley speak, I notice something unusual. But what? Then I know. Here he stands, before a public audience that includes his contemporaries, talking about his faith, about how this was what kept him alive. How many of us would be so open, so uninhibited? And yet how much it meant to that audience. He does not dramatise his story, nor try to convert us, but the strength he gains from his God is evident in all that he says. 'It did not matter that I was in prison', he realises in a moment of revelation. 'To forget myself, and to seek with all my heart and soul to serve [God's] will, that was what it meant to be free.' From prison, Mawdsley sends references to the Psalms back to his family, to assure them he is OK.

The other unusual thing about his talk is that he is evidently not interested in promoting his book - or, only in so much as the proceeds keep him on the road, talking about Burma. He is focused on letting the world know what is happening there.

You will laugh at this book - as Mawdsley wavers between the choice of eating monkey shit stew or offending his hosts; or as he sets up a round-table conference with the mosquitoes inhabiting his prison cell, to negotiate a cease-fire. And you will be uplifted, inspired by the human connection between people and their capacity for goodness which undeniably exists across false political borders. You will be compelled to consider your own life and the means for upholding justice that exists within it. And you may be urged to examine the darker side of yourself - the side that would surely emerge long before you were subjected to imprisonment and torture.

Mawdsley does not advocate that we get ourselves imprisoned in order to publicise the plight of another. But he reminds us that we are responsible for ourselves; that it is wrong to fall back on the supposed weaknesses of our upbringing or our character. 'Every single one of us has free will. We can choose to do right and we can choose to do wrong. For sure only God can weigh up the mitigating circumstances. But to deny our choice is to deny our humanity, our very meaning.' This is a challenge enough for me.

Nicci Long, Australia

The Heart Must Break, by James Mawdsley, is just published by Century, The Random House Group Ltd, 20 Vauxhall Bridge Road, London SW1V 2SA

Price: 17.99 Pound Sterling

He recommends for current news on the situation in Burma.

Last update: 2001-11-25 21:09:08 (EEST).
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