Personal Agenda, Book Two: Introduction

Part One: Options for young adults

Middle-class South Africans have embraced in the last half century or so with great enthusiasm a cornerstone of the industrialised world: the Permanent Position. The idea is to finish high school and then through tertiary study and/or practical experience qualify yourself for a career. After the successful completion of this training phase – usually when the young adult is in their early twenties – the rule book dictates that the young graduate or recently certified professional should embark on a frantic search for an opportunity to work and earn money – and the more permanent the position, the better.

The stable income that a permanent job provides will make the single man or woman financially independent from their families. If they so choose, it will also enable the young adult to get married. Status in the community, annual raises, professional advancement, and other benefits of a permanent job like medical aid will furthermore enable the young married couple to start a family, and to ensure a good, stable life for themselves and their immediate descendants.

Of course, a permanent position is not available to all who desire it. Economic realities and other factors make it sometimes impossible for everyone to graduate from high school let alone obtain a tertiary qualification. However, a permanent position remains the ideal.

An alternative for a permanent job is to start your own business. Even though the parents of young adults who show entrepreneurial promise would prefer for their children to obtain some or other tertiary qualification – perhaps to fall back on, an entrepreneur once successful can buy his freedom from the conventional path with cold hard cash generated from his own business. This can be anything from professional gardening services to a range of pizza restaurants, or the making of lawn chairs and tables. As long as such a business provides the entrepreneur with a regular income, and he can therefore prove that he can not only take care of himself but also accept co-responsibility on the long-term for the well-being of a family, what he does will be rewarded with approval and even respect from his family.

Talent, personality, personal convictions – religious or political, or a combination of motivations drive some young adults, however, to fill their days with work that does not necessarily generate an income. One example is the musician who only earns enough money to pay for a room in a boarding house, and who regularly engages in arguments with his family because he never manages to explain to them how he’s going to take care of a family one day. Another example is the missionary who preaches the Gospel for meagre payment for months at a time in some country far from home. The latter can at least hope for a little sympathy when he drives around in an old pickup truck, and when he doesn’t have money to eat at expensive restaurants. He can justify his financial situation because what he does is seen as self-sacrifice for a Good Cause.

Part two: The writer, faith, and the permanent position

This brings us to the writer of this material. A musician he would love to be, but the few musical instruments he owns gather more dust by the day. Being an entrepreneur, on the other hand, is something he has always associated with a Saturday afternoon in 1985 outside of a local rugby stadium, with him trying to sell hot dogs for the coffers of the Christian Youth Association. His opinion of this alternative to a permanent position has, however, become more sophisticated in the last few years, and he has started the learning process that would eventually enable him to sell whatever makes money.

It should also be mentioned that the writer took certain religious beliefs very seriously in his youth. (For what other reason would he have sold hot dogs on an afternoon when everyone else in the area were on their way to a rugby match?) Certain personality traits and his earnestness with church teachings led his family to believe he may not be heading for the world of money and business. A clergyman perhaps, or a missionary, they speculated.

Unfortunately, money for the luxury of six years of theological studies to eventually accept a permanent position in the Church there was not. And so the writer exercised the second best option – training as a teacher.

His interest in theology and religious doctrines were never overshadowed by the realities of the adult world. When he had to choose subjects for his bachelor’s degree in the arts, he chose Biblical Studies (later Religious Studies) rather than a subject that would have given him a better chance at getting a teaching post. For the next few years, his focus was on theological studies – that he was actually studying education was only of academic value.

By the time he finally came to the Diploma of Higher Education, however, he had undergone a transformation regarding his religious beliefs. He started asking earnest questions that his parents and any high school principal would have preferred he not. About the existence of the god to whom he had wanted to devote his life he was now doubtful. Against the formal doctrine of the church where he was baptised and confirmed as member, he regularly carried on long arguments.

Sincere interest in the “true purpose and meaning” of his own life continued unabated, though. In the process of investigating the possibilities he lost all certainty that he had ever had about what it means to be human. He also began to make notes about his opinions, and the questions that bothered him.

The writer’s life had hit this disastrous stage precisely at the time when he was supposed to polish his shoes for his first attempt at getting a permanent position.

By now the serious student had acquired two degrees and a diploma, and it would have made sense for him to try to gain a teaching position somewhere. Anything temporary would have put him on the right track. If he were lucky, and he could turn himself into a dedicated high school teacher, he could have claimed within a decade the most prestigious prize any young teacher could wish for: a permanent position.

What did the young, recently qualified teacher-writer do? Did he scan the notice board in the Faculty of Education for a possible job? Did he make inquiries at local schools? Did he at least draft a resume to give any principal who looked at it an idea of what a loyal and competent teacher he could be? Nope. What he did was to grow his hair and pierce a hole in his earlobe where he inserted a stud of a silver sun. And that was the end of his immediate hopes of a permanent position.

Money had nevertheless to be earned; this he would have known even if his parents and his more responsible older sister had never broached the subject. “What are you going to do with your life?”, “What are your plans?” and “How do you plan to make money?” were questions no one really needed to ask him. Along with all the questions about the existence of God, the purpose and meaning of his life, and the question of what exactly human beings are, he also had to contemplate the question of where in the labour market he was going to make a start that could possibly, over time, lead to a stable, salaried position. For apart from the money aspect, he had to at least try to fit in, maybe find a partner, and – who knows? – perhaps buy a car which could take him further than the nearest town.

Over the next few years, the writer tried to find a middle ground in places like South Korea and Johannesburg, and finally, in southern Taiwan. How could he answer all the questions that were haunting him like possessed hounds, and at the same time earn money? How could he commit to something that gives him a regular income, while at the same time be convinced of the fact that he was not wasting his life in the seemingly endless struggle for survival and perhaps a modicum of material comfort?

The young boy who had prayed earnestly and who had diligently studied his Bible gave up his beliefs in the teachings of the Church as a young adult. But this boy had also become a man who was still convinced that he had to do “more” with his life than “just” make money.

If he had become a missionary for the Christian gospel, he could still have called on the support of a Higher Power. He could have quoted appropriate verses in his arguments about why he could not, or would not, accept a permanent position in an enterprise that is primarily focused on profit. He could have claimed that he was serving a good cause, and he could have prayed with his family for understanding – and financial support.

Reality for the writer was, however, that he had begun to serve an increasingly personal agenda. After a few years he did not really care anymore if people called him headstrong, arrogant or selfish. He wanted to do what he wanted to do.

Except that he missed his family very much and still would have liked the basic comfort of his own family someday, he knew that his life in self-imposed exile in the Far East offered opportunities he could not take for granted in his own country. He could contemplate for days and nights at a time the questions that still bothered him after all these years. He could also earn enough money by teaching a few English classes every day to show his family (and the bank) that he was taking the whole money-earning business seriously, as befitted a responsible adult.

However, he knew that self-imposed socio-economic exile from the land of his birth was not sustainable. He had to return sooner or later, no matter how many questions would remain unanswered, and regardless of the implications of such an action for his financial and social status.

As time went on, he also became increasingly convinced of certain things that reminded him to some extent of the teachings he had rejected years earlier.

It was certainly true that he enjoyed writing, that it was a good way to keep up with his own thoughts, and that he could explain his own fears and ambitions in such a manner to his family and anyone else who might be interested. In the years since he began thinking of himself as a “writer” he often tried to produce material of a commercial nature. Whether short stories or articles, he believed that he could in this way bridge the gap between his personal agenda and the economic realities of the modern world. But he could never concentrate for long enough on fictional characters or descriptions of night markets to get a career as an income-generating writer off the ground. Instead, he continued writing essays about his own life, about the questions that bothered him, the emotional wretchedness of his life in “exile”, and the potentially fatal implications of an untimely return to his homeland.

But there was more to his writings than a good argument, or an attempt to leave something behind when everything was said and done. He was not only writing for his own amusement, or for the entertainment of others. This former child of the Reformed Church, of Bible study and prayer circles, were trying to do more than just express his personal agenda – he was preaching. That he did it in his own words, dyed in the shadows of his own political convictions and motivated by his own insecurities and fears, took nothing away from the fact that what he was writing increasingly looked like a message.

He did not just talk about his own life (which was pretty boring at the best of times), and he did not only wish for his family to understand why he still did not want to consider the possibility of a permanent position in his own country. He wanted to declare what he considered to be wrong in his sometimes simplified view of the modern world. He wanted to share what he believed could be done to improve the situation. He wanted to preach to people who he believed did not always make the best choices among the available options. He wanted to make known to others who wonder – and doesn’t everyone wonder in the end? – that he had put some thought into these matters, and that this was the way he felt about things, even if people didn’t agree with him.

This child of a sort of middle-class Afrikaans family wanted, after many years, to proclaim his own vision of a better life for all who desired it.

Did the writer thus, eventually, become a missionary for a Good Cause? Even though he sometimes coughs and splutters in a language that is not quite church-like. Even though he doesn’t quite know who the Boss of the Good Cause is. Even though his writing causes people to drift into slumber half of the time. Even though he has still not worked out how he will make up for the fact that he does not want to look for a permanent position. And even though it may take him twenty years before he can enjoy the basic joy and comfort of his own family.

Part three: Administration

This is, as you may have surmised, the start of BOOK TWO. The main protagonist of the first book is again at the podium – with enough prepared words, as it turned out, to warrant a second book.

The “story” picks up from the first part of May 2003, soon after I completed BOOK ONE. As with the first book, the material is mostly in chronological order.

It should also be noted that this second book involved a different kind of writing process than the first volume. By May 2003 I was well aware of the fact that when I wrote something, I might not be able to resist the temptation to include it in my “project”. It has not affected the integrity of what I have written, though. Since I was (and still am) not sure whether the project will ever be sponsored by a commercial publisher, I knew I could write what I liked, and in ways that I believed was most appropriate for the specific content. This approach was strongly boosted by my belief that the honesty and integrity of the material was much more important than any monetary reward I might ever receive. If this project is ever published (especially by a commercial publisher), I can confirm that this text was never written in a way that would have made it more publishable. And if it is never published, then I can just shrug and declare that at least I said what I wanted to say.

Just a few last comments on the content, and the potential value to you as a reader. The material is self-centred, that I readily admit. This book is mainly about one person, about his experience of reality, and how he views life. The potential value to you as a reader is that it may make you wonder about the choices you have made in your life, or about choices you are contemplating at the moment. It is also my sincere wish that if you do not agree with the opinions in this book, you will attempt to articulate the reasons for it. And if you do agree, fair enough (again, it would be ideal if you know why). This project is clearly no Stephen King thriller or Tolkien epic. So comfort yourself when you yawn through the umpteenth piece: if the dice had landed differently, it would have been you that had to write this book.

Brand Smit

Tuesday, 6 January 2004


Personal Agenda, Book One: Introduction

The Questions We Ask

Most people are searching for something. That it might take you years to lay a finger on it and say, “This!” usually does not make the search less frantic. Some people look for ways to make money, or ways to be liked. Others are looking for a place where, after a long journey, they can sit back and for the first time in their lives declare, “I have arrived.” Other people (or the same people looking for all aforementioned things) are searching for a person – someone with whom they can spend at least a portion of their life, and with whom they can search for other things, or the same things other people search for.

One universal aspect of all these searches is that questions are asked. A significant number of these questions relate to the person asking the questions – each person is driven by instinct to gather as much information as possible about him or herself, and for related reasons similar information about other people.

A few familiar questions: What do I look like? Am I pretty or ugly? Am I smart, or am I a bit of an idiot? Am I an “engineer” or a “lawyer” or an “artist”? Do I like pizza? How do I like my pizza? How do other people like their pizza? What do I want to do with my life? Do I want to be rich? How rich? Would it be okay if I don’t own the biggest house on the street? Do I want a car or a motorcycle? How should I wear my hair? Do I like the colour pink? What kind of music do I like? Do I believe in God? Is it good enough just to go to church every now and then? For which political party do I vote? Do I watch sports, and if so, who or what team do I support? Who are my friends? What kind of person do I like? Why do I like certain kinds of people? What types of people like me, and what are their reasons for liking me? What do I do in my spare time?

And these are just the questions that came to mind while I was changing CDs. I can add dozens more. And then you as the reader can look at the list and say, “Okay, but you’ve missed a few.”

Does everybody think about these things all the time? No. Some of these questions may require that we get comfortable for a while to consider possible answers, other things we just know. The important thing is, how we answer these questions determine how we perceive ourselves – on our own, in the privacy of our own spaces, and also when we’re around other people.

Many of us also find ourselves at one point or another in unfamiliar places where nobody knows us. This forces us to introduce ourselves to a crowd of strangers: “Hello, I’m (X). I like pop music. I would like to own a bookstore one day. I don’t like onions on my pizza, and I go to church once a month.”

The questions we ask ourselves, the ways we respond to them, how we introduce ourselves to strangers and how people react to us ultimately determine whether you hang out with other pizza eaters or not; whether you believe your soul is sorted the day you die; whether or not and with whom you may one day produce children; and how you spend your free time. Again, just a few examples.

This brings me to the book you’re now staring at. This is the result of my own efforts – especially during the past four years on the island of Taiwan – to formulate a few questions and match them up with some corresponding answers.

Who I am in the context of the wider world is not of any great importance. I am indeed a phantom, who will never meet more than a few of the people who will read these words. (Just as well! If I had to wait until I was known to more than ten people before I would even think about starting this project, I would be sitting on my couch right now watching TV.)

To a considerable extent I am just an ordinary man. Some of the things I have experienced, other people have experienced as well and will still be experienced by many others. Problems I have had, and that I am still going to have, is similar to the problems that millions of people have to cope with every day. Many who will read these pages have also had other and perhaps more interesting experiences; or more, and more serious problems than I will ever have. There are also people who may never be as happy as I have been, or may still be in the future. Others may speak of exactly the opposite.

What binds us all is that we have to ask ourselves certain questions at one time or another. Questions to which answers must be found, even if it takes a lifetime.

(Sunday, 18 May 2003)