Discovering Freedom : A Collection of Essays by Nalini Ellawala
Nalini Ellawala’s middle name should be "Sumithrayo". She was the first volunteer Director of the Friend-in-Emotional-Need Organization, so appropriately named "Sumithrayo". She also has been its self-styled midwife. Sumithrayo was Joan de Mel’s brain-child. It was founded as a branch of "Befrienders International" in 1974. NE has been associated with Sumithrayo for some 30 years, the first 10 years as its Director. By her own account her association with that Organization has transformed her own life from a state of mere "existence" to one of "meaningful living". Which is proof, if further proof were needed, that it is really better to give than to receive. NE has given generously of her time – perhaps the only thing that money cannot buy – to the lonely, the depressed and the suicidal of this country. Apart from the emotional satisfaction that comes from such disinterested kindness, she has also been rewarded with a broader and deeper understanding of human suffering. The 19 essays that comprise this book have been written at various times over the years, mainly to promote the advancement of Sumithrayo. They embody the knowledge, understanding and wisdom she has gained in the process of working for free for that Organization.
Having graduated as a lawyer from the University of Peradeniya, Nalini Jayesinghe married Tom Ellawala. They begot and nurtured three robust, worthy progeny to whom NE has dedicated her book. (Having been a teacher of the eldest of them in the Colombo Medical School, I believe that if the only thing that NE ever did in her whole life was to gift that child to the world, her existence would have been a meaningful one). NE, however, has done much more. Says she "I find that I have spent a greater part of my life (when I was not engaged, in personal commitments to my family) helping the distressed to cope with their difficulties". Thank heaven for NE!
The book is divided into five sections. The first is concerned with suicide prevention. The second sets out the philosophy and praxis of Sumithrayo. The third is devoted to drug use and, let it be said at once that to NE, alcohol and tobacco are simply legalised drugs of addiction. The fourth section elaborates NE’s perceptions on life in our time. The five essays in this section reveal NE’s good sense, good character and good will towards her fellow beings. According to Aristotle, those are the three qualities that carry conviction. I found NE’s book very convincing.
The book opens with a one-page statement which goes like this: "We are born into this world with many inherited psychosocial attributes such as caste, language, class, religion, race, and culture. These are the divisive influences on which many of us are nurtured and resultantly build personal fences, sometimes hiding behind the phrase, "the traditions of our forefathers". As we grow in wisdom and in stature and we develop our own decision-making and coping skills, enabling ourselves to climb over these inherited fences, we begin to enjoy psychological freedom `85.." If the foregoing is NE’s credo, I say "Amen".
Everybody knows that the main business of Sumithrayo is the prevention of suicide and the first few essays are devoted to that subject. These are somewhat technical but they have been written in a popular style. Helpfully the essays have been dated, which enables the reader to orientate them in time. The first essay has been written in February 1995. It is titled "Containing and Controlling Increasing Suicide Rates". The next essay documents some facts and trends on suicide in our country. The third essay written in February 2003 reports the good news. During the seven year period from 1995 to 2001 suicide rates have fallen significantly. I remember campaigning for Ms. Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga for President in 1994 after she had been elected Prime Minister. I pointed out that after she became Prime Minister even the suicide rate had begun to decline. I predicted that it will continue to fall if she became President. On that election platform, I was, of course, indulging in pure election propaganda and not in scientific prediction. But I am glad to note from NE’s essay that even on the election platform, I had not been guilty of spreading false propaganda. For the seven years from 1995 to 2001 the figures for total suicides have been respectively: 8519; 7367; 6228; 5869; 5907; 5412 and 4995. During that period Sumithrayo received some support from the President’s Fund. All will agree that the Presidential support had not been in vain.
The essays dealing with the philosophy and praxis of Sumithrayo identify the factors which contributed to the prevalent high rate of suicide in our country. Sumithrayo’s strategy of dealing with it is by training volunteers who can help people to cope with what NE calls "negative feelings" i.e. fear, anger, hurt, grief, anxiety, resentment, jealousy and so on. The technique involves a great deal of patient listening to affected people instead of vigorously advising them. Ideally trained Sumithrayos avoid giving advice; are non-judgemental; help distressed callers to explore options and choose their own ways of coping; and support them with empathy. According to NE "training a volunteer to undo the habit of giving advice is as difficult as keeping a duck away from water". If so, non-psychiatrist medics must be the worst preventers of suicide.
The seven essays on drug use are the most challenging ones in the book. To NE the difference between alcohol and heroin is that the use of alcohol is legal and the use of heroin is illegal. The principal insight she offers in this section is that drug addiction is a family disease rather than an affliction of a particular member of a given family. It follows that the successful rehabilitation of an addict requires the involvement of the whole family in the therapy. Under the influence of our brilliant psychiatry professor Diyanath Samarasinghe, to whom she makes grateful acknowledgement, she seems to be convinced that the enjoyment of alcoholic beverage by humankind is nothing but the outcome of perverse social conditioning. This is implicit in the title of one essay which declares that : "Real Lions Need Only Water".
Fathers and Sons
NE alludes to the common finding of an alcoholic father complaining about his son’s addiction to heroin. To her that scenario is no less ridiculous than the one in which a father with a pipe in his mouth beats his little son for smoking a cigarette butt which he has picked up. She is a passionate advocate of non-judgemental acceptance of people. But when she encounters a mother caught up between an alcoholic father complaining about a heroin-addicted son, she cannot help exclaiming: "The mother is caught up between two devils". For once, NE’s capacity for non-judgemental acceptance of unfortunates seems to have been strained to breaking point.
The penultimate section of the book contains its most provocative essays. Here she writes with no holds barred, on a variety of controversial subjects. Here is a sampling of her views.
`95 On religion: "For many religion is big business`85 Income generation has promoted religion onto the level of yet another gigantic industry".
`95 On local politics: "Today poverty and unemployment are used as weapons to gain political advantage".
`95 On international politics: "That 6% of the world’s population (American) is known to enjoy 45% of the material resources of the world is a sad reflection on human sensitivity".
`95 On advertising: "People need to become aware that the wishes of the consumer are manipulated by the producer".
`95 On alcohol: "We have been conditioned heavily to believe that social interaction is not conceivable without an alcoholic beverage".
`95 On tobacco: "`85 as many as 99% of all heroin users in Sri Lanka have begun their habit of drug use through the legal channel of tobacco".
`95 On education: "Education should bring enlightenment to every woman that the role of the mother within the family could be the most rewarding and yet the most demanding job that a woman can undertake".
Although, I am myself in agreement with most of NE’s views cited above, there will be many people who will take issue with her on one or more of those matters. The important thing is that in NE we have a writer who does not hesitate to write exactly what is on her mind on some topics which even the Royal Society of London avoids as a matter of policy. In 1663, Robert Hooke, one of its founders said of the Royal Society, that it will not meddle with religion, morals, politics and so on.
NE emerges from the book as a well educated woman combining a university-trained legal mind, a liberal outlook, a rational perspective on life and human concern. She has also cultivated the ability to write with clarity, persuasiveness and moral sensitivity. The final section of the book gives an account of NE’s personal voyage of discovery. It is an inspiring statement. The last essay in the book is titled "The Circle of Freedom". In her credo she set forth her quest for psychological freedom. She seems to have attained that happy state.
More power to her elbow!