'If you were to look back at your life, what would have fulfilled your deepest yearning?' Dr. Alan Channer was asked this question by a Jesuit brother, 25 years ago. It was part of a set of spiritual exercises that involves anticipating your own obituary. Using the question as a guide, Dr. Channer reflects on a key aspect of life - vocation.
My work centers on the relationships between safeguarding the environment and building peace. Since humanity depends on it, the natural environment can be a powerful driver of both conflict and cooperation. According to the farmer and poet Wendell Berry, ‘To cherish what remains of the Earth and to foster its renewal is our only legitimate hope of survival.’
Berry also proposes the idea of ‘solving for pattern’. This involves searching for the interconnections that will best serve the bigger picture in a sustainable way. ‘Solving for pattern’ is an alternative to the more prevalent reductionist approaches, which tend to generate fresh problems when applied to complex systems, like human societies.
I find the notion of ‘solving for pattern’ useful in personal discernment, too. A key to discerning the next step in life can often be to understand the pattern you are being given. During times when the path ahead has been unclear, the most helpful advice I’ve received is, ‘Dig where you stand’ and ‘To thine own self be true’.
In my own life, there have been three main threads:
One is ‘peacebuilding’. Bishop Desmond Tutu of South Africa; Angami Zapu Phizo, the father of the Naga nationalist movement; Alec Smith, son of the prime minister of Rhodesia, and the Thai Buddhist Master Venerable Ajahn Chah, all came to our family home. The home is an Initiatives of Change centre in London, hosted by my parents, and peacebuilding was around the dining table.
Another thread is communication. One day my father, David Channer, who made films inspired by Initiatives of Change, came home and said, ‘Irène Laure called the French team together in Paris and told me in front of them, “I agree that you can make a film about me. But if you mis-represent me, I will rise up from my grave and condemn you.” She then asked if I would accept to make the film, and I said yes.’
While I imbibed an approach to peacebuilding and an appreciation of media and communication at home, I had my own path. I studied agricultural ecology - the third thread - and lived and worked at agricultural research stations in Tuvalu and Malawi.