There has perhaps never been a moment when the importance of being is so neglected in the general preoccupation with doing," said Sir Laurens van der Post one rainy summer morning in London as we spent several hours just "being" together in his study among the rooftops of Chelsea. Sir Laurens, who passed on last month, was quoting from his 1991 memoir "About Blady: A Pattern Out of Time," while commenting on the fact that rainy days sometimes carve welcome spaces in our lives for what he called an "unfolding of the human spirit."
I was in London to cover Wimbledon and had stopped by at the suggestion of a member of his family, whom I'd met while on assignment in South Africa.
I can think of no one who has taught me more about enjoying life's spaces than this writer, soldier, diplomat, anthropologist, and explorer. "You make time for spiritual growth, much of it through listening," he said in those gentle tones that so subtly blended educated British English with educated South African English. Yet after I left his home I realized that he had listened even more than I had. A true officer and a gentleman, I reflected.
Of course, we had a lot in common, not the least of which was our shared love of the veld of South Africa - "flung wide open around us," as he put it, "like the doors of a vast temple." Our delight in the lopsided shining of the Southern Cross had us debating perfection in art. He admitted to being afraid of total symmetry - and perhaps even proportion - lest they "create a standstill in the processes of creation." The newly created South African democracy might not be perfect, he said, but he never doubted that the transition from minority to majority rule would be relatively free of bitterness.
No one could speak with greater authority on the subject than Sir Laurens, who not only had retained his links with South Africa but had also overcome the effects of years of cruelty in a Japanese prisoner-of-war camp in Java.
"I've always said that there are two great sources of corruption in life," he said, "corruption by power, and corruption by suffering. We have got to hold out against powerful men and societies who dominate vulnerable and less-powerful people - and other forms of life. And we must take an equally strong stand against becoming bitter, and vengeful, and cynical, and even anarchical because of what others have inflicted on us.
"It is the hallmark of a truly integrated person," he continued, "that he will not allow his suffering to turn him sour. The history of Africa has never been a pleasant one, but I believe that there is a place in Africa for anybody to live in dignity and love."
Sir Laurens said he had found it easier than most of his fellow prisoners of war to reunite after the war with the Japanese people because theirs was the first non-European culture he had experienced. He had learned their language early on. (He wrote of his experiences as a POW in "The Seed and the Sower," published in 1963, which was the basis for the 1983 movie "Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence.")
"Speech is such a wonderful thing," he said. "And I was curious! Nothing is more irritating than to live in a country and not be able to speak the language. It's not geography or behavior that makes people interesting," he continued with even greater enthusiasm, "it's what's inside them. So, I knew what was really true about them. I had experienced the light of their culture and, even during our most horrendous experiences during World War II, I believed that somehow at the end of the road the light would transcend the darkness and we would meet again."
I ASKED Sir Laurens whether he'd ever felt confusion about his roots and his identity after having lived in so many places, most of them remote from Southern Africa, of which he'd written with such deep affection. " 'Who am I? What am I?' Those are serious and important questions," he responded with a thoughtful smile. "No, I've never been confused. One doesn't need a geographical identity. That's the least of it. One's identity is something far, far deeper.
"It's something you retain no matter where you live - that you nurture and grow like a seed. It's never static. Cultures are important, but I think many people take their cultures far too seriously. They even hide behind them instead of admitting that we are all neighbors facing up to the same profound human problems."
Gaining impetus, Sir Laurens leaned forward in his chair. "It's not fate that causes those problems," he said, "it's we ourselves. Thanks to modern science, human survival is probably more secure than it's ever been. We, now, are the causes of all the evils that confront us. We have to learn to truly know ourselves. We can relax into great physical comfort, or we can get up and discharge our duties with full responsibility not only to one another but to Mother Earth."
As he spoke the words "Mother Earth," the sun broke clear for the first time that day, and Sir Laurens grinned. "Perhaps we'll see some play at Wimbledon after all," he said as he showed me, like a gentleman, to the door.
The traffic on King's Road enveloped me like a thunderstorm on the high veld. I was back in the world of "instant happenings, instant solutions," but I was equipped now with grains of wisdom from the mind of the sunburned explorer, wisdom that brought calm. Above the traffic, I could still hear his voice, as soft as early sunlight: "The truth yields to nothing except growth: It has no method which does not correspond to the 'method of the rose' - which is but to grow."
* 'About Blady' was first published in Great Britain by Chatto and Windus Ltd. (1991); First Harvest/Harcourt Brace Jovanovich published an American edition in 1993. Other books by Van der Post include: 'Venture to the Interior' (1952), 'The Lost World of the Kalahari' (1958), 'The Heart of the Hunter' (1961), 'A Mantis Carol' (1975), and 'Yet Being Someone Other' (1982).