This is what Mark Colvin’s life taught me about perspective

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Mark Colvin. Photo credit: ABC

“I’m hoping everything will be brighter by April. Stay in touch.”

Less than 2 months after sending me this message, Mark Colvin passed away. So much has been written about how much Mark contributed to our world. I couldn’t say it better than others already have.

Mark’s passing has made me understand one thing clearly. While I can dedicate myself to helping others, as important as that is, on the scale of what is happening in the world — it borderlines on insignificant. Let me explain why.

Mark was an award winning journalist, radio presenter and former foreign correspondent who had struggled for 20 years with a rare auto-immune disease. Due to his illness, Mark wasn’t able to continue working overseas, and was often quite immobile.

Perhaps due to this, he took to Twitter. He also read more, absorbed more and observed more.

This, no doubt, made him one of the wisest people I have ever encountered.


Mark in his physical prime as a foreign correspondent. Photo credit: ABC

I first “met” Mark through Twitter, noting that he had taken an interest in OIC Cambodia, the organisation I founded, and worked up the courage to arrange a meeting in Sydney. I remember walking into the café in the ABC foyer, feeling a little intimidated.

Mark moved slowly, leaning heavily on a walking stick and sat down with a fair bit of discomfort. He asked me what coffee I would like, refusing to let me pay.

Within a matter of minutes, a man who I had admired from afar made me feel like his closest friend. I asked him why, amongst all the things that he had seen in the world, he felt an affiliation to OIC.

He told me how he had reported in Cambodia decades ago, and had unfinished business there. He said he would be happy to contribute to helping people there, in any way he could.

He noted that our approach — not giving handouts, but helping Cambodia to build its own infrastructure, struck a chord with him.

In Cambodia, OIC aims to build on existing infrastructure. Photo credit: Anna Bella Betts

A few months later, I was working on building our Sydney base of supporters. We didn’t want to hold a big gala event, asking 70 people to come and give $100 each. I wanted people to understand what we were doing, and to feel like they could be part of it. I would have been satisfied with four people strongly invested in OIC, rather than 70 giving a one-off donation.

I had read in The Generosity Network, a wonderful book on fundraising, about Jeffersonian Dinners. Named after Thomas Jefferson, the idea was to gather people together to talk about ideas, values, and inspiration. This would inspire meaningful action to support the cause.

Mark immediately agreed to be the moderator for the event. He did an amazing job, moving the conversation around with ease and getting people to commit to action. At the end of the dinner, he himself offered to introduce me to Megan Washington, who, amongst other things, is a singer who has a stutter.

Mark at our Jeffersonian Dinner, 5th from the left, back row.

The next few times I was in Australia, Mark tried to arrange something with Megan, but the timing never worked out. And then, to my surprise, Mark completely fell off the radar.

Every method I had to contact him proved to be unsuccessful.

I was devastated that someone who I had idolised and fostered trust with would no longer return my calls. Unfortunately, this devastation turned to anger.

After a year or two of messages and phone calls, I finally received a reply from Mark. He apologised for not being in touch, explaining that he had been very ill, and then busy with launching his book.

In 2017, he had fallen ill again and hoped to be better by April. Of course, he didn’t make it past May.

When I heard about Mark’s passing, I felt a sense of sadness, that we had lost a giant. But beyond this, I also felt a deep sense of shame and regret. I had allowed myself to feel anger towards a man who deserved none of that negative sentiment. A man who contributed more to the world than I could ever hope to achieve. A man who was, simply put, extremely sick.

Mark didn’t need to do any of those things to help me, or OIC. I guess he did so out of kindness and a desire to make things right.

The fact that anyone helps OIC — whether it’s volunteering, offering financial support, or providing a connection — that in itself is a miracle; it’s a gift. This realisation has come crashing down on me.

The world does not revolve around my desire to help others.

What we do at OIC is meaningful to the people we serve. But on the scale of things, it’s a drop in the ocean.

I’m sorry to Mark for feeling anger that was completely unjustified and misplaced. It’s a shame that I wasn’t able to say this to him when he was alive. It’s also a shame that it took this momentous an event to attain this kind of perspective.

Buddha is credited with saying “Holding on to anger is like grasping a hot coal with the intent of throwing it at someone else. You are the one who gets burned.”

I don’t feel anger or regret anymore. What I do feel is gratitude and respect, for a man who will be sorely missed. And for everyone who has ever helped us help those in Cambodia, in ways both small and large, thank you so much.

Vale, Mark Colvin.

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