I lie listening to the sounds of animals in the Mugiri forest below my room.
As the cicada’s buzzing becomes fainter, the galagos, a nocturnal primate, begin to wail like a human baby. And now and then, a gust sweeps up the dry dirt into a little tornado and hurls it at my window.
I’ve been living in the Semiliki Wildlife Reserve in western Uganda for three months, tracking and observing a population of chimpanzees.
As the night grows darker, the forest grows quiet. Finally, there’s almost silence, but for the distant cry of a male lion.
There aren’t many lions left in the reserve; most were killed for trophies and meat before they were protected.
I lie awake for hours listening to his magnificent, melancholic strained and throaty cry for a mate.
This lion is close.
I then remember, in the morning I must cross the savannah alone to reach the safari lodge and my vehicle. I’m no longer captivated by each call.
Although it’s only 500 metres from my room in the manager’s house to the main safari lodge where I parked the Suzuki jeep, at 4.30 am, there’s no one around except the animals of the very early morning.
I can’t sleep. And neither is the lion. With each round of calls, he sounds closer.
The staff working at the lodge have shared many gruesome stories with me of lions in the reserve attacking humans because poachers have decimated their usual prey. I’m not sure of the truth behind this story but it’s enough to terrify me.
But at 4.30 am, I inch out of bed and dress with much less enthusiasm than usual.
“Well at least I have my oil lamp and like most animals, lions are afraid of fire,” I reassure myself.
Lighting the oil lamp, I step out of the safety of the manager’s house to illuminate the deep dark of the African savannah.
It’s cool, and the tall grass sways with the breeze – a perfect place to ambush prey.
I shuffle along the first couple hundred metres of the dirt track towards the lodge, trembling at each twitch of the tall grass.
“That lion must be in the grass,” I think, sweating profusely despite the cool air.
A blast of dusty wind suddenly sweeps around me and extinguishes the flame in my oil lamp. I plunge into darkness…
I freeze for what seems like an eternity, no longer sure of the direction to the lodge.
“I can’t just stand here in the dark waiting for the sun to rise, it’s going to be at least an hour,” I think.
Rather than crawling along the track, I reach out my left hand searching for the tall grass. My fingertips catch the blades of grass and seed heads guiding my way in the dark. I’m certain my hand is going to brush against the hair or muscle or teeth of a lion. But there’s only dry, sharp grass the whole way and soon I can see the faint red glow of the emergency lodge lighting.
Now sure of my direction, I charge towards the red light. But just as I reach the lodge’s parking lot, I trip and smash my right toes into a boulder, tumble over it and into a large aloe vera plant shattering the glass of my oil lamp on the stone path.
Fumbling in the dark for my rucksack and the broken oil lamp, I then limp into the safety of the lodge.
I boil some water and prepare a large cafetiere of coffee. The coffee smells bold and fragrant; it makes me forget how bad my sweat-soaked t-shirt smells. I drink the whole pot while considering how lucky I was to have only hurt my foot.
Finally, the first rays of sunlight come over the savannah and illuminate the track that was my terrifying ordeal through the darkness.
“It looks safe; how silly I was to be afraid,” I think as the anxiety drains from my body.
You might think I was brave or courageous to have crossed the savannah in the early morning after hearing a lion closeby. But I was not brave. I was not courageous.
What motivated me to get out of bed and cross the savannah was the thought of explaining to the formidable Uganda Wildlife Rangers that I had missed work because I was scared of a lion. They risk their lives every day (and many die) to protect the wildlife in the park from poachers and rebel soldiers.
Whereas I risked my life because I didn’t want the rangers to see me as a coward. But perhaps they thought I was stupid to risk my life. Maybe they would have considered me prudent if I’d stayed in bed.
I’d love not to care what they thought but I did. And caring about my reputation made me risk my life.
Ancient philosophers and many others since, have written that, how people see us – our reputation – is among the things that are not within our control. Epictetus writes:
Some things are in our control and others not. Things in our control are opinion, pursuit, desire, aversion, and, in a word, whatever are our own actions. Things not in our control are body, property, reputation, command, and, in one word, whatever are not our own actions.
Although I’d love to be able to control what others think about me, I can’t. My reputation is not my actions alone, it is also how my actions are perceived by others.
You might be the most genuine, kind person there is, but there will still be people who don’t like you. And that’s completely on them. They might even tell others that you’re unkind when it’s not true—you have zero control over how other people view you. Why should this matter?
Our sense of self is tied up in our reputations, and so we want to be viewed in positive ways. When our self-image gets contradicted, it can feel as though everything we’ve constructed about ourselves is damaged. It can certainly be uncomfortable, provoking anxiety or making us angry or guilty. This, however, reveals the emotional vulnerability of the one who takes offence to such things.
Yes, it’s nice to be liked by other people, it’s nice to have a good reputation and I know my actions can partly influence my reputation.
If we’re consistently honest in our interactions with people then they’re more likely to consider us honest and truthful.
If we’re consistently sticking to our promises and turning up when we say I will, then people are more likely to see us as someone they can rely on.
If we’re open-minded and curious in our conversations with people then they’re more likely to think we’re friendly.
But even still, we can’t with any certainty control our reputation among our family, friends and clients. All we can do is act in line with our values and ultimately, be indifferent to how people see us.