Wednesday, June 20, 2012

What We Do Matters

It can be astonishing when we have occasion to learn of how we might have impacted someone else's life. This was the case for former radio DJ, Dave Lee Travis, who met Nobel peace laureate Aung San Suu Kyi for the first time yesterday at BBC Broadcasting House in London. [See news story and photographs here.] Suu Kyi’s story gives us a chance to see these distant impacts that our actions make on another human being.

Former DJ Dave Lee Travis greeting Aung San Suu Kyi at the BBC
When Suu Kyi met Travis, also known by his nickname, “Hairy Cornflake,” she commented on how listening to Travis' music request radio program "A Jolly Good Show" from 1989 to 1995 made her world more complete during her years of house arrest. She said that listening to Travis' program connected her to the world outside of Burma and gave her solace, even though she was prevented from communicating with those on the outside. Travis responded by saying, “I am just glad to have been a part of the things that you listened to that helped you.” [Another story of their meeting is here.]

Suu Kyi has been on a European tour since May, when she finally had enough confidence that the government of Burma would allow her to return home if she left the country. The 2012 by-elections changed the political landscape of Burma. Secretary of State Hilary Clinton remarked following those by-elections on April 4:

"The results of the April 1st parliamentary by-elections represent a dramatic demonstration of popular will that brings a new generation of reformers into government. This is an important step in the country’s transformation, which in recent months has seen the unprecedented release of political prisoners, new legislation broadening the rights of political and civic association, and fledgling process in internal dialogue between the government and ethnic minority groups.

“The Lady,” as Suu Kyi is known, made stops to pick up awards that were made while she was under house arrest in Burma for a total of fifteen years, off and on from 1989 to 2010. During her years of house arrest and the periods spent afraid to leave Burma’s borders, Suu Kyi remained resolute in her commitment to the cause of democracy for the people of Burma. Those years of sacrifice meant separation from her two sons and not being at her husband’s side when he died of prostate cancer in 1999 on his birthday at age 53.

Aung San Suu Kyi giving her acceptance speech for the Nobel Peace Prize
On Sunday, she finally accepted her 1991 Nobel peace prize in Oslo, commenting, Often during my days of house arrest it felt as though I were no longer a part of the real world. What the Nobel peace prize did was to draw me once again into the world of other human beings outside the isolated area in which I lived, to restore a sense of reality to me.” It was important that people outside of Burma, and especially people at the level of public attention and respect like the Nobel prize committee, noticed and acknowledged Suu Kyi’s leadership on behalf of her people.

Today, she received an honorary doctorate in civil law that was awarded in 1993 from her alma mater, Oxford University. In her acceptance speech, she said, "During the most difficult years, I was upheld by memories of Oxford: those were among the most important inner resources that helped me to cope with the all the challenges I had to face."

Suu Kyi after receiving her honorary doctorate at Oxford
As I was reading about Suu Kyi during the past week, I have pondered the comfort that The Lady found in listening to a radio program from the other side of the globe and a former life from which she had been exiled. I have also reflected upon what it is that comforts the legions of incarcerated men and women - and teens - in our country, who do not have the resoluteness of their political convictions to guide and undergird them.

As I have imagined Suu Kyi’s days at Oxford, first as an undergraduate student, and later, after having earned her PhD at the University of London, as a wife and mother, and as I reflected on how she talked about those happy memories, I have wondered what happy memories that might be as vivid as days at Oxford sustain our incarcerated, or those living alone. 

I don't have any brilliant ideas here. I only know that the little things that we do matter and that doing what we're called to do in service to others, matters. I know that small acts of kindness sometimes make the difference between an easy day or a hard day for someone. I know that sticking up for someone who's being bullied by rules, tradition, and other people matters. I know that doing something, whether it's opening a door, or offering a glass of water, or preparing a space at the table, with a cheerful disposition, matters. Being mindful of lovingkindness matters.

On occasion, Herb and I have been pleased and humbled to receive messages from people in our past that have been affirmations of things we've done that have made a difference in their lives. They've typically been little things that we've done in the course of a work day or other interaction that we no longer recall, and yet, those little things were memorable for someone else. What we do matters, and we need to remember that in order to be more intentional about investing ourselves into what we do.

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