The 2014 election-year posturing forces me back to November, 2010, when a living parable walked into freedom after 15 years of house arrest. Aung San Suu Kyi, Burma/Myanmar’s opposition leader, waved to her supporters and awakened our stagnant conscience.
Suu Kyi ranks among the elite of real-life parables. “I should be like them,” we think. “Everyone should.” They’re the true norm. Saint Francis was one such parable. So was Gandhi. So were Mother Theresa, Nelson Mandela, and Alexander Solzhenitsyn. Pope Francis may be another. They shame our insipid, glitz-and-glitter leaders, whether they’re overpaid CEO’s or I’ll-say-anything-to-get-votes candidates. They show us that politics is more than winning elections and business is more than making money.
In fact, they shame us all. We reward the attack ads. We elected the politicians and hired the CEO’s. We’ve diminished human beings to mere consumers and interest groups and filed them into marketing categories. We’ve bred our rant-and-rave culture and turned it loose.
They shame us without any longing to shame, but their dignity, humor, and grace shows us there’s another way to live, beyond the Gross National Product’s parameters. They’ve thrived in the darkness and identify with Paul and Silas, two New Testament figures who sang hymns of praise in a pitch-black prison cell. They grasp the truth of Romans 5:3-4: “We also rejoice in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope.”
We could do better. We could be like Aung San Suu Kyi.
She shames us all the more because she could have evaded the darkness. Her father established the modern Burmese Army and negotiated the nation’s independence in 1947. Rivals assassinated him, but her mother played a major political role and Suu Kyi lived in privilege: She attended college in New Delhi and Oxford, lived in New York and worked in the United Nations, married a scholar named Michael Vaillancourt Aris, earned a Ph.D from the University of London, and was a fellow at the Indian Institute for Advanced Studies. We would have understood if she chose the exiled life while a junta strangled her nation. She had a husband; she had kids. She could have taught, filed protest letters, toured the lecture circuit, written articles and books and appeared on Charlie Rose. You have responsibilities, Suu Kyi. Puff your children’s pillows and sing them their lullabies.
But she couldn’t walk away. A historical swirl propelled her into the leadership of Burma’s pro-democracy movement after she returned to care for her ailing mother in 1988. The Junta banned gatherings of more than four, but Suu Kyi campaigned anyway as the 1990 elections approached. “Fearlessness may be a gift,” she once said, “but perhaps more precious is the courage acquired through endeavor, courage that comes from cultivating the habit of refusing to let fear dictate one’s actions, courage that could be described as ‘grace under pressure’ – grace which is renewed repeatedly in the face of harsh, unremitting pressure.” She displayed incredible courage when she walked alone before soldiers with shoot-to-kill orders. A major countermanded the order and she went on to her rally.
Something yanks at us. We can deny it no longer: All should possess that graceful courage. All should be willing to walk that road. All should smile their way into the lion’s den.
The National League for Democracy won 59% of the popular vote and 80% of the seats in Parliament. The Junta refused to recognize the results and arrested Suu Kyi. She was separated from her children. The generals barred her dying husband from seeing her (they welcomed her to visit him abroad; she suspected they wouldn’t allow her back), and he died of prostate cancer with no good-bye.
In her famous essay, “Freedom From Fear,” Suu Kyi articulated what we all know but rarely admit: “The quintessential revolution is that of the spirit, born of an intellectual conviction of the need for change in those mental attitudes and values which shape the course of a nation’s development. A revolution which aims merely at changing official policies and institutions with a view to an improvement in material conditions has little chance of genuine success. Without a revolution of the spirit, the forces which produced the iniquities of the old order would continue to be operative, posing a constant threat to the process of reform and regeneration.”
Yes. Of course. How obvious – and how appropriate for our nation as well as hers. All need that revolution of the spirit.
I don’t easily stand in awe of anyone, but Aung San Suu Kyi has walked through the darkness. She is one of those gems illuminating the true definition of what “normal” should be. And so I can say with a straight face and in all seriousness: I want to be like Aung San Suu Kyi.