Thursday, October 01, 2009

Inspired (again)

I was having a conversation over dinner just tonight about how I had once read a speech by JK Rowling and found it one of the most inspiring speeches I had ever read. It inspired me to revisit this post which picks out some of the more inspiring parts of the speech, at least for me. And I once again was blown away at the power of her words. Many people who now follow the blog, did not follow it almost exactly one year ago (when we were in Seattle with my aunt), so I felt impelled to repost this wonderfullly inspiring speech. I hope you enjoy it as much as I have!

We have a lot of time on our hands lately so I find myself thinking about future posts more than I ever have in the past, partially out of boredom, but also because I have the time for creativity. I have the time and the energy to let my imagination and thoughts run wild. A hidden blessing in our time of frustration, one might say. Through my internet searching today, I came across a commencement speech by J.K. Rowling, the author of the Harry Potter series, given to the graduating class at Harvard. And by her speech I was inspired. So much so, that even after an inordinately long post that most of you probably haven't had the chance to read yet, I have decided to post another. (p.s. please read Kyle's entry before you read this one as it is really worth the read, and I not just saying that because I am the biased wife, it really is so well written and entertaining. It is not one to be missed!) I am not going to post the whole speech, but take excerpts that particularly spoke to me. However if you would like to read the entire speech, click here.

Ultimately, we all have to decide for ourselves what constitutes failure, but the world is quite eager to give you a set of criteria if you let it. So I think it fair to say that by any conventional measure, a mere seven years after my graduation day, I had failed on an epic scale. An exceptionally short-lived marriage had imploded, and I was jobless, a lone parent, and as poor as it is possible to be in modern Britain, without being homeless. The fears my parents had had for me, and that I had had for myself, had both come to pass, and by every usual standard, I was the biggest failure I knew.... So why do I talk about the benefits of failure? Simply because failure meant a stripping away of the inessential. I stopped pretending to myself that I was anything other than what I was, and began to direct all my energy into finishing the only work that mattered to me. Had I really succeeded at anything else, I might never have found the determination to succeed in the one arena I believed I truly belonged. I was set free, because my greatest fear had already been realised, and I was still alive, and I still had a daughter whom I adored, and I had an old typewriter and a big idea. And so rock bottom became the solid foundation on which I rebuilt my life.

So obviously Kyle and I have had hit road blocks in our life, but we haven't even brushed the edge of the decline that leads to rock bottom. In no way, am I comparing what we are going through to the rock bottom that she speaks of, but I think what she has to say about failure is so intriguing and true for some, but not all. I love the quote from the movie Catch Me If You Can, "Two little mice fell in a bucket of cream. The first mouse quickly gave up and drowned. The second mouse, wouldn't quit. He struggled so hard that eventually he churned that cream into butter and crawled out." For some, failure is just that, failure, and there is nothing more to say or do. Rock bottom is just another place to live or die. But for others, for the fighters, for the ones who want more and are willing to struggle failure can be the lottery ticket to success, an opportunity. I am always so inspired by stories of failures that lead to success because I want to be one of those people who takes risks and isn't afraid of failure. The line where Rowling says, "I was set free" made so much sense to me. If what you fear is failure, and you have failed, than there is no where else to go but towards success.

Imagination is not only the uniquely human capacity to envision that which is not, and therefore the fount of all invention and innovation. In its arguably most transformative and revelatory capacity, it is the power that enables us to empathise with humans whose experiences we have never shared. ...I paid the rent in my early 20s by working in the research department at Amnesty International's headquarters in London. here in my little office I read hastily scribbled letters smuggled out of totalitarian regimes by men and women who were risking imprisonment to inform the outside world of what was happening to them. ... Many of my co-workers were ex-political prisoners, people who had been displaced from their homes, or fled into exile, because they had the temerity to think independently of their government.
... I shall never forget the African torture victim, a young man no older than I was at the time, who had become mentally ill after all he had endured in his homeland. He trembled uncontrollably as he spoke into a video camera about the brutality inflicted upon him. He was a foot taller than I was, and seemed as fragile as a child. I was given the job of escorting him to the Underground Station afterwards, and this man whose life had been shattered by cruelty took my hand with exquisite courtesy, and wished me future happiness.

Every day, I saw more evidence about the evils humankind will inflict on their fellow humans, to gain or maintain power. I began to have nightmares, literal nightmares, about some of the things I saw, heard and read.

And yet I also learned more about human goodness at Amnesty International than I had ever known before.

Amnesty mobilises thousands of people who have never been tortured or imprisoned for their beliefs to act on behalf of those who have. The power of human empathy, leading to collective action, saves lives, and frees prisoners. Ordinary people, whose personal well-being and security are assured, join together in huge numbers to save people they do not know, and will never meet. My small participation in that process was one of the most humbling and inspiring experiences of my life.

This passage gave me a greater understanding of her books. While reading the Harry Potter series, I often got a sense that what she was warning against was not evil in the world, but instead, not standing up against what you know is wrong, even if you have to do it alone and at the risk of everything. Voldemort controlled with fear, paralyzing those who knew that he was wrong into doing nothing. Voldemort may have been a fictional villan, but what he stood for is unfortunatly far from fiction. Voldemort is much like the totalitarrian governments that strike fear in the hearts of many citizens of our world. Rowlings work with Amnesty International gave her a first hand look at what happens when we allow fear or totalitarrian governments to rule. Her books are beautiful stories, with imaginative creatures in a mysterious and enchanting world, but more than that, I think she wanted to send a message to all the children and adults in the world. Face your fear, don't let it control you, your dreams or what you know to be right.

And many prefer not to exercise their imaginations at all. They choose to remain comfortably within the bounds of their own experience, never troubling to wonder how it would feel to have been born other than they are. They can refuse to hear screams or to peer inside cages; they can close their minds and hearts to any suffering that does not touch them personally; they can refuse to know.

I might be tempted to envy people who can live that way, except that I do not think they have any fewer nightmares than I do. Choosing to live in narrow spaces can lead to a form of mental agoraphobia, and that brings its own terrors. I think the wilfully unimaginative see more monsters. They are often more afraid.

What is more, those who choose not to empathise may enable real monsters. For without ever committing an act of outright evil ourselves, we collude with it, through our own apathy.

One of the many things I learned at the end of that Classics corridorwas this, written by the Greek author Plutarch: What we achieve inwardly will change outer reality.

With so much time on my hands, I have been doing a lot of soul searching. "Who am I? Who do I want to become? How can I improve myself and improve the world?" After working at Alamo Segway, although I enjoyed myself greatly while exploring the city via segway and meeting interesting people, I have decided that in order for my heart and conscious to be whole, I need to know that I am useful, that I am helpful. I want to live life to the fullist and for me that means that I need to do something extraoridary. That doesn't mean that I have to live in poverty in an orphanage in China. Extraoridariness, if thats a real word, can be found anywhere, even in our own backyard. I don't exactly know where that leads me, but it gives me a general direction to where I am headed. (An example of working in one's own back yard, Kyle and I had a job interview yesterday with the community center here in Redmond and may have part time jobs helping middle schoolers. More on that later when we know more.) I leave you with this quote that has become my recent mantra, "Risk more than others think is safe. Care more than others think is wise. Dream more than others think is practical. Expect more than others think is possible. "
~ Cadet Maxim

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