Tunisia, Martin Luther King, and Main Street
What Do We Do With Pain?
Sunday, January 23, 2011
My heart goes out to the family and friends of Mohamed Bouazizi, the 26-year-old fruit vendor who set himself on fire in Tunisia and set off a series of events that led to the collapse of the government.
Bouazizi’s desperate act has changed the course of history in Tunisia, hopefully for the better, but from a personal point of view, what a tragedy, to reach such a low point in your life that you see no other way to proceed other than to burn yourself to death.
Bouazizi was college educated, but unemployed except for selling fruit. Because he had no license, the police stopped him from doing business and took, or stole, his fruit. That was enough to push Mohamed Bouazizi over the edge, and the rest is history.
I don’t know the details of his situation, but it doesn’t sound like he was homeless, and he somehow had the wherewithal to get the fruit to sell. There are probably many people in his hometown, and throughout Tunisia and the region, who were and are much worse off, but Mohamed Bouazizi broke that day. He did so in a way that could not be ignored, and his countrymen responded.
Here in the U.S. things are nowhere as difficult as they are in Tunisia. Or are they?
I don’t think the actions of the Tucson shooter are a good comparison to those of Mohamed Bouazizi. There is no evidence that Mohamed Bouazizi was mentally ill, nor did he hurt anyone other than himself. One was an act of desperation and, possibly, protest. The other was the act of an unhinged mind.
I think many millions of unemployed or underemployed Americans can imagine how Mohamed Bouazizi must have felt: the sense of frustration, of beating oneself against a wall, of being underutilized—Bouazizi was college-educated, remember—of being mistreated, the feeling of life passing you by.
Please, I am not suggesting that anyone in the United States, or anywhere else, do anything that remotely approximates the horribly painful act of Mohamed Bouazizi. All I’m saying is that we can understand his frustration and that many of us have felt similar emotional pain, though hopefully less extreme. Many of us have known moments when we’ve thought to ourselves, “I don’t know if I can do this anymore.”
We human beings are, as is embodied in the Constitution of the United States of America, by our deepest nature, free beings seeking a full expression of life, liberty, and happiness. That’s who we are. We are like water seeking cracks and channels into which we might pour our energies, our capacities, our knowledge, and our expertise, and it can be unbearably painful when we have no effective outlet for expressing our gifts and contributing towards a decent life for ourselves, our families, and our country.
In contradistinction to Mohamad Bouazizi, we have the example of protestors like Nelson Mandela, and our own Martin Luther King, Jr., men of extraordinary ability who could have, in their time, felt thwarted at every turn, even to the point, in Mandela’s case, of being imprisoned for years. Yet they continued to fight day after day; and they fought, not by fighting, but by keeping the vision and never giving up.
Mandela lost 27 years of his life to a prison cell (though he does not seem to see it this way) but never gave up his dream. King, shot dead at age 39, terribly young, had half his life taken away from him, though he probably would not have seen it that way either, but never gave up his dream of a more just and equitable America.
In each of these three cases life offered difficult challenges.
No matter who we are, though our challenges may seem smaller, we have our challenges, nonetheless.
We may be unemployed. We may be ill. We may be frustrated. We may be old. We may be alone, or feel that way. We may be discriminated against.
We know the pain of life, because we’re human, and there’s no way to avoid it.
How do we deal with it?
Mohamed Bouazizi knew full well how discomforted he felt. And so he acted.
Nelson Mandela and Martin Luther King, Jr. acted too, but not like Bouazizi did. Their protest, their effective actions towards radical change did not require them to kill themselves, nor anyone else, though both were ready to die for their causes if need be.
And as we all know, one did die, though his dream lived on.
We all can’t be a Mandela or a King, nor would most of us want to be a Bouazizi.
The difference, to my mind, is that I view Bouazizi as a man who had come to his end. His act was like that of a man who jumps out the window of a burning building.
He saw no other way out, no way forwards.
I may be wrong, but I don’t think Bouazizi thought his action would make a difference.
He was a man who had given up.
But it was Bouazizi’s pain and frustration, along with that of his countrymen, that inspired the people of Tunisia to move forwards. Bouazizi was a catalyst.
But it remains, as it always does, to the living to make the dream of a more equitable society, or any other dream, in Tunisia or elsewhere, a reality. Life is in the living.
Some of us will not be able to bear the pain of living for one reason or another. Suicide has been with us for a long time, and will probably be with us always.
But for the rest of us: What do we do with the pain of our lives, no matter where it comes from, whether from inside us or from outside us? Pain, like love; anger, like hope; fear, like courage; sadness, like joy—both the positive and the so-called “negative” emotions—can be fuel for living and for transformation, rather than for collapse and withdrawal.
So, my heart goes out to Mohamed Bouazizi, and to his family and friends, and to all human beings who suffer, wherever they are, in Tunisia, Pakistan, or Africa, or down the street.
And my heart goes out to me, and to you, for though we may not be suffering today, like all human beings, we know suffering. We ask for the strength, the wisdom, the compassion, the insight, and the guidance, from wherever it may come, to be able to take all that life offers us, the good and the bad, the joyous and the painful, and like Mandela and King, in our own way, live a life that makes things better for ourselves, our families, our country, and the world.