Life is the clause within eternity, between the two commas that are birth and death.” Bobby Shuman, 7th grade, 1960
“The pattern isn’t visible until the carpet’s fully woven.” Robert Shuman, 1996.
I write this piece with the awareness of the two poles of our humanity recently so vividly displayed. The first aspect of our nature is horribly displayed by the evil massacre of more than fifty people in Florida. Of that, I have no more to say then may blessings of peace in good time rain upon them, the wounded, and all of their families and friend and may we defeat the most dangerous terrorist group in the world, the pro-gun, anti-environment Republican Party.
The second side of our nature, and of particular relevance to us who live with chronic illness or disability, is the death of Muhammad Ali and, more importantly, the manner of his being during his extraordinary life. Born with magnificent physical talents and carrying what were and in many ways still are burdens of race, color, and class, he transcended these limits. Ali was an exemplar and embodiment of the better possibilities of being human, developed in body, mind, and heart. He was, in my opinion, with all his faults and flaws, a saint.
I was a student in Abraham Maslow’s last class. Studying positive human behavior and potential rather than pathology, he introduced the concepts of hierarchy of needs and self actualization among other achievements. Asked by many young people who experienced “peak experiences” often induced by drugs whether they might be “self-actualized,” Maslow wrote:
Young people have not had time enough to experience an enduring, loyal post-romantic love relationship, nor have they generally found their calling, the altar upon which to offer themselves. Nor have they worked out their own system of values; nor have they had experience enough (responsibility for others, tragedy, failure, achievement, success) to shed perfectionistic illusions and become realistic; nor have they generally made their peace with death; nor have they learned how to be patient; nor have they learned enough about evil in themselves and others to be compassionate; nor have they had time to become post-ambivalent about parents and elders, power and authority; nor have they generally become knowledgeable and educated enough to open the possibility of becoming wise; nor have they generally acquired enough courage to be unpopular, to be unashamed about being openly virtuous.
As I’ve suggested before, it is interesting to see how many of the conditions for self-actualization are consistent with a recognition of limits, imperfection, and humility and have little to do with progress, individuality, or health. To move from being fixed on a cure for the body to being open to the healing of the person and the soul is a profound shift.
What makes Ali so extraordinary is that he met the criteria for self actualization at a relatively young age when his change of name due to his religious conversion was met with nationwide anger. But it was especially marked by the principled stand he took against the Vietnam War despite the many injuries he suffered as a result. Yet he remained committed to his path of resistance. And despite his youth, scorned and attacked by powerful government and business interests, he expressed his ideals with passion, intelligence, calm, and escalating amounts of goodwill.
“I think he decided,” said Bill Clinton in his simple yet deeply perceptive eulogy, “before he could possibly have worked it all out, and before fate and time could work their will on him, he decided he would not be ever be disempowered. He decided that not his race nor his place, the expectations of others, positive negative or otherwise would strip from him the power to write his own story….”
And then Clinton flipped our usual way of thinking of a life’s course and certainly of an athlete’s. “I will always think of Muhammad as a truly free man of faith. And, being a man of faith, he realized he would never be in full control of his life. Something like Parkinson’s could come along. But being free, he realized that life still was open to choices…
“The first part of his life was dominated by the triumph of his truly unique gifts…we should all be thrilled,it was a thing of beauty. But the second part of his life was more important. Because he refused to be imprisoned by a disease… he perfected gifts that we all have, every single solitary one of us have gifts of mind and heart. It’s just that he found a way to release them in ways large and small.
“So I ask you to remember that,” President Clinton went on, “We all have an Ali story. It’s the gift we all have that should be most honored today, because he released them to the world, never wasting a day that the rest of us could see anyway, feeling sorry for himself because he had Parkinson’s.
“Knowing that more than three decades of his life would be circumscribed in ways that would be chilling to the naked eye,” the President concluded with a challenge to all of us, “but, with a free spirit, it made his life bigger not smaller, because other people, all of us unlettered, unschooled, in the unleashing said well would you look at that look at that, may not be able to run across the ring anymore, may not be able to dodge everybody and exhaust everybody anymore, and he’s bigger than ever, because he is a free man of faith sharing the gifts we all have. We should honor him by letting our gifts go among the world as he did. God bless you my friend, go in peace.”