Let no man pull you low enough to hate him - Martin Luther King Jr.
I saw The Express the other day - a movie about Ernie Davis, the first black man to win the Heisman Trophy. Davis was one of the best ever to play collegiate football in America. He accomplished this in a time when being black was reason enough to be victimized; being black and successful in what theretofore was a white sport was simply unacceptable, and the 'incumbent' thugs weren't shy about letting you know it.
Rather than get angry and respond in kind (with violence) to the treatment he received from white players (even his own team mates), coaches, officials and fans, he did his talking on the field of play, and became an even better and more successful player.
I think I know a little bit of how he felt inside. I experienced racism when I was younger - it is a feeling like no other - to be broadly vilified just because you exist. I did not always react with the aplomb that Davis showed - I ran when I was well-outnumbered, and stood and fought when the odds were more balanced. Even when the abuse wasn't violent, it was extremely difficult to turn the other cheek and not feel like I was less for doing it. Worse, there was no response I could imagine that would actually change how they looked at me.
As I've grown past my teens, less and less racism is directed towards me (the Ernie Davis' of today probably can't say the same thing), but I will never forget that feeling.
We live in a society where everyone has the unalienable right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. But these aren't real rights - they have to be earned every day, and require hard, hard work. Seth Godin said something the other day that resonated: Take a look at the language you use to describe what happened at work yesterday, that's your first clue. If you're not the one creating the change, perhaps it's time to start.
Freedom is not granted, it is earned. But to be free you must first free yourself. I am only just understanding this concept. Davis understood it when he was but a child - he did not aspire to be the first black player to do a thing, he wanted to be the best player period. He did not resent or hate those who resented and hated him, he rose above that. Having already set himself free, no-one could 'imprison' him, no matter what they did. This is how he was free to achieve what he sought. BTW the reason you may not have heard of Ernie Davis is that he died of Leukemia before he had a chance to play professional football - he was 23.
President Kennedy (JFK arranged a meeting with Davis after the Heisman presentation) telexed these words to Davis at an event honoring his accomplishments just 15 months before he died:
Seldom has an athlete been more deserving of such a tribute. Your high standards of performance on the field and off the field, reflect the finest qualities of competition, sportsmanship and citizenship. The nation has bestowed upon you its highest awards for your athletic achievements. It's a privilege for me to address you tonight as an outstanding American, and as a worthy example of our youth. I salute you. - JFK, 2/3/62
I recently wrote about shibumi - I think grace is implicit in shibumi - in "being without the angst of becoming."
Do we need to face difficulty (real difficulty) to achieve grace? Perhaps only then do we really understand what we want, what we will do to get it, and more importantly, what we won't do to get it. But when we do face difficulty, do we rise above it, or do we seek vengeance in the name of pride or respect?
In spite of all that was thrown at him, Ernie Davis embodied grace. It's time we learned from him and create our own change.