Wednesday, January 30, 2008

The Speaker

“The world is being torn apart by nothing more than fear.”

Those were the first words I ever heard him say. I’ll never forget that day. It was on my grandparents’ old TV, from my bedroom in the rundown little trailer park where I grew up. I was supposed to be doing homework, but I was really just drifting off into one fantasy world or another, staring at the pages of my algebra book. I was home alone, so I had the news on in the background because I was scared of the silence and the old set only caught the one channel. I was only twelve years old, so I didn’t know what it was I was afraid I’d hear were it too quiet, but, like he said, fear is an irrational thing.

He wasn’t much to look at; a small guy, not too thin, but you could tell he never played sports or anything. And he was younger than you’d have thought, once he started talking. His hair was a little unkempt and just a couple of shades too dark to be called mousy. The one thing about him that stood out, though, was his eyes. It wasn’t that they were a strange color or anything. They were just that blue that looks like new denim. But there was something in them that, when he spoke, held you there, almost like if you stared long enough or hard enough, you could see through them to a world that wasn’t as messed up as the one he was talking about.

His voice didn’t stand out much either. He wasn’t what you’d have called a born public speaker. He wasn’t a Kennedy, or even a Reagan. It wasn’t a deep, resonating voice, which would have looked funny coming out of him anyway. There was nothing special about it. It wouldn’t have been one you would’ve picked out in a crowded restaurant. But somehow the gravity of the things he said carried in that voice, in the sometimes halting way he said things, not with the calculated pauses of a politician, but the genuine loss of someone aware that he was trying to find a way to put words to something bigger than himself.

They asked people in my grandparents’ generation where they were when Kennedy was shot. In my parents’, it was where they were when the towers fell. Looking back now, to what seems like so long ago, I think that, should there ever be a question that defines our generation, it’ll be where we were the first time we heard him. I was twelve, in the back bedroom of my mom’s old trailer, and I’ll never forget those words.

“The world is being torn apart by nothing more than fear. Lots of people will tell you that fear isn’t as pressing a problem in the world as hate, or anger, or pride. But those are all just symptoms of the greater ill. We hate because we don’t understand, which scares us. Sometimes, it’s because we do understand, and that understanding places what we fear too close to us. Anger, righteous or not, is only the fear that something will happen, or happen again, that something we loved will be lost and that we will be left alone. And pride…Pride is the most insidious of them. Pride is the simple fear that we might be wrong, that we may face judgment in the eyes of others who have no right to pass it. It is the fear that what we believe to be true will be made false and that we will have to start over again down a path which can never be finished.

“Fear is irrational. It drives us, in any of its forms, like almost nothing else can. It clouds our minds. Nothing can exist in its presence. It devours like a fierce flame, burning away things like reason, mercy, empathy, and understanding, all of which are the keys to its undoing. We very often embrace it for that very reason, because it allows us to keep from feeling sadness, guilt, or pain, but forget that it also eats away at joy, love, and peace. We wield the flame, lashing out with it, unaware that, when it fades, as it must, those dark things will still be there, compounded further by the atrocities of our actions.”

“Think about how often, every day, you are faced with the choice to give in to fear and choose to willingly. People rally in their homes against the oppression of things like churches, governments, and a corporate culture which grows fat on the suffering of those it claims to feed. But when they walk out into the streets, their voices are quiet. They watch as their rights are eroded away, as those around them are subjugated, mumbling that it isn’t their problem and pray that it never, and this is the greatest tool of those who would seek to oppress, falls on them to become the ones who must stand up for what is right.”

Those words reached out to me through that tinny speaker and held my heart tight long after they faded. It felt like I was too young, too small too understand them. It wasn’t until years later that I would realize that my age had nothing to do with it. He was right. Fear was how we were being kept in check. Those in power, those truly in power, made every one of us feel the way I did that night, as I lay in the dark hours later, still dwelling on the things I’d heard. The message was simple enough for a child to understand because it had to be. We were all children, then, and it wasn’t until we were forced to face that fact that we could start to change it.

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