Thursday, 29 May 2014

The passing of a phenomenal woman

“My mission in life is not merely to survive, but to thrive; and to do so with some passion, some compassion, some humor, and some style,” wrote Maya Angelou, who died yesterday, leaving the world with less empathy, fewer smiles and that much less elegance.
Laughter and wisdom
Her words are something to remember in times when far too many of us seem to be giving the primacy to bitter, damaging emotions. We’re traversing a period in which many see the outsider, the other, those who are different in race, faith, sexual orientation or simply nationality as to be shunned or turned into a scapegoat.

Instead of passion, compassion, humour and style, we end up with fear, hatred, intolerance and ugliness. It seems acceptable in far too large a minority of our populations to complain about the diversity around us, to complain for instance that there are parts of Britain that feel foreign, perhaps because we feel
 uncomfortable when no one around is speaking English.

That strikes me as odd. I’ve always found that experience something to revel in. I’ve walked along London streets and heard no English. It made me proud of our tired old capital that so many people were prepared to travel there, whether for a brief visit or to stay for longer. I was sure they would enrich us, in the narrow sense by spending money in our shops or working in our companies, more generally by bringing us a flavour of other places and other cultures. That was something in which I took pleasure. At the simplest level, there was a game to play in trying to recognise some of the languages, with a certain delight when I did, but a rueful admiration of the variety of mankind on the far more frequent occasions when I couldn’t.

Maya Angelou, I like to think, would have found that diversity, that mixing and cross-fertilising of cultures inspiring. Conversely, she would have found the desire to exclude despicable. In I know why the caged bird sings she wrote:

“It was awful to be Negro and have no control over my life. It was brutal to be young and already trained to sit quietly and listen to charges brought against my color with no chance of defense. We should all be dead. I thought I should like to see us all dead, one on top of the other. [...] As a species, we were an abomination. All of us.”

It’s that abomination that is growing around us today, in Europe and the United States. Large numbers of people, scared no doubt by the instability and suffering that our crisis-torn societies are imposing, run to build walls beyond which they can drive their scapegoats. What they fail to understand is the scapegoats are false and excluding them will achieve nothing, while the walls don’t just create a defence, they also build a prison.

Combating these trends is going to take a long battle. For that we’ll need just the kind of spirit that Maya Angelou left us. And also what she identified as the greatest of human strengths:

“Courage is the most important of all the virtues because without courage, you can't practice any other virtue consistently.”

We’ll miss her. But the best tribute we can pay to her is to take up the cudgel against the views she abominated.

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