Be What You Have to Be
Amy and I love the movie, “The Great Debaters”. It’s the film starring and directed by Denzel Washington that’s about the first African American debate team to beat Harvard’s debate team during the era of the Jim Crow south. Amy and I love stories of underdogs defying the odds (I wonder why), and “The Great Debaters” is one of my favorites in that regard. There is a line that Forest Whitaker says to his son throughout the film, “You do what you have to do so that you can do what you want to do.” That line has stayed with me since the first time I saw the movie. It has been a great reminder for me in terms of the virtue of patience in the midst of trials. Although I know that is certainly the intent of the quote, I’ve found in recent weeks that the phraseology of it is very misleading and even a deterrent when it comes to making decisions in life (at least for me).
I don’t want to come off as granola or “new-agey”, but the whole idea of “we’re called human beings not human doings” is really starting to resonate with me. I went to my first tumor support group in a long time last night and there was a guy there named Idris who is pushing 70 and has had 4 brain tumors. He got his first one back in the early 70’s at the age of 26 and wasn’t given much time. He not only survived it, but made it 9 years before another one came back. That one was supposed to be his end as well. but again it didn’t take him. He made it almost 20 years before yet another one came back. Same story. He had his most recent recurrence in early 2011 and he is now, as he says, “enjoying the reprieve”. Idris said to us in the group, “I don’t know what I did…other than just telling myself that I wanted to live.” he also said, “each time it’s happened to me though, it gets me a little closer to understanding that all I have in this world is my own sense of self, and not to come off as too ‘out there’ to y’all, but I spend most of my time now just ‘being’ and just listening, instead of trying to force things into existence.” Idris has lived an impressive life amidst his history with brain cancer. He worked as an electrical and civil engineer for years, fought in Vietnam, ran businesses…but now just mostly teaches drumming therapy and shares his story with others. He also cracked, “I have a PhD in ‘Doom and Gloom'” meaning that since his first tumor he’s been told so many times about how terrible his life is going to be, if he even survives, that he’s become an expert in the arena of that fatalistic mindset. An arena that, fortunately for him, never came into fruition. To be quite honest though…even in spite of his insight, anyone who would meet Idris would definitely think he’s a quack. He has a lot of energy and a lot to say and I would even admit that I could only handle being around him in small doses…but even with all that, he didn’t need to say a word…his story alone spoke volumes to me.
I have to make a confession, I’ve been feeling pretty depressed lately. I’ve been restless, unmotivated, and a little down in the dumps (instead of “depression” I like to call it the “curse of being creative”). I didn’t really want to go to the group last night, but I’m glad I did because I felt a peace fall on me that I really needed. That peace gave me a clear-headedness that allowed me to find the source of my depression and that is that I feel this nagging need to do…do…do all the freakin’ time (ha, you just said a slang term for feces in your head and you totally didn’t catch it). Now that I’m feeling better, the pressure to “take action” is becoming more prevalent in my life. Last night before I went to bed I realized that before I can do…do…do (ha, made you do it again) I actually need to learn to be…be…be. I need to “enjoy my reprieve”. Knowing all this, I would change the line from “The Great Debaters” to, “You be what you have to be in order to do what you want to do.” If you really think about why we do things it’s because we want to eventually be something specific, whether it’s being healthy, successful, a good person etc. You want to be something that does, yes, require action, Our actions, however, start with a choice that stems from a thought derived from a sense of identity that is influenced by a mindset that we should only get from peace beyond our own understanding. I’m learning that if you focus too much on doing, then you will never have peace…and that, right there, is why we are called “human beings and not human doings”, you feel me? I’m sharing this as I’m dealing with my own revelation regarding this cliche idea of “being”.
In “The Great Debaters”, there is another line that is used through out. It is a paraphrase of a famous St. Augustine quote, “An unjust law is no law at all”. That is very profound considering the region and era that the debaters were living in and through. There is also another St. Augustine quote that I love, “It was pride that changed angels into devils; it is humility that makes men as angels”. I think that quote is another piece to the puzzle of learning what it means to “be” and why focusing on doing (for me at least) is misguided. “Being” requires a mindset of humility and I’m thankful for meeting people like Idris who help guide me closer to the peace-filled, fearless, and healthy person that I desire to be.