by Harry Pickens
A miracle happened in Louisville on Friday. 100,000 people lined the streets to honor Muhammad Ali as the hearse containing his remains navigated a 23-mile route throughout the city. 20,000 people from around the world gathered in the Yum! Center to celebrate his life and listen to inspiring reminiscences and remarks by many notables, from Lonnie Ali to Billy Crystal to Louisville’s own John Ramsey to Ambassador Shabazz (eldest daughter of Malcolm X) to former president Bill Clinton. The local television and radio news reports were peppered with commentary and observations about the spirit of joy, peace, community, compassion that seemed to permeate the air today.
I heard calls for a national holiday to honor Ali as well as exhortations to make the spirit of love and connection (and the remarkable reduction in violence) a habit. One radio personality remarked how nice it was to feel this spirit of harmony within our community, only to express her near-certainty that we would return to ‘normal’ soon enough.
Back to our collective ‘default setting’ of intolerance, bigotry, violence, and enmity. Back to the homicides that continue to plague our city. Back to the bitterness exemplified by the current political climate. Back to the defensiveness, the hatred, the misery. Back to ‘normal’(at least, her sad definition of the term).
I wanted to call in to her show, but it was just ending as I tuned in. Here’s what I wanted to say:
You’re right. Today was a remarkable—even historic—day in our city. We came together not only to honor a man, but even more importantly, to honor the values he stood for. We felt uplifted as we reflected together how this man, born into poverty and with no outward advantages whatsoever, in President Clinton’s words, ‘decided to write his own life story’.
We, for a few precious hours, saw in ourselves a hint of the dignity, courage, tenacity, authenticity, humor, and joy that Muhammad Ali expressed in every word, every fight, every action.
And we came together, across lines of race, religion, politics, nationality, and all the other categories that usually divide us.
But I don’t agree that we have to return to a ‘normal’ that tolerates intolerance, embraces separation over unity, and seeks always to protect rather than connect.
What I observed today was, on the surface, about one man who left a remarkable legacy both in sports and in society. But, if we take a closer look, the spirit we felt in Louisville today was not solely about Muhammad Ali. Yes, his life, values, accomplishments, and his passing CATALYZED what we all felt. And, at the same time, this spirit of unity was something that is latent within each of us, and in each of the millions around the world who stopped to honor this man, that we CHOSE to awaken today.
The love, compassion, tolerance, kindness, and sense of connection we felt today is ALWAYS there—just on the other side of our next choice.
The thought of Ali's life and our experience opened our hearts to REMEMBER who and what we really are. In the Sufi tradition (the mystical tradition of Islam), one of the core prayer practices is referred to as 'Remembrance'. One focuses on remembering the presence of the Divine, and as one persists in this practice, one experiences more and more of the peace and love and harmony that is sourced by the Divine presence.
In Christianity, the prayer of the heart has a similar aim -- to awaken the heart to the living presence of God, and to transform the person from the inside out so that they become a living, breathing embodiment of compassion, mercy, and love.
Inward-directed prayer is also central to the Jewish mystical discipline known as Kaballah. The process of continual focus on the Divine within calls forth those soul qualities of loving-kindness
And of course, the Buddhist practice of loving-kindness meditation also seeks to awaken the heart to those Divine qualities that are known to be latent within each seeker. In each case, our task is not to become something we are not, but rather to REMEMBER who and what we really are.
Ali's deep commitment to the tenets of his own faith, and the humility, kindness, generosity, and compassion that he so naturally expressed could not help but inspire those qualities within us.
The core idea here is to recognize that though It may not always be manifest, expressed, actualized; the POTENTIAL for expression of the very best of our natures is ALWAYS present.
The magnificent life and our memories of Mr. Ali simply served as a powerful and compelling catalyst for that which is ALWAYS WITHIN EACH ONE OF US in any given moment. It simply requires our FOCUSED ATTENTION to be released. Please understand. I am in no way implying that Muhammad Ali was not every bit as great as we all know he was. There is no question that he was not only the greatest boxer, but perhaps one of the greatest human beings of all times, especially when we look at his humanitarian legacy and the astonishing courage expressed in the second half of his life, when his indomitable spirit was trapped in a declining, shaking, dis-eased body.
What I AM saying is that, just as we CHOSE to open our hearts to one another today in celebration and remembrance of Mr. Ali SO CAN WE CHOOSE TO DO THE SAME TOMORROW. And the next day. And the next. And when we do, when we consciously choose to remember how we felt today, to remember Ali’s example, to remember those values that he so beautifully expressed THAT ARE ALSO WITHIN OUR CAPACITY TO EXPRESS...then something remarkable begins to happen.
We begin to realize that we DON’T (on an individual or collective level) HAVE to sink back into old habits of intolerance, hatred, bigotry, violence. (No baby was born with these habits of mind — they are learned, acquired, cultivated over time.)
And just as many of us CHOSE to open our minds and hearts today in a spirit of kindness, tolerance, connection, compassion, what if we INTENTIONALLY CHOOSE to do the same tomorrow?
Of course, we won’t have the outer stimulus of the motorcade, the Yum! Center ceremony, the news reports, and all the rest. But we DO have our memories of today, and our ability to CHOOSE to show up as our best selves, as the Champions we each are capable of being.
What if we honor the Champ by living, in our own lives, the values he dedicated his life to? What if we honor the Champ by choosing, one hour at a time, to call forth the ‘Ali’ within us, and seek to treat others with the respect and kindness that he displayed so consistently?
What if we honor the Champ by making a commitment to remember how we felt today, to remember the palpable sense of unity, connection and community in the air, and to strive to bring this spirit of harmony into each task, each relationship, each day as we move forward in our lives?
That’s my plan. Join me if you choose.
Thank you, Muhammad Ali, for inspiring the greatness in us all.