Wednesday, July 25, 2007
"The man who views the world at 50 the same as he did at 20 has wasted 30 years of his life."
Surprising words, coming from a man who made his mark as a prize fighter.
There is a lot of wisdom in that single sentence. I think the most successful (and happy) people are those who accept the many stages of life without yearning for the past and for their own younger selves.
But how are we to accomplish this in a society that worships youth and subtly punishes those who grow older, women in particular? Women usually become invisible once they are past child-bearing years. Doors are not opened for them as frequently.
I addressed this issue in one of my earliest posts, which got a whopping four comments.
It is now about a year later. I am about a year older. I like to think that I am about a year wiser, but it's a slippery slope.
What is the ratio of years to wisdom, exactly?
Mohammed Ali has had to accept a lot of change in his life. He developed Parkinson's Disease, which has rendered him almost incapable of communicating. Perhaps he became introspective because of it, but what his comment says to me is that he has matured not only bodily, as we all do, but at the soul level as well. He has grasped one of the most difficult concepts of all, that we are meant to change our views, and that doing so does not make us disloyal to our former selves or mean that we were wrong then.
It simply shows that the view is different from higher on the hill we all traverse in life, and this should be celebrated, for we get to encompass many different ways of being who we are during our years on earth.
What is more, to stubbornly adhere to the same ideas we once held keeps us stuck in time. It negates all our experiences that have followed the single moment when we developed a belief. "It's my story and I'm sticking to it " is a poor way to go through life.
What a waste. If we could finally accept that aging is not a punishment or a disaster, certainly not a contagious disease, we could actually begin to enjoy the many freedoms that come from not having to be really young anymore.
Ali has always been wise, and he seems to have always known who he was.
When he gave up his "slave name," Cassius Clay, and became a Muslim, people disapproved.
He responded, "I don't have to be what you want me to be; I'm free to be what I want."
His flagrant self-promotion, "I am the greatest!" was shocking in a world that esteemed modesty, even false modesty, and the fact that he was given to composing rhymes caused many not to take him seriously. The entire rap industry is probably in his debt.
His good nature was a large part of his charm, and it didn't hurt that he was extremely good looking as well. When reporters asked about his affiliation with Islam, he joked that he was going to have four wives: one to shine his shoes, one to feed him grapes, one to rub oil on his muscles and one named Peaches.
The public didn't know what to make of him. His fight for the heavyweight championship against Sonny Liston, a Mob-controlled thug, was sparsely attended, so few saw his stunning victory in person.
He refused to join the Army during the Vietnam War, saying, "I ain't got no quarrel with them Viet Cong. No Viet Cong ever called me Nigger."
He applied to the Selective Service for conscientious objector status on religious grounds. The government prosecuted him for draft dodging, and the boxing commission took away his license.
Because he would not fight in an unjust war, he could not fight in the ring for 3 1/2 years at the peak of his career.
In 1971 the Supreme Court ruled that the government had acted improperly, but Ali declined to pursue any lawsuits to get his title back through the courts. He insisted that there was no need to punish the commission for doing what they thought was right, and determined to win back his title in the ring.
He famously did so by knocking out George Foreman in the eighth round of their fight in Zaire. Now George Foreman hawks barbecue grills.
Boxing, his great love, eventually did him in. Parkinson's has made it difficult for him to speak, and he moves slowly through the adoring crowds he still attracts. He spends hours signing autographs at home because his idol, Sugar Ray Robinson, once denied him one, saying "Hello, kid, how ya doin'? I ain't got time."
Ali vowed that he would never turn anyone down. The volume of mail he gets is enormous, and with characteristic grace and wisdom, he continues to do the best he can with his life at this stage.
Although I don't like boxing or any sports in which people get hurt, I marvel at the fact that our wisest role models often come from unexpected places, and that what is in a person's heart is so much more important than the grammar he uses to present it.
Mohammed Ali chose the most surprising arena in which to express his charismatic personality, and in so doing, he brought a rare kind of beauty to what is normally the least beautiful of sports.
He is in every way a gentleman who practices what he preaches, for he seems not to have wasted a moment of his life. How many of us can make that claim?