Tuesday, June 10

Finish the Dance

Wailing and gnashing of teeth has been reaching my ears in recent days and overflowing into my email in-box, as many people suddenly awaken to the scope of the threat that Barack Obama's run for the presidency represents.

"There's not enough time to stop him and his hordes," one reader exclaimed in anguish.

Yes, well, we may have been caught flat-footed. Yet wisdom is the ability to recall in the midst of adversity that how you carry yourself, your character, is the true test.

That lesson was taught to a crowd of adults in a spectacular way by a young girl, and I was lucky enough to be in the audience. Here I recount the story, which I first told Pundita readers in April 2005.

Finish the Dance

"Dear Pundita, It's no problem if you publish this letter but we don't want to give our names or tell where we live, except it's okay to say we're in Asia. We are 19 and 22 and we have been married now less than a year against our families wishes so we had to run away and now we live and work in a big city where our families can't find us.

Even though you sound like a mean person we think you care about people. We can't believe you are American because you understand about the way people in other countries are. It is so true what you said [in "Waiting for Pasha" essay] about not wanting to take out the garbage.

Even though we try to have faith in God we don't want to have children. To bring them into this world where there is so much evil and corruption would be wrong. The older generation will never change. Sometimes we don't feel like going on.

Dear 19 and 22:

So. Our ancestors clawed their way out of the caves, fought behemoths with their bare hands; survived earthquakes, floods, volcanic eruptions, meteor showers and plagues -- all so their descendents could sit on the road and wail.

There are many Americans who understand people in other lands, for many Americans are well traveled and America is a land of immigrants. It's just that you might not know about those Americans, which is one of the nice things about the blogosphere; it allows ordinary Americans to circumvent the traditional media channels and speak directly to people in other lands.

This is a foreign policy blog, not a counselor's office, but we will make an exception this one time by way of a warning. This blog discusses very difficult subjects; we try to get to the bedrock of what's wrong with many things. The blog is not meant for young people, but for people who have lived long enough to be able to put bad things in context -- see them as part of the big picture.

The big picture is not one of corruption and evil, else humans would have killed each other off eons ago. But with every leap in technology or knowledge, some humans get the jump on the rest.

When that happens, adults must set things back in order. For that, we need to look squarely at situations, to see what we're really dealing with. That is not easy and it involves taking a critical stance.

You may think what you wish of your elders and you should take care to avoid their clutches, if you think they mean you harm. However, you must never let down your ancestors -- all those who came before. Do not sneer at their efforts, for there is nothing good in this modern world that they did not help create.

For that reason, find words of praise for elders and temper your criticism with a remembrance of their accomplishments. By thanking your elders on occasion, if only in your thoughts, you are remembering to thank all those who came before.

It is none of Pundita's business whether you choose to have children, but if you allow the bad in this world to overwhelm your thinking you forget that this is your time. There is no way to avoid suffering and grief, no way to avoid really bad things that are determined to visit. But you should remember those things are happening in your time. No one can own that time except you.

Being human is to make many unwise choices, but that is not all it means. Once, Pundita was a guest at a Bharata Natyam recital that took place in Bethesda in the state of Maryland. The Bharata Natyam is surely one of the most difficult dances that humanity has thought up; it's an accurate reflection of the very ancient and complex Indian culture.

Except for a handful in attendance, including Pundita, the audience was Indian. The recital was a graduation ceremony for Indian girls who had been studying Bharata Natyam for years -- some practicing since early childhood.

One girl riveted the audience's attention. She was beautiful, incredibly graceful, and for one so young she demonstrated surprising mastery of the dance.

For a moment I ask you to put yourself in that girl's place and also realize that the Indian culture is very conservative, very restrained. Think of yourself practicing for years to master a very difficult activity. Finally comes the time to demonstrate everything your teacher has taught you and make your parents and community proud.

Now ask yourself what might be the worst thing that could happen to you on that stage, with all eyes upon you.

Suddenly a murmur went through the audience. As the girl continued through the dance, something white showed at the bottom of her costume. The woman next to me gripped my arm and whispered, "Oh my God her pantaloons have come undone!"

Yes. The button or safety pin had given out. As the hapless child continued her dance the baggy underwear slowly continued their descent. A look of horror fleeted across the girl's face. The other dancers broke their stride a bit to glance in sympathy.

The girl's teacher raced to a stage wing and gestured, calling softly for the girl to come offstage so she could regain her dignity and her pantaloons. Everyone would have understood if she left momentarily under those awful circumstances.

A look of determination fleeted across the girl's face; within an instant the look was gone, replaced by the stylized expression of the goddess her dance was meant to represent.

Without missing a beat, and as the pantaloons continued their downward journey to twist around her ankles, the girl continued with her dance.

Even before the final triumphant stamp of her feet the audience was standing and clapping her on.

Only when all the other dancers took their bow did she abandon the role of the goddess her dance portrayed. She whisked off the pantaloons, scampered to her teacher's embrace, then disappeared backstage for pantaloon repair.

Then at the insistence of the other dancers, her teacher, parents, the musicians and the audience, the girl shyly returned to the stage to take a bow to thunderous ovation.

As the audience dispersed I heard an elderly man murmur, "It was as if Saraswati [the Hindu goddess of wisdom] appeared tonight to teach us all a lesson."

Goddess or no goddess, the lesson was abundantly clear. To be human means you can't avoid making a damn fool out of yourself, even if you're the best-looking and most accomplished of the lot. But you show the spark of that which transcends the human condition when you hang in there and finish your dance.

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