As Daw Aung San Suu Kyi entered the doors of the Timothy Dwight college dining hall, the commotion in the room dwindled to a hushed whisper. All eyes were glued on her as she walked briskly towards the head table with Master Jeffrey Brenzel, smiling broadly, eyes glowing.
As one of the lucky few to have been able to secure a spot at the Chubb Fellowship dinner on Wednesday night, I didn’t quite know what to expect. There she was, standing barely 30 feet away from me, and yet I felt as if she had just walked out of a photograph.
My heart almost stopped when she left her seat and began to visit each table, shaking students’ hands and conversing with each of them. She was inquiring, laughing, looking like she genuinely enjoyed talking to the students, who in turn seemed nervous and starstruck. I frantically thought of what I would say to her when she came to my table. Should I address her as Daw Suu, or is that too informal? How should I introduce myself?
In the end, she stopped short before she reached my table, causing a collective groan of disappointment from those around me. Secretly, though, I felt a tinge of relief. It would almost be too much of a shock to actually meet her, to hear her voice without the amplification of a microphone, to see her eyes looking into mine.
For me, the name Aung San Suu Kyi had not referred to an actual, living human being of flesh and blood. Rather, it denoted a set of notions and ideals that were too broad and weighty for any single person to carry: Freedom. Democracy. Peace. Love. Tolerance.
It is precisely the vagueness of these terms that gives them their appeal. When we become accustomed to throwing them into a bundle to describe someone, each of these words begin to lose its individual meaning. Instead, all they manage to evoke in us is a sense of approval, a sense of goodness.
A friend jokingly told me after the Chubb dinner that three living people possess moral authority equivalent to that of Jesus Christ: Nelson Mandela, the Dalai Lama and Aung San Suu Kyi. The statement is of course an exaggeration, but it is indicative of how these people are so widely regarded and venerated. They are seen almost as living saints.
While it goes without saying that each of these figures deserves our utmost respect, I am hesitant to place them on an unreachable pedestal. To idolatrize or worship them is also to depersonalize them in a way that implicitly denies in each one of us our individual capacity for moral strength.
In her talks on Wednesday and Thursday, Suu Kyi deliberately downplayed the personal suffering she underwent in the past 20 years. House arrest did not compare to the agony of prison her colleagues went through, she repeatedly emphasized. When she told us, “They put me under six more years of house arrest,” her tone was so calm and casual that she might have been saying, “They invited me to tea.”
How can she take her loss of liberty so lightly? What about the pain of watching her countrymen suffer and yet feel powerless to help? What about being separated from her family, even during the last moments of her husband’s life?
Make no mistake; Suu Kyi’s suffering was immense. Her perseverance, against all odds, testifies to her extraordinary courage and character.
By downplaying her individual calamity, Suu Kyi is making a point. “I don’t understand it when people ask me how I go on, how I don’t quit,” she said at the dinner. “It is not difficult to do the right thing. How could I not do the right thing? How could I leave my colleagues and simply give up?”
The danger of worshipping our heroes is that, by doing so, we are implicitly admitting that we are incapable of what they have done and that we rely upon them to take us to the promised land. Suu Kyi rejects that idea. She reminds us that she is also mortal; she, like you or me, is a normal human being. She is challenging all of us to do the right thing, simply because we can and should.
Under adverse circumstances, Aung San Suu Kyi held true to her beliefs and became the Aung San Suu Kyi we respect so highly. There is an Aung San Suu Kyi in each of us as well, and we must strive to realize her.
Xiuyi Zheng is a junior in Davenport College. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.