Some years ago, when I lived in Los Angeles as an undergraduate student, a deacon whom I knew well gave a deeply personal sermonette about his own tortured relationship with his father, at the end of which he played the song “Dance With My Father.” Luther Vandross was a diva of a romantic balladeer, who remained deeply private, with good reason, about his personal life. Like my own father, he died young, in his 50’s, from a heart attack after a stroke, having suffered problems with diabetes and controlling his weight, problems which tend to run in families. The friend of mine who seemed to share a great deal with Luther Vandross, besides musical tastes, also died in his 50’s as well, of complications from colon cancer.
This evening I had the chance to watch the film “The Lady,” about the political career of Aung San Suu Kyi, an Oxford housewife of one Dr. Michael Aris, who took the mantle of her assassinated father and became the Nobel Prize-winning voice of democracy for her troubled people. I have, of course, written rather scathingly about Aung San, her father, which was deserved given that his support of democracy seemed to be rather utilitarian in nature . To put it charitably, Aung San believed that the only way to preserve a unitary Burmese state controlled by the Burmese in peace and harmony would be to grant democracy, including a great deal of local autonomy to minority peoples. I happen to believe that this is the only way Burma can prosper as a state, but I also see that this may not be enough, given the intractable conflicts even between minority peoples that democracy would not be able to solve, like the problems with the Rohingya .
It is sad that Aung San Suu Kyi’s life was in essence determined in large part by her being the daughter of one of Burma’s foremost independence heroes, who was gunned down in cold blood as the nation’s leaders postured in the period leading up to Burma’s independence. Her own native dignity and immense physical and moral courage, combined with her pedigree, made her just about the only person who could unify the many complicated strands of Burmese nationalism, including the support of liberals who seek greater freedoms, monks who support Burma’s traditional Buddhist culture (which her father was very supportive of), Burmese nationalists, and minority peoples who want greater autonomy. In large part, these desires and longings appear to be impossible to meet, unless there is a genuine American style federal model or Swiss style canton democracy in the offing, and that seems unlikely.
The same forces of fear that led her father to be gunned down led the military government to put her under house arrest for many years, to deny her the chance to see her dying husband unless she left Burma never to return. It caused her estrangement from her family and years of loneliness and isolation. This is the same sort of fear that led my friend and a singer he greatly admired, Luther Vandross, to live lives that were at least partially at odds with their deepest longings, in the fear that they could not preserve their reputation and careers and dignity if the truth were known.
Fear is a terrible thing, and yet many of us, and not just Aung San Suu Kyi deal with that as a part of our family legacy and our ancestral heritage. It is a rare person that is able to wrestle with their heritage come to terms with it without embitterment, but with an acceptance that others may not have done good enough, even if it was the best they can, and that people will expect a dutiful child to shoulder the burdens and fight the struggles of their fathers before them. Hopefully we are all able to shoulder that burden with nobility and courage.