The Yoruba people freely concede that “If we stand tall it is because we stand on the backs of those who came before us.”
Not everyone gets to start life from a position of advantage. The reality that some of us come into the world with more than our fair share of privilege and opportunity strikes me as inherently unjust. But if we are among those who have obtained benefit from those who came before us, the proper response is not to be ashamed or guilty about what we have received. I think the response is to acknowledge such help (as the Yoruba proverb implies) and then to stand tall, look around, and see how we are meant to use those gifts for the good of others.
Robert Kennedy said it well:
“We all owe our very existence to the knowledge and talent and effort of those who have gone before us. We have a solemn obligation to repay that debt in the coin in which it was given — to work to meet our responsibilities to that greater part of mankind which needs our assistance — to the deprived and the downtrodden, the insulted and injured.”
Earlier today, I had the pleasure of attending the debate of the leadership candidates for the Liberal Party of Canada. There were several moments of lively exchange but the most dramatic part came when one of the candidates confronted Justin Trudeau by suggesting that Trudeau couldn’t count himself among middle-class Canadians and therefore wouldn’t “understand the challenges facing real Canadians.”
To my delight, Trudeau’s spontaneous response was to acknowledge that he has received a great deal in life. He said “I’ve been lucky in my life to have been given an opportunity to go to grade school, to travel around the world…” But then he went on to emphasize his commitment to take what he has received and pass it on in service to the community.
To whom much is given, much is expected. We don’t have much choice in what we’re given. But recipients do have a choice in how to respond. Justin Trudeau understands this. True, he is the recipient of an important legacy. He could have used his privilege and public profile for purely selfish endeavours. Instead he chose to respond with a passion for public service that is heartfelt, genuine and contagious.
Trudeau’s transparency last week regarding his inheritance and his speaking fees showed a willingness to be vulnerable. I was reminded of how vulnerability is linked to courage when I re-viewed the amazing Brene Brown TED talk on the topic. In her talk, she refers to a speech by Theodore Roosevelt in 1910 when he said:
“It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.”
We should be glad that Justin Trudeau is actually in the arena. Canadians who want to build a better country should join him there.