Wednesday, February 2, 2011

What can you do when life happens?

By Bob Gaydos
“Life is what happens to you while you’re busy making other plans,” John Lennon famously, and ironically, wrote. You’re driving along on cruise control, daydreaming about the future and wham! Suddenly you’re in a Coen Brothers movie.
If only you had turned left instead of right. If only that idiot hadn’t run the red light. If the klutz had jumped over you instead of landing on your ankle.
Life happened to Hosni Mubarak last week as he was, perhaps, contemplating whether to remain as president of Egypt a few more years or pass the job on to his son, what with elections in his country being foregone conclusions. Suddenly, hundreds of thousands of Egyptians were in the streets demanding that Mubarak resign. Three decades of autocratic rule apparently was enough. That, plus the lack of any meaningful work for young people in the onetime jewel of the Arab world.
Mubarak could be excused for not seeing this revolt coming because neither he nor any other Arab leader has spent much time paying attention to Tunisia, a poor neighbor to the west of Egypt, with an even more repressive leader and even fewer job opportunities for young people. What happened in Tunisia is the stuff of grand movies, and history.
One afternoon, a young man who helped support his family by peddling fruit was stopped by a female government inspector and asked for his license. Not having one, he offered to pay the $7 fine (a day’s earnings) if he could go on selling fruit. This was not an uncommon practice. The inspector not only said no, she reportedly spit on him, slapped him in the face and confiscated his fruit cart. Angry and humiliated, he went to government offices to appeal his treatment. No one would see him.
So the next day he returned to the street in front of the government offices and set himself on fire. With his death in the hospital, a martyr was born. Huge mobs took to the streets protesting against the government. Tunisian President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali was forced to flee the country. Egyptians followed it all on television and the Internet. Heck, if Tunisians could do it, why not Egyptians?
Indeed, with the nascent government in Iraq being the only semblance of democratic rule in the Arab world, why not Jordan or Yemen or Libya or Syria or …
And so, life also happened last week to Barack Obama, on the other side of the world and trying to figure out how to create jobs and revive the economy of the United States, the most powerful nation on the planet, which had plunged into a recession because everyone was too busy planning their retirement homes while banks were selling worthless mortgages. Suddenly, everything our president knew about the Middle East was meaningless because Arab citizens had never risen up so boldly against their repressive governments. Seeking stability through support of dictators has been SOP forever for the State Department, even though it backfired in Iran, a Persian, but Muslim, country. The downfall of the shah caught Jimmy Carter looking elsewhere.
And now everyone it seems has advice for Obama on what to say, what to do about Egypt, even though there is no history for this set of circumstances. “Does he want to be seen as the president who lost Egypt?” a talking blonde head asked on (of course) Fox News, while the rest of the world was still trying to make sense of what was happening and hoping things wouldn’t turn violent. Already producing talking points for the ill-informed opposition.
Somehow, I don’t think that’s the primary question on Obama’s mind right now. Of course he doesn’t want to “lose” Egypt. Nor does he want other Arab nations to fall under the control of militant Islamists. But he has to figure out exactly what he and leaders of other free nations can actually do to have a positive influence on events in Egypt and the rest of the Middle East.
That klutz in the second paragraph landed on my right ankle. Shattered it. Touch football. I was 35, athletic, divorced and out of work. Not a care in the world. Two operations and a right leg a tad shorter than the left later, I long ago stopped dreaming about running. No tennis, basketball or baseball, at least not in any competitive sense. I eventually got another job and, later, a wife and two sons. Life happened in ways I had not planned. Along the way, a friend introduced me to a prayer (I confess I am not a religious person) that I see as the companion piece to Lennon’s line (and it’s even more famous): “God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change; courage to change the things I can; and wisdom to know the difference.”
I eventually got Reinhold Niebuhr’s drift: Don’t get all worked up over stuff you can’t do anything about. Life happens. You can fuss for awhile, but focus on doing the best with what you can control; that’s where the rewards are. For me, that meant doing a lot of coaching of my sons from the time they were big enough to swing a bat or throw a ball. I could still move well enough for that and it was loads of fun for a lot of years. They turned out pretty good, too.
As I see it, Obama needs the wisdom part in this crisis. He can’t control what happens on the streets in Cairo or any other Arab nation. What he can do is speak forcefully and eloquently, in public to the world and in private to Mubarak et al, about what the United States of America stands for and hopes for and will support in any country whose people want it: freedom, human rights, dignity, opportunity, equality and justice for each and every citizen.
That message always has and always will resonate around the world. And it will survive even a fruit peddler being slapped by a bureaucrat in Tunisia.

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