Aung San Suu Kyi is 67 years old. She has won many of the world’s most prestigious awards, including the Nobel Peace Prize and the US Congressional Gold Medal. Yet it came at a terrible cost; she has endured multiple house arrests totalling nearly 15 years, during which time she was separated from her family, and was unable even to visit her husband before his death from cancer in 1999. Listening to David Stroud’s recent sermon at ChristChurch London on the power of story, after having heard her on Desert Island Discs that morning, I realised how Suu Kyi had been able to face the many hardships in her life with the courage, dignity and grace for which she is widely known: she understood the story she was living.
We are all given stories from birth – we’re born into the midst of them and the expectations of our parents, siblings and those around us start to tell us our stories long before we’re able to shape them for ourselves – but there comes a time when it becomes necessary for us to choose whether or not to pursue that story. Is this the story we want for our lives, or will we reject it and seek to rewrite it? The ‘good girl’ may choose to reject her role as ‘people pleaser’ and go off the rails; the ‘class clown’ may knuckle down to his studies and prove there’s more to him than just making people laugh; the ‘failure’ may seek counselling and come to a right understanding of his worth and capabilities. The political dissident may choose to remain on her path for the good of her country.
Kirsty Young, interviewing Suu Kyi on the radio, identified the fact that this story was one which had been given to Suu Kyi. Her father, Aung San, had led Burma to independence in 1947, though he didn’t live to see it, having been assassinated six months earlier. Suu Kyi was just two years old at the time, but her mother and those around her worked hard to maintain the story of her father for her. Asked about memories of him, she said “I don’t think [this is] a real memory, I think it’s a memory that has been kept alive artificially by my mother and others who would always remind me that whenever he came back from work he would pick me up … I was always told that he loved me best, and so this gave me tremendous confidence in life, that I was my father’s best-loved.”
Growing up in this story of the love of a great political and military leader, and being told repeatedly of his bravery and his love for his country, it is hardly surprising that Suu Kyi would follow in his footsteps, but no-one can live someone else’s story and stick with it with such dedication through house arrests, attacks and deprivations. Suu Kyi had to at some point embrace the story as her own, and her words show that she made a conscious decision to do that: “When people have chosen a certain path,” she told Kirsty Young, “they should walk it with satisfaction and not try to make it appear as a tremendous sacrifice.”
Almost everything she said demonstrated an understanding of what her story was, what it was about and how the influences in her life had combined to make her who she was and her story what it was. “My mother was very strict,” she related. “I thought at times that she was far too strict, but I have to say that when I was in a position of having to cope with things like prison I was very grateful to her for having brought me up in such a disciplined way.” And later, “She recognised when I was quite young that I tended to be a bit soft, and she made sure that I didn’t stay that way.” Understanding her story both formed and informed Suu Kyi’s actions, reactions and responses to her circumstances in a remarkable way.
So what is her story, and how does it measure up to David’s five characteristics of a great story?
In her words, Suu Kyi’s story is that she’s “[One of many people] trying to build up the foundations of a genuine working democracy.”
1) Does her story provide her with a sense of purpose?
2) Does her story value others?
Definitely – it was very clear that she was seeking the good of her people, and wanting to give them a better life.
3) Does her story set a standard for the way she lives?
Yes. She is dedicated, hard-working, studious, peaceful and dignified, all because of her story.
4) Does her story deal with disappointment, set back & failure?
15 years under house arrest, separated from her family? I should say so!
5) Does her story have the possibility of a hopeful ending?
Very much so. She may not live to see a democratic Burma, but she’s already beginning to see signs that they are “at the beginning of the road to democratisation.”
Your personal story may not have such global significance or carry so many dangers to your life and liberty, but to focus on ourselves is to miss the point. We’re living in God’s story, and when you chose to become a follower of Christ, part of that decision was a choice to step into that story and play your role in it. It is a story that doesn’t just have significance for a nation in a season, but that has significance for the whole of creation for all of eternity.
Understanding God’s story and your role in it enables you to understand the trials and setbacks you’re going through (think of Suu Kyi’s response to her mother’s strictness), and face them with dignity and courage. It enables you to embrace success with humility and failure with equanimity. It gives you a sense of purpose even though your daily life may feel mundane, and it gives you hope for the future.
Knowing your story – your role in God’s great story of love and salvation, and choosing to embrace it and walk in it, is a powerful thing. And while Aung San Suu Kyi has to rely on the strength of her story, her willpower and her personality alone, we have the added power of the Holy Spirit guiding and strengthening us. And whereas she is strengthened and encouraged by the memory of her father’s love for her, we have the daily experience of a far greater Father’s love forming and shaping our sense of value and purpose. A powerful story indeed.
Picture Credit: ‘Aung San Suu Kyi’ by geirf (Creative Commons)
This article first appeared on the ChristChurch London blog.