24 September 2020

Why We Care - 24 September 2020

Rey Naval and I worked together in the United Nations Department of Global Communications; he once remarked to me that he had joined the United Nations the day the General Assembly decided, in 1981, to establish an International Day of Peace. His warmth, and ever readiness to help, were true to that pedigree and it was only after celebrating the Day on Monday that, the very next morning, he passed peacefully away. When the news reached me, I thought immediately of a song I had heard the day before.

Sometimes we forget
Trying to be so strong
In this world of right and wrong
All that matters when we're gone
All that mattered all along
All we have that carries on
Is how we love”

With that final stanza to  “How We Love”, Beth Nielsen Chapman joined in a global and virtual curtain call to the concert she orchestrated for UNAI on the International Day of Peace , proclaimed as a result of an initiative taken by the International Association of University Presidents” (IAUP) at its triennial conference in Costa Rica in 1981.

We were fortunate to have the current IAUP President, Kakha Shengelia, speak at the concert; the impetus for the Day came from one of his eminent predecessors, Young-seek Choue , who once remarked, in phrase so evocative of Beth’s lines , that “we come to this world empty-handed , live briefly, and leave this world empty-handed again.” At this point in time in 2020, when every act of life and living, of giving and of receiving , can prove  a co-morbidity , thoughts of legacy inevitably surface in our brief flirtation with, in another Beth phrase, this life that is lent to us.

In its 75 years, the United Nations has finessed several phrases and concepts that translate to the “love” among peoples  it has never been comfortable to express (an impersonal variant of the concept did creep into article 4 of the Charter with its reference to “peace-loving states”). But we have been diffident to fully explore a premise central to our being, one it took Dag Hammarskjöld (whose death anniversary we mourned a week ago)to articulate , that “when  Love has matured and, through a dissolution of the self into light, become a radiance, then shall the Lover be liberated from dependence upon the Beloved, and the Beloved also be made perfect by being liberated from the Lover.”

Carrying that metaphor into Beth’s world of right and wrong , and the United Nations and global scholarship today, we are enriched by the possibility of a caring organization, and a caring community, not depending for its reason by those it seeks to serve but , having served them, remaining  as near a perfection as those who have been served can aspire to. In a simple word, solidarity that, ever more now, unites the possessed and the dispossessed. In Antonio Guterres’s phrase at the United Nations General Assembly this week “every day, the grim toll grows, families grieve, societies stagger, and the pillars of our world wobble on already shaky footings. In an interconnected world, it is time to recognize a simple truth: solidarity is self-interest.”

Which returns to Hammarskjöld’s image of love as self-interest, uniting the liberator with the liberated, dependence with selfhood. American astronaut Leland Melvin, who spoke at the concert, once recalled how a fellow space traveller nearly aborted a mission by rushing to help a fellow crew member don his gear before attending to his own , a lesson all of us who have flown  at far less stratospheric heights have learned in the injunction on airplanes to put on our own masks before assisting others to place their own, advice compelling literally as much as figuratively today.

The gentle evening of the International Day of Peace brought a WhatsApped picture from a friend on the western fringes of the easternmost tip of the United States, reproduced above. Gazing upon it I realised that, though the setting sun may not have been the shining one of which Beth sang in “This Life That’s Lent to You” , nor the sky the shade of endless blue her melody brought to life, it was still that same single sun , and that same single sky, that protects and shelters us all, no matter the time of day, what we look back upon , what we look forward to , however we wage peace, however we protect and preserve, and, yes, however we love.


Ramu Damodaran
Chief, United Nations Academic Impact