Another story about networking and allowing life to happen. Late last year, I spoke to a non-profit group and afterwards a nice Asian American guy named Richard Cheung, told me he liked my speech. He asked if I could speak in Pasadena next year. I said what I always say, "Let's see if I am a fit and if we can work out the schedule." The Mayor of Pasadena Terry Tornek asked me to keynote the 44th annual Mayor's Prayer Breakfast on May 4, 2017–on the national day of prayer. They wanted an ecumenical speaker on the the subject of compassion. I know why me? Not sure why either! Richard is a very generous person and he chairs an amazing organization called Friends In Deed, which helps the most vulnerable people including the homeless. What convinced me was the breakfast was a benefit for Friends In Deed. And I was transported into another world…..Anyway here are my remarks I prepared and delivered to the 600+ assembled.
I’d like to thank Richard Cheung and Friends In Deed for the extraordinary work they do, and thanks to Mayor Tornek for the invitation to be here, for your leadership, and vision for a better Pasadena. And thank you—all of you—for coming here today and spending your valuable time to be together; and to express our unity, connection to one another.
I’m here to be a little bit of a catalyst, a little bit of verbal caffeine, a little bit of a wake-up call, about things you already know, things that are already inside of you—things that we need to stir. My job today is just to shift your perspective a little bit, to consider again, how do we build a better community.
Isn’t it nice to just to stop and pause from the speed of life. And take a breath. Let's breathe.
Breathe in the mountain and breathe out flowers.
I think about my family and want them to know how grateful I am for their love and support. Sarah, Jenna, Malia, Bobby. In preparing these remarks, I thought of my grandparents when they came to this country with nothing but dreams of a better life, arrived on boats to work on the railroad and to work on the farms in the San Joaquin valley; to pursue the American Dream. I think about my parents, Rod and Tomi Kobara, who both passed away in the last two years, living very full lives achieving the American Dream. And 75 years ago, this week in northern California, they were rounded up by the government—because of Executive Order 9066 that declared all Japanese residents of the United States to be enemy aliens—and 120,000 other JA citizens were put into concentration camps. They were deprived of all their possessions, rights and opportunities for almost four years. Ironically, they emerged out of that process with a stronger desire to prove that they were Americans, to provide a better opportunity for me and my siblings. I’m inspired by my family every day, and the great sacrifices all our ancestors made for us to be here.
Proud of which the Japanese American community bonded with the American Muslim community, since 911, to prevent such a shameful part of our history from repeating itself. Today, more than ever, we ALL need to be part of this effort.
I think about Young Sook Kim, my mother-in-law, whom I never met, who escaped from North Korea to go to South Korea when she was a teenager yearning for freedom. She started doing the wash and feeding GIs during the Korean War, and ultimately married one of those GIs. She came to the United States and had to learn the language and culture and got her bachelors, masters and her PhD in anthropology and became a college professor—she embodies the American Dream. Her life inspires me. She died at the age of 48. Her legacy was to afford her two children, and her three grandchildren she never met, a better chance.
That’s all any of us are asking for, is a chance. An opportunity. A fair chance, and when that chance exists we have hope, but when that chance doesn’t exist, we lose hope. And when we lose hope, we lose everything.
We’re all losing hope. We are surrounded by an ocean of suffering and it is overwhelming. Each time we say: There’s only so much we can do–We lose hope. And we can think we are just drops in that ocean. We get used to it. The more comfortable we get, we become numb and disconnected from our fellow humans and our sense of humanity. An excerpt from a poem I wrote:
Why do you ask?
Comfort is nice
Good for you, but we need to talk
About what we should do
Now is a good time
Got plenty of that
Got plenty of those
I know what I want
But do I want what I know?
Why are we here?
Where are we going?
What difference can we make?
Endless unanswered questions
Does it matter?
Aren’t we comfortable?
But, we need to talk!
That's what we’re doing
So how do we comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable? How do we reinvigorate our sense of compassion? Because sympathy is arrogant, and empathy is always insufficient. How do we reinvigorate our compassion? For compassion comes from the root, passio or pati, which means “to suffer.” How do we suffer with others? That’s what compassion means. How do we suffer together? Mother Teresa says, “If we have no peace, it’s because we have forgotten we belong to one another.” And we have less peace, because we have forgotten a lot. We sit here politely and calmly, while the current state of our world is in crises, our communities are broken, people are suffering, the needs of others are out of control-we can feel helpless and hopeless. Even a generous and kind group like you, begin to think it is impossible to give and do more.
I am fascinated, energized, my optimism is renewed over our untapped potential, the possibilities within each one of us. Gandhi said, the difference between what we do and what we are capable of doing would suffice to solve the world's problems.
Kierkegaard called it our Sealed Orders; epigenetics, the new neuroscience, is studying our unexpressed DNA; Nikki Giovanni, the great poet says, “You know, we’re better than we think, but we’re not as good as we could be.” And Bonnie Ware, who studied the regrets of the dying, found the number one regret of people who were dying in hospice— I wish I had the courage to have lived a life that was true to me, and not a life that was the expectations of others.
A man named Dōgen came to Japan almost 800 years ago to teach Zen Buddhism. Zen Buddhism is about living the full life, the fully expressed life they call it the Supreme Meal. He wrote a book called, Instructions to the Cook. Literally the recipe for the Supreme Meal. The Supreme Meal is what we need to make every day, and every week and every month and every year, in our entire lives. The Supreme Meal is the best we can make with everything we have—and we have everything we need. We live in great abundance, and have every ingredient we need to make this Supreme Meal, and yet we fail to use all of our ingredients.
No matter our point of view, what side we sit on, we agree that the status quo is unacceptable. That the suffering around us is intolerable. We need a supreme meal of hope, equity, and opportunity. I am talking about using all of our ingredients: Our moral, spiritual, emotional, intellectual, and financial resources. Putting our full reputations, our social networks, our minds and hearts into the changes that are necessary. This is an All-In MOMENT. A moment to use everything we have.
My mother was a great painter. She painted 1,430 original art pieces during her lifetime. She started painting when she was 48 and painted all the way until her final year of life.
I asked for an art lesson; I asked her to teach me how to paint, and she laughed. In a knowing way, she said, “Oh John, I love the fact that you want to learn to paint, but you’re so busy, and you’re so important, at least that’s what you’ve told me. And it takes time to see before you can paint; and if you can’t see, there’s no way you can paint! And you don’t have time to see.” She finally agreed to give me a "seeing" lesson. She told me it would take at least three hours to see. She started asking me questions about these apples. And I couldn’t see the apples, I tell you, it was hours. And I finally saw the apples, and she mis-quoted Cezanne, “A time is coming when apples, freshly observed, will trigger a revolution.” Actually, he said, “A time is coming when a carrot freshly observed will trigger a revolution.”
And it did. I started to see things. I started to see myself and so much around me. We have so much more to see. We tend to focus on the path and where our feet are leading us, and the path becomes a path of dependency, of certainty. We don’t listen to our hearts. We miss the peripheral view, we miss what’s around us who’s around us, we miss what’s going on right now.
The challenge is in every moment and the time is always now. James Baldwin
So, I have been trying to shift your perspective, to help us think about who we are, and why we are here, and where we’re going. We’re the only species on the planet that gets to ask the question, What do I want to do? Who am I? No other species gets to do that. We must take advantage of this opportunity. How do we unseal our orders, express our DNA, become better than we are? And have the courage to live a life that is true to ourselves and to others.
We can never forget our ancestors who sacrificed for all of us.
How do we comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable?
The giant ocean of needs breaks our hearts, but we need our hearts to be broken open!
Open to our interconnectedness, inter-dependency. Open to our abundant possibilities.
While we sometimes feel like drops in the ocean, we realize we’re the entire ocean in every drop. (Rumi)
I know that what I am asking is impossible. But in our time, as in every time, the impossible is the least that one can demand — and one is, after all, emboldened by the spectacle of human history in general, and American Negro history in particular, for it testifies to nothing less than the perpetual achievement of the impossible. (James Baldwin)
So, we pause to breathe. Breathe in the mountain and breathe our flowers.
Breathe in your power and breathe out your kindness
So we can have peace. Because, Yes! Yes! Yes! We do belong to one another!
And once we can see, see this potential, it triggers a revolution. For we need, desperately need, your revolutions! We have every ingredient to make that Supreme Meal. That revolutionary meal. That meal of hope—together.
C’mon let’s join Mayor Tornek, Richard Cheung, Friends In Deed, so all of us can begin making and serving that Supreme Meal today!