Following the Beat of Life
Learning Life’s Lessons from Profiles in Service
Two years ago, I postponed my decision to enter the “real world” by turning down a corporate job offer and coming to MIT for graduate studies instead.
Now, I am graduating again, and about to participate in what will probably be my last Commencement. But this time, although I can’t describe to you what my next job will be about, I know with confidence what my life will be about.
This past semester, I made full use of my stay at MIT and the general Boston area, which attract a wealth of resources, including profoundly intelligent and inspiring people. I embraced as many opportunities as possible to listen to what they have to say, these people who have devoted their lives to public service, from a United Nations official to revolutionary leaders from other parts of the world. What are their perspectives, having so much more experience and wisdom than myself?
I asked one woman, a former senior engineer who worked at TRW, point-blank: What would you say to graduating engineers and scientists about their career choices and how they would affect positive social change?
Looking back, I think each person answered this question indirectly with their life’s work. In February, Father Roy Bourgeois spoke at MIT, detailing his life from an U.S. serviceman during the Vietnam War to becoming a Maryknoll priest working with the poor in South America, who were constantly threatened by their military governments trained and armed by the United States. He witnessed daily crimes such as assassinations and massacres committed by graduates of the School of the Americas, based in Fort Benning, Georgia, before he was deported from Bolivia for siding with the people. Since then, he founded the School of the Americas Watch and is spending his time and energy educating Americans about the millions of taxpayer dollars that is being spent on training Latin American soldiers to victimize their own citizens. The SOA manual, released by the Pentagon, revealed strategies to target labor organizers and teachers, techniques of interrogation including torture and arrest of relatives, and other tactics violating human rights.
In March, Howard Lyman came to MIT to tell his story about how he transformed from a millionaire cattle ranger in Texas to a vegan, and how he changed from someone who had caused more suffering for animals than everyone in the room combined to the target of a lawsuit when he spoke about the disgusting secrets of factory farming on the Oprah Winfrey show. After a one-in-a-million chance surgery to his spine, he vowed on his life to tell others of his personal experience as an insider in the meat industry.
The day after, Vandana Shiva spoke in a Boston church and then at MIT, about the dangers people in India and the rest of the world are facing with uncontrolled genetically engineered foods, pushed onto people by corporate interests. She has a Ph.D. in particle physics, but has dedicated her life to defending farmers, street vendors, and others from the ill effects of the profit-making motives that are eroding the livelihoods of people. Her group recently won a court case in India overturning a U.S. company’s patent on a plant that was part of the Indian indigenous culture for many centuries.
Two activists from the Revolutionary Association of Women of Afghanistan, Sajeda Hayat and Sehar Saba, came to speak at MIT in April about the murders and oppression of women and dissidents in Afghanistan under the brutal Taliban rule. At just 20 and 26 years of age, they have already endured much hardship, have been forced to live underground, and are now putting their lives in the direct danger in order to mobilize support and fight against a military government that is terrorizing its own people.
And in May, just before his Congressional testimony, Hans von Sponeck spoke at Harvard about why he ended his 32-year career with the United Nations. Fact after fact, he explained his reasons for resigning his post as the U.N. Humanitarian Coordinator and the head of the “Oil for Food” program. In the end, he could not live with the death and suffering the comprehensive sanctions were imposing on innocent Iraqi civilians, in direct contradiction to the founding charter of the U.N. and numerous international human rights declarations and treaties. The genocide that purposely targets civilians and has claimed over 1.7 million lives over the past ten years of U.N. sanctions is in fact opposed by many countries, but is continued because of U.S. and British foreign policy insistence and their veto power within the Security Council to block the repeal of the sanctions.
Although they come from different background and different countries, although they work on different issues using different strategies, they all share a common thread. Perhaps Dr. Nira Schwartz, the senior engineer who blew the whistle on the fraudulent results TRW was producing to back the dysfunctional Star Wars missile defense program and was then subsequently dismissed from the company, described that connection most succinctly. Responding to my question about career choices, she said after a panel discussion at MIT: “Follow your heart; and whatever you do, always tell the truth.”
Indeed, these people and many others, from City of Cambridge Peace Commissioner Cathy Hoffman to Bikes Not Bombs founder Carl Kurz, are doing just that -- living life according to their own ideals, and speaking the truth to power. In the struggle for justice, they prioritize the welfare of all living beings first. While some planned their lives to fulfill their human ideals, others realized them along the way and changed directions. To the graduating class, I humbly ask you to listen for the beat of life: When you hear it, then follow it, speak it, act it, live it.
Felix AuYeung is graduating with a Master of Science degree from the Department of Mechanical Engineering.