Thanks for ‘Reaching Within to Embrace Humanity’; now build a world of ‘Peace Through Service’

By Kalyan Banerjee RI President

Closing Address to the RI Convention Bangkok, Thailand; 9 May 2012

RI President Kaylan Banerjee and RI President-elect Sakuji Tanaka
closing plenary session on 9 May at the 2012 RI Convention in Bangkok, Thailand.

Well, here we are, nearly at the end of this wonderful 103rd Rotary convention. You’ve all come here from every corner of the Rotary world, and from every time zone as well! You know, we talk a lot about how technology is making the world smaller these days, and how Rotary is more international than ever, but nothing brings those truths home quite like a Rotary convention!

Because nowhere in the world will you see quite as many educated, talented, intelligent people staring at their cell phones and counting on their fingers! It might look odd, but whenever I see that, I think, I know what you’re doing. You’re trying to figure out what time it is back home.

I’ve seen a lot of people doing that this week, and you’ve all had my full sympathies. After this year, I know exactly what it’s like to stumble off a plane after an ll-hour flight and jump straight into business! The clock on the wall says one thing, your watch says another, you’re trying to remember what the clock at home is saying, and your body clock says, I give up!

But the energy and excitement of this convention have carried us through. The days have passed all too quickly, as they always do, and soon, we’ll be packing up our bags and our hotel rooms, heading back to the airport, and heading back home – to our own families, and our own Rotary clubs.

And, of course, Binota and I will be heading home soon as well, in a month and a bit more, back to our home in India, to our own family, and to my own Rotary club at Vapi. This wonderful, incredible Rotary year will draw to a close, and a new Rotary year will begin.

I had mentioned on Sunday that it has been a year marked by much continuity and many changes. And we have been privileged to have been always supported by our aides, Julio and Carmen, by our entire family and been privileged to have worked with a very positive Board of Directors and rejuvenated and incredibly efficient Secretariat.

It’s difficult to find the words to express what this year has meant to me and to Binota. And I’ve spent a lot of time over the last few weeks trying to do just that – to find those words. How does one sum up, in a few minutes behind a microphone, the experience of a lifetime?

Well, as I was wrestling with this question, I decided to do what one should always do, when confronted with an intractable problem, at least if one is a married man – I asked my wife. And Binota made me a cup of Darjeeling tea and we sat down in the kitchen with a pencil and some paper and started to think it through. And as we talked, something caught my eye – a drawing she’d hung on the door of the refrigerator with a magnet. It was a lovely little drawing -of a mother and father and two children, flowers in the background, all of them smiling. And I said, that’s beautiful! Where did that come from? And Binota told me who had made it: our grandson Bodhi, who lives with his parents in Sydney, Australia.

I got up to have a closer look, and something struck me as familiar – not about the drawing, but about the paper. I took it off the refrigerator and turned it over, and saw that our son, an environmental engineer, must have been supplying our grandson with drawing paper ­because on the back of the picture was a page from a Rotary program book, the staples carefully removed.

Well, Binota and I had a good laugh over it, but you know, it made me think. Because it was obvious which side of that paper was the more important – and it wasn’t the side with my speech on it.

What’s important in Rotary isn’t what we say. It’s what we do, and who we are. And that’s what I’ve been talking about, all this time, when I’ve asked Rotarians to Reach Within to Embrace Humanity. I’ve asked you to start at the beginning – with yourselves, and with those closest to you – your families. Because if we’re really going to take it seriously, this idea of that we can change the world through Rotary, we all have to start by changing ourselves – by working on ourselves, by really thinking about everything we do and say – and making sure that our actions reflect the people that we want to be.

If we want a more peaceful world, we have to begin by living in peace ourselves first – in peace within ourselves, in our souls, and then, in our homes, and in our families.

In the 2012-13 Rotary year, President-elect Sakuji has asked us all to build Peace Through Service.

Now, this idea, of building peace through our Rotary service, is something that is so fundamental to us as Rotarians. And you know, it’s an idea that isn’t always that easy to explain to people who are not that familiar with Rotary. You could even say that it is an idea that is sometimes met with some raised eyebrows. Because here we are in Rotary and who are we? We are not prime ministers or presidents or army generals. Most of us do not wield any great political power; so how exactly are we going to achieve this lofty goal, of building peace?

Well, it’s a funny thing, you know, how people think about this whole idea of peace. Maybe you could even say that that’s one of the biggest obstacles to peace right there, that people don’t always understand what peace really is, or where it comes from, and, consequently, how we can get there.

Because people sometimes are very black and white in their thinking. The opposite of up is down. The opposite of sick is healthy. The opposite of bad is good, and the opposite of war is peace.

Except that the world isn’t like that. The opposite of bad isn’t always good, and the opposite of war isn’t always peace. Because peace isn’t something you can get to with an army or governments or treaties or any kind of force. Peace is not just an absence of war. It isn’t that simple, and it never has been.

You know, one time, a few months ago, I was on my way from the airport in Chicago to my office in Evanston, and I got into a taxicab with a driver from Pakistan – well, it seems like most of the taxicab drivers in Chicago are from Pakistan and India.

And I don’t think I need to tell you too much about how Indians and Pakistanis don’t always get along back home, but here we were, me and this fellow from Karachi, driving down the highway together, chatting away about the Midwestern winters and the best places to buy Indian sweets in Chicago. And I said something about how strange it was, how in that neighborhood where all the Indian sweets are, it is a neighborhood where you have Indians and Pakistanis and even a very large number of religious Jews all living together in a few square kilometers, and yet there is no terrorism, there are no hate crimes, you see everyone walking down the street together and shopping together, and somehow this is not bothering anybody! How come, I said, how come we can’t do this at home? In our own countries?

And when I asked that, the conversation stopped. And I thought, well, I must finally have said the wrong thing – but then, after a silence that was probably not nearly as long as it seemed, he said, well, I think the answer is that this is a place where you don’t have to fight. Here, people just want to enjoy their lives.

And I thought, you know, really, that’s what peace is. The ability to enjoy your life. Living in peace means that you can wake up in the morning at home with your family, do your job during the day, have your family together again at night, go to sleep without having to worry about whether there will be shooting on the roads tomorrow, or whether you will be able to walk to the market in the morning, or which child will not go to school because you need her to carry the water from the village pond.

My brothers and sisters, that- that is when we get peace, when people are able to live their lives, to enjoy their lives, when they don’t have to fight just to survive. When people help each other because it’s the right thing to do. When people who need help are able to find it, and don’t have to struggle alone.

And that is what we are able to do through Rotary. We are able to go to the places where people are struggling just to survive, and we do what we can to help them struggle a bit less. And whether that means clean water and better sanitation, or setting up more and bigger schools, or just speaking a kind word, or giving a helping hand, we are indeed building peace.

My friends, Rotary builds peace. Not with armies, not with treaties, not with debates or elections or governments. Rotary builds peace in a much more real, much more practical way – day by day, individual by individual, with every act of service by every single Rotarian.

And we have helped to build peace through our single largest and most significant project:

PolioPlus. It started out as an incredibly ambitious dream – ambitious, but we now know, realistic. Today, there is no longer any question of whether we will eradicate polio; the only question is how soon it will happen.

The day that India was declared polio-free, just a few months ago, I could only think of that famous line of Mahatma Gandhi, who said, “First they ignore you, then they laugh at you, then they fight you, then you win.”

But for us, in Rotary, that isn’t quite right. For us, it’s been more a matter of, “First they ignore you, then they laugh at you, then they tell you it’s impossible and you should just give up. Then, when you don’t give up, they join you. And then, you all win, together.”

We’ve come a long way, and we’ve learned a great deal, since we first decided that we would eradicate polio. And I could stand here and talk for a long time about all those lessons, about cooperation, about building bridges, about unintended consequences. But if I could summarize everything we have learned since those early days of PolioPlus, so many years ago now – if I were asked to give one rule, one direction for success – I would be able to do it in only three words:

Because we never gave up, countless children are alive today, healthy, walking and thriving, all over the world. And because we never gave up, India is now polio-free.

And because we never will give up – no matter what – my brothers and sisters, we will eradicate polio and we are “This Close” to a polio-free world.

PolioPlus is both Rotary’s greatest achievement, and the best argument yet that we can achieve a more peaceful world through service. Because no one could ever say that we are eradicating polio alone. We are doing it through cooperation, through trust, through partnerships around the world – building connections and bridges among individuals and organizations, no matter how diverse their backgrounds and goals – all of them united in the goal of a world free of polio.

PolioPlus demonstrates, it proves without a doubt, that no matter what their differences, no matter what their disagreements, people can put them aside. They can come together, talk and plan and work together, when they have a common goal. When that goal is simple and pure and benefits everyone, people can look past even their most deeply held grudges and arguments, and do what needs to be done. When we take people out of the roles that they are used to, when we say, this is a place where we are all equal and we are all in it together, and when everyone around them is taking that attitude as well – my friends, you see everything change. This is what I have seen happen through PolioPlus, and I can tell you that as my optimism about polio eradication has grown, so has my optimism about humanity itself.

So when we are talking about cultivating peace through Rotary – and my brothers and sisters, we must be talking about this – we have got to understand what it is that we are doing. In Rotary, peace is not an empty word or concept. It isn’t some Platonic ideal that we don’t expect ever to achieve. It’s not abstract in any way. It is real, and we are helping to achieve it, in every one of our clubs, through everyone of our projects, in every corner of the world where a Rotarian serves.

Finally, let me ask you a question? What does each one of us seek in life? I bet the word is happiness. Now let me ask you: Could Rotary be the source of that happiness?

The law of duality affects human lives, yours and mine. Where there is joy, there is sorrow; with positive we see negative; with heat there is cold; with light there is darkness – yes, with love there is hatred. Only if we could find a balance, we could probably seek the emotional situation that we call happiness. I submit that this equilibrium is present within each one of us. As a well­known Sufi poet and scholar in the 13th century had said, “Inside me there is good news. Others look for good news outside themselves.”

There dwells within you the power and the spirit that can evoke the energy that you may not realize. You have to reach that inner voice and you can do so, provided you have the hunger for it. You have to be hungry enough to reach within and release the energy which will help you embrace humanity. I believe this is the state we call happiness. And I have just given you the prescription for it. Rotary can help you achieve the happiness in life that you seek.

In India, we have a saying which gives a sage advice on life. In Hindi it goes like this: Jab tu Aayo is Jag may, Jag Hase; tu Roye, Kar Kami Aisi, Ki jab tu Jaye is Jagse, tu Hase, Aur Jag Roye.

Freely translated, it means: When you came into this world, the world rejoiced and you cried. Live your life such that when you leave the world, the world may cry while you rejoice.

Today, as I end, let me just alter that a bit to say, We have had a great time together. Let us all rejoice and be happy.

My fellow changemakers, my brothers and sisters, Binota and I thank you all, from the bottom of our hearts, for Reaching Within to Embrace Humanity. And we ask you now to embrace your families, embrace your neighbors, your communities, and indeed, embrace all humanity – and help build a world of Peace Through Service. 

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