Last Tuesday night, my cousin invited me up to the beautiful Earlham College campus to attend a talk by Arn Chorn-Pond, a human rights leader and musician. Chorn-Pond, the subject of the documentary The Flute Player, was speaking as part of a lecture series sponsored in part by a lecture series endowed by my cousin in honor of his mother. I attended out of family obligation, then, but I left with a sense of humility and a need for reflection.
Chorn-Pond, whom I am embarrassed to admit I did not know of prior to the lecture, is a Cambodian who, as a child, was separated from his family and put in a work camp with hundreds of other children. After having been forced to take part in a number of killings (including those of family members), Arn was chosen, along with six other children, to learn to play revolutionary songs on the flute. The Khmer Rouge soldiers brought in an older musician to teach the children; after one week, they determined that the children had learned enough, so they killed the old man and some of the other students. Arn learned enough to play for the soldiers and, as a result, was one of fifty children to have survived the work camp.
Arn later escaped the soldiers and found his way to a refugee camp. He was eventually adopted by an American family, and moved to the United States. As an adult, he became a crusader for world peace and children's rights. In addition, upon returning to Cambodia, he discovered that 90% of the "traditional" musicians of his generation had been killed, and he began a project to gather and record the remaining musicians.
Now, that's a nice, brief biography that would make you like the guy, feel some respect for him. Watching him speak, however, I felt so much more. I hoped to write about him after the talk that night, but I couldn't find the words. Indeed, I've been at a loss ever since. I only write now because I don't want the moment to pass without my recognition of a moving moment. The problem is, everything I write comes out as a cliche.
It's like this: Arn moved the audience to tears as he struggled to talk about the wounds he still had as a victim of war, and he certainly made me feel for victims of violence. But, you know, I've felt that a million times before. It was more his ultimate response to the wounds that he still suffers that left me rather speechless. When the audience asked about different world conflicts, he ultimately kept reminding us that people are, at base, people, and they deserve to be loved. People "are cool," Arn told us. While acting as a warrior for human rights, Arn was able to express a love for other human beings despite having reason to hate them, or at least some of them. And that moved me. Made me think hard about the petty feelings I have on a daily basis.
But here's the best part: When asked about the problem of competition, Arn noted that "Americans always need to be number one. Being number two is no good. So people fight and hate while trying to be number one at sports, at war. Why not be number one at peace? Why not number one at peace?"
An oversimplified formula perhaps, but, indeed, why not?
Support Arn's work here.