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‘It can be beautiful’: Kon Karapanagiotidis on Martin Luther King, Jr.’s Strength to Love

Read Wednesday, 24 Feb 2016

Kon Karapanagiotidis – founder of the Asylum Seeker Resource Centre – shares his story of the book that encouraged him to recognise that compassion and idealism are ‘wondrous and beautiful things’: Martin Luther King, Jr.’s Strength to Love.

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The book that changed my life? It was a tough choice between Tony Abbott’s Battlelines and the book I came up with, written in 1961: Strength to Love by Martin Luther King, Jr. I came across this book when I was 14 years old.

I’m going to share a few passages, then talk about what they mean to me:

We must make a choice. Will we continue to march to the drumbeat of conformity and respectability, or will we, listening to the beat of a more distant drum, move to its echoing sounds? Will we march only to the music of time, or will we, risking criticism and abuse, march to the soul saving music of eternity? 

More than ever before, we are today challenged by the words of yesterday, ‘Be not conformed to this world: but be transformed by the renewing of your mind.’

The ultimate measure of a man [and a woman] is not where he stands in moments of comfort and convenience, but where he stands in times of challenge and controversy. The true neighbour will risk his position, his prestige and even his life for the welfare of others. In dangerous valleys and hazardous pathways, he will lift a bruised and beaten brother to a higher and more noble life.

And it’s this paragraph that most stays with 14-year-old me and 43-year-old me:

Hatred and bitterness can never cure the disease of fear; only love can do that.  Hatred paralyses life; love releases it.  Hatred confuses life; love harmonises it.  Hatred darkens life; love illumines it.

Image: Kon Karapanagiotidis, circa 1985

I came across this book as a 14-year-old going to one of the shittest public schools in Melbourne, coming from a racist little country town. This book didn’t just change my life, but kind of saved my life. There I was, 14-year-old me, as hairy as a Yeti (I had a film crew from National Geographic following me and going, ‘We have found him’). This book found me at a time when I was in such a deep and dark space: zero to 14 was basically captured in a series of moments of being told to ‘eff off’ and to go back where I came from, being bullied on a daily basis and just not fitting in anywhere. I wanted the world to just swallow me whole. I would look at myself when I’d come home and go, ‘You are a worthless, unlovable human being’. I would hide in the library at lunchtimes because I was scared of being bullied, or scared of just walking around the schoolyard where no one would look at me, or talk to me, or smile at me. God knows, no girl would ever do that.

I felt so lost, and I was so desperate to fit in. And I kept asking myself, ‘Why are you making it so hard on yourself? Why don’t you shut up, and smile at the stupid things that you’re hearing? Be racist, sexist, mock the strange kids that don’t fit in.’ But I didn’t have the nerve, because I kept looking at those kids and thinking, ‘that is me’.

And I hated myself. God, I hated myself. I couldn’t fathom the idea that I could ever experience love. And I was so desperate to conform. And I find this book – 14-year-old me finds this book – and here’s a man saying that the greatest and most beautiful thing you can do is honour your integrity, your inner voice, and your spirit, and that the most magical and beautiful thing you can do is never compromise who you are. And instead of being this fragile, shameful thing, [your inner voice is] this extraordinary, unspoken thing of beauty, of power, of possibility. Here was a book, and a man, telling me that caring about the world, even at that tender age, aching at the world, and seeing that injustice – because when I would see it, I would see myself in that – was a thing to aspire to.

When teachers would tell me at 15 that I should drop out of school because I would amount to nothing – I would be nothing, and I could give nothing to this world – I would go back to that book and remember that maybe there was something greater.

I remember everything that people were telling me – that if I could get rid of that fire in that belly, and give up that idealism, that precious of fitting in would be given to me, and washed away would be all that insecurity and fragility and vulnerability. What this book taught is that the vulnerability is the most beautiful thing. And it saved me, because I couldn’t see a way out. And to be honest with you, I struggled with that feeling through my 20s and got to my 30s and thought: enough. At 18, what saved me was taking all of that passion and giving it to the community. If I’m really uncomfortably honest with you, it was a result of me realising that if I couldn’t have the world love me, then maybe if I gave love back, at least I was meeting it halfway. And maybe I could take all of that hurt and all of that anger and that hatred that was consuming me and maybe I could do something beautiful with it. Maybe I could lead with love. Maybe all of that ugliness was in fact not ugly but transformative, was powerful, was magical, was beautiful.

And that’s what I did at 18. I just went out there and found people who had nothing. At uni, I still couldn’t make sense of things, but there I was, working with homeless men at 18 years of age – and these men would welcome me into their bosom like I was their first born. And I thought, ‘I have finally found my place’ – a place I belong and a place I make sense.

Image: Kon Karapanagiotidis at the opening of the Asylum Seeker Resource Centre in 2001

At 28, I started the Asylum Seeker Resource Centre, a year after losing my father. This book inspired me to dream, inspired me at 28 to set up a refugee organisation with a group of students, and inspired me to believe we could change the world. This book, 15 years later, keeps inspiring me. It keeps pushing me to know that it’s a wondrous and beautiful thing to be compassionate, and to be idealistic – to look at the world and see it as something awful and go, ‘It can be beautiful’, then make the daily ritual and commitment that we’re going to transform it so. That’s what this book meant to me, and did for me. It’s a beautiful thing to always hold on to who you are. It’s a wonderful thing to be idealistic.

Martin Luther King was a man at the time of segregation, in the shadow of slavery, sitting there and imagining his four daughters free and equal. And I thought, ‘How could a man have such an imagination?’ He lost his life for such an imagination, for such a vision. But if you’re not risking it, and if you’re not standing for something, then what the hell are you doing?

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