She says that took a while: "I'm not a saint! It energizes you to act, right? So that's a good thing. And then the question is, How do you act? How do you channel that energy constructively?" In her view, especially when you're dealing with someone more powerful than you, "fighting back may get you into a paralyzing situation. If you use that energy against yourself—if you blame yourself—that's also paralyzing."
What saved Lani Guinier when she was marooned in her ordeal? "I did not feel that I had lost face. I never, ever considered repudiating what I had written or claiming that I didn't mean what I said. I felt that people had misinterpreted what I said. But it never occurred to me to go back and look at those articles that got me into so much trouble and rue the day I had written them. Or regret that I had said what I said. I believed in what I was saying, you know, as a theory or as an idea. I thought I was putting forward valid ideas, and I did not distance myself from them."
This commitment to integrity endows Guinier with tremendous personal power and seems at the heart of her capacity to hold an audience rapt and receptive. That day at Bard College, she invoked Howard Thurman, the theologian and educator whose work was the origin of much of the civil rights movement's nonviolent philosophy. "He said, don't just ask what the world needs. Ask what makes you come alive and then go and do it, because what the world needs is people who have come alive." She continued: "And in fact, in 1993, through that experience of failure, I learned what made me come alive, I learned who I really was, I learned what I really stood for, I learned what was most meaningful to me...I learned that however much I was suffering from the public humiliation that I experienced, there were many people in this country who had suffered much more every day than I had."
When she finished her talk, looked up, and smiled at us, she received a long ovation. Many in the audience were wiping away tears—an unusual display by college graduates who are so often exhorted to Do It and Make It, and implicitly urged to feel powerful rather than compassionate, to value quantifiable achievements over exploration and openness.
Perhaps we have a profound need to hear of the failures of the people we admire. They bring us relief and inspiration, and suggest to us that the story of our own losses can also be the story of our triumphs. And it seems to me that what stirred so many of us in Lani Guinier's audience was the sense that she had earned the right to speak not only of her own experiences but also of the community we all share, and to remind us of bigger stakes and deeper hope.
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