When it comes to fatal diseases, Robert Massie is a triple threat, having survived hemophilia, HIV, and liver failure. Born with classical hemophilia, a painful disorder that causes repeating bleeding in the joints, he spent most of his childhood bound to leg braces and in wheelchairs. Where many would sink into self-pity and despair (and why not), his inherent spirit of curiosity and belief in the goodness of life focused him outwards toward a life of public service.
He graduated in history from Princeton (which is where I first met him as an amiable fellow scooting around campus in his electricized cart), and was later ordained as an Episcopal minister. After teaching children and working with the homeless in New York City, he attended Harvard Business School, where he earned a doctorate while serving a congregation in Somerville, Massachusetts. He wrote a prize-winning book on South African apartheid, led one of America’s most cutting-edge environmental groups, Ceres, ran for lieutenant governor in Massachusetts, and created the world’s leading standard for corporate sustainability. He did all of this in the face of enormous medical challenges.
Massie is a survivor. His story is a profile in courage, an affirmation of hope and a song of grace which he tells so eloquently in his book, “A Song in the Night: A Memoir of Resilience.” On the eve of its release, I was greeted by a man walking towards me somewhat stiffly, with streaks of gray in his hair and those unmistakable, clear blue caring eyes. I am delighted to share our conversation with you.
Brain World: You’ve participated in three spheres of engagement — religion, politics, and business. What are the similarities and differences you’ve found?
Robert Massie: I have had a fascination from early childhood with what I call the unity of life. How the same person travels across different experiences, which get put in a silo of some kind, but the person travels between silos. I’ve always tried to understand and explore the different kinds of communities that people create, particularly as they try to invent new things for the future. People in religious communities often seek to find meaning, to reach out to each other and to build a community based on some kind of shared language and shared understanding on how to live.
People in politics, a rougher business in some ways, want to see the future change. It’s also a community of people who share vocabulary and create friendships. Most of the political conventions I’ve been to have people coming together to see old friends, and what happens on the podium is an interesting additional story about someone getting nominated or some specific bylaws being passed.
Business is a complicated area, because you’re talking about everything from very small enterprise — where people have a creative impulse, where they desire to make a living in some way — all the way up to the huge multinational. Different cultures are associated with those different scales. One thing that’s always attracted me to business is that people in business often ask themselves, “What can we do about a particular problem?” And they can be incredibly creative. Sometimes not always as reflective as you might like, but they are action-oriented. They’re used to thinking about how to make change, how to fix something. Sometimes it’s how to create a product and sell it. You experience the positive energy. I sensed this in business schools. It actually surprised me. I thought business school would be a very competitive place with people squirreling away in corners trying to beat each other. Instead it was the most group-action, solution-oriented place I’d ever been.
BW: You’re very passionate about justice. You seem to have this ability to galvanize and activate people. How do you light the fire of others?
RM: I’ve always had a sense of how beautiful the world is or could be. I was filled with dismay when I discovered that the world was not, in some cases, headed in the right direction, or that people were mistreating each other. At a very basic level I was mystified by that, and so I have held out a dream, an aspiration, for what the world would be like if we truly cared for each other and cared for the planet. It may sound naive, but this is something that has animated me for a very long time. I think people are longing to feel hope about the future. Hope is the sense that even though we can’t see it yet, there are positive changes that can take place and lead to unexpected and wonderful outcomes. I’ve been filled with hope, even in the face of some of the medical problems I’ve experienced. And I think that by having hope myself, I’ve been able to communicate that to other people. I also find that people want to share their beliefs and dreams with each other and are often sad when that’s not part of their daily experience.
As for inspiring or galvanizing people, in some ways it’s taking out of that box where most people keep their dreams and aspirations, brushing them off a bit and holding them back up and saying, “Is this what you would like to see?” And people say, “Yes.” And then you say, “Well if we worked together and if we did this, we could; maybe we wouldn’t succeed in every way, but we could bring that into existence. Because it already exists in your heart, in your minds.”
In my personal life and on a larger scale, I have seen some truly remarkable things happen. The idea, when I was in college, for example, that South African apartheid would ever be ended, seemed remote. You had a brutal regime based on a particularly virulent and aggressive form of racism. That didn’t seem like it was going away. The Soviet Union was an oppressive society that crushed a lot of the spirit of freedom out of people. That didn’t seem like it was going away. Homophobia in the United States didn’t seem like it was going away. And yet, over time we have seen things resolve and melt away and become very different from the worlds that I remember.
That gives me hope to turn to the things that now seem insoluble and say, “Well I’ve been down this path, and it may have seemed impossible before, but then it came true, so maybe this thing that seems impossible today can also yield to change.” Hearing that conviction in others inspires me. I’m drawn to that. I think if people hear that in me and are drawn to that, it’s the same phenomenon.