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In a world fraught with upheaval, uncertainty, and looming threats on every side, both leaders and ordinary citizens are desperately seeking wisdom, guidance, and hope for the path ahead. Isreali President Shimon Peres, the last of the living founders of the modern state of Israel has acquired plenty of all three in a consequential life of public service spanning nearly seven decades. As Peres pays his final official visit to the United States this week, Congress will gather to award him the prestigious Congressional Medal of Honor and many from Congress will subsequently gather to witness Peres receiving the Lantos Human Rights Prize. As the Lantos Foundation and others honor a distinguished statesman, we are reminded that there are at least three important lessons to be learned from his exceptional life’s work.
The first lesson is don’t let yourself be daunted by the odds. Ignore them. From the very instant of Israel’s birth, the odds against this tiny nation of 650,000 citizens surviving, let alone becoming a vibrant democracy, were overwhelming. But survive they did, blossoming into the Middle East’s most scientifically advanced, culturally diverse, vibrant, and stable democratic nation. Shimon Peres and the other brave young leaders of that time ignored the odds against them keeping their eyes firmly fixed on the prize.
The recent dissolution of the Israeli-Palestinian peace dialogue has been a sobering reminder of how hard it will be to achieve peace and how long the odds are against success. But neither hopelessness nor failure is an option, and in the spirit of Peres, we must remember that the odds can be beaten.
A second profound lesson from Peres’ life is the recognition that one’s present adversaries do not need to remain one’s enemies forever. This conviction has animated Peres’ decades of determined pursuit of reconciliation between Israel and its neighbors. He has said, “The Palestinians are our closest neighbor; I believe they may become our closest friends.” This ability to imagine a future that is radically different and better than the present is essential if intractable problems are ever to be successfully overcome. Throughout his presidency, Shimon Peres has met with countless leaders in the Middle East, leaders that some would consider to be enemies of Israel. In 2007 he became the first Israeli leader to address the legislature of a Muslim nation when he spoke to the Turkish Parliament, and just a few weeks ago he joined Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas at the Vatican for Pope Francis’ Prayer Summit. History bears out the truth of President Peres’ vision of swords beaten into plowshares and enemies turned into friends. America’s deep ties to our former adversaries of Japan and Germany and the enduring success of the Camp David Accords remind us that while reconciliation is neither easy nor inevitable, it is possible.
All of which leads to the third crucial lesson from the Peres book of life — the pragmatic wisdom of being an incurable optimist. President Peres declared at his 90th birthday celebration, “I look at where we started and where we are today. And I think to myself: to be an optimist is so logical. It is so practical.” Not only does a spirit of optimism, enable one to dream big dreams and eventually achieve them, it also changes the quality of the life one leads. As President Peres has said, “Optimists and pessimists die the same way. They just live differently. I prefer to live as an optimist.”
Three simple lessons from a life lived in full. Dare to defy the odds, believe in the possibility of reconciliation, and live your life with an irrepressible spirit of optimism and hope. These are lessons that can not only change a life; they can change the world.
Katrina Lantos Swett is the president and CEO of the Lantos Foundation for Human Rights and Justice.