Have you ever considered the importance of accepting and validating someone’s lived experience? It’s the idea that a person’s circumstance, surroundings, and experiences will affect how they see the world, the decisions they make, and how they interact with others. It has become one of my favorite things about reading – being able to step into the shoes of another and experience their lived experience. It brings with it the power of compassion and understanding.

I know very little of Muhammad Ali, except for brief video clips I saw when he was at the height of his athletic greatness, or the depths of his Parkinson’s disease caused by his traumatic brain injury. I have no doubt that that brief exposure caused me to have a negative opinion of him – based on almost nothing.

But, I came across this excerpt from Ali’s autobiography, The Greatest, and it blew me away:

“I had won the gold medal but I still couldn’t eat in the restaurant in my hometown, the town where they all knew my name, where I was born in General Hospital only a few blocks away. I couldn’t eat in the town where I was raised, where I went to church and led a Christian life. I still couldn’t eat in a restaurant in the town where I went to school and helped the nuns clean the school. Now I had won the gold medal. 

“But it didn’t mean anything, because I didn’t have the right color skin.

“Ronnie wanted me to call one of the millionaires from my sponsoring group, and tell then what happened, and I almost did. But more than anything, I wanted that medal to mean that I was my own man and would be respected and treated like any other human being. Then I realized that even if it had been my ‘Key to the City,’ if it could get only me into the ‘White only’ place, then what good was it? What about other Black people?

“Later I realized that it was part of God’s plan for me, that they wouldn’t serve me that day. Before I was kicked out of the restaurant, I was thinking what the medal could do for me. The more I thought about it, the more I began to see that if that medal didn’t mean equality for all, it didn’t mean anything at all.

“What I remember most about 1960 was the first time I took my gold medal off. From that moment on, I have never placed great value on material things. What really matters is how you feel about yourself. If I had kept that medal I would have lost my pride.

“Over the years I have told some people I had lost it, but no one ever found it. That’s because I lost it on purpose. The world should know the truth – it’s somewhere at the bottom of the Ohio River.”

Just that brief description of that moment in history changes my opinion of him. Would you throw away a symbol of achievement such as an Olympic gold medal to prove to yourself that you genuinely loved another? In this experience, I now see a compassionate and empathetic human being; one who feels the pain and suffering of others. He could have used his success to elevate only himself; he chose to use it to elevate others.

I’m sure his story is complex, but I look forward to a greater understanding from his book. I think it will be well worth my time. I plan to add it to my official Nate’s Book Club reading list this year.