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Why do we build people up to be heroes, talk of them as if they are greater than other human beings, and speak to them hesitantly and timidly as if they are something precious or god-like?  Why do we glorify their stories, invite them to recount gospel to us and tell everyone how they have performed miracles?


So often I fear these actions only serve to distract those very busy individuals from their mission and the good work they have done by being simply themselves, not by being a hero. 


One such person intruded on my thoughts recently as I observed how often he was appearing in the popular press and in cocktail party conversations: Greg Mortensen.  His life thus far has been so well recounted in the book “Three Cups of Tea”. His is the story of a failed mountain climber who found his life’s mission in helping to build schools in Pakistan and later Afghanistan for children in remote villages in the Himalayan and Karakorum mountains.  Only after he had completed the building of so many of these schools did he realize that what he was helping to do might also curb the spread of terrorism in the world.  That by educating children they would find alternatives to a life of fanaticism, hatred and violence. I wonder now what Greg’s life has become since the book gained such critical acclaim and he so much publicity. 


His prevalence is evident now in the public arena.  In one single internet search, I was able to find about 16 articles written about him in this year alone, not to mention the many speaking engagements and last year there were almost twice as many. Has he found a new calling?  Is he still serving those he helped for so many years by what he is doing now?  Or have they been forgotten as he has been swept up by the media and guest appearances, meetings with world leaders and local congressmen and women?  How can he possibly balance it all and have anything left to give of himself in a 24 hour day?


Outside Magazine this month is featuring Greg again in an article.  The first I remember reading about him in their magazine was in 2001 by a journalist who told Greg’s story factually and informatively.  The article this month refers to Greg as a “modern day saint.”  We have raised the man to not only hero caliber, but now god-like status.  Where will he go from here?


I also wonder why we pay so much attention to this one man and not others.  Why did he get chosen?  Of course the book helped.  It made it easier to find him and everything was explained easily to us.  It is not to say that what Greg has done is not fantastic, but it is not as if there are so few like him either.  In fact there are many people who like him, have changed the lives of others forever, who have served those who were destitute, ill, uneducated, starving and homeless.  We just don’t know about them because we have not read their stories.  Greg is admired for many reasons including his humility, his “everyman” qualities, his dedication, his persistence and courage.  He faced struggles and obstacles and took them on with nothing but persistence and conviction.  He was not highly educated; he did not come from a privileged background.  He was just a man, who set his mind to do something and it became his life.  He was able to make a huge difference by saving lives and giving people dignity.


I wonder what we will do to Greg Mortensen and what will happen to him when the world tires of his story.  He is labeled a “humanitarian”, as if it is his job title.  He is invited to speak about Afghanistan and the situation there, making the place more real and less scary for Americans who are frightened by what might happen there or how what happens there will affect us.  Do we think that maybe Greg can save America too?  That he can work magic with the leaders in Afghanistan and Pakistan and convince them that we are nice and want to be helpful and so they won’t hate us so much or at least cooperate with us to help find those who want to kill us?  Can he do things that our own government and intelligence agencies have failed to do?  It certainly seems that this might be possible if you read some of the articles written about him now.  The CIA is already asking his advice on how to deal with war lords in Afghanistan. 


Telling Greg’s story and publicizing it in the way in which we have helps to spread the word that it can take one individual at a time to make a difference in the world.  And that person does not even have to be a superstar at the onset.  Do we ever give this much glory and airtime to the large aid organizations that we so well endow with billions of dollars to do our good work in the world?  No, Greg’s story is important because it inspires many who read it to think differently about their own lives, what they are doing with them and what they might be able to do.  Because a man like Greg could do what he did, why cant we?  But where is the fine line between making sure that an important and inspiring story is told and burying a man and his mission in a tidal wave of publicity and unreasonable expectations. And what happens if he fails to deliver on our bloated expectations of him now?  Will we discredit him, abandon him, lose faith that great things can be done by one man?  Will we lose faith that we in fact might be able to do the same?


My hope for Greg is two fold.  First, I hope that he does not abandon the original mission and the very people he set out to help in the first place because his schedule no longer affords him the time to do so. I hope that forces from the outside will not draw him away from his work to so that he can explain to an uninformed world about the plight of Afghan children instead of spending time with those whose lives depend on his leadership and caring.  Second, I hope that the media and general public when they tire of his story and move on to the next hero, do not tire of the core message of his story and instead return to the same old way of doing things, abdicating responsibility for helping others to governments and aid organizations or just someone else. 


For the message from Greg Mortensen’s life is very clear and timely.  It is that each and every one of us can make a difference in the well being of others in need by helping those we can when we see the opportunity to do so.  Most importantly that we build on what we learn, engage others and ourselves to take responsibility for the outcome and ensure our energy is always focused outward on the objective of universal responsibility not on ourselves. 

There is a well quoted observation made by Mother Theresa that I re-read when the media glorifies and lauds yet another everyday person and elevates them to celebrity status: “We can do no great things, only small things with great love”. 


I think it is important to remind ourselves of Mother Theresa’s insight and wisdom when we speak of people like Greg Mortensen.  What he has done is not as great as how he has done it and perhaps why he has done it.  And for those who may wonder, it is not so important that what we do elevates us to greatness in the eyes of the public or the media as that when we do things for others we do it with compassion, love and dedication.  For this in itself has the power to change the world in sustainable and great ways.  And then only after many years have passed and we are gone from this world, can one look back on our work and our life and deem it to be great and whether or not we were heroes.


Nancy A. Doyal

November 24, 2008


Ms. Doyal is President of The International Forum.  She is currently writing a book about the lives and work of a seven individuals from around the world who on their own volition have created grass roots efforts to deal with a large part of the world’s challenges related to basic survival and nutrition, curbing the spread if disease, access to education, shelter, safety and security and living with dignity.  While each is an ordinary person at face value with no special credentials, they have nonetheless accomplished extraordinary solutions in partnership with those in need.  They have succeeded in areas where governments and large well funded organizations have failed.  Ms. Doyal’s account is an exploration of each of their stories and the common threads between them.  The book is a testimony to the power of each of us to affect great change even from a small, unknown corner of the earth.


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The following view was written by Nancy Doyal, President, The International Forum, in response to an invitation from Mia Doornaert, Diplomatic and Foreign Editor, De Standaard, Belgium.  It was part of a series of aricles discussing this question.  Some writers took the view that the center of the world would never move East to China as it is not an attractive model for society and there are too many internal contradictions which will hinder it.  What do you think?


Is The Center of Gravity is Moving East?


The center of gravity of the world is determined by economics factors, not politics, ideologies or societies’ values.   As the wealth of the world continues to shift East so power and influence will follow. The movement of the center of gravity eastward is being led by China.  It has created this momentum on two levels:  one is at a state or policy level where the government is committed to growth though investment and securing key natural resources abroad (through acquisitions by state companies and by negotiating procurement relationships with government in Africa, East Asia and Latin America).  The second level is at an individual or family level where the belief that one can become richer has unleashed the Chinese entrepreneurial and trading energy.  Coupled with an intense desire to make money and a deep rooted commitment to educating the next generation before all else, China is poised to grow even more than it already has.


Compare China today to the West where governments are saddled with the cost of welfare, healthcare, unemployment, entitlements and in the case of the U.S., war.  Policies are focused on protecting what we already have versus investing in what we could have.  Our youth live a relatively comfortable existence and will continue to regardless of education and employment because of the social safety net if they fail.


In China, the average person does not expect the government to support them if they fail.  It never really has.  The greatest risk however to China is corruption and the dissent it causes as well as the inefficiencies in the system.  But even for this, the government has a solution: imprisonment or execution.


Ironically what will most likely facilitate the movement of the center of gravity may not be what China is doing, but rather what we are not doing.  We in the west are willing to ask our governments to protect us from the inevitable. In so doing we do not face the realities of changing competition, resource availability and rules of engagement.  We are not adjusting to it or thinking ahead to how we might change in anticipation of what is to come.  After all, why should we change now, when it is all relatively comfortable, familiar and safe to keep things as we have known them to be?  More importantly, we are not bringing up our next generation to be prepared for a world that will be a very different place than it is today.  Frankly, we don’t know how to.


The reality is that the global system, to which we invited countries like China to join, is transforming into something we do not recognize. As such we are not prepared for it.  Economic, political and social ideologies are colliding daily.  Free market capitalism is being stung by itself as Chinese companies offer the highest price for publicly traded natural resource companies which were once assets of western nations.  Rogue governments which the West would not touch for ideological reasons are being courted by the Chinese for purely economic reasons.  Those new relationships are causing tensions and conflicts in the international order and they will continue to do so.  Despite the fact that we might find China’s record on human rights and lack of democratic processes distasteful and a risk to stability this view will not necessarily be shared by the majority of people in the developing world.  China’s internal contradictions might pose a risk to our systems of government and our societies, but not to China’s.  We are looking at what is happening only through our own lens and prejudices. In fact it is precisely because China is not a democracy and that it does not treat individual and private property rights as the West does, that it has succeeded as quickly as it has and to such a degree.  This has not been lost on a great part of the developing world who are finding that China has to offer an attractive alternative for their future. Democracy and human rights are luxuries if you are fighting to feed yourself one day at a time. 


When the center of gravity shifts, as it most certainly will, we in the West will mostly likely be caught unaware.  Certainly this will be the case if we keep telling ourselves that it will not happen.


Nancy Doyal
January 2008

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