The other night, as we talked about the daunting challenges of social injustices and the apathy of the people around us, a friend asked me how I still believed in positive change. I realized, despite... well, everything, I have never stopped believing in the resilience of the human spirit, especially in the face of adversity. Today, a humble yet passionate advocate and leader by the name of Greg Mortenson exemplifies the epitome of that unwavering compassion, I would swear is innate in all of us. Tonight, I completed Three Cups of Tea, jointly written by Greg Mortenson and David Oliver Relin, with tears in my eyes and joyous celebrating in my soul.
In a news world that increasingly champions the superiority of fact over all else, reporting those facts completely devoid of all emotion and forcing a slow and discreet severance between mind and heart, Relin begins this book with a disclaimer - a rush of reality: firmly claiming that it is impossible not to care, explaining the contagious and addictive nature of one man's passion, and clearly dispelling all misconceptions about the range of one person's efficacy in the world at large.
In 1993, Greg Mortenson tried to climb a very big mountain in Pakistan in a effort to honor the life of his sister with epilepsy. Due to a series of unfortunate events, he failed and taking a wrong turn, stumbled upon a small mountain village that took him in and cared for him until he could travel again. He had studied neurobiology and become a nurse in efforts to care for his sister and learn more about her condition; so he used his skills to provide services in the village which suffered from a severe lack of care as well as practically non-existent access to resources. One day, he asked to see the village school and discovered 82 children writing their lessons from memory in the frozen dirt, out in the open. This town of Korphe had no money to pay the dollar a day for a teacher, much less a school building, so they shared with another village. The teacher came three days a week, and on the off days, the students simply reviewed on their own what they had learned. Mortenson was appalled and moved by this fierce desire to learn that reminded him of his sister, and so without a plan or any resources, he promised to build them a school.
Mortenson had no idea where to start, but through random connections (isn't that how it always works?), he found a benefactor who would fund his first school for $12,000. He went back, ready to build, but was side-tracked by various other villages who tried to con him into building his school with them instead of in his promised mountain town. When he finally got back to Korphe , they told him that they had considered his offer, but before they had a school, they needed a bridge that would connect their village across a very dangerous ravine to the main road. Mortenson returned defeated and sulked until a friend of his benefactor told him to just ask for more money. He was granted his request and proceeded to build both the bridge and the school in fulfillment of his vow. Seeing his passion and ability to follow through on his tasks in addition to the great need that presented itself, Mortenson's benefactor endowed the Central Asia Institute to allow Mortenson to continue building schools in rural Pakistan.
His journey has been far from easy. Mortenson faced constant setbacks due to local political corruption and lack of financial resources. His projects have expanded to vocational centers for women as well as installation of plumbing and electricity. His work became increasingly difficult and important after 9/11 when "a village called New York" was attacked and refugees flooded Pakistan, fleeing the undiscriminating violence of both the Taliban and the American military in Afghanistan. Through the CAI, Mortenson provided immediate relief efforts, focusing on the importance of education while also developing long term plans for his programs. Over the course of ten years, he has managed to plant 55 schools, and is extending his work to the rural destitute regions of Eastern Afghanistan.
Mortenson, who grew up as a missionary kid in Tanzania, is a simple guy with a big heart. He has vision and courage to serve a unique need with all the energy he can muster. He literally has a magnetic personality that draws like-minded people into his inner circle and they serve and protect both him and his work with the same vigor and hope that distinguishes his efforts. His cultural sensitivity and relevance puts everyone in his presence at ease and his genuine manner earns him undeviating respect, allowing him to build life-long relationships and invaluable cross-cultural bonds.
I started reading Three Cups of Tea on the L-train, and I couldn't hold back the tears that rose from even the first pages. It wasn't brilliant, moving prose; it was the content. Here is this man who lives an unmistakably extraordinary life. It's so easy to laud him as "one in a million" or as some hero who we can idolize; but that's the beauty of this story. He's just a guy who found a need, made a promise to fill it, and gave his everything to keep that promise. He doesn't asked to be praised; he wants to be an example. And he is; his compassion, drive, and focus are the embodiment of a universal human spirit, one that rises up in all of us and takes us with purpose and intentionality to those wrong turns where we learn how to make things right again. So I will continue to hope and wait for the day when that which seems "extraordinary" becomes part of our ordinary lives.