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 Mortenson. 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 Mortenson’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.

November 24, 2008

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