Geologists tell us that an earthquake is the movement of plates in the earth’s crust. They tell us that the forces causing an earthquake build up over years and decades until the force cannot be held back any longer. Reaching a critical point, the earth “snaps”, and an earthquake happens.
The same thing happens in our world, I think, when the need for change builds up over time, and we have a social earthquake. This is often centered on a single individual who becomes the symbol of that change.
Nelson Mandela was one such earthquake, and we are still feeling the earth move because of what he did in his lifetime. Faced with the choice between violence and peace, he chose peace, and set an example for an entire nation and much of the world to follow.
Thankfully, he is just the latest in a long line of people who embody cultural earthquakes. Mother Theresa, Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Jr, Frederick Douglass (my town of Douglassville is named after him!). Our world is better for their having lived – and sometimes died – for what they believed.
But these earthquakes did not happen without pressure building up behind them first. For every Nelson Mandela, Mother Theresa or other great cultural icon of change, how many lived and died working toward the same, or a similar, goal?
All across the globe right now, thousands, perhaps hundreds of thousands or millions of people work quietly and in small ways to make the world a better, safer, kinder and more equitable place. Do you know their names? Does anyone?
The mother who teaches her children with both words and actions that all people have value. The man who feels he’s not good enough to be a preacher, but makes sure to greet new people at his church. The son who listens to his racist father and chooses to reject those hateful views. The engineer who spends summer digging wells in small African villages. The fisherman who gives a little of his catch to the homeless in Vietnam or Indonesia or India. The father who leaves his wife and children for a month to help with recovery efforts after a disaster. These people are truly heroes as much as the ones who get written about in the history books.
Many of these acts of kindness and sacrifice go nowhere. Sometimes that is because there is no direction, no goal for people to look towards. Perhaps the time is not right yet. There is not enough pressure. Sometimes these acts go nowhere because there is simply no goal at all, and these are isolated acts of kindness. In any case, the world is still a better place afterwords.
But sometimes, these acts become part of a large movement. In England, decades before Fredrick Douglass was born, abolitionists were struggling to free all men, regardless of color. They helped to build pressure for Douglass and Lincoln to change the world. Those same abolitionists – along with Douglass and Lincoln – helped to build pressure for Martin Luther King, Jr. and the great changes he was a part of and a martyr for. Mother Theresa may have started her own order of nuns, but she was only one of many women who gave their lives for the same cause.
We don’t remember their names, the abolitionists, the civil rights protesters, the nuns. But we honor their sacrifice by honoring the changes they helped to create.
In December, 2013, the world lost Nelson Mandela, a great, great man. And one of millions and millions of great men and women who gave everything, sometimes unto death, for what they believed was right.