It is not often that we are privileged to stand in the presence of greatness. We take notice of and even covet fame, wealth, beauty and talent. When one among us exhibits true character, it shines a light on pettiness and selfishness, inviting us to reconsider how we spend our own lives.
Such a one is Malala Yousafzai, who addressed the United Nations on July 12, her 16th birthday. "Malala Day" was the U.N.'s first Youth Assembly, attended by almost 1,000 young people from more than 100 countries. Today's technology enabled Yousafzai, an unknown child from an unknown town in Pakistan, to shake the world with a blog she wrote at age 11-12, detailing her life under the Taliban and her views on promoting education for girls.
Unlike many who have changed the world but are known only to God, Yousafzai is lauded: a New York Times documentary; youngest nominee in history for the Nobel Peace Prize; one of Time magazine's "100 Most Influential People in the World" in 2013. Because of her, a U.N. petition is demanding that all children worldwide be in school by the end of 2015.
Yousafzai's renown came with a price most are unwilling to pay. Shot by the Taliban last October, she came close to death, underwent intense rehabilitation and yet stepped forth, scarred in body, but picking up the mantle of all who have lived and died pursuing nonviolent change for the downtrodden. Her words to the terrorists: " . nothing changed in my life except this: Weakness, fear and hopelessness died. Strength, power and courage was born."
Contrast what Yousafzai dares with the world's highly publicized stunts. Nik Wallenda, 34, recently made history for crossing the Grand Canyon on a tightrope using no restraint or harness.
Then there was the annual July San Fermin festival in Spain and its most famous event, the running of the bulls. Numerous people were gored and otherwise injured during this year's insanity in a place where only the bulls deserve admiration and sympathy.
Of the Wallenda stunt, Eileen O'Neill, the Discovery Network's president, said: "Nik inspires so many people around the world to follow their dreams." Well, maybe. And did the attendance and prayer of Rev. Joel Osteen stamp it with blessing?
It seems more likely that both events are reminiscent of the devil daring Jesus to fling his body off the temple's pinnacle and count on angels to save him. Jesus' answer: "You should not test God" (Matthew 4:7).
Most of us are not daredevils, but we do long to make our lives count. Yousafzai proves that "a child shall lead us." According to a 2008 study, one of America's largest demographic groups, the Baby Boomers (born 1946-1964), is the least happy of all age groups, perhaps because of their great expectations. The study's author, Yang Yang, wrote that "not everyone in the group could get what he or she wanted due to competition for opportunities."
Yousafzai does not speak of "me" but "us," calling Malala Day "the day of every woman, every boy and every girl who have raised their voice for their rights." That is worth a life.
Finding truth requires the right starting point. That is the quest of this column. If we seek simple truth, we can find it together - side-by-side.
Linda M. Downing is a freelance writer. Contact her at lindadowning.com.