Doing the Best You Can
- 2009 March-April
Six Women Share How to Build a Soul-Sized Agenda for Your Life
Professor Wangari Maathai, the first African woman to receive the Nobel Peace Prize, tells this story: A huge fire broke out in the forest. All the threatened animals were scared and fled, except the hummingbird, who decided to stay and put out the fire. It flew to the nearest river and picked up a few drops of water, then came back and put them on the fire. The other animals watched from a distance and made fun of the hummingbird. The more they mocked, the harder the hummingbird worked, persistently and patiently bringing its little drops of water. “What are you doing?” the animals asked. “The fire is overwhelming. How can you make a difference? You are too little anyway.” The hummingbird answered, “I’m doing the best I can.”
From my new book, Our Stories, Our Visions, I offer you answers from five remarkable hummingbirds.
WHAT INSPIRES YOU IN LIFE?
Sister Helen Prejean, advocate for the abolition of the death penalty, author of Dead Man Walking, recipient of many awards:
Now that I have become engaged with people on death row, with murder victims’ families, and with the struggles of poor people, it is the worth of each human being that inspires me. People are worth more than the worst act of their life. I’m fired and energized by the potential within the human person, by being with them, shouldering their burdens with them, struggling for their lives. It’s like being lifted up on a huge wave of energy.
Kate Clinton, self-proclaimed “fumerist” (feminist and humorist), performer, author of What the L and Don’t Get Me Started:
I absolutely love to laugh. Sometimes when I am performing and have kept an audience in hysterics for, like, 90 minutes, I think that I’d love to be that audience myself. You learn to put yourself on the line doing comedy, and I think that it’s good practice for the political work that we do. I just think there is massive national attention deficit disorder in America. Hardly anybody pays attention, and real laughter is a good antidote for that.
Mary Kayitesi Blewitt, founder of the Survivors Fund for survivors of the Rwanda genocide:
The genocide in Rwanda that took 50 members of my own family has inspired me to do something about building instead of destroying. If something horrible happens to you, the only way you can get around it is to look deeper to see what you can do to make it better. Genocide is very difficult to explain to anyone, and when you can’t explain things to people, you can’t expect them . . . to understand it. If I can’t find the words for it, I’m inspired to try to show the pain and grief in a different way.
WHAT MOST PROVOKES YOU TO ANGER, AND DO YOU BELIEVE IN FORGIVENESS?
Mairead Corrigan-Maguire, cofounder of Peace People, Nobel Peace Prize winner:
I get angry when I see real injustice and when I see unnecessary suffering perpetrated on people. But I tell myself that we have to convert our anger into positive action. I believe passionately in forgiveness. I believe it’s the key to peace and that it should be unconditional. Three of my sister Ann’s children were killed in 1976 in the Troubles here in Northern Ireland. Ann was dangerously ill at the time. After she recovered and learned to walk again, one of her first acts was a compassionate visit to the mother of the young IRA man who had been in the accident that killed her children. When I asked her why she did that — because the mother didn’t even share the same politics as we did and her son had been an IRA gunman — she said, “She was a mother who’d also lost her son.” You know, I think that kind of compassion for others and forgiveness is necessary if we’re to change the world today. We can’t live in the past. If we are stuck in the past, I believe we destroy our creativity, we destroy our imagination to do things differently, and we destroy our own inner peace of mind.
Kim Phuc, known as “the girl in the picture” after being photographed running away from a napalm attack during the Vietnam War, UNESCO Goodwill Ambassador, peace campaigner, founder of the Kim Foundation International to help child victims of war:
Everything [would] make me angry because I . . . asked, “Why me? Why did they start the war and make me suffer?” I tried to smile and move on, to be really positive, but deep, deep, deep in my heart, I was living with hatred. I hated everyone because I was not normal. I knew that forgiveness was good for me, but I could not do it at the time. In 1982, when I became a Christian, I then asked God to help me, as I couldn’t do it alone. My heart was like a cup of bitter coffee, which I had to pour out every day — my own darkness, my hatred and bitterness, my sorrow, my anger. I learned to pour a little out every day until my cup was empty. Then God filled my cup with love, with forgiveness, and that’s the moment when I felt that my heart completely healed. I cannot change what happened to me, but I can change what I do about it. I’m learning to forgive all the people who caused my suffering. I don’t know their names. I just say, “I pray for the pilot. I pray for the man who ordered the bombing.” I’ve moved on.
DO YOU HAVE ANY ADVICE FOR THE YOUNGER GENERATION?
Sister Helen Prejean
Ignite. Get passionate about something you really believe in. Don’t spend your lives on these trivial agendas, where you work to make rich people richer or just to accumulate material possessions. You want a soul-sized agenda for your life. Yes, it will make you tired, and yes, it will break your heart, but you are going to be part of the wave of the future, helping love and compassion to be real in the world. Feel the energy of life come through you. You may be defeated in some of the tasks that you try to accomplish on behalf of people who have no one else to defend them, but you will never be so alive. The Lebanese poet Kahlil Gibran once said that you should do a life’s work that causes you to laugh all your laughter and cry all your tears.
Zoë Sallis is the internationally best-selling author of Ten Eternal Questions (Chronicle Books, 2006).
Adapted from Our Stories, Our Visions: -Inspiring Answers from -Remarkable Women (-Sterling -Publishing, April 2009).