Last week I had the pleasure of spending my evening with a group of middle/high school students from Asbury Park, NJ, through the program WAGE (Women Advocating for Girl’s Education). We were discussing the life of Malala Yousafzai: her experiences, actions, and impact on the world. It was a beautifully engaging discussion, spanning generations and ethnicities, and the topic has stuck with me so much that I feel compelled to write on it.
The students were clearly moved, and in awe of all the incredible things Malala has experienced and accomplished. I was impressed by how receptive and interested they were in her story!
However, I also found that there was a common narrative following quite literally every response to Malala’s actions. The responses were along these lines:
“Wow, that’s insane! I never could have done that.”
“She is amazing. I wish I could be that courageous.”
“I’m not sure I could ever have forgiven my enemies like Malala did.”
“What she went through was awful. And she’s my age! I don’t know how she did it.”
“Would you have been that strong? I don’t think I would have been!”
At first, the adults in the room, including myself, followed along with this narrative. I mean, it is true, isn’t it? Malala’s actions ARE amazing, and many of us wish we could have her drive and her courage!
But I do not think this is the message Malala wants to convey. In her acceptance of the Nobel Peace Prize, Malala stated, “I tell my story not because it is unique, but because it is not. It is the story of many girls.” Malala makes it clear that her struggles are unfortunately not uncommon. We understand here that her goal is to make this part of her story LESS common.
HOWEVER, I would go a step further here to say that I believe Malala hopes that her strength, courage, persistence, and humility can become MORE common. Why else would she tell her story? Malala Yousafzai wants to see this world move in a better direction. I believe it must be Malala’s hope that her admirable qualities could be not only admired, but replicated.
We have had many real life heroes like Malala throughout history. All generations of people have seen them. Some immediately come to mind include Anne Frank, Eleanor Roosevelt, Martin Luther King, Jr., Nelson Mandela… They have all been enormously transformational to the state of our societies and our world. Their contributions cannot be overestimated. They are true heroes.
I believe these heroes, though, including Malala, want even more from us than our admiration. These heroes are amazing because they have no unique superpowers running through their veins. They were not born with any magical ability that we wish we had in our measly human DNA. These heroes are role models because they are regular people. Malala should be looked to not because she can do things that we cannot, but because she leads us to do the things we should.
I was super encouraged by this. When I brought this up to the students discussing Malala, a new energy came into the room! All of a sudden, the mood changed from despair and pity to hope and determination. The adults were equally energized! We all left challenging ourselves to truly think on what moves we must make to change the world for the better, because Malala proves that we CAN do it. We are equally human; we have the physical abilities, the mental and emotional facilities to do so. Imagine a world where every one of us began looking to our heroes not as deities, but as inspirations and models for what we can and must do! The world could be a VERY different place if we become generation that chooses to EMULATE our heroes instead of simply IDOLIZING them. We can do it. It is possible. Shall we roll up our sleeves?