They are a select breed. They often arise out of a combination of personal and socio-political trauma. They are messengers. They speak to particular moments in time, to the human condition and spirit, as well as to something larger.
A recent, well-known example is Malala Yousafzai. She was shot in the head by the Taliban in October 2012 in a failed assassination attempt. Her crime? Advocating for children’s rights, female education, and human rights in general. During and after her recovery, she received numerous awards, including, at the age of 17 years, the 2014 Nobel Peace Prize, as a co-recipient with Kailash Satyarthi, a children’s-rights activist from India.
Now, 16-year-old Greta Thunberg, the Swedish schoolgirl who started the school strike for climate movement in 2018, has stepped on to the world stage. She first heard about global warming and climate change when she was eight. Three years later, she fell into a depression and stopped talking and eating. She lost 10 kilograms in two months. She was subsequently diagnosed with Asperger’s Syndrome, obsessive-compulsive disorder and selected mutism.
“For those of us on the [autism] spectrum, almost everything is black or white,” she said during a TED Talk in Stockholm last November. “We aren’t very good at lying. And we usually don’t enjoy participating in the social game that the rest of you seem so fond of … I think in many ways we autistic are the normal ones and the rest of the people are pretty strange, especially when it comes to the sustainability crisis where everyone keeps saying that … climate change is an existential threat and the most important issue of all and yet they just carry on like before.”
Alex Trebek, 78, is a different case, a messenger of a different sort. Already a public figure, the popular, admired and long-standing host of Jeopardy! garnered sympathy and support when he announced in March that he is battling the long odds of stage 4 pancreatic cancer. By all appearances, he has had a good life, one he hopes to continue in improved health.
“I’m used to dealing with pain,” he said on the television show Good Morning America. “What I’m not used to dealing with is the surges that come on suddenly of deep, deep sadness and it brings tears to my eyes.”
Tears of grief and gratitude for the preciousness of life. Who can’t relate to Trebek as he stares death in the face?
Where Trebek’s existential crisis is exclusive to himself and his family and friends, Thunberg’s encompasses not only herself and her children and grandchildren, should she have any, but civilization itself, unless the current generation makes a profound course correction.
Thunberg seeks to awaken us as well. She says her selected mutism “basically means I only speak when I think it’s necessary.” She has been doing a lot of public speaking since mid-2018.
With startling bluntness, she told attendees at the COP 24 climate conference in Poland in December: “We have to speak clearly no matter how uncomfortable that might be. You only speak of the green, eternal, economic growth because you are too scared of being unpopular. You only talk of moving forward with the same bad ideas that got us into this mess even when the only sensible thing to do is pull the emergency brake. You are not mature enough to tell it like it is. Even that burden you leave to us children. But I don’t care about being popular. I care about climate justice and the living planet. Our civilization is being sacrificed for the opportunity of a very small number of people to continue making enormous amounts of money.”
The concluding message of her TED Talk is this: “[T]he only thing we need more than hope is action. Once we start to act, hope is everywhere. So instead of looking for hope, look for action. Then, and only then, hope will come.”
One of the most prominent messengers of the last century was Albert Einstein. He called himself “a deeply religious nonbeliever” and maintained, “The most beautiful and profound experience is the sensation of the mystical.” He also said, “I must be willing to give up what I am in order to become what I will be.”
A writer and historian, Patrick Wolfe is the author of Safeguarding God: Etty Hillesum’s Spiritual Transformation during the Holocaust, available on the internet.