I attended the Nobel Peace Prize Forum during this past weekend. It was the 25th annual gathering of Nobel laureates and an eclectic mix of others who have activist interests in the pursuit of a more just and peaceable world. The Forum has now grown to an attendance of approximately 6,000 at the Minneapolis site, with perhaps thousands more connected by Internet livestreaming technologies that linked up with more than 20 countries around the world.
The theme of this year’s gathering was ‘The Power of Ideas: People and Peace,” and there is no question that the big ideas represented by the plenary speakers, in particular, have had a great impact throughout the world. Participants were afforded the opportunity to hear 2006 laureate Muhammad Yunus, the father of microcredit, the father of social business, the founder of Grameen Bank, and of more than 50 other companies in Bangladesh. 2011 laureate Tawakkol Karman was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for her humanitarian work for the rights and safety of women and children in Yemen. Malcolm Potts is a Cambridge trained obstetrician and reproductive scientist, whose most recent book is a fascinating look at Sex and War: How Biology Explains War and Terrorism and Offers a Path to a Safer World. Dr. Paul Farmer is one of the world’s leading thinkers on health and human rights and the consequences of social inequality. Dr. Farmer has written extensively on the right to health care and the sanctity of every human life. Powerful thinkers with powerful ideas, all. The chance to hear these activists and “pioneers” is always inspiring, usually thought-provoking, and even occasionally life-changing.
It’s fascinating to hear the stories of how single, decisive actions on the part of seemingly everyday people can generate such transformational movements. Appropriately, the Forum served, in part, to celebrate the enormity of the ideas; such celebration is absolutely warranted in the face of the enormity of the issues to address. But as I sat in the audience during the three days and soaked in the inspiration from these gifted activists and storytellers, I was struck by something significantly smaller than the big ideas attributed to them. Quite the opposite.
If one considers the story of Muhammad Yunus and the birth of microlending, it is not essentially a tale of Grameen Bank and the billions of dollars that have been loaned to impoverished people around the world. At its heart, it is the story of a university professor who could not reconcile his knowledge of economics with his empathy for a poor woman begging on the streets of Bangladesh. In a moment of feeling, whether from guilt or practicality, he loaned her a small sum to be paid back whenever it might become possible, whenever he might again meet her on the street. They did meet. She did repay him. And the rest, as they say, became history.
Paul Farmer has become a veritable medical force in the world, working against convention and bureaucracy on behalf of his patients, almost all of whom reside in the very poorest reaches of the world. But he began practicing medicine in the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere- Haiti- with the idea of simply helping every patient he met. “The idea that some lives matter less is the root of all that is wrong with the world,” he says. His story is less about the organizations and medical movements he has influenced and more about his commitment to a patient. Every patient.
Tawakkol Karman never set out to become the youngest recipient of a Nobel Peace Prize. Essentially, she could no longer remain quiet in the face of an oppressive culture which denied basic rights to women, including the right to express their own ideas freely. With other female journalist colleagues, she simply said “no” to the continuation of censored speech, and “yes” to the promotion of all human rights, “particularly freedom of opinion and expression, and democratic rights.”
Their impacts have become huge. Yet for each of these change agents, the starting point was a single, small act. Each sought to be an influence within his/her own niche of life, to make a difference in the life of a beggar or a patient or a colleague. The outreach was close and personal. And in that mix of connectedness something singular was created among its actors, something which possessed the capacity to grow far beyond its original dimensions and to become more universal in character, a force too strong in its makeup to remain unknown, a movement which captured the imagination of the entire world. Not Yunus nor Farmer nor Karman sought to change the world. Each only sought to do what could be done, one borrower, one patient, one step at a time. From such seeds, movements can bloom.
One Peace Prize Forum attendee asked what she could possibly do in the face of the immensity of the world’s problems, citing hunger, disease, poverty and oppression of all kinds. I thought I heard in her question the wonderment about what the Forum speakers had shared and the initiatives that had developed under their activism. But really, her wonderment might have been better directed to the simplicity of how these pioneers have acted. For the power of their ideas stem from a basic truth: there is no cause greater than the love of your neighbor, no gift more important than the role of servant to those in need, whether helping a neighbor, an organization, a village or a country. Each one of us represents a single piece in this great puzzle of life. It’s a piece we each need to play….