When Norman Borlaug died on September 12, 2009, both his death and his life were news to me. I’m sorry for that and I’m not sure how he managed to have escaped my radar screen until he died. Sadly, I know that many others also first learned of him as he passed, like some beautiful but obscure comet, here for a moment and then only a bit of space dust to remind us of the passing.
Borglaug was a Nobel Peace Prize winner and is widely credited with being one of the founders of the Green Movement. That would be impressive enough, but his contributions to the world, in the form of an impressive body of work in agronomy, are thought to have saved over a billion lives. That one person could make such a contribution on the planet and not be a household name is a bit distressing.
Pop vocal artists die and get months of press. Politicians do illegal and/or immoral things and are the subject of dinner table conversation for an entire season or more. Stop a young person on the street and he is likely to know the local NBA star by name, and maybe by stats. How is it that Norman Borlaug traveled under the radar screen for so many of us all of his life?
The answer to that question may be important. As a culture, we Americans seem impressed with glitz and money more than contribution to humanity or planet Earth. I’m not going to harp on this, just connect it to the process of giving our gifts to the world.
When Norman Borlaug died, my mind went to a conversation I’d had a few weeks earlier with a client friend. She has some important things to say and a book that needs to be written, but she’s danced around it for at least a couple of years.
Now, I will be the first to admit that books take time (for most of us). And I have experience with needing to add a few chapters to my own learning before my book chapters could line themselves up. But I suspected that my dear friend was suffering from expert-itis. She just felt she didn’t yet have the credentials to write about what she was already teaching with great skill.
I encouraged her to get on with it and while I encouraged her, I gave myself the same pep talk. We women–more than men, I think–seem to believe that we must have our own equivalent of Norman Borlaug’s many awards (the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the Congressional Gold Medal, the Padma Vibhushan, and the Nobel Peace Prize among them) before we are qualified to give our gifts to the world. What a waste.
I would like to think that this has nothing to do with that American cultural tendency to be enthralled by glitz and money. I don’t see it on the surface for my client friend and I can’t seem to find it in the inner recesses of my own mind when I go excavating, but I do think that my friend and I have both been subjected to enough cultural influence that we each have at least some bit of an interior three-act play going on in which we achieve modest fame and fortune. If not household names, well maybe our names will become nationally known and respected in one little subgroup of one modest category of our areas of expertise. In other words, we’re not immune.
We might not be immune, but I have met would-be writers who refuse to begin the books they have in mind until they can get a nice advance from a New York publishing house. (Never mind how fantastical that notion is these days.) And I have known other writers who have meaningful things to say but who shelac them over with what they think the public wants to read because they want to be rich and famous more than they want to say something genuine and authentic. In some quarters (fortunately not those in which I am invited often), having fifteen minutes of fame is seen as more important than giving one’s gifts to the world, even if those fifteen minutes are achieved by doing something nefarious.
If only a few more of us went about our lives doing the kind of good that Norman Borlaug did (without his awards but with a similar lack of household name recognition), if we just gave our gifts today and tomorrow and next week without wondering what the payoff would be–or if there even would be a payoff at all–how much Norman Borlaugesque good to the planet and other human beings would result?
I can’t imagine . . . but I think I’d better get on with my shamanic work, get on with that book I keep telling myself I don’t have time to write, and get on with my mentoring of other writers.
How about you?
copyright 2009 by Melanie Mulhall
Tags: American culture, authors, Congressional Gold Medal, fame and fortune, giving your gifts to the world, Nobel Peace Prize, Norman Borlaug, Padma Vibhushan, pop icons, Presidential Medal of Freedom