This blog post was written by guest blogger Karen Walrond, photographer, author, and blogger who will be the guest speaker at Women in Philanthropy 2012 on May 22nd. Like Karen’s blog? See her in person! Click here to purchase your ticket.
Have you ever played that game where you draw up a guest list for your dream dinner party, including only famous people, whether or not they’re still living? I love that game. Some favourite answers I’ve often heard are John Lennon, Elvis Presley, Nelson Mandela, Jesus, Martin Luther King, Jr., and Mother Teresa. (Personally, I would invite all of those people, and also add Steve Jobs, Ann Richards, Barack Obama, Aretha Franklin, Bill Bryson, the Dalai Lama, Harper Lee, Maya Rudolph and Lady Gaga. That, my friends, would be a dinner party.)
Another person who has always been near the top of my invitation list, however (and also one of the most common answers I hear, of course) is Mahatma Gandhi. His philosophy on nonviolence, specifically to effect change, continues to be so revolutionary, especially in this time of continued war. I’ve been intrigued by his teachings since I was quite young, and the thought of ever sitting down with him one-on-one and asking him questions about his life and times is a fantasy I’ve harboured for many years.
Obviously, this is never going to happen. But late last year, I experienced the next best thing.
In early November, Stephen F. Austin State University held their annual Leadership Conference, and the theme was “Be the Change,” based on the quote from Mahatma Gandhi, “Be the change you wish to see in the world.” Needless to say, it was an honour to be asked to be the closing keynote for this event, and an invitation that I gratefully accepted. But I became even more excited when I subsequently learned that the lunchtime keynote was Mr. Arun Gandhi, the venerable Mahatma Gandhi’s grandson. Mr. Gandhi was born in apartheid-era South Africa, and after facing discrimination and bigotry (manifesting in a few serious beat-downs by both blacks and whites), his family sent him to India to live with his grandfather, during the time when the Mahatma’s influence was at its height. Over the weekend, Mr. Gandhi spoke several times — at a private dinner on Friday, and a private breakfast on Saturday morning before his lunchtime keynote — but for me, the most amazing moments came before breakfast the morning the conference began.
I’d woken up early to check out of my hotel and have a cup of tea before our host met us to take us to the university, and found Mr. Gandhi already sitting in the lobby reading the newspaper, having a cup of coffee. “You are welcome to join me,” he said with a smile, and so, after I made my cup of tea, I did.
We sat and talked for about 45 minutes — I asked him about his travels, his family, his thoughts on the state of the world today, all of which he answered fully and with astonishing patience, considering I was probably asking him questions he’d heard a million times before. The word that immediately comes to mind to describe him is “gentle” — he is a quiet man who speaks slowly and deliberately, and everything about him is circumspect. I couldn’t help but feel that I was in the presence of a truly extraordinary spirit, one full of incredible wisdom, and it made me feel very small and childlike, like I have so much more to learn and grow in my lifetime. He is extremely committed to spreading the message of pacifism and nonviolence espoused by his grandfather as much as possible, clearly considering it his life mission to carry on the torch. To say I am filled with admiration for the man would be the understatement of the century.
Later that day I watched him address the students of SFASU (some extraordinary spirits in their own right, I have to say), I couldn’t help but wonder if they really grasped what an incredible life experience they were having, just sitting in that room, listening to his words. In particular, I found myself looking around the room at the expressions of the young men and women in the room when Mr. Gandhi expressed his belief that we are not here by accident – we are here to fulfill a purpose. He talked about “trusteeship,” as espoused by his grandfather: we all have talents — each and every one of us — but we feel like we own the talent or gift. The Mahatma believed that we don’t own them, but rather we are trustees of the talent, and we are called upon to use these talents for the benefit of others.
I believe this wholeheartedly. In writing my book, The Beauty of Different, I found myself faced with a considerable body of evidence that everyone is Different, and that Different is often the source of immeasurable beauty. But I’ve also become to believe that perhaps these differences aren’t just coincidences – that there’s a reason we are Different. It has occurred to me more recently that these Differents may have been specifically designed for each of us to help change the world – or, at the very minimum, help change our individual worlds.
And even if I’m wrong — even if there’s really no reason for us to have these gifts, that there is no meaning behind it, and it’s just some sort of evolutionary scientific luck-of-the-genetic-draw — it still behooves us to use these gifts in a way that makes the world, or at least our worlds, a little better, don’t you think? Besides, I have to think that using our gifts and our passions to help improve our communities is a much more sustainable (and fulfilling) action than simply signing our names to cheques: in my experience, giving back while simultaneous feeding our souls with what we love always feels great.
It’s something to think about, I guess.
And it might even make for great conversation at that dream dinner party.
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