Sometimes it’s good to listen to David Bowie’s “Heroes” to remind ourselves that for every one person born into a position of wealth or power mucking up the world because they have neither the brains, heart, nor courage to effect positive change, there are scores of everyday people doing the work that makes this planet worthwhile.
Those scores are people who, as Bowie’s song says, could be heroes just for one day. Or maybe two. Or a week. Maybe, without ever realizing it, the rest of their lives.
Since those heroes aren’t beholden to riches or fame, we like to think of them as ordinary people who’ve advanced into the wonderful world of the extraordinary, but really they’re just people who found a passion for something… and don’t we all actively seek that?
In celebration of just a few of them, we present this collection of inspirational stories:
Malala Yousafzai, Children’s Activist, Women’s Rights Activist
Imagine only wanting something as basic as an education, and being harmed for it. We wish such acts were isolated instances in human history, but we’re not here to lie. Education is power, and those who seek to abuse power know this fact intimately.
Imagine being a child moved to give commanding speeches, even at the age of 11, when Malala – after several Taliban attacks on girls’ schools in her country – gave a speech in Peshawar, Pakistan entitled, “How dare the Taliban take away my basic right to education?”
A year later (2009), the young one began blogging for the BBC about living under the Taliban’s threats to deny education, this while learning that the Taliban had issued a death threat against her.
Malala, though frightened for the safety of her father – an anti-Taliban activist – felt the trust that all children do that adults would not and could not harm her, for what threat was a child to men?
At the age of 15, she was shot in the head by the Taliban in Pakistan, October 9, 2012, returning home from school (one that, out of necessity, her father founded).
The rewards of being a child are often grossly exaggerated.
Yet Malala survived. She survived with a vengeance.
After her recovery from the head wound, she continued to speak on the importance of education, not just for girls, but for the ultimate good of all of Pakistan and the entire world.
A mere nine months after the assassination attempt, she presented a speech at the United Nations. It was her 16th birthday, a time when most girls are considering who to invite to their big party and how great it would feel to escape the bounds of being thought of as a child.
The terrorists thought that they would change my aims and stop my ambitions, but nothing changed in my life except this: weakness, fear, and hopelessness died. Strength, power, and courage were born.
Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon declared July 12th – Yousafzai’s birthday – ‘Malala Day’ in honor of her unwavering dedication in wondering why so many were afraid of educating women and children.
To this day, the Taliban still considers her a target. What did she decide to do in the face of that terrible cloud? She’s used the massive outpouring of support and solidarity to stand against all oppressors, no matter where they call home, or the insidious threats they use.
She’s been awarded the European Parliament’s Sakharov Prize for Freedom of Thought.
She’s been appointed a UN Messenger of Peace.
For her 18th birthday, she spearheaded the opening of a school for Syrian refugee girls in Lebanon.
She also decided to attend college. Oxford University, to be precise, where she is studying philosophy, economics, and politics. You know, world leader stuff.
Not bad for a little girl who only wanted the freedom to carry armloads of books.
Naziyah Mahmood, Rocket Scientist, Multi Black Belt, Renaissance Woman
Where to start with this amazing woman? Scientist for the European Space Agency? Check. Artist and poet? Check. Martial artist fluent in several forms? Check. Woman of peace and faith? Check.
Champion of geeks everywhere: triple check.
“If you let them bully you once, they will do it again and again.”
Her father told her that, and her path of self-determination, unyielding curiosity, and fierce protectiveness of everybody’s right to fit outside someone else’s box has grown ever since.
Nayizah grew up the daughter of an Englishwoman and a Pakistani father in none-too-hospitable Glasgow, Scotland.
One of her earliest memories is of her mother coming home bloodied and crying after a vicious hate attack. Her father put Nayizah and her siblings into martial arts classes, the implicit promise being that no one in the Mahmood family would be bloodied again.
Did we neglect to mention she is also trained in Ninjitsu?
When kids talk about role models and superheroines, they need look no further than Naziyah Mahmood.
If I don’t train, I get really restless. I train in the open ground in any weather. I would come home after training in the rain and get told off by my mum! I’ve trained through storms before. When something like this becomes a part of you, you just can’t let it go.”
She was born with a visual impairment that makes it difficult for her to distinguish a person’s facial features unless at close range… yet has trained so diligently that she can stop a sword blade an inch from someone’s skin.
This devout Muslim counts as her influences Miyamoto Musashi (“He was an eccentric and his methods were odd, but it just made him more likable!”), Hattori Hanzo, Tomore Gozenshe (a female Samurai warrior), and the one and only Bruce Lee.
All the things I do link together very beautifully and balance out.
So, martial arts master. That’d be enough for tons of people. But Ms. Mahmood decided, Why not get a Masters in Space Mission Analysis and Design, with honors in Physics/Astrophysics?
And enter poetry contests, and contend with the prejudices of those who looked down on a woman of Muslim faith embracing the world of science, and educate people (often without even trying to) around the world about the great buffet that is life, creativity, possibility, and joy.
I like that feeling of being on the edge of learning.
Know that you can not only do them, but, via honest training, do them well. If there’s one thing Naziyah Mahmood exemplifies, it’s how much fun it is to put on a cape and be your own hero.
Marley Dias, Child Entrepreneur, Advocate, Book Lover
If you’re sensing a theme of girl power here, you’re right. And little Marley Dias – all 11-years old of her – has girl power to spare.
All she wanted to do was be given books every now and then that featured brown faces like hers. What’s a kid to do in this technological age of instant outreach and instant communication? Start a hashtag, of course.
Marley tweeted her frustration with books that either only featured white protagonists, or featured African Americans and others strictly as supporting characters.
She capped that tweet with “#1000blackgirlbooks,” calling for support and resources to find what she knew simply had to be out there: books for little brown girls who wanted to see themselves as heroic, sleuthing, mischievous, adventurous, caring, and, above all, represented.
Result: thousands of dollars were raised, major booksellers donated books to the drive, authors came out in droves to help raise visibility… and there was a small matter of a booking on Ellen DeGeneres’s show.
Result: little black girls countrywide saw that there was power in their voices.
Even bigger result: school reading curriculums have expanded their offerings, not yet across the board, but at least in West Orange, New Jersey, where Marley lives and goes to school. The rainbow of possibilities is shining a little brighter.
In the beginning, I was concerned we weren’t going to reach our goal, and now there are strangers thanking me for doing this.
It makes me feel happy because there are strangers on Facebook who are so thankful and say ‘Because of this book drive, my son wants to do this’ and ‘my daughter wants to do that,’ and I think it’s kind of cool.
It was kind of weird at first that people knew my name and say they heard about the cause and thank me – but now it’s kind of more like the norm. It’s fun.
There are those people who know that no matter how complicated the evolutionary process, life is a simple thing in its living.
Love, peace, and compassion are the true driving forces of advancement. Mata Amritanandamayi, known as “The Hugging Saint,” is one of those people.
It’s said that on her birth, she did not cry, she smiled.
Amma (Mother, as she is referred to by followers worldwide) was born in 1953 in a tiny fishing village in India. Under the caste system, her family was firmly on the low end, meaning a future of menial jobs laid out for her.
It didn’t take the future long to catch up to her. At 9 years old she was put to work. Strangely enough, the people around her realized she performed her tasks willingly, well, and almost happily.
She was a child who shared food with India’s “untouchables,” and practiced a type of minimalism foreign to most children by routinely giving away her home’s belongings to others in greater need.
Growing older, she found that people were drawn to her. She produced a sense of calm, a sense of peace, truth, and inherent dignity that saw more and more people listening to her unadorned observations.
From her website today:
If we penetrate deeply into all aspects and all areas of life, we will find that hidden behind everything is love. We will discover that love is the force, the power and inspiration behind every word and every action.
This applies to all people, irrespective of race, caste, creed, sect, religion, or of what work people do. Where there is true love, anything is effortless.
This eccentric, poor girl grew up with that singular worldview in mind: love the other in order to see that there is no other. How best to do this?
Amma began to travel, and hug. Her hugs were open, warm, and freely given, regardless of caste, religion, sexuality, or politics. The hugs engaged people on two planes: the physical and the spiritual.
Then a curious thing started to happen. People sought her out specifically for hugs. Or for teachings. Hundreds. Then, as she began to tour the world for speaking engagements and outreach programs on behalf of the poor, thousands.
Then so many that she had to start a foundation to accommodate the sheer scope of the desire for nothing more than simply human contact.
Embracing the World was set up as a focal point for those who wanted to know her, to love themselves, and as a distribution point for donations that began to flow in from people all over the world as this smiling, life-filled woman’s messages of love, acceptance, and peace cut through the noise of daily warlike life.
Does the money fund huge homes for her and other lavish excesses? An action from 2004 might answer this.
After a tsunami devastated much of Kerala in southern India, it was Amma and her foundation that provided emergency relief to thousands of people within hours of the disaster, whereas the official government response took five days.
In the years afterward, over 6000 homes were rebuilt under her direction, and not one featuring golden toilets or marble toothbrush holders.
She has become so trusted that even government officials admit that where they are bound by red tape and politics, all she has to do is ask and a community of responders appears.
Over three decades of traveling and hugging, estimates put the number of people Amma has hugged in the millions.
During national tours, it’s now not uncommon for her to hug up to 50,000 people in a day, non-stop (yes, people attend her hugging events like others line up for mega pop stars).
She’s given lectures at the United Nations and World Parliament of Religions, spoken at the Global Peace Initiative of Women Religious and Spiritual Leaders, and received the Gandhi-King award for Non-Violence in 2002.
All this from a little girl who couldn’t understand treating people as if they were not people. And who knew the value of a simple, pure embrace.
Amma’s arms show no signs of getting tired.
It might literally be impossible for anyone else in the history of the planet to be as inspirational as Harriet Tubman, a woman born into nothing and ending as a worldwide symbol of determined humanitarianism to this day.
The fact that she lived to 91 years old, which is nothing short of amazing considering the physical, mental, emotional, and marrow-crushing spiritual stresses she endured, is a testament to her extraordinary fortitude.
She led hundreds of enslaved people, not “slaves,” to freedom, and there is a difference. Harriet would have been the first to point it out.
I freed thousands of slaves, and could have freed thousands more, if they had known they were slaves.
This quote is generally considered directed only toward the enslaved Africans of the time, but Ms. Tubman was savvy enough to have meant it to be double-edged: there were many whites then, as now, just as enslaved to systems that openly did them harm but demanded their obeisance anyway.
This tiny woman (Tubman barely topped 5 feet), who suffered migraines, seizures, and narcoleptic episodes for most of her life as a result of a head injury inflicted by an enslaver when she was an adolescent, who could neither read nor write for most of that life, born into the most primitive, racist, sexist, and brutal period in United States history, would become an abolitionist, a noted humanitarian, and an armed scout and spy for the United States Army during the American Civil War (during the war she was the first woman to lead an armed expedition: the Combahee River Raid, liberating nearly a thousand enslaved people in South Carolina).
Was she trained to be amazing? No. She simply did what was right, and knew that her wits were sharper than the blunt instruments of America’s psychosis.
This certainty led her to:
Lead her own family members and other enslaved peoples from the plantation system to freedom via the ingenious, existing secret network of safe houses deemed the “Underground Railroad.”
When the South forced the Fugitive Slave Law through Congress in hopes of stemming the loss of “human resources” making their way to the North, Tubman re-routed the Underground Railroad to Canada, which prohibited slavery categorically and tolerated no extradition;
Become a staunch advocate of the rights of the sick and the elderly;
Attract the attention of politicians, scholars, and writers. In early 1859, abolitionist Senator William H. Seward sold Tubman a small piece of land on the outskirts of Auburn, New York, which became a haven for many.
Late in Ms. Tubman’s life, Sarah Bradford wrote a biography entitled Scenes in the Life of Harriet Tubman. Ten years before Tubman’s death in 1913, Harriet donated a parcel of her land to the African Methodist Episcopal Church in Auburn. She lived to see the Harriet Tubman Home for the Aged open on this site in 1908.
When she died, she was buried with military honors at Fort Hill Cemetery in Auburn.
While she lived, she lived for everyone.
One of the wonderful things about this world – and there are many, many wonderful things, never let anyone tell you otherwise – is that being a hero, even if just for one day, is an everyday thing.
It’s so common that we might fail to notice it. Extraordinary Humanity doesn’t require a cape or bombast to announce it, it just needs one person, then another, to make a connection far deeper than hate, violence, and injustice can ever achieve.
Take time to celebrate the ones ordinary enough to be heroes for a day, a lifetime, or forever if need be. Even including you. Achieving great things often means very simply standing up and saying, “I am here. Now let’s set things right.”
Have these inspirational stories stirred something in you? Leave a comment below and share your thoughts.