Since I have had an intimate relationship with the Margaretta Award from its conception, I have always felt a kind of co-ownership of it; the owning was mostly about my pride in contributing to its birth. So getting the call from Mary Rhodes in late March reporting to me that I was to be its recipient in 2010 startled me and gave it a whole new meaning. I felt surprise and gratitude and then a flood of emotion about the virtues of its namesake and the nature of her work and mine.
One if not the greatest of Margaretta’s virtues was her modesty. The longer I live the more important that virtue seems to me. I’ll try to explain that. We live in a culture where, to some of us, praise comes easily and often. Praise is important when used with discretion. It rewards good deeds, which is very important—especially for children—and can inspire more good deeds—in both children and adults—and when it calls attention to good deeds to a wide audience—it can, if the stars are aligned, inspire more people to do more good deeds.
But beware, if you are the recipient of such praise, to remember what needs to be done in this world that we can never get done. Are we doing unto others what we would have them do unto us? Are those we consider “others” truly other—or simply people who are culturally, economically, ethnically, religiously or socially different from us? Do we realize that no matter how conscientious and caring we are, we will only do a tiny bit of our share in healing the world?
In this we can take a lesson from Margaretta. She seemed too modest at times, for a person who perceived every problem as one she should try to solve; who never stinted in the time and energy she gave to alleviate pain and suffering; who worked hard to strengthen existing institutions and organizations and encouraged others to do the same; and who was bold enough, when called upon, to set aside her humility to take on jobs that she considered far beyond her skills. Her goodness was profuse; her capacities protean; her modesty profound. And so I accept this award to honor her memory and aspire to her very special kind of goodness.
As many of you know, I have been engaged over the past several years in projects that pertain to democracy and interdependence. I shifted to this work in the early ‘90s when I came to believe that “the most precious right that an individual can have is the right to be responsible for the public good.” I realized then that very few people in the world have that right. We in this room—and we in this nation– do have it. Therefore I believe it is incumbent upon us— first of all, to exercise that right to act on behalf of the “public good” —whatever our career or profession is. Further I believe that we must do everything in our power to extend that right to others—the millions of people in the world who have no control over their own destinies, let alone “the public good.”
I believe that interdependence, both for better and worse, is the driving principle of our age. The revolution in information and communication technologies dictates that we know what is happening in the world—just about simultaneously with its happening! That extends our realm of responsibility enormously; thus we must expand our mindsets and our skills to deal with this 21st century reality.
That came home to me in January. I had just arrived in Rwanda and turned on the TV in my room to learn that there had been a serious earthquake in Haiti. For the next nine nights I watched CNN reporting on it. I saw much more of it than I ever would have if I had been at home. What struck me most was the vulnerability of those Haitians to the elements. I had been in two earthquakes of similar strength in Los Angeles in which no one died. In Haiti a quarter of a million people died. And many thousands of others were left in despair—without homes, without limbs, without parents, without children.
What lessons do we learn from living in an interdependent world where the perils and vulnerabilities, wherever they exist, are before us—every day? That there are those, many millions, who have little hope of a long and healthy life and who are virtually helpless against natural disasters. We, who have the power over our own lives and the public good, must do everything we can to alleviate suffering and build the capacities of those who don’t share our gifts. And at the same time, we must realize, with modesty and hope, that we will never finish that work.
I don’t want to be too somber as you join me in this celebration, so let’s just be grateful for what we have and what we can do, and salute together the woman whose spirit and actions serve as our guide. I think that Margaretta is blushing now—and I know that she is smiling down on us too.