I distinctly remember when Mother Teresa became one my heroes. My family was visiting my Italian relatives, celebrating my great-grandmother’s birthday. She was a first-generation Italian-American immigrant, as was her husband. Being devout Roman-Catholics, it was not surprising for me to find a large, beautiful book on Mother Teresa lying on the coffee table in their home. I sat for a long time, flipping through the pictorial biography, letting the story of this remarkable woman sink in. She became my hero that night. Years later, when my great-grandmother passed away, the book came to me, and I continued to learn about a life that inspires my own.
When someone names Mother Teresa as their hero, a valid (if not snarky) response is, “well, duh!” If anyone comes close to universal approval, it is Mother Teresa. Even her critics praise her selfless service. She personified compassion, and embodied James 1:27, “Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to visit orphans and widows in their affliction, and to keep oneself unstained from the world.” Her legacy is one that changed the world, and I hope we never forget it. Her story is far too much for my word limit here; my objective is simply to share with you a few lessons Mother Teresa taught me about heroism.
• Heroism starts when an ideal becomes an action.
Who doesn’t want good things to happen? We don’t want anyone to go hungry, or die homeless, or grow up uneducated. We want everyone to be loved. Most of us would say there are things and people we would give our lives for. But a hero doesn’t just wish for things to happen, they make it happen. Mother Teresa didn’t just feel bad for the poorest of the poor, she did something for them. Heroes overcome “cognitive dissonance” – that disconnect between what we believe or want, and what we live.
• Heroes don’t aim to become heroes – they simply do the right thing, with no promise of recognition.
It’s entirely possible that Mother Teresa could have lived out her life in relative obscurity, had a journalist not happened to take an interest in her work, and published her story in an international magazine. I suspect there are a lot of people who have devoted their lives to sacrificial service like she did – including the 4,000 nuns who have followed her example in the order of Missionaries of Charity. If I were to take a vow of poverty and dedicate my life to serving the poorest of the poor, relatively few people would know. But that doesn’t make the action any less heroic, if I’m doing what God has called me to do.
• Heroes represent much more than themselves.
It almost seems a bit unfair that Mother Teresa would get so much attention, becoming arguably the most famous woman of the 20th century, when others deserve just as much praise for selfless heroic service. But when we praise Mother Teresa, we praise everyone else who has followed in her footsteps as well. We give a military leader special recognition, even though many soldiers sacrificed just as much as he did, if not more. But that’s the role a leader fills – they are icons, symbols of inspiration. Heroes become the face of a larger ideal, such as courage, love, achievement... and in Mother Teresa’s case, compassion.
• Heroes are servant leaders.
They earn their right to speak and be heard by first speaking with their actions. Mother Teresa was able to say politically controversial things on the international stage to the face of world leaders simply because of her life testimony. She was respected for her consistent life – there was no hypocrisy to undermine her words. When she spoke out against abortion at the National Prayer Breakfast, in front of pro-choice President Bill Clinton, no one doubted her when she said, “I want the child. Give me the child.” I want to be like that. I want people to respect what I say, simply because they know I mean it. It starts with me living my words, though. As I’m writing this post, I’m re-convicted. Am I really living what I believe? Am I doing everything I can to do what needs to be done? Mother Teresa famously called herself “a pencil in the hand of God” – am I living like that as well? She also saw everything she did as “God’s work;” do I take that perspective of everything I do? I’ll leave you with one of my favorite Mother Teresa quotes, that has become one of my Life quotes: “Calcuttas are everywhere if only we have eyes to see. Find your Calcutta.”
By Grace Tate