"I'm comiiiiinggg!" Archbishop Tutu sings out from the adjacent room, the words rolling off his tongue in a playfully high-pitched refrain, before he comes wheeling and teetering -- all 5'2" of him -- around the corner of his suite at the Atlanta Grand Hyatt.
Deep breath in. The adrenaline unleashed by excitement and nervousness takes hold. Mouth is dry, heart is beating fast, and mind is racing, searching for the proper greeting for an Archbishop. "It is an honor to meet you, Father." Or, should it be, "Your Grace?" "Your Holiness?"
Archbishop Tutu joins us at the dining room table. His smile is gracious and slightly mischievous, his eyes sparkle, and his face matches the image of a man who has been signing his emails to us "Love and blessings, Arch." Formality fades, and we begin our conversation with a kindred spirit, a man far too excited about life and people to be bothered by titles.
Archbishop Tutu has agreed to speak with us as a partner of The Purpose Project -- an effort that we designed to inspire and equip a future generation of social leaders by sharing the wisdom and experiences of our predecessors -- and we begin our interview by asking him to tell us a part of his story that might motivate and guide a future generation of social leaders.
He responds by sharing snippets of the past and images of the people who have influenced him: "My mother was working as a cook in a school for blind, black people and she was cooking for the women in this institution. I must have been maybe 8 years old or so, and I was standing with my mother on the veranda when a white man went past wearing a long black cassock. And as he strutted past, he did something that I found striking: he doffed his hat to my mother. And I was just surprised that a white man should do that to a woman, a black woman, who was a simple domestic worker. I subsequently found out that he was Trevor Huddleston...one of the sharpest critics of the apartheid system and a great friend of Nelson Mandela...That helped to shape me, so that when I grew up, I probably thought that I wanted to emulate people of that kind."
He shares the secret to winning the Nobel Peace Prize: "A few years ago, I was in Bali with about 300 young people, and other elders...three or four Nobel Peace Laureates. And, at one point, one of these young people said, 'What do you have to do to win a Nobel Peace Prize?' And I said to them, 'Ah, it's easy. You need three things. One, you must have a large nose. Two you must have an easy name, like Tutu. Three,'--you know it was very hot in Bali and I'm in shorts, and I said, 'Three, you must have sexy legs.' Basically saying...that Nobel Laureates don't come dropping from the sky....You don't come in a way, sort of specially equipped. We all come equally able."
He reminds us about the nature and pace of social change: "When people look at a problem and think it is too big to solve, I remind them of the African saying, 'What's the only way to eat an elephant? One piece at a time.'"
And, at one point, in his humble and self-effacing wit, he tells us something about the inevitable process of aging: "My son, if you want an example of incredible decrepitude, you have it right here." Laughing, he rests his head in his small hands. We have talked for the better part of an hour. Archbishop Tutu is clever and witty, calm and patient, and oh so wise, but tired--from a full day of meetings, a month on the road giving countless speeches and lectures, and a lifetime of solving the world's problems.
Society has put Archbishop Tutu on a pedestal, but this exchange reminds us that he is, in fact, mortal. Eventually, he looks up, and smiles, "Ok, I'm done now."
Deep breath out. Our interview is over, and when the door closes behind us after a parting blessing, a confused wave of emotion hits. There is exhilaration, from having the opportunity to soak up the words of one of the great leaders of our time. There is a twinge of melancholy, from witnessing the way that age and fatigue can temper the fire and zeal of even our most tireless, successful and revered leaders. But mostly there is hunger for more--more of his hidden strategy and struggle, the person behind his accomplishments, the story behind his story.
* * *
Head still spinning and stomach churning -- now, because we have promised Archbishop Tutu that we will share his message, even though we aren't immediately sure what it is. We listen again to the interview. Hoping to overcome our bittersweet feelings of having some of our expectations for our meeting go unmet, we review his words and search for their significance.
There is a moment in our exchange when we ask Archbishop Tutu what he wants to say to the next generation. The question seems to activate his sense of hope and, as he answers, a light returns to his eyes, a boost to his posture, a passion to his voice.
"I have the highest regard for young people. God frequently makes use of young people because young people are idealistic. They dream dreams about a better world. They do. Until they are infected by the cynicisms of oldies like us, they do believe that poverty can become history. They are just amazing. I have a lot of time for them and say to them, 'Dream. Dream your dreams. Dream your dreams of a better world.'"
We've stumbled upon Archbishop Tutu's hidden message -- revealed partly in this short, simple vote of confidence, but mostly in his choice of what not to share. Through his reluctance to give us all the answers, solutions, and strategies for success, he conveyed a message much more profound, and simple: If we just get to work dreaming our dreams -- getting wrapped up in them so we feel we must live them, giving them voice, and sharing them with others -- then it will be very difficult to put them away again. The rest of the 'how' and the 'what' and the 'who' will take care of itself.
We realize now that our great expectations for our meeting were in fact met, just in a manner that we hadn't anticipated. Archbishop Tutu's message is a profound call to action. It's time for our generation to imagine a better world, and to start building it. Don't worry about finding all the answers or having everything planned out. We already have everything that we need to accomplish our goals. The freedom to dream is ours. The power to act is within us. Cynicism, apathy, and fear of failure are the enemy. Don't let them take hold. We'll figure the rest out along the way. That's it -- now let's get to it!
Our elders have told us in words, and shown us with their actions that we are all capable of anything we choose to dream. Now, they are relying on us to carry that legacy of inspiration and action forward. We are passing through a generational changing of the guard and it is now our time to dream, to serve, and to lead.
Archbishop Tutu's request echoes back to us, "Dream. Dream. Dream. Dream that this can be a world without poverty. Dream that this can be a world without war. Dream that this is a world that will recognize that every human being matters. Dream. Dream. Dream."
Have faith in our generation, Archbishop Tutu. We're comiiiiinggg!
Matthew Bennett and Michelle Cote are Founding Co-Directors of The Purpose Project, a non-profit initiative to inspire and equip the next generation of social leaders by sharing the wisdom and experience of their predecessors. Join the dialogue, learn more, and become involved by visiting www.purposeproject.org.
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