People of the margins

It’s easy to imagine that well-known people have always felt strong and resilient: at the centre of the worlds in which they are placed. The truth is often otherwise. Most well-known people are well known precisely because they have stood out from the crowd. Here are some marginal moments from the lives of social reformers, performers, artists and others.

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Malala Yousafzai (1997 – )

Born in 1997 into a Sunni Muslim family, Malala Yousafzai is the daughter of a poet, educational activist and owner of a chain of schools. In 2008 her father took her to Peshawar to speak to the local press club. “How dare the Taliban take away my basic right to education?” she asked in a speech covered by newspapers and TV channels. In 2009 she wrote a blog under a pseudonym for the BBC detailing her life under Taliban occupation and her views on promoting education for girls. In 2012, following intensive rehabilitation, she survived an attempted assassination in which a gunman, having asked for her by name, fired three shots at her head.

“I used to think that the Talib would come, and he would just kill me. But then I said, ‘If he comes, what would you do Malala?’ then I would reply to myself, ‘Malala, just take a shoe and hit him’. But then I said, ‘If you hit a Talib with your shoe, then there would be no difference between you and the Talib. You must not treat others with cruelty and that much harshly, you must fight others but through peace and through dialogue and through education.’ Then I said I will tell him how important education is and that ‘I even want education for your children as well.’ And I will tell him, ‘That’s what I want to tell you, now do what you want.”

Gao Zhesheng (1964 – )

Gao Zhesheng is a Chinese, Christian, human rights lawyer who has courageously defended China’s Christians, followers of the Falun Gong movement and others that have suffered injustice at the hands of the Chinese Communist party. He was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize in 2008 for his work.

As an outspoken critic of the Chinese government the authorities close down Gao Zhisheng’s law practice in 2005. The following year he was convicted of subversion and sentenced to house arrest. In 2007 he was tortured during a period of detention and then disappeared in 2009 having been kidnapped by security officials. He reappeared for a month in 2010 before disappearing again. Finally in 2011 the state media said he has been jailed for three years in Xinjiang prison. Last year he was finally released but was “utterly destroyed” after three years of physical and psychological abuse in jail.

“Facing the Chinese Communist Party’s persecution of those who believe in Jesus, every Christian should have the courage to ‘carry the cross,’ as opposed to being numb to the suffering of fellow brothers and sisters… Each of us must be an agent of change!”

Pope Francis (1936 – )

Jorge Mario Bergoglio was born in Buenos Aires, Argentina, ordained as a Jesuit priest in 1969. He was elected Pope in 2012, the first Jesuit, the first from the Americas, the first from the Southern Hemisphere and the first non-European since the Syrian Pope Gregory III in 741.

He has been noted for his humility, his concern for the poor and his commitment to interfaith dialogue. He is known for having a humble approach to the papacy, residing in the guesthouse rather than the papal Palace used by his predecessors. As Cardinal he took public transport and cooked his own meals. He maintains that the Church should be more open and welcoming. Although he considers poverty a huge problem, he does not support unbridled capitalism, Marxism or Marxist versions of liberation theology.

‘Over his 18 years as bishop and archbishop in Buenos Aires, one priest estimated Bergoglio must have personally talked to at least half the people in the slum in visits where he would just turn up, wander the alleyways, and chat to the locals and drink tea with them… The man who was Bergoglio’s close aide for the first eight years of his episcopal ministry said: ‘He doesn’t see the poor as people he can help but rather as people from whom he can learn…He believes the poor are closer to God than the rest of us; they have a very personal experience of him.’

As Bergoglio said in El Jesuita:

‘I don’t have all the answers; I don’t even have all the questions. I always think of new questions and there are always new questions coming forward. But the answers have to be thought out according to the different situations, and you also have to wait for them. I confess that because of my disposition, the first answer that comes to me is usually wrong. When I am facing a situation, the first solution I think of is what not to do. Because of this I have learned not to trust my first reaction. When I’m calmer, after passing through the crucible of solitude, I come closer to understanding what has to be done…You can do a great deal of harm with the decisions you make.’

(From Pope Francis, Untying the Knots, Paul Vallely)

Martin Luther King (1929 – 1968)

American Baptist minister, activist, humanitarian, and leader in the African-American Civil Rights Movement.

Martin Luther King’s father was overheard telling his son “he would make something of him even if he had to beat him to death.” He saw his refusing to listen to a traffic policeman after being referred to as “boy” and stalking out of a store when being told that he would have to move to the rear to be served.  As a child, King befriended a white boy whose father owned a business nearby, but they had to attend different schools from age six and the other child’s father no longer wanted them to play together.

King suffered from depression throughout much of his life, tried to commit suicide aged 12, shortly after his maternal grandmother died. He became a Baptist Minister on the basis of ‘an inner urge to serve humanity’, though ‘doubts began to spring forth unrelentingly’ from an early age.

One night in 1955 at the beginning of his civil rights work, following months of violence, being arrested and receiving a particularly threatening call designed to frighten him off, he found he could not get to sleep.  He went down to his kitchen, made a coffee and thought how he could withdraw without appearing a coward. He lent forward, his head in his hands and prayed,

“I am here taking a stand for what I believe is right. But now I am afraid. The people are looking for leadership, and if I stand before them without strength and courage they too will falter. I am at the end of my powers. I have nothing left.”     

‘At that moment, I experienced the presence of the Divine as I had never experienced God before. It seemed as though I could hear the quiet assurance of an inner voice saying: “Stand up for justice, stand up for truth; and God will be at your side forever.” Almost at once my fears began to go. My uncertainty disappeared. I was ready to face anything.”

Nelson Mandela (1918 – 2013)

Nelson Mandela was born into the Thembu royal family in South Africa.  He felt ‘cut adrift’ when, aged nine, his father died and he was entrusted to the guardianship of the Thembu regent. He did not see his mother for many years. He was the first person in his family to attend school. At University he founded a first-year students’ committee which challenged the dominance of the second-years and became involved in a boycott against the quality of food, for which he was suspended and left without a degree. Working as a lawyer, he fought against apartheid. He was sentenced to life imprisonment for sabotage and trying to overthrow the Government in 1964. He served 27 years in prison, and for much of this time was permitted one visit and one letter every six months. He was elected President of South Africa in 1994.

At the time Mandela entered prison he was a hotheaded, opinionated young leader, given to pedantry, full of derivative ideas – as he himself reflected in a letter to his wife. He emerged from these secluded years reflective, disciplined, able to force a consensus and yet to draw the humanity out of another by sheer conviction and persistence…

During their time [of imprisonment on Robben Island] in this place of pariahs, shut out of history, Mandela and his comrades became to all intents and purposes living ghosts… Up until the 1980’s Free Mandela Campaign, they were from the point of view of their country ‘not present, nor presently living.’ Likewise, to them their country and its people had been turned into distant presences whom they would in all likelihood never see again, and certainly not touch, not in the form to which they had bid farewell: they were sentenced for life. They populated the past and invoked visions of the future, but the present was not theirs.

Many prisoners unsurprisingly felt beset by a sense of disorientation and disembodiedness, of being evacuated from society and history: in short of being reduced to specters. They not only spent long periods in silence, they were also deprived of watches, the most basic facility of self-regulation.

(Nelson Mandela: A very short introduction, Elleke Boehma)

Etty Hillesum (1914 – 43)

Etty Hillesum was a non-practicing Jewish woman born in Holland and whose letters and diaries, kept between 1941 and 1943, describe the growing restrictions on her life during the German occupation. She avoided offers to go into hiding and worked at her own request at Westerbork, a transit camp for people being sent to concentration camps. She said that she wished to support people as they were preparing for the transport and to “share her people’s fate.”

Living in volatile times, she came to faith through therapy and contemplation rather than theology. She focused on her individual experience of the divine rather than explanations provided by institutions and was open to the truth in all faiths. As the Nazis rounded up Jews one night in Amsterdam she knelt in prayer in her bathroom. Peering up at the sky through an open window she prayed:

“Lord you are vulnerable. You need us to help you. You can’t help us. You need us to stretch out and give you a hand and let you in. To keep your still quiet voice alive inside us Lord.”    

Later in a concentration camp she wrote:

‘I’m not easily frightened. Not because I’m brave, but because I know that I am dealing with human beings….I try as hard as I can to understand everything that anyone ever does. That was the real import of this morning: not that a disgruntled young Gestapo officer yelled at me, but that I felt no indignation, rather a real compassion, and would have liked to ask, ‘did you have a very unhappy childhood, has your girlfriend let you down?’…. But all the blame must be put on the system that uses such people. What needs eradicating is the evil in man, not man himself’.

Rosa Parks (1913 – 2005)

Although Rosa Parks experienced the kindness of some white strangers as a child, she was also fully aware of the racism of society. When the Ku Klux Klan marched down the street her grandfather guarded the front door with a shotgun. Arsonists twice burned her (black) school and the white teachers were ostracized by the rest of the white community. She was repeatedly bullied by white children and fought back physically. She faced racial segregation in public places, shops and busses.

In 1955 the driver of a bus she was on ordered four black people to give up their seats in favour of whites. Three of them agreed but Rosa refused. The subsequent legal case and bus boycott became important symbols of the civil rights movement.

‘I did not want to be mistreated, I did not want to be deprived of a seat that I had paid for. It was just time… there was opportunity for me to take a stand to express the way I felt about being treated in that manner. I had not planned to get arrested. But when I had to face that decision, I didn’t hesitate to do so because I felt that we had endured that too long. The more we gave in, the more we complied with that kind of treatment, the more oppressive it became.’

Mother Teresa (1910 – 1997)

Mother Teresa founded the Missionaries of Charity, a religious congregation whose 4500 sisters run programmes in 133 countries. They adhere to vows of chastity, poverty and obedience and to give “wholehearted free service to the poorest of the poor”. After her death it became known that she suffered from depression and questioning

“In the darkness…Lord, my God, who am I that You should forsake me?  The child of your love—and now become as the most hated one…You have thrown away as unwanted—unloved…So many unanswered questions live within me afraid to uncover them—because of the blasphemy—If there be a God—please forgive me…I am told that God loves me, and yet the reality of darkness & coldness & emptiness is so great that nothing touches my soul.”

“The more I want Him (God), the less I am wanted…Such deep longing for God—and…repulsed— empty—no faith—no love—no zeal.”

Dietrich Bonhoeffer (1906 – 1945)

After obtaining a doctorate in Theology at 24, Dietrich Bonhoeffer travelled to New York where through the Abyssinian Baptist Church in Harlem he developed a love for African American spirituals and began to see things “from below”—from the perspective of those who suffer oppression. He returned to a lecturing post in Germany, becoming a determined opponent of the Nazis and subsequently became involved in the German Resistance movement. When offered a parish post in eastern Berlin, he refused it in protest at the Church’s policy of prohibiting non-Ayrians from taking parish posts. He was executed in 1944 for taking part in a plot against Hitler.

How does peace come about? Though a system of political treaties? Through the investment of international capital in different countries? Through the big banks, through money? Or through universal peaceful rearmament to guarantee peace? Through none of these, for the single reason that in all of them peace is confused with safety. There is no way to peace along the way of safety. For peace must be dared. It is the great venture. It can never be safe. Peace is the opposite of security. To demand guarantees is to mistrust, and this mistrust in turn brings forth war. To look for guarantees is to want to protect oneself. Peace means to give oneself altogether to the law of God, wanting no security, but in faith and obedience laying the destiny of the nations in the hand of Almighty God, not trying to direct it for selfish purposes. Battles are won, not with weapons, but with God. They are won where the way leads to the cross. Which of us can say he knows what it might mean for the world if one nation should meet the aggressor, not with weapons in hand, but praying, defenceless, and for that very reason protected by ‘a bulwark never failing’?

(From a Speech delivered by Bonhoeffer in 1934 and reprinted in ‘No Rusty Swords’)

Viktor Frankl (1905 – 1997)

Viktor Frankl was professor of Neurology and Psychiatry at the University of Vienna Medical School where he developed existential psychotherapy. He spent three years in Auschwitz, Dachau and other concentration camps during World War Two losing his wife, his parents and brother. Out of that experience he realised the importance of finding meaning and inner freedom even in the most horrific of circumstances.

‘I remember a personal experience. Almost in tears from pain (I had terrible sores on my feet from wearing torn shoes), I limped a few kilometres with our long column of men from our camp to our work site. Very cold, bitter winds struck us. I kept thinking of the endless little problems of our miserable life. What would there be to eat tonight? If a piece of sausage came as extra ration, should I exchange it for a piece of bread? Should I trade my last cigarette, which was left from a bonus I received a fortnight ago, for a bowl of soup? How could I get a piece of wire to replace the fragment which served as one of my shoelaces…?

I became disgusted with the state of affairs which compelled me, daily and hourly, to think of only such trivial things. I forced my thoughts to turn to another subject. Suddenly I saw myself standing on the platform of a well-lit, warm and pleasant lecture room. In front of me sat an attentive audience on comfortable upholstered seats. I was giving a lecture on the psychology of the concentration camp! All that oppressed me at that moment became objective, seen and described from the remote viewpoint of science. By this method I succeeded somehow in rising above the situation, above the sufferings of the moment, and I observed them as if they were already of the past. Both I and my troubles became the object of an interesting psychoscientific study undertaken by myself. What does Spinoza say in this Ethics? – ‘Affectus, qui passio est, desinit esse passio simulatque eius claram et distinctam formamus ideam.” Emotion, which is suffering, ceases to be sufferings as soon as we form a clear and precise picture of it.

(From Man’s Search for Meaning, by Viktor Frankl)

Bill Wilson (1895 – 1971)

Bill Wilson was brought up by his maternal grandparents after his own parents abandoned him. At 17, he had serious depression after his first girlfriend died from surgical complications. At 21 he found that drinking cocktails helped him feel at ease with others and liberated him from his awkward shyness. ‘I had found the elixir of life’ he wrote. He regularly got drunk, often passing out completely. He was too drunk to pick up his diploma from law school and drinking ruined his reputation as a financial advisor. After four hospital treatments for alcoholism he experienced a ‘Hot Flash’ conversion with the sensation of a bright light, a feeling of ecstasy and a new serenity.

He helped groups of people facing alcoholism, believing that it was caused by mental obsession and physical allergy.  The group promoted its programme of recovery through a book called ‘Alcoholics Anonymous’, Wilson being the primary author. This led to the development of Alcoholics Anonymous as a worldwide organisation.

‘To the world you may be one person but to one person you may be the world.’

‘Indecision with the passing of time becomes decision.’

‘You can’t think your way into right action, but you can act your way into right thinking.’

‘Almost without exception alcoholics are tortured by loneliness.’

‘The Catholics call it salvation, the psychiatrists call it integration, and I call it growth’

‘The common denominator of spiritual experience is pain and utter hopelessness’

‘I used to be ashamed of my condition and didn’t talk about it. But in recent years, I freely confess I’m a depressive, and that attracts other depressives to me. Working on them has helped a great deal. In fact, it helped me more than it did them.’

Mahatma Gandhi (1869 – 1948)

Raised in India, Gandhi trained as a lawyer in London before moving to South Africa to work as a lawyer for Indian traders and fighting for the rights of all Indians. After 21 years in South Africa he returned to India where he led nationwide campaigns to ease poverty, expand women’s rights, build religious and ethnic amity, end untouchability and lead the Indian independence movement in British-ruled India.

Gandhi later wrote of the night when, aged 24, he was thrown off a train for refusing to move from a whites-only compartment:

The train reached Maritzburg, the capital of Natal, at about 9pm… A passenger came and looked me up and down. He saw that I was a ‘coloured’ man. This disturbed him. Out he went and came in again with one or two officials. They all kept quiet, when another official came to me and said, ‘Come along, you must go to the van compartment.’

‘But I have a first class ticket,’ said I.

‘That doesn’t matter,’ rejoined the other. ‘I tell you, you must go to the van compartment.’

‘I tell you, I was permitted to travel in this compartment in Durban and I insist on going on in it.’

‘No, you won’t,’ said the official. ‘You must leave this compartment, or else I shall have to call a police constable to push you out.’

‘Yes, you may. I refuse to get out voluntarily.’

The constable came. He took me by the hand and pushed me out. My luggage was also taken out. I refused to go to the other compartment and the train steamed away. I went and sat in the waiting room…

I began to think of my duty. Should I return to India, or should I go on to Pretoria without minding the insults? It would be cowardice to run back to India without fulfilling my obligation. The hardship to which I was subjected was superficial – a symptom of the deep disease of colour prejudice. I should try, if possible, to root out the disease and suffer hardships in the process. Redress for wrongs I should seek only to the extent that would be necessary for the removal of the colour prejudice. So I decided to take the next available train for Pretoria.

(From ‘My Experiments with Truth’ – Mahatma Gandhi)

Vincent Van Gogh (1853 – 1890)

Born to upper middle class parents, Van Gogh started work as an art dealer, before becoming a missionary in a mining region in Belgium where he drew people from the local community. He later moved to Paris and then the south of France where he developed a unique and highly recognizable style of painting. He struggled to make a living and sold only one painting in his lifetime. After years of anxiety and bouts of mental illness, he died aged 37 from a self-inflicted gunshot wound.

 “What am I in the eyes of most people — a nonentity, an eccentric, or an unpleasant person — somebody who has no position in society and will never have; in short, the lowest of the low. Even if that were absolutely true, then I should one day like to show by my work what such an eccentric, such a nobody, has in his heart. That is my ambition…. Though I am often in the depths of misery, there is still calmness, pure harmony and music inside me. I see paintings or drawings in the poorest cottages, in the dirtiest corners. And my mind is driven towards these things with an irresistible momentum.”