What do Malala, Greta Thunberg, and Alex Trebek have in common?


What do Malala, Greta Thunberg, and Alex Trebek have in common? Compelling voices that galvanize attention[1]


They are a select breed. They often arise out of some combination of personal and socio-political trauma. They are messengers. They speak to particular moments in time, to the human condition and spirit, as well as to something larger.

A recent, well-known example is Malala Yousafzai. She was shot in the head by the Taliban in October 2012 in a failed assassination attempt. Her crime? Advocating for children’s rights, female education, and human rights in general.  During and after her remarkable recovery, she received numerous awards, including, at the age of 17, the 2014 Nobel Peace Prize, as a co-recipient with Kailash Satyarthi, a children’s rights activist from India.[2]

Now, 16-year-old Greta Thunberg, the Swedish schoolgirl who started the school strike for climate movement in 2018, has stepped on to the world stage. She first heard about global warming and climate change when she was eight. Three years later, she fell into a depression and stopped talking and eating. She lost ten kilos in two months. She was subsequently diagnosed with Asperger’s Syndrome, OCD, and selected mutism.[3]

“For those of us on the [autism] spectrum, almost everything is black or white,” she said during her TED Talk in Stockholm last November. “We aren’t very good at lying. And we usually don’t enjoy participating in the social game that the rest of you seem so fond of…. I think in many ways we autistic are the normal ones and the rest of the people are pretty strange, especially when it comes to the sustainability crisis where everyone keeps saying that… climate change is an existential threat and the most important issue of all and yet they just carry on like before.”[4]

Alex Trebek, 78, is a different case, a messenger of a different sort. Already a public figure, the popular, admired, and long-standing host of Jeopardy! garnered much sympathy and support when he announced in March that he is battling the long odds of stage 4 pancreatic cancer. By all appearances he has had a good life, one he hopes to continue in improved health.

“I’m used to dealing with pain,” he recently told Good Morning America, “but what I’m not used to dealing with is the surges that come on suddenly of deep, deep sadness and it brings tears to my eyes.”[5]

Tears of grief and gratitude for the preciousness of life. Who can’t relate to Trebek as he stares death in the face?

Where Trebek’s existential crisis is exclusive to himself and his family and friends, Thunberg’s encompasses not only herself and her children and grandchildren, should she have any, but civilization itself, unless the current generation makes a profound course correction.

The fourteenth century was another time with more than a few problems. I recently read an essay that described it as “a world ravaged by the Hundred Years’ War between England and France and torn apart by the Great Papal Schism…. [T]he Peasants’ Revolt of 1381 [saw] thousands of disenfranchised tenant farmers and laborers [march] all over England looting monasteries, burning records of their serfdom and debt, and killing their hated overlords. Most tragic of all [were the] repeated outbreaks of the Great Pestilence—later termed the Black Death—which eventually killed more than half the population of Europe, some 50 million people.”[6]

That century had its messengers, too. One of them was Julian of Norwich, who, at the age of 30 in May 1373, after falling ill and being administered the last rites, was spontaneously cured when she had a vision, which was followed by fifteen more visions over the following hours. Julian spent much of the rest of her life contemplating and writing about her visions, which she called showings. The most famous line from her writing is, “All will be well, and all will be well, and all manner of things will be well.”

This optimistic statement, according to David Spangler, the American mystic, “is grounded in the… realization that goodness exists as a seed state, a potential, within all things. It is not meant to reassure us as much as it is to awaken us to our true state and the true state of the universe, for it is this that ensures that ‘all will be well.’”[7]

Greta Thunberg seeks to awaken us as well. She says her selected mutism “basically means I only speak when I think it’s necessary.” She has been doing a lot of public speaking since mid 2018.

With startling bluntness, she told attendees at the COP 24 climate conference in Poland in December: “We have to speak clearly no matter how uncomfortable that might be. You only speak of the green, eternal, economic growth because you are too scared of being unpopular. You only talk of moving forward with the same bad ideas that got us into this mess even when the only sensible thing to do is pull the emergency brake. You are not mature enough to tell it like it is. Even that burden you leave to us children. But I don’t care about being popular. I care about climate justice and the living planet. Our civilization is being sacrificed for the opportunity of a very small number of people to continue making enormous amounts of money.”[8]

The concluding message of her TED Talk is this: “[T]he only thing we need more than hope is action. Once we start to act, hope is everywhere. So instead of looking for hope, look for action. Then, and only then, hope will come.”[9]

One of the most prominent messengers of the last century was Albert Einstein. He called himself “a deeply religious nonbeliever” and maintained, “The most beautiful and profound experience is the sensation of the mystical.” He also said, “I must be willing to give up what I am in order to become what I will be.”

An author and historian, Patrick Wolfe lives in Victoria, British Columbia, Canada.

  1. A shorter version of this article appeared under the title “Instead of looking for hope, look for action” in the “Island Voices” section of the Victoria Times Colonist, June 2, 2019.
  2. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Malala_Yousafzai
  3. Greta Thunberg TED Talk – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EAmmUIEsN9A
  4. Ibid. – 2:15 and 2:30
  5. Sara M. Moniuszko, Tribune News Service, “Trebek opens up about cancer battle,” Victoria Times Colonist, Thursday, May 2, 2019, p. C5.
  6. Veronica Mary Rolf, “Julian Norwich and the Process of Transformation,” DailyGood, April 21, 2019 – http://www.dailygood.org/story/2274/julian-norwich-and-the-process-of-transformation/
  7. Quoted with the author’s permission. Source: David’s Desk #144 (monthly letter of May 3, 2019) – ALL WILL BE WELL, published by the Lorian Association.
  8. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VFkQSGyeCWg – 0:33
  9. Greta Thunberg TED Talk – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EAmmUIEsN9A – 10:13
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