Acts of Change

by Dean Mattson

When you think of the type of person who causes change to happen, you usually picture a strong leader, someone who imposes their will and causes others to come around to their way of thinking. But as Three Cups of Tea shows, that is not the only way to make a difference.

It tells the story of Greg Mortenson, an American mountain climber who, in the Himalayas during one of his attempts, gets separated from his groups and lost in the cold highlands for a week, before he is rescued. In poor health, he is nursed back to health by the poor inhabitants of a remote Pakistani village and vows to repay their kindness by building them a school. The book tells about his trials and ultimate triumph as he builds that first school and how it becomes his life mission.

One of the interesting things about the book is that Mortenson succeeds because he subsumes his own identity to dedicate himself to the needs of the overlooked villagers. He finds that if only listens to them and pays them the proper respect, going as far as to adopt their religious practices, they are wiser than he his.

If that sounds like a veiled criticism of American foreign policy, it becomes much more explicit in the last third of the book, which takes place after 9/11 and as Mortenson begins making trips of Afghanistan. He clearly feels that the type of work he is doing is much more effective at fighting terrorism than all of the bombs and invasions.

“I’ve learned that terror doesn’t happen because some group of people somewhere like Pakistan and Afghanistan simply decide to hate us. It happens because children aren’t being offered a bright enough future that they have a reason to choose life over death,” he tells Congress.

I remember during that time President Bush had an initiative to have American children donate money to help the children of Afghanistan, and we collected money at our school for it. I thought it was a wonderful idea to demonstrate Americans’ kindness and goodwill. Unfortunately, the effort was short-lived and Americans weren’t asked to contribute anything more. I wonder if that money went to any good.

Although Greg Mortenson’s story is compelling, the writing itself is workmanlike. The author David Oliver Relin’s background is in journalism, that the book has a “just-the-facts” quality to it. I never got the feeling I got to know any of the principals involved as real living, breathing, complicated human beings. Through much of the book, Mortenson is portrayed so perfectly, it was kind of a shock at one point to hear that his organization was almost falling apart because he would disappear instead of facing the choices that needed to be made to keep it afloat. Nor was he taking care of himself or his family. Major problems, yet the book only touches on them.

Still, that takes nothing away from Greg Mortenson’s accomplishment. In a part of the world where the U.S. badly needs friends, he is showing us how to make them, one act of goodwill at a time.