Thoughts by Richard Bleil
News of Mother Teresa’s death was restricted to a small one paragraph note on page three of the newspaper where I read of it. Mother Teresa died in 1997, and was a saint of the, well, then modern era. I guess many people wouldn’t think of this as a current event, but as I was teaching by then it is still current affairs in my mind. When I say she was a saint, I don’t mean it metaphorically (or sarcastically as my own sainthood, and yes, I’m a saint in the Universal Life Church of Modesto, California). She was honored as Saint Teresa of Calcutta by the Catholic Church, canonized in 2003. And yet, after a lifetime of service to the sick, poor and needy of Calcutta, her passing warranted nothing but a side note in the media. Even on television news casts, it was barely a sentence. And I think this might have been how she would have wanted it.
See, when she passed, the news was overwhelmed by the passing of another international celebrity, known as Princess Diana. Yes, Princess Diana died about the same time as Mother Teresa. The news of her passing overwhelmed the televised news programs and newspapers, and for good reason. Princess Diana was gorgeous, and I don’t just mean that she was physically attractive. Her story of a “commoner” turned princess was the stuff of dreams for many people, but she was also politically active and just a genuinely nice person. Not many people know this, but one of her passions was the ban of land mines. After leaving Vietnam, it’s estimated that over three million land mines remain buried. The hostilities have ceased, but civilians periodically are still killed by these sinister devices. It’s estimated that, had Princess Diana not passed on, she would have been successful in outlawing the use of landmines in warfare in just a few more years. Instead, since she passed, landmines continue to present a hazard in over seven hundred million square meters in Afghanistan.
This post is inspired by the passing of Betty White, which happened yesterday (December 31, 2021) as I write this (about a week before it will post). I’m literally heartbroken by this news. I adore Betty White, her gentle but somehow direct nature and inspirational life is something to be admired. A few weeks shy of becoming a centurion, she remained active right up to the very end. Just walking into a room would inspire standing ovations and brighten the mood of everybody near her. And yet, less than a week earlier, we also lost Bishop Desmond Mpilo Tutu.
While Betty White’s charm and humor brightened audiences from, literally, the very earliest days of television (including an “experimental” program where she danced for the burgeoning media form), Archbishop Tutu languished in prison for his radical ideals of freedom and peace in South Africa. Archbishop Tutu spent twenty-seven years in prison, and on his release returned to his agenda of peace and freedom. His activism brought to an end apartheid, and yet there is almost nothing of him in the news today. And, again, I suspect that might have been how he would have wanted it as well.
No, I am not badmouthing Betty. Like Princess Diana, she has earned her notoriety, and is beloved for a reason. I just find it interesting that the celebrity status of these two remarkable women outshine the deeds of Mother Teresa and Archbishop Tutu. Where I have been reading a lot about Archbishop Tutu is in the BBC, British News. Of course, this is not because the BBC is somehow better, but rather the simple fact that Betty White was not the celebrity in England that she is here in America. When Princess Diana passed, of course the BBC news was all about her rather than Mother Teresa. Yet, with the passing of the late great Betty White, perhaps we should take a few minutes to remember the other great spirits that we lost as well.
Someday, we’ll all pass. It’s in the contract for life that we eventually have to move on, and that, of course, is the main topic of religion. Humans, we believe, are the only species aware of our own imminent demise (or perhaps we’re the only species capable of discussing it). We should all be so lucky as to have accomplished what Mother Teresa and Archbishop Tutu had, or to have inspired the love that Princess Diana and Betty White did. Maybe the best tribute we can pay to any of them is to model our lives after those who we admire to accomplish what we deem most important while we are in this life.