On my Thursday afternoon jaunt into downtown Seattle, I continued my lifelong mission of finding the best mocha latte in the world with a trip to Fran’s Chocolates. It was a truly indulgent experience, from the choice of the percentage of dark chocolates I wanted in my espresso to the salted golden caramel that arrived with my steaming cup. As I settled in to sip my frothy perfection in this confections shop in the lobby of the Four Seasons Resort, I spent a moment appreciating how incalculably lucky I am before pulling about a book to enjoy with my classed-up cup-o-joe.
As I sat paging and sipping in the sanctuary of sugar and privilege, I began to taste the bitter more than the sweet of the beverage for which I have been scouring the world. As my cup emptied and the page numbers climbed higher, the air-conditioned cool turned to a chill. The paperback book accompanying my cocoa cappuccino? Three Cups of Tea, by David Oliver Relin and Greg Mortenson. The irony did not escape me. It hardly ever does.
Three Cups of Tea is the story of Mortenson’s mission to found and maintain schools for children in the impoverished communities of northern Pakistan and Afganistan. After a harrowing failed climb of K2 in 1993, Mortenson lost his way and wandered into the village of Korphe, tired and emaciated. He was so moved by the hospitality of the people and the sight of Korphe’s children studying alone with no walls, he promised to come back and build them a school. Since then, the schools Mortenson founded with his Central Asia Institute have educated over 28,000 who would otherwise have no education or opportunities at all. Mortenson himself lived on very little while founding the organization, instead saving the money for the people of a country with which the US is at war. As quoted in the New York Times Bestseller, Mortenson says, “If we try to resolve terrorism with military might and nothing else, then we will be no safer than we were before 9/11. If we truly want a legacy of peace for our children, we need to understand that this is a war that will ultimately be won with books, not with bombs." When I closed the back cover of the book (which I highly recommend), I was very nearly crying into the remains of my mocha (and my dignity). What a message. What a mission. What a life.
What was I doing? I asked myself, there with my shiny empty mug and my chocolate and my soft, worn paperback? I had to go there! I had to stop this mocha nonsense, and get on a plane to Pakistan! Now! I had to ride my sugar rush out into the world and do something big! Those children needed me! But then I remembered something I’d read Mother Therese had said, that Saint of the Gutters who also makes an appearance in the tome: find your own Calcutta. When volunteers streamed into her Calcutta shelters to offer help to the people no one would touch before she made them famous, the woman turned them away. She spoke often of the fact that there are many people in the world who need help, not just the ones her work had brought into the spotlight. Was the Central Asia Institute really my Calcutta? Mortenson had stumbled into this town, and it became his life. What stumbling had I done? I should not act on the basis of a story I like to direct my life – especially as I was obviously not the only person touched by the #1 Bestseller. This was Mortenson’s Calcutta, not mine. I needed to take a breath. I needed to take the last sip of my mocha. I need to find the cause of my heart, not someone else’s.
I would have loved to leave that chocolate shop and stumble into a homeless shelter, or something. I would have loved to find my Calcutta in a truly novel-worthy metaphor scenario. But all that happened, as I walked out of the air-conditioned hush into the abnormally bright, obligatorily crowded downtown, was that a kid working for the ACLU asked me for money. In between mumbling, shifting his weight, and shaking my hand like his training had taught him, he told me that for the price of a cup of coffee a day, I could make sure that, “the rights of society's most vulnerable members are not denied.” I was tempted; what is the universe trying to tell me? I thought. But I kept walking: I don’t even agree with much of the ACLU. If I know one thing about stumbling into one’s Calcutta, it is that one will not do so in the passive voice.
In the Pakistan Mortenson so loves, they have a proverb that says, “Trust in Allah, but tie your camel.” I have one, too: “Enjoy your mocha, but stumble onward.” There is no way to rationalize away the gross discrepancy of luck and of wealth between me, a female university student in the US, and the girls in rural Asia that no one would help until Mortenson wandered in. I must see the queasy juxtaposition of my drink of choice and my book of choice. As much as I would like to, I can’t prematurely become a barnacle on someone else’s cause. I must live in the active voice, not the passive; I must be the cause, not the barnacle. Not everyone feels compelled to devote their lives to such a cause, but Greg Mortenson’s was a lucky wrong turn, for both him and for the world. If I never fulfill my lifelong mission to find the world’s best creamy-earthy-frothy magic liquid that fills my heart to brim, I hope that I can at least find a cause that fills my heart like Mortenson’s and Mother Therese’s did theirs.
Someday, maybe, I won’t even need the mocha.