Last week I received news that one of my most respected high school teachers had died in Lahore Pakistan after a long and successful career of inspiring young minds to achieve excellence in Mathematics and Computer Science. Contrary to what you may expect, this teacher was not a Pakistani male but rather an American female who dedicated her career to educating young Pakistani men in an all-male school — Aitchison College. Ms. Dorothy Eha hailed from Littleton Colorado but spent over four decades of her life in Pakistan where she lived in humble environs with a Pakistani family. Even with the rise of Islamic fundamentalism in the country she maintained her commitment to education and was not daunted by any changes in politics. She focused on her profession with dedication and her Pakistani students across the political spectrum embraced her with utmost affection. Uncommon as it was in Lahore for a woman to ride around on a motorcycle, she was able to do so without much care of harassment. Even the most conservative students saw her sincerity and it transformed their hearts and minds to respect her for who she was.
Ms. Eha’s life story is not unique but emblematic of the true pioneering spirit of Americans that made us the envy of the world. There are literally thousands of other Americans worldwide who have dedicated their lives in similar ways to causes that are more consequential than parochial nationalism. These noble souls know that America’s strength has always come from the ability of its citizens to reach out to the world with charitable conviction, but also with humility. These are the citizen diplomats that have helped to cultivate America’s positive image despite many of our government’s well-intentioned but misplaced interventions all over the world. Yet their story reveals not just the humanity which Americans are capable of exhibiting but also the capacity for ordinary people all over the world to recognize positive engagement, even when it may come from the citizen of a country they might not regard as a friend. Thus the toxic talk of thanklessness for American favors should be set aside.
No doubt the actions of our government can impact the vulnerability of Americans abroad but if we could find better ways of highlighting the success stories of citizens like Ms. Eha to the world, and indeed at home, perhaps we would have a less polarized world. Yet the tone of even how we communicate such stories of compassion is important. They should not be undertaken with brash condescension but rather with a spirit of shared concern and compassion. Since America was not a primary colonizing country, it has been able to hold more sway in the developing world in comparison with several European colonial powers, most notably France, the UK and Spain. In this way America is similar in its reputation to Ireland, Norway and Finland. We should not squander this historical capital by showing contemporary hubris in our military posture nor our political rhetoric.
The United States hosts the United Nations headquarters which is perhaps the most palpable example of the country’s leadership in global peace-building. Even diplomats of Iran and North Korea, two of America’s most inveterate foes, can reside in New York city as a result of this unique host status of our country. Despite the current debates on immigration and the caustic conversations on Capitol Hill and the White House, we are a country that has learned from many of our mistakes and reconfigured our identity. The demons of our past follies do occasionally haunt us but we are an adaptive people who must constantly strive to do better. Vacuous slogans of resurrecting greatness or chest-beating calls of macho patriotism serve little purpose. Let us focus instead on the wonders of America’s positive global role that is most clearly enshrined in the work of ordinary Americans such as Ms. Eha.
The final coda of George Eliot’s magnificent novel Middlemarch may be good reading for President Trump: “the growing good of the world is partly dependent on unhistoric acts; and that things are not so ill with you and me as they might have been, is half owing to the number who lived faithfully a hidden life, and rest in unvisited tombs.”