History’s most profound movements all had a face. Consider Elizabeth Eckford, whose stoic, courageous countenance against overwhelming racism at Little Rock High School kindled the nation’s conscience and helped wind down segregation in a way that the Supreme Court could not. Or Mohamed Bouazizi, a modest 26-year-old Tunisian vegetable cart owner who, pushed by the oppression of a corrupt state, lit himself on fire in protest and sparked the Arab Spring uprisings.
When TIME announced last week its 100 Most Influential People In The World, it bestowed this distinction — equal parts honor and responsibility — on an unlikely yet undeniable new candidate, a 15-year old school girl from Pakistan named Malala Yousafzai.
Malala’s rise has been extraordinary for many reasons, not the least of which takes into account her upbringing in a country that eschews women, culturally and explicitly. Her story began to inspire in 2009 when she started blogging for BBC Urdu at the age of eleven. It erupted into legend in 2012 when Taliban gunmen boarded her school bus and tried — but failed — to silence her with a bullet in the head.
Holy shit, we think, when we hear Malala’s story. We connect to it immediately because it contains elements that resonate universally — an unlikely hero, overcoming great adversity, gunshots bang bang. It makes us think because Malala is only 15-years-old and she has already been through so much and done so much. And then it makes us pause because we reflect on how much we have — the freedoms and security that we take for granted, the privilege of an education she almost gave her life for — and how little we have done with it. Holy shit.
Newark Mayor Cory Booker describes a condition called sedentary agitation. This is what it looks like: you learn about some new injustice in the world — an atrocious human rights abuse, another nauseating environmental disaster — and you get angry, upset, riled up. You denounce the powers that be and declare, “Something must be done!” And then you sit right back down on the couch.
These days we’re caught with one foot in sensationalism, one in apathy, floundering between two extremes. Action seems distant and far away. It takes so much just to complete our readings; there are gifs to be scrolled through, snap chats to be sent. Then, once in a while, we come across an issue which, for whatever reason, draws us in. In these moments we have the opportunity to act, to do something, anything, but all too often it amounts to fifteen minutes of adrenaline and a shrugging acceptance of what-can-one-person-do-anyway?
In an op-ed piece late last month, New York Times columnist David Brooks observes of our generation a “reversion to an empiricist mindset.” He notes “a tendency to think in demoralized economic phrases” and “a tendency to dismiss other more ethical and idealistic vocabularies.”
For whatever truth exists in this view, Malala is a testament that perhaps we aren’t yet that far devolved. When we see her quiet, confident eyes and hear the unquenchable ambition in her voice, we can only conjure intangible notions of bravery, conviction, and perseverance. Chelsea Clinton eloquently describes her as “a synonym for courage and a champion for girls everywhere.”
As Malala continues her recovery in England, going to school and writing a memoir, she is all of these things — and more. She is a reminder that courage and passion can still move mountains. Maybe, hopefully, that’ll be enough to get us off the couch.