Hawaii’s Oppression By Mediocrity

Susan Page
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Wednesday - June 01, 2005
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Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness that frightens us. We ask ourselves, who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented and fabulous? Actually, who are you not to be? You are a child of God. Your playing small does not serve the world. There’s nothing enlightened about shrinking so that other people won’t feel insecure around you. We were born to make manifest the glory of God that is within us. It’s not just in some of us; it’s in everyone. And as we let our own light shine, we unconsciously give other people permission to do the same. As we are liberated from our own fear, our presence automatically liberates others. — Nelson Mandela

The last sentence of this speech by Nelson Mandela is widely quoted. Yet, when read in context, it takes on such a different meaning. It speaks to so many aspects of our society — how we work, socialize, educate.

Of course, Nelson Mandela knows of fear, darkness and letting his light shine. With South Africa’s policy of apartheid and a 26-year prison stay as teachers, no way should he have walked out of that prison feeling “gorgeous, talented and fabulous.” Yet somehow, amazingly, he did. And his light of forgiveness, reconciliation — indeed, his brilliance — gave a nation of long-oppressed black South Africans permission to be brilliant too. In fact, the whole world stood in awe of this man who became that nation’s first black president after apartheid’s end.

To accept Mandela’s philosophy, it’s crucial to first believe, as he does, in a higher power, a creator. A “child of God” cowers before no other race or class. No prime minister or president has more power than God’s power within even the poorest child.

Way back in 1968 when I was teaching local teenage girls selfimprovement, I was struck by how they resisted shining, how they worked at “playing small.” One girl always changed from rather grubby attire into her “class” clothes once she got there. Then, after class she’d switch again, pulling her hair back in a tight ponytail and taking off any remnants of makeup before joining her friends.

“Shame,” she said, when I asked why she didn’t want to show off her new, improved look to her friends and family.

Shame?!

This was my first experience with how being “fabulous,” or even merely above average, was considered a bad thing. Now after having taught thousands of teens over many years, I understand that in Hawaii, “shame” means stuck up, conceited, ho‘okano. I recall one now-famous Hawaii actress’s laments over cruel put downs in high school when she won a pageant title or achieved some other success.

That word came up again when my son was in public elementary school. It was “shame” to make good grades, raise your hand in class, wear nice clothes. (Not so in my daughter’s private school. It was shame if a student didn’t try hard, go for it, be his or her best.)

Here in Hawaii, promoting mediocrity isn’t uncommon — in fact, it may be pervasive. A friend described his job at a heavily unionized local workplace. “You work too hard and they let you know. They make it tough on you if you do a little bit extra.”

But is it shame to be an achiever like American Idol finalist Jasmine Trias or shark attack survivor surfer Bethany Hamilton, each of whom has refused to blend in? How many thousands of young people have they positively influenced by not “playing small” or “shrinking” so others won’t feel insecure?

Mandela’s exhortation to shine doesn’t disparage humility. That’s where the often-omitted part about God comes in. Recognizing that our brilliance — in whatever form it takes — is not created by our own cleverness but God’s, is key.

Nelson Mandela’s words should be read to students every day. They need to be given permission — no, encouraged — to be their own brilliant, God-manifested selves and not bury their talents beneath a mountain of “shame.” Only then are they liberated from the oppression of mediocrity.

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