The Uncommon Goodness of Greg Mortenson

I just read a remarkable and inspiring book called Three Cups of Tea: One Man’s Mission to Promote Peace…One School at a Time. This book tells the story of Greg Mortenson, a mountain climber whose failed attempt to climb K2 led to the discovery of his life’s mission: building schools, especially for girls, in the impoverished villages in northern Pakistan and Afghanistan that gave rise to the Taliban. To me, Mortenson’s story demonstrates the immense power of dedication to the goal of serving others. I believe he is a shining example of the kind of person — a person of uncommon goodness — that A Course in Miracles wants us to become.

The story of Mortenson’s mission began in 1993 at the age of thirty-five. That year, this self-described “climbing bum” who lived out of his car in Berkeley decided to climb K2 — the second-highest peak in the world, and regarded by mountaineers as the most difficult — in memory of his sister, who had died the previous year. Unfortunately, the K2 expedition didn’t go as planned. He and his fellow climbers got within six hundred meters of the summit but were unable to reach the top. Worse, he got separated from his party. Now lost, freezing, and suffering from altitude sickness, he searched desperately for the trail that led back to the village where his party would be waiting for him. Finally, weak and delirious, he wandered into another village called Korphe, and was taken in by its chief, Haji Ali.

Haji Ali and his family nursed Mortenson back to health, and as he got stronger, he began to think about how he could repay the villagers for their kindness and hospitality. He gave away his mountaineering gear to Haji Ali’s family. Since he was a nurse, he began treating the villagers’ many ailments, a service that forever earned him the title “Dr. Greg,” even though he wasn’t actually a doctor. But somehow, his small gestures didn’t seem enough. Then, he discovered that Korphe had no school. He witnessed eighty-two children — only four girls among them — kneeling on the frigid ground outdoors with no real school supplies, being taught by a teacher who came only three days a week. Mortenson now knew what he had to do. He told Haji Ali, “I will build you a school…I promise.”

So began Mortenson’s life’s work. He eventually built Korphe’s school (after first building a much-needed bridge), but he didn’t stop there. He founded a nonprofit organization called the Central Asia Institute, which has now built sixty-one schools to date, especially for girls, in villages all over northern Pakistan and Afghanistan. His schools have educated more than twenty-five thousand children, providing peaceful alternatives to the Wahhabi madrassas that train the radical Muslim jihadis the region is known for in the West. When not in Pakistan, he has brought his message of peace through education to Washington think tanks and the Pentagon, and to the American public through a speaking schedule that brought him to 110 cities from March 2006 through 2007.

None of this work has been easy. Needing funding for the Korphe school, he wrote 580 letters to possible donors, all hand-typed, until he finally found a rich donor who funded the project with a twelve-thousand dollar check. His organization was on a shoestring budget for years after that. And he has encountered opposition on many fronts. He was once kidnapped and held prisoner for nine days. He was once caught in the crossfire of a gunfight between feuding Afghan warlords. Conservative Islamic mullahs declared two fatwas against him, ordering him to leave Pakistan; thanks to the efforts of his many Muslim supporters, the fatwas were overruled by Islamic courts. He has been investigated by the CIA, and after 9/11 received hate mail and death threats from Americans who thought he shouldn’t be educating “the enemy.”

Mortenson’s single-minded dedication and willingness to risk everything to fulfill his mission has touched everyone who has encountered him. Some say he is a shoo-in to win the Nobel Peace Prize someday. A Pakistani helicopter pilot who met many distinguished people when he was President Musharraf’s personal pilot says, “Greg Mortenson is the most remarkable person I’ve ever met” (p. 3). Three Cups of Tea coauthor David Oliver Relin, who found himself transformed from objective journalist to committed advocate of Mortenson’s work after spending time in his orbit, sums up Mortenson’s impact on people this way:

Illiterate high-altitude porters in Pakistan’s Karakoram [mountain range] have put down their packs to make paltry wages with him so their children can have the education they were forced to do without. A taxi driver who chanced to pick Mortenson up at the Islamabad airport sold his cab and became his fiercely dedicated “fixer.” Former Taliban fighters renounced violence and the oppression of women after meeting Mortenson and went to work with him peacefully building schools for girls. He has drawn volunteers and admirers from every stratum of Pakistan’s society and from all the warring sects of Islam. (p. 3)

But with all the praise heaped upon him, those who know Mortenson say that he seems to be remarkably free of the egoic need to maintain his public image. As an illustration, when Relin agreed to write the book, Mortenson gave him a list of his enemies and said, “Talk to them all. Let them have their say. We’ve got the results. That’s all I care about” (p. 5). It’s not about what people think of him; it’s about accomplishing the mission.

There’s so much that can be said about Mortenson’s work from a Course in Miracles standpoint, but here I want to focus on two things that really jumped out for me as I read Three Cups of Tea. First, his story strikes me as a wonderful example of how, in the service of a holy goal, a person’s abilities can be transformed from “potentials for excelling” to “potentials for equalizing.” These phrases come from a fascinating Urtext passage (which, in edited form, became T-7.IV.3 in the FIP version of the Course):

Abilities began with the ego, which perceived them as a potential for excelling. This is how the ego still perceives them and uses them.…The Holy Spirit teaches you to use what the ego has made to teach the opposite of what the ego has learned. The kind of learning is as irrelevant as is the particular ability which was applied to the learning.

You could not have a better example of the Holy Spirit’s…unified purpose than this course. The Holy Spirit has taken very diversified areas of your past learning, and has applied them to a unified curriculum. The fact that this was not the ego’s reason for learning is totally irrelevant. You made the effort to learn, and the Holy Spirit has a unified goal for all effort. He adapts the ego’s potentials for excelling to potentials for equalizing. This makes them useless for the ego’s purpose, but very useful for His.

If different abilities are applied long enough to one goal, the abilities themselves become unified.

The thrust of this passage is that all abilities were invented by the ego as “potentials for excelling,” means of being better than others. But the Holy Spirit uses those same abilities as “potentials for equalizing,” means of affirming the inherent equality of everyone in the Sonship. And when abilities are applied to this goal of equalizing, whatever earthly form that goal takes, the abilities themselves become unified — they work together in harmony because they are all focused on a unified goal. In these paragraphs, Jesus applies this principle to Helen’s scribing of the Course: The Holy Spirit took the abilities that Helen developed as potentials for excelling, and turned them into potentials for equalizing by applying them to the unified goal of scribing A Course in Miracles.

As I read Three Cups of Tea, I got the sense that the Holy Spirit did the same thing with Greg Mortenson’s abilities. Before he wandered into Korphe, his life was devoted to mountain climbing, a great example of using abilities as potentials for excelling. I’m sure people have many reasons for climbing mountains, but certainly one big reason — probably the biggest reason — for climbing challenging peaks like K2 is simply to be able to say, “Wow, look at the amazing thing I did!” It’s mainly about individual accomplishment, doing something few others can do; it’s not something that affirms equality or really helps anyone else.

But once Mortenson committed to his mission of building schools, I could really see how the abilities he developed were transformed into potentials for equalizing, as they were turned to the goal of being truly helpful to other people who were normally regarded by people of the West as “lower” and less important. His many abilities — knowledge of the region and people, connections in the mountain climbing community, ability to function well in rugged, high-altitude terrain, a talent for improvising, a gift for learning foreign languages quickly, and more — were now the perfect means to accomplish the holy mission he had found for his life. I could see his abilities working together in harmony. I got the impression that an unseen Hand was at work, transforming this human being from an ordinary “climbing bum” to an extraordinary force for good.

This leads directly to the second thing that jumped out at me as I read the account of Mortenson’s journey: He strikes me as a great example of the Course’s model of the spiritually advanced person, an example that stands in stark contrast to the model we often see. In many spiritual communities, the emphasis is on attaining exalted states of mind; the great exemplars are those who claim to have become “enlightened.” But the Course’s model, exemplified in the character traits of the advanced teachers of God (M-4), is not a person who attains exalted states (though such states are certainly positive), but rather a person who is uncommonly good, a selfless extender of love to others.

Of course, I can’t really know how spiritually advanced Mortenson is, but he sure seems to embody the Course’s model to a significant degree. Though he is clearly a spiritual person (the son of Christian missionaries who now prays in the Muslim way), it’s equally clear that his life isn’t about attaining exalted states; instead, it is about helping others. His mental state is revealed not through any claims he makes, but through his obvious kindness and the loving effects he’s had on the countless lives he’s touched. Any attainment he may have is simply a means to his goal of extension in the form he feels called to do: “I just want to educate children” (p. 55).

I find this model of spiritual advancement far more appealing and inspiring than the “exalted states” model. One can reach an elevated mental state and still be full of ego, as so many fallen gurus have unfortunately demonstrated. But Mortenson, while certainly not perfect (as even his friends and supporters acknowledge), represents the kind of person the Course wants us to become: a true miracle worker, a good-hearted giver of love to his brothers and sisters in need. This is the kind of person I want to become.

[Please note: ACIM passages quoted in this article reference the Foundation for Inner Peace (FIP) Edition.]
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