The ceremony for the Nobel Peace Prize takes place in Oslo, Norway on December 10th. For over a century, this prestigious award has recognized notable individuals for their contributions to the greater good of humanity around the world. The history of the award itself, and of the hundreds of people who have received it, shines a light on the deep sense of altruism that is to be found within the human spirit.
Alfred Nobel was born in Stockholm, Sweden in 1833. As a chemist, engineer and inventor, he developed the propellant, ballistite, which was used as a precursor to smokeless explosives. In total, he was responsible for 355 inventions, with dynamite being his most well-known discovery. His accomplishments in the area of destructive substances weighed heavy on his conscious. Despite the innovations he introduced to the world of science, the real-world application of his products was difficult for him to reconcile.
During an existential moment, he read his own obituary mistakenly written in a French newspaper. His name was wrongly used in place of his brother, Ludwig, who had actually passed away. This untimely misprint got Alfred to thinking more seriously about how he would be remembered after death. It prompted him to change his will, allocating his fortune to the establishment of a series of prizes for the promotion of peace. He intended to award recipients who offered the greatest benefits to mankind. To do so, he left 94% of his assets to be used for future prize money. Adjusting for inflation, this totaled up to the equivalent of $186 million U.S. dollars (based on 2008 values).
Since 1901, there has been a total of 950 Nobel Laureates. The vast majority of the awards have gone to individuals and 27 have been awarded to organizations. Not surprisingly, many of the laureates have fascinating backstories leading up to their international recognition later in life. Perhaps one of the most famous Nobel Peace Prize recipients is Mother Teresa. She won the award in 1979 after decades of dedication to assisting those in poverty.
Mother Teresa was born in 1910 to a Kosovar Albanian family living in North Macedonia. Her father passed away when she was about eight years old, so she lived with her mother and sister. As a young girl, she was inspired by stories of missionaries who were serving in Bengal. After turning 18, she left home to pursue a similar mission, first learning English by joining the Sisters of Loreto in Ireland. Her decision to move meant that she never got to see her family again, as they remained near home until moving to Tirana (the capital of Albania).
In 1929, a young Mother Teresa moved to India and took her religious vows. She chose to be named after the patron saint of missionaries. She served as a teacher in Calcutta at the Loreto convent, eventually becoming headmistress in 1944.
Terrible famines and the religious battles between the Muslims and Hindus of Calcutta prompted Mother Teresa to take her mission work deeper into the surrounding community. She followed her “calling within a calling” to begin living among the people as an Indian citizen. She pursued medical training that she could bring with her into the slums in order to help treat and care for the people who she felt needed her the most. She traded in her traditional habit for a simple white cotton sari with a blue border as a sign that she was committed to living among the people who she served, rather than in the comfort of the convent. As life became more difficult, she described feeling tempted to return to an easier lifestyle as a nun. However, she believed that doing so would go against God’s wishes for her to experience life in the trenches of poverty while making a positive impact on those around her.
From the 1950’s to the 1990’s, Mother Theresa established a congregation that grew from just 13 members to more than 4,000 nuns. They provided hospice care, managed orphanages and cared for refugees and victims of natural disasters. Mother Teresa’s mission was to care for those who were shunned by society, protecting their right to die with dignity according to their faith. Rather than preaching a solely Catholic mission, she allowed Hindus, Muslims and those of other faiths to continue their traditional customs and experience respectful hospice care. Her leprosy outreach clinics served those suffering from the disease in Calcutta. Eventually, her missionaries branched out from India to reach communities in Venezuela, Tanzania, Rome, Austria and throughout the United States, Asia, Africa and Europe.
As a missionary, Mother Teresa never allowed herself to become complacent or comfortable living in the convent. She vowed to venture into some of the most dangerous situations, often facing great personal hardship and criticism from those she tried to help. In 1982, 37 children were rescued from a front-line hospital through Mother Teresa’s ability to negotiate a cease fire in the war zone at Siege of Beirut. She cared for radiation sufferers at Chernobyl, earthquake victims in Armenia and starving people in Ethiopia. She committed to serving the poorest of the poor all over the world.
Rather than shying away or holding back, she fearlessly acclimated herself to treacherous living conditions in order to be present where she felt she was needed. To successfully carry out her heroic work, she trained to become fluent in five different languages: Hindi, English, Serbian, Albanian and Bengali. Her ability to put humanity above religious divides was a strong testament to her virtuous spirit. By never trying to change local customs or others religious beliefs, she was able to reach a wide range of people who were suffering from terrible diseases, like tuberculosis, leprosy and AIDS. These were the people who no one else dared to help. She was an inspiration to her students, her followers and those she cared for. Her legacy continues to inspire peace and compassion throughout the world.
Mother Teresa’s teachings followed a common theme of never believing that one person is too small to make a difference. Her sentiments are exemplified in quotes like, “If you can’t feed a hundred people, then feed just one” and “We ourselves feel that what we are doing is just a drop in the ocean. But the ocean would be less because of that missing drop.” She advocated for human connection through the power of a simple smile or a kind word. She preached love over judgement, giving over measuring and harnessing the power of putting love into action through practicing good deeds.
Her story was unique. She left a widespread, profound and extremely rare impact on the world. However, her messages of simple kindness, reaching out to your neighbor and offering what little you have to give, are ideas that we can all be inspired to live by. Although her influence was seen on such a global scale, the idea of making a positive difference in just one person’s life is something that anyone can achieve. Rather than dwelling on the past or feeling overwhelmed by the world’s problems, we can be prompted by her encouraging words, “Yesterday is gone. Tomorrow has not yet come. We have only today. Let us begin.”