Betty White, Desmond Tutu, and John Madden
Betty White, Desmond Tutu, and John Madden

The power of positivity

As we closed out 2021, many people celebrated the lives of major world figures who died. Three, in particular, caught my attention and compelled me to reflect on lives well lived. Now that I am in my early 50s, I find myself thinking more and more about legacy and what I still want to accomplish and experience. The careers and lives of Archbishop Desmond Tutu, football legend John Madden, and actress Betty White offer valuable insights into the power of positivity and following one’s passion.

Desmund Tutu

Desmond Tutu was a critical figure in the fight to end apartheid in South Africa. He and so many others committed to racial equality took on a situation that at times looked hopeless. That did not deter him. Tutu once said, “Hope is being able to see that there is light despite all of the darkness.” He also understood that each human has the power to contribute to the betterment of the world. “Do your little bit of good where you are; it’s those little bits of good put together that overwhelm the world,” he said.Tutu was uncompromising in his moral worldview and said, “You are either in favour of evil, or you are in favour of good. You are either on the side of the oppressed or on the side of the oppressor. You can’t be neutral.” Tutu understood the power of forgiveness. He recognized that racism also “dehumanized” white people. He was a key figure in South Africa’s truth and reconciliation process. As our own nation struggles with racial injustice and debates about how history should be taught, I find Tutu’s perspective instructive, quoting again, “Forgiving and being reconciled to our enemies or our loved ones are not about pretending that things are other than they are. It is not about patting one another on the back and turning a blind eye to the wrong….True reconciliation exposes the awfulness, the abuse, the hurt, the truth. It could even sometimes make things worse. It is a risky undertaking but in the end it is worthwhile, because in the end only an honest confrontation with reality can bring real healing. Superficial reconciliation can bring only superficial healing.”

John Madden’s passing was another 2021 headline that hit me hard. As a kid, I remember Madden as coach of the Raiders. But, our current students more likely know him from his video game franchise. With his distinctive voice and signature smile, Madden was a force of positivity. He won Super Bowls and had an extremely high win percentage, thanks to his careful preparation and research. But, 10 years into his coaching career, weary of the travel and the long nights of anxious preparation, he realized, “There has to be more to life than this.” He pivoted to become one of the best football commentators and one of the most fun to listen to. He knew so much about the game and the players. He had a number of fantastic quotes that seemed to poke fun at the very nature of sports commentary including these: “They’ll score if they can just get into the endzone,” or “The defense should be expecting a run or a pass here.” There is a great clip online of him analyzing Troy Aikman’s failed attempt to grow a beard. Madden expected his players to give it their all. He lived large and enjoyed life, saying, “I’ve never eaten just a few bites of things I liked in my life.” Despite a coaching career focused on winning, he also had a wonderful way of approaching failure. He noted, “If you make a mistake, admit it quickly and emphatically and don’t dwell on it.” And in another quote, “I never professed to be perfect. I do something wrong or something stupid, I laugh at myself.” What a role model for positive thinking.

Betty White

Finally, everyone I know was saddened by the passing of Betty White, just shy of her 100th birthday. I was particularly struck by the span of generations that admired her. I knew her from watching the Mary Tyler Moore Show in the 1970s, but my kids knew her, too, from her fantastic appearance on Saturday Night Live (SNL) in 2010 and through social media. She was one of the first people to appear on television in 1949 and touched the lives of many with her humor and insights. After her death, former head SNL writer Seth Meyers shared a story of how she showed up to the SNL afterparty, ordered a hot dog and a vodka, and was the last to leave the party. She once noted, “Everybody needs a passion. That’s what keeps life interesting. If you live without passion, you can go through life without leaving any footprints.” She had such a spirit of kindness that came through. She once said, “I know it sounds corny, but I try to see the funny side and the upside, not the downside. I get bored with people who complain about this or that. It’s such a waste of time.” Also, she modeled that we should never become irrelevant because of age, saying, “You don’t fall off the planet once you pass a given age. You don’t lose any of your sense of humor. You don’t lose any of your zest for life, or your lust for life.”

As we head into a long, uncertain winter with a new COVID-19 wave and other societal challenges facing us, let’s channel the positive energy of Tutu, Madden, and White and find the goodness in the world and in each other.