Several years ago I was invited by one of the Associate Vice Chancellors of the University System of Georgia to address a group of graduating college seniors who were interested in attending graduate school. I spoke about the discipline involved in succeeding in graduate school, but more importantly the need that the country and the world have for talented people. Human suffering at the moment is so rampant that it will require an extraordinary collection of skills to help alleviate it.
The Associate thought that my message was fantastic and that it was important for the students to listen to it from the voice and mind of a young man. He embraced me long and hard and said that he had every faith that I would become a significant force for good and an important public intellectual. I took that in stride and appreciated his kind words. Since then, whenever we reconnect he says the same thing. He says it so much and with such conviction that at times I say to myself, “C’mon man, ease up.”
Recently, I have been battling through a crisis of confidence – a fractured belief in my ability to matter, to influence people and things that I care deeply about. At the bottom of the valley of that crisis, an almost divine combination of opportunities presented themselves to speak publicly on the very issues about which I was struggling. Part of the serendipity of those opportunities, is that they resulted in another meeting with the Associate.
He is a short, hard edged black man, former college president and generally high ranking academic official. I explained to him what had been happening. He looked at me so hard that it hurt. He looked me straight in the eye and said, “Kamau, you are it. You have the combination of vision, the analytical skills, the honesty and a remarkable ability to communicate with people.” He was speaking in a soft gruff voice, and it seemed that he was willing me to believe in myself. I blinked as the emotions surged. I felt like Neo must have felt in the face of Morpheus’ all consuming faith in him.
I have always believed that mentorship and cheerleading are important. When I can, I try to serve in those capacities just because it is my way and I generally believe in the capacity of people. It is clearer to me now, however, that in order to really be Morpheus, I have to be Neo. The experience of having a relative stranger believe in you so fiercely is incredible. The Associate said that he owes me because I’ve helped him to keep hoping and to keep believing. His belief in me is somehow loosely tied to his belief in himself and his mission. Listening to him and grappling with how what he said made me feel was an awesome experience. The timing and the setting created the drama, but it helped me better appreciate the tremendous significance of playing his role – of holding a young person, believing in them, telling them that you do and making them understand the force of your belief.