NPR’s series The Long View features interviews with people who have lived a long life and the perspective gained by living more than 70 years. In yesterday’s story with South African cleric and human-rights activist Archbishop Desmond Tutu, he shared an interesting insight about facing death when he was a teenager hospitalized with tuberculosis.
“I’d observed in the ward that almost all of the patients who coughed up blood ended up going to the — you call it a morgue, we call it a mortuary,” Tutu recalls. “And one day, this thing happened to me: I coughed, and the blood just came gushing out of my mouth. … I still can’t believe that that happened to me, but I sat there, and I said to God, ‘Well, if it means I’m going to die, that’s OK.’ I don’t think I’ve ever felt that same kind of peace, the kind of serenity that I felt after acknowledging that maybe I was going to die of this TB.”
Of course, he didn’t die, but went on to achieve great things. In the era of apartheid, Archbishop Tutu railed against the injustice and inhumanity of South Africa’s government, and his passionate advocacy helped make the change that came to that country in the 1990s.
What a gift to realize one’s own mortality at such a young age and come to a sense of peace. Perhaps that realization helped him to make such a difference in this world.