The Vital Lesson Archbishop Tutu Taught Me About Life

How a simple note transformed my thinking about the fight for a better world

Tim Wise
6 min readDec 26, 2021

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South African Archibshop (Cape Town), Desmond Tutu, big-ashb, Flickr, creative commons license

What if I told you that winning wasn’t everything?

Even if the thing for which you’re fighting is justice in an unjust society, and the failure to obtain it would mean continued injury to millions?

You might think such a thing absurd. In the face of injustice, how can anything short of success in arresting it be acceptable?

And yet, in a way, that is the lesson I learned from (and the gift of wisdom I was given by) South African Archbishop Desmond Tutu, when I was 19, desperately trying to figure out the meaning of life and my role in making the world a better place.

Please don’t misunderstand. I am not suggesting that a man such as Tutu, whose anti-apartheid activism secured him the Nobel Prize in 1984 and who died yesterday at the age of 90, didn’t care about ending that system of racial oppression.

Of course, he longed for that, fought for that, and ultimately helped secure it.

But the fight against apartheid, as with any form of human cruelty, was righteous and necessary, and would have been every bit as much so, even had it never succeeded.

It was not the inevitability of apartheid’s fall that gave the struggle against it validity.

There was righteousness in the struggle itself, which redeemed the anti-apartheid movement and the lives of those engaged in it.

That may seem obvious when stated that way. But how often do we act as though the only reason for which one should do anything — from academic achievement to putting forth maximum effort at work to engaging in political activism — is in the anticipation of success, however defined?

Rather often, in my experience.

We treat life as entirely transactional more often than not.

Winning, getting into the “right school” or making more money or getting a bigger house, or — in the case of activism — obtaining justice or peace are the goals.

And anything shy of the ultimate prize is seen as failure.

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Tim Wise

Anti-racism educator and author of 9 books, including White Like Me and, most recently, Dispatches from the Race War (City Lights, December 2020)