Two stories shape our lives: the stories we tell about ourselves, and the master social narrative that defines our relationships and roles within society. A defining moment for people of color and women comes when they recognize they either are not included in the dominant social narrative or are belittled and disempowered by it. When people in marginalized groups offer what’s known as a “counter narrative,” they open up new worlds of possibility for themselves and others in their group. I’ve always been most inspired by those with the courage to bring forth a counter narrative that creates a new social narrative into which I could step. This series of stories features such people. I hope you find them as inspiring as I have. For more on the importance of the stories we tell—and believe—about ourselves, and the power we can claim when we re-author those stories and offer counter narratives, please see The Power of Counter Narrative.
United Nations Secretary General
The world seemed ready to blow itself up in the 1950s with the creation of the hydrogen bomb and nuclear proliferation. A few people offered hope. One of these was Dag Hammarskjold (1905-1961)—“a noble servant of peace,” said President John F. Kennedy, “the greatest statesman of our century.”
As secretary-general of the United Nations from 1953 until his death, Hammarskjold pushed hard for global nuclear disarmament, meanwhile working to ease tensions in the Middle East, Korea, and Africa. A historian writes that he helped “restore the soul” of the UN that had “somehow slipped away” after the founding of the body in 1945. He was that “most unusual of creatures,” said a UN co-worker, “a truly good man.”
In the field of weapons negotiations, Hammarskjold advocated incrementalism, believing that small, modest, practical steps (“dents,” as he called them) could build trust, and would, in time, lead to significant leaps of progress. “You start with a dent,” he said, “which leads to a rift in the wall through which you finally find an opening for discussion.” The “dent” concept has influenced policymakers ever since.
Born and raised in Sweden, Dag Hjalmar Agne Carl Hammarskjold served his country in public office for more than 30 years as a diplomat and economist. His father was prime minister of Sweden from 1914-17 and the family’s ancestors began serving the Swedish monarchy in the 1600s.
Hammarskjold remarked, “From generations of soldiers and government officials on my father’s side I inherited a belief that no life was more satisfactory than one of selfless service to your country—or humanity. This service required a sacrifice of all personal interests, but likewise the courage to stand up unflinchingly for your convictions.”
Cavanaugh-Simmons first became aware of Hammarskjold as a young girl in the 1950s. Edward R. Murrow of CBS TV News and other broadcasters came on the air and began talking about the issues of the day, in which Hammarskjold played a large role. “I remember when we got our first TV,” Cavanaugh-Simmons says. “This was a very big deal. You have to realize that suddenly, with TV in the ’50s, the whole world was literally streaming into our house, visually, every day. That was new. That was amazing. There, on TV, was this gentle man, Dag Hammerskjold, flying around the world seeking peace, speaking calmly with a beautiful accent, being spoken of with respect by such formidable figures as Ed Murrow.”
The United Nations was still “a grand and hopeful experiment” in the ’50s, Cavanaugh-Simmons recalls: “It was in the news frequently. Everyone had high hopes for it—after all, it was the brainchild of the great President Roosevelt—but nobody knew what it could do, nobody knew where it could go. Dag was showing us. Probably today some of the idealism is gone about the UN, which is sad, but I do think that smart young people from around the world are still eager to get jobs there to see if they can make it work better.”
“For me, Dag was just there briefly, for an instant really, when I was very young, six years old, seven, eight. I loved him in that instant. I think young children are quite capable of connecting deeply to extraordinary adults on TV and finding inspiration from them. I loved him in the unquestioning way of a child seeking love and hope, and maybe seeking a calling!”
Years later, she read his book ‘”Markings,” a journal of his poems, observations, and meditations, regarded as a modern classic of spiritual seeking. “To read that book,” she says, “is to see into the inner world of so many people who are called to a difficult path—Martin Luther King, Robert Kennedy, Malcolm X, and of course Dag himself. These people were able to combine a life of action, public service, with a life of contemplation. ‘Markings’ was Hammarskjold’s sourcebook for the contemplative part of his life. We get a feel for the loneliness, the dark thoughts, the questioning, the terrible difficulties of changing the world.
“I think I sensed this in him as a little girl. I believe that’s why I loved him in that instant when I was so young. I knew, unconsciously, something about the conflicts he endured alone within his inner world.
“People react to leadership, to power, in different ways. Some people ascend to leadership, feel a sense of unworthiness, and meet that with defiance. George W. Bush comes to mind in this regard. Dag used his position of leadership to go inside himself and examine what he was all about and ask profound questions. He communicated his spiritual quest to anyone watching on TV. Who knows what this thoughtful man of action might have accomplished had he been given more time?”
Hammarskjold died violently on September 18, 1961, at the age of 56 while supervising a United Nations peacekeeping mission in the Congo. This mission, launched in 1960, involved some 20,000 military personnel. The toll was high—about 250 UN personnel died. In the early hours of September 18, 1961, in Africa, Hammarskjold and fifteen others were killed when their plane crashed while en route to cease-fire negotiations. He was seeking an end to fighting between UN troops and secessionist soldiers supported by foreign mercenaries.
Harry S. Truman, among others, was convinced the plane was deliberately destroyed and Hammarskjold was murdered. The book “Who Killed Hammarskjold?” by Susan Williams (2014) posits that the secretary-general was murdered; the work is described by the New York Times as “an authoritative account of what is known about the crash.” The UN in 2015 ordered a review of the crash.
The death of Hammarskjold ripples across the decades. Alan Cowell wrote in the New York Times in 2015:
“Students of modern Africa exploring the dramas of the postcolonial era might start their quest for clues and pointers in the period surrounding that September night (when Hammarskjold died).” Cowell’s full article can be found here:
Hammarskjold was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize posthumously in 1961. Two years later the UN published “Markings.” In 2011, the newspaper The Financial Times declared that his tenure is the benchmark for the secretary-generalship of the UN.
Here’s a website devoted to Hammarskjold:
Here are three Hammarskjold quotations:
“The more faithfully you listen to the voices within you, the better you will hear what is sounding outside.”
“Setbacks in trying to realize the ideal do not prove that the ideal is at fault.”
“Never, ‘for the sake of peace and quiet,’ deny your own experience or convictions.”
And here is an observation about Hammarskjold by the poet Sparrow:
“I find it reassuring that at least once a century, a truly sincere, compassionate man can attain high political office.”