Lessons of Mandela


Nelson Mandela, who died last Thursday at 95, seems for South Africa a combination of what George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. seem for the United States --statesman, liberator, and warrior for equality, forgiveness and reconciliation.

Appreciation of his singular and exceptional life extends all around the world. Here in the U.S., flags will be flown at half-staff until sunset today in his memory. In his proclamation on the death of Mandela, President Obama said, "Nelson Mandela achieved more than could be expected of any man.

"His own struggle inspired others to believe in the promise of a better world, and the rightness of reconciliation. Through his fierce dignity and unbending will to sacrifice his own freedom for the freedom of others, he transformed South Africa -- and moved the entire world," the president said. "His journey from a prisoner to a president embodied the promise that human beings -- and countries -- can change for the better. His commitment to transfer power and reconcile with those who jailed him set an example that all humanity should aspire to, whether in the life of nations or our own personal lives."

The president also said "it falls to us to carry forward the example that he set." In that spirit, let’s look at some of his most famous quotes -- taken from USA Today and The Daily Beast.

* "It is never my custom to use words lightly. If twenty-seven years in prison have done anything to us, it was to use the silence of solitude to make us understand how precious words are and how real speech is in its impact on the way people live and die."

We live in a society, no doubt in large part because of 24-hour cable news, the Internet and social media, in which thoughtless words and wild accusations are cheaper than ever and can be hurled into the public realm with the click of a mouse and nary a second thought. Despite the harshness and near total isolation, the silence and solitude of Mandela’s years in prison no doubt led to a profound deepening of his thoughts and convictions. For each of us today, stepping back for some time of meditative quiet could be a way of gaining some perspective on what really matters in life.

* "Resentment is like drinking poison and then hoping it will kill your enemies."

In our society, resentment can be found everywhere, some it justified and some of it not. Under the not-justified category, many on the right resent those in poverty receiving government aid, as if many millions of Americans would rather receive public assistance than have good, well-paying jobs. But Mandela’s statement is no doubt intended to apply especially to resentment that can be justified. Indeed, he arguably was entitled to resentment for being imprisoned unjustly merely for seeking an end to repression and injustice.

Imagine all the evil that would have resulted if Mandela had spent his 27 years in prison nursing grudges and plotting revenge. Not only would the public result been horrific, he would have been a totally different person within, not the deeply serene and dignified man the world now mourns. Resentment corrodes the character of the person who holds it.

* "Real leaders must be ready to sacrifice all for the freedom of their people." This strikes a chord in the U.S. because our government has been repeatedly obstructed by a fanatical GOP contingent in the House who fear losing their seats to even more radical-right candidates in primaries if they cooperate in any way, shape or form with the Obama administration. Even when the national interest is at stake, as was the case in the recent government shutdown, most of them refused to do the right thing.

Compare this servile fear of losing a Congressional set with Mandela, ready to die for his resistance to the shameful policy of apartheid. The vast majority of Americans don’t necessarily get off the hook either, for we are only too ready to let a devoted 1 percent of our population fight our increasingly numerous wars and conflicts. Indeed, a volunteer military shields the rest from having to venture into harm’s way - or even to give up a year or two in some type of non-military national service to others.

* "A fundamental concern for others in our individual and community lives would go a long way in making the world the better place we so passionately dreamt of."

There is no more Wild West to settle. The most challenging and rewarding frontiers we have left, such as fighting poverty and rising economic inequality or halting climate change, will require committed individuals working in concert with others for the common good. Those who deny the importance of others are denying reality.

Mandela was a singular individual but not an individualist. His entire life was spent working with others to free his people and then reconcile all people in South Africa to one another. In the U.S. we so often seem to deliberately misconstrue the intentions of others in order to have our own way. So on the right, any proposal for sane gun control is reduced to "taking away my guns." On the left, any proposal to limit or regulate abortion is called part of a "war on women."

A strong man, Mandela valued friends with independent minds and different viewpoints. They "tend to make you see problems from all angles," he said.

* "When people are determined they can overcome anything."

Mandela’s life is proof of this. He never gave up and neither can those who would work for peace, justice, understanding, reconciliation, and environmental protection. This is not work for the weak, and persisting in it demands the utmost commitment and fortitude.

The insight of these quotations is contained within the common storehouse of the wisdom of the ages. There is nothing unique in them. What is unique is that one man named Nelson Mandela embodied these thoughts and ideals in the crucible of decades of intense repression, suffering and struggle -- and emerged triumphant.

~ Mark E. Rondeau


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