It’s been a few days since Nelson Mandela died and, as much as I wanted to write something, sooner as opposed to later, to honor his passing, I was stuck. I know now it’s because I was unsure of what it was I was feeling.
See, when I heard that he had passed, I immediately thought about his last illness and his prolonged, scary stay in the hospital. I remembered how he’d rallied himself to return home, against all odds and how, in my naivete, I thought that the worst was behind him. I’ve since recognized that it was a selfish thought; a needy one. Instead, I should have wished that Madiba be at peace; he was after all 95 years old.
But moreover, I can also acknowledge now that what I felt more than anything was a sense of foreboding, fear even; because I knew that once he was no longer with us, the question would become who will keep us on that straight and narrow.
We speak about this one or that one being a moral compass without truly appreciating exactly what that means. But whether or not we valued him in that fashion that was in fact what Mandela became for the world; a silent, moral and ethical GPS whose range went far beyond the shores of South Africa to extend to the many other troubled regions around the globe.
But isn’t that the way it is with the great ones; those who give and inspire us so much, the ones of legend? We want them to always be here because truthfully, we know we’re a better people having them around than we’d be if they weren’t. Like that inaudible compass, they don’t even have to do anything. Their presence is often enough to impel us to at least try to become greater than we thought we could be.
As world leaders honor him and others decry his contributions and call him a communist or terrorist or something else equally bellicose, I try to take a cue from Mandela and enact one of his strongest lessons, the one that I personally garnered most from his life; that of forgiveness and reconciliation.
“I always knew that deep down in every human heart, there is mercy and generosity. No one is born hating another person because of the color of his kin, or his background, or his religion. People must learn to hate, and if they can learn to hate, they can be taught to love, for love comes more naturally to the human heart than the opposite.”
“If you want to make peace with your enemy, you have to work with your enemy. The he becomes your partner.”
But the problem I’m having is one that faces many men of ordinary circumstance. Forgiveness does not come easy in most cases. And for one to be able to forgive the men who’d imprisoned him falsely under brutal apartheid conditions for twenty-seven years shows a depth of compassion for your fellow man that is above and beyond ordinary circumstance. Speaking plainly, I don’t think I’d have been able to muster the same consideration.
Yet, I know he would’ve inspired me to at least try to do so and I would’ve given it my best shot. Likewise, in the days and years to come, all of us will have the opportunity to honor him and give it our best shot. And as the world continues to evolve into a truly dangerous and mistrusting place, one can only hope that we’ve learned his lessons well.