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Every Country’s Native Son

Nelson Mandela

Nelson Mandela

Nelson Mandela has died at the age of 95 years. We knew it was coming, yet we still find it wrenching our collective guts. World leaders from around the globe are pausing in memory and providing words for a life lived fully. “A man,” as the President of South Africa puts is, “who had no unfulfilled missions.”

At the Virginia Film Festival in November I was privileged to view the film, “Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom.” As a writer, I always come with a notebook and a pen, but in a darkened theater it is difficult to jot down ideas or good quotes. So moved was I, though, by his words spoken to close the film – the message of a life – that I found a small bench in the hallway and, fending off the throngs exiting past me, I sat scrawling frantically so I wouldn’t forget.

This is what I recalled to words:

“No one is born hating another person because of the color of his skin, 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 its opposite.” ~ Nelson Mandela

Mandela was the kind of man who made you believe. A man…

  • with every reason to choose revenge but chose forgiveness
  • with every reason to choose hatred, but chose love
  • who worked through the system to speak on and act in the truth he saw
  • who made the people see a way between extremes
  • who let kindness take its course
  • who insisted reconciliation have its day because it was the only way to freedom
  • who every nation today calls their favorite son.

As Pastor Trevor Hudson said of his countryman, “Even in his death, this man is uniting a nation.” And today that nation, though mourning, is also dancing in celebration. That is the African way: lively, colorful, rhythmic, festive, full of heart.

A particular moment remains with me from my viewing of the film. Black South Africans have just received the right to vote and Mr. Mandela is seeking election as their President. There is a line extending for miles in the distance of black South Africans executing their new right. At the front of this line a young woman walks into a small building, pushes her paper ballot through a slot in a wooden box, and exits the building shouting and dancing and singing. And the line joins her in her celebration.

In my hometown a couple of weeks later, I cast my ballot because of this woman. And I lament. On that day in Virginia, not a single voter, coming or going, even wears a smile. The choice we have is among candidates who have not distinguished themselves as honorable, trustworthy or deserving. What a contrast. Where has our life and vigor gone?

Today, we pause to celebrate the life of Nelson Mandela. A man who President Obama has said, “took history in his hands and bent the arc of the moral universe toward justice.” Mandela was resolved, disciplined, dignified, smart, committed, and charismatic. He healed a nation. He was his country’s conscience. He said follow me and they did.

He was doing his duty for his people and his country. A duty for which he was willing to give full devotion, whatever the price. In his own words,

“I have fought against white domination, and I have fought against black domination. I have cherished the ideal of a democratic and free society in which all persons live together in harmony and with equal opportunities. It is an ideal which I hope to live for and to achieve. But if needs be, it is an ideal for which I am prepared to die.” —Rivonia trial, 1964

Read other wisdom of Nelson Mandela here.

What a legacy lived and left for us all to live into. That “we are not born hating, we learn it. And if we can learn that, we can learn to love, which comes more naturally to the human heart.”

One man’s life healed a nation. Can the death of One Man heal a world? Nelson Mandela’s life renews my hope that it can, and it will.



The wide arc of change

Every generation sees change that needs making. Wrongs that need righting. Laws that need repealing. Injustices that need addressing. The young want to turn things around on a dime, right now. I love that about youth. They want things to be different and they want to be the difference.

Age and wisdom teach that change, a true righting for a change that will last, moves through a wide arc. It takes the long way ’round. It takes time and patience, not just energy and enthusiasm.

Having watched the movie Mandela: the Long Walk to Freedom, I was struck by this. The older Nelson Mandela got, the slower he went. The burden he carried grew heavier and heavier, and this slowed him to just the right pace. The urgency (and insurgency) of youth had been replaced by a calm, pensive plod forward.

Such irony, that we rush when we’re young because time seems to be slipping away, and we slow when we’re older when we know time grows short. What a paradox: the oldest or those with the least time left to bring about change take time to get it right.

The fiery young people keep the need for change before us. We need this. But what a responsibility to temper this with judgment and understanding and conversation. To discuss it with those who live it and those who administer it. And still to persevere, even where there’s antagonism, opposition and disagreement. It’s a long way home, and perspective that swings wide may be the best route. Settling for perfect pace may be our only means to finish alive. Our heart can only take so much.

But gradual training strengthens it: short runs, brief rides, casual walks, bouts of intensity sprinkled with rest and recovery. The quick fix disregards the details, just like the fad diet, or the exercise gimmick. If you’re in it for the long haul, you’re patient for progress. You raise your hand and don’t talk out of turn. This is the best way to get people to choose listening and for right to make its way forward.

It makes me wonder if this life isn’t just about introducing us to the perfect pace we will one day see and live. Allowing us to settle into it and feel at home in it. Things certainly need changing. But righting, now that takes time.

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