The world lost an icon today in Nelson Mandela. If there was ever a man who embodied peace, civility, honor and benevolence, it was him.
Mandela, who was 95, spent more than a quarter of his life imprisoned, after he publicly chastised and stood the against an oppressive, racially discriminating, white minority government in South Africa after World War II. He was convicted of treason and sentenced to life in prison.
Even after his release in 1990, he wasn’t even mad. That’s the amazing thing about him.
If somebody punished me for 27 minutes, I’d be pretty pissed off. Nelson Mandela lost 27 years of his life, and still forged a peaceful resolution with his captors after being freed. If you knew nothing about the man except that, then it’s all you needed to know to understand how much compassion he had.
He also served as the first black president of South Africa from 1994 to 1999, after he won resoundingly in the first fully democratic election in the country’s history, and immediately following the fall its 46-year system of apartheid.
No doubt, this is one of the most internationally significant deaths that many of us will experience in our lifetimes, and as far as iconic activists go, probably the most meaningful death since Martin Luther King, Jr. in 1968. Because Mandela represented more than just a single man — he was a symbol. His name is synonymous with such ideals like “world peace,” “freedom,” and “race relations.” Just his presence in the world made it a better place.
And for those who wish they took more time to educate themselves about the man, need not worry — a conveniently timed biopic just hit theaters last week, with actor Idris Elba portraying the South African leader.
Over the next several days, you’ll hear a lot of people say how we all need to follow Mandela’s lead. How if we all had the discipline and forgiveness that he had, then the world would be a much better place.
But the thing is … there’s a reason why guys like Mandela, King, and let’s throw Gandhi in there too, are once-in-a-lifetime figures. Because nobody, nobody, can do what these guys did. None of us can spend 27 years in prison and not possess hatred for our captors. None of us can preach civil disobedience when they’re being racially discriminated against and physically assaulted day after day. And none of will ever go on an extended hunger strike to promote religious harmony.
Most of Americans can’t even go on a five-hour hunger strike … from McDonald’s.
And I think that’s a problem. How can we relate to these guys? They were too good. Too impassioned. Too idealistic. And that’s why they changed the world, and the rest of us will not.
Mandela’s life is an unbelievable one. It’s something you’d expect to hear about in a movie, and not firsthand from someone who actually lived it.
So maybe instead of trying to urge others to be the next Mandela, we should instead spend time educating others — and ourselves — about the life lessons he instilled. About what he stood for. Because those are things we can relate to. And at the base of it, it’s pretty simple — love, unity, forgiveness.
If we could personify those things, then I think that’s something Nelson would be happy with.