Friday, December 06, 2013

Nelson Mandela

"Holding a grudge is like swallowing poison and waiting for the other person to die."  -Buddhist teaching.

Those of a certain age (i.e., Nora parents and teachers, not students) are fortunate to have lived in a time when one of the seemingly intractable scourges of humanity was overcome through moral authority. Most of us were born after Gandhi’s death, and were too young to be cognizant of the work of Dr. King, but as adults we were privileged to witness through the life of Nelson Mandela how a great moral force could overcome the most vicious hatred and racism. While there are a great many military and political heroes in human history, there have been very few moral heroes who receive that same level of acknowledgment. Certainly Mandela was not alone: Steven Biko, Desmond Tutu, Walter Sisulu, and thousands of lesser known activists stood, and suffered for that stand, against apartheid. What made Mandela stand apart, however, was not imprisonment for his beliefs in a multi-racial South Africa, but the forgiveness of his oppressors upon his release. His refusal while imprisoned to make his own life easier while others still suffered is likewise impressive, but the enormity of spirit it took to forgive those who stole the prime years of his adult life is truly astonishing.  Another sad fact stands out to me: Mandela was imprisoned at about the same age as Dr. King was killed. We can only wonder how much better America might be had Dr. King enjoyed the fullness of years that Nelson Mandela lived.

In our own small corners of the world we can, and should, try as much as possible to emulate that spirit of forgiveness against those who transgress us, as swallowing the poison of vengeance hurts us far more than those who have hurt us.

One of my great heroes has died, and I’m surprised at how much my own world feels a emptier with his passing. I can only hope that in the next 50 years another moral exemplar is noted by the world, so that my students, children, and the world have an aspirational moral figure to whom they can look for inspiration.

"Here lies a man who did his duty to the world." -Nelson Mandela on how he'd like to be remembered.

Would that we all have such an epitaph.

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