August 22, 2010
Sometimes I look around at my middle-class life, and I feel oppressed. There is always another errand to run, something else that needs cleaning, a repairman to call, a doctor’s appointment to rush to. Sometimes it feels like one long series of obligations and annoyances, and I wail to myself, “Why does life have to be so hard? Why do I have to waste my precious time waiting in line at the pharmacy for the third time this week? Why can’t I be doing something spectacular, like spending a year sailing to the Caribbean, or climbing the peaks of the Andes, or just … doing something fun?”
And then I read Nelson Mandela’s autobiography and I saw that, maybe, just maybe, there is another way of looking at things. In his book, “Long Walk to Freedom,” Mandela draws a detailed picture of his life, from his birth in rural South Africa, to his upbringing in one of tribal Africa’s royal families, to his realization that black people in his country were not free. He became a freedom fighter, helped found the violent resistance wing of the African National Congress, went underground and, after being caught, narrowly escaped a death sentence. He was jailed by the apartheid-loving government for 27 years, many of them in extremely harsh conditions.
In all that time, he never broke, never compromised his values, never gave up the freedom struggle — even if all he could fight for that week or month or year was better conditions in the prison where he lived. Eventually, in response to his incredible steadfastness, along with the continuing uprising of the African people, the government accepted him as an equal, freed him and negotiated the birth of a South African democracy in which blacks were given the right to vote for the first time.
In 27 years of imprisonment, forced labor and deprivation, Mandela says that he learned not to hate or feel sorry for himself. As he writes at the end of his book, he learned that there is a seed of goodness in every person.
“I always knew that deep down in every human heart, there is mercy and generosity … Even in the grimmest times in prison, when my comrades and I were pushed to our limits, I would see a glimmer of humanity in one of the guards, perhaps just for a second, but it was enough to reassure me and keep me going.”
He learned to banish fear and nourish hope, even as South Africa’s commitment to apartheid deepened and the government created a system of martial law. He learned to use the darkest times to forge an even greater commitment to his goal — the day when all South Africans would vote in a free election and form a multi-racial government that oppressed no one, not even his oppressors.
“I knew as well as I knew anything that the oppressor must be liberated just as surely as the oppressed. A man who takes away another’s freedom is a prisoner of hatred, he is locked behind the bars of prejudice and narrow-mindedness.”
Yes, I take all the obvious lessons from Mandela’s story. The value of persistence and moral courage. The importance of never compromising your core values. Maintaining hope in the face of a hopeless situation. But, more than any of that, I saw his story as a sort of zen parable that applies to all of us, even those like me whose greatest problems are the squirrels in my attic, the clutter in my basement and the minor ailments of my healthy child. If Nelson Mandela taught me anything, it’s that there is no such thing as wasted time. Every moment, we are where we are supposed to be.
Every time in our lives — no matter how trying, how different from our expectations, how full of loss or yearning — if used wisely, can move us toward wisdom, understanding and, ultimately, freedom. By carrying out even the most mundane acts with integrity, by accepting my trials rather than whining that they are “not fair” and that I deserve to be having “fun,” I can find the meaning in every moment. In little ways every day, when we look for the good in others and find the courage and perseverance in ourselves, we can transform the world.
Nelson Mandela sat in prison for 27 years. He had many opportunities to be released, if he had agreed to renounce his opposition to the government. And in all that time, he never fell to to floor and cried out, “I give up. I’ve done my bit. Let someone else carry on the fight.” Instead, he sat still — even while he was deprived of the most basic human needs: decent food, visits with his family, fresh air, the right to speak to other humans, read books or study — and he never changed his demands. He emerged as a 71 year old man and freed his country. Not one second of that time in prison was wasted.
So the next time I am washing what feels like the thousandth dish of the week, I will remember that even these small tasks can be done with dignity and without self-pity. I will remember Nelson Mandela walking out of prison and raising his fist in salute, the crowd roaring, for the first time in nearly three decades. Life is hard, but doesn’t it help to know that such a moment can exist? Maybe the only person who will be freed in my struggle is myself, but if that is my victory, I will take it.
August 2, 2010
Last night I read this passage in Nelson Mandela’s autobiography:
Like all Xhosa children, I acquired knowledge mainly through observation. We were meant to learn through imitation and emulation, not through questions. When I first visited the homes of whites, I was often dumbfounded by the number and nature of questions that children asked of their parents — and their parents’ unfailing willingness to answer them. In my household, questions were considered a nuisance; adults imparted information as they considered necessary.
Nelson Mandela, “Long Walk to Freedom”
And now I am wondering where I can sign up to be a member of the Xhosa tribe, because my kid’s questions are killing me.
As I have always understood it, answering questions is part of a parent’s job. We want to encourage curiosity and help our children figure out how the world works, and so when they ask, “Where was I before I was born?” or “Where do flies sleep?”, we do our best to answer. Since the day Amelia learned to talk, I have been gamely answering a multitude of questions. Some of them have been fascinating inquiries that get at the nature of the universe. Like the ongoing series of questions about, “When is it going to be tomorrow?” At 3 years old, she somehow caught on to the fact that, while we were always talking about tomorrow, it never actually was tomorrow. The only place we can inhabit is “today,” and “tomorrow” is merely a mental construct. Amelia helped me realize that.
But recently, my almost-5-year-old has taken the questioning to a whole new level. She will take each item out of a cabinet, one at a time, and ask me eight questions about what it is and how it works. A box of gauze bandages, a can of shoe polish, an old child-proof clamp that holds the toilet lid closed. In a single car-ride, she will ask a hundred questions — ranging from whether she can have a brownie for snack (and why she can’t have a brownie for snack, and why she never gets to eat sweet things for snack, and whether she will ever be able to have dessert again) to whether people eat dolphins. And then, as I am trying to get her out of the car, sweating under the blazing sun, she will stop to ask what the window levers and door buttons do and why the driver gets more buttons on their door and whether she can honk the horn and … AAAAAHHHHH!
Add to this that, if I don’t answer the question within three seconds, she repeats it, over and over, the volume rising incrementally, until I answer (or curl up on the floor in the fetal position). Now, just the word “Mommy?” — the little warning bell that another question is locked and loaded — sets me on edge. Almost every day lately, I answer questions until my voice is hoarse. And when I ask her to please take a break, to please stop asking me questions for even a few minutes, she starts on another line of inquiry. “Why can’t I talk to you? Can I never talk to you again? Why aren’t you answering me? Mommy? Mommy? MOMMY!”
I am sure the people at the grocery store who have heard me saying, “I will not answer any more questions right now,” or “Stop talking to me! Please! Just give me a break!” think I am a horrible mother. But they don’t know that my daughter is perfecting a new torture method suitable to replace waterboarding. The never-ending chain of questions.