What I learned from Nelson Mandela

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.

4 thoughts on “What I learned from Nelson Mandela

  1. […] wrote on her blog the other day a beautiful post about reading Nelson Mandela’s autobiography, and how it’s affected her as a woman, and […]

  2. I love your writing! Keep it up!

  3. Yo, thanks for the perspective — well done. I have always wondered why more people are not totally blown away by Mandela. The guy could have wreaked all kinds of havoc on his enemies and didn’t.

    Now improve your attitude.

    • Probably because most people, like me until recently, have only the vaguest idea about his story.