“There is no passion to be found playing small – in settling for a life that is less than the one you are capable of.” – Nelson Mandela
Nelson Mandela passed away yesterday, at the distinguished age of 95. No matter where in the world you go, everybody knows his name. And everyone knows him as a freedom fighter, a giant in the world, an icon of hope, a living legend.
As long as I’ve been alive, he’s been a staple of the reality I live in. Growing up it was a triumvirate in my child mind: Mother Teresa. Princess Diana. Nelson Mandela. The holy trinity of goodness to aspire towards.
It only occurred to me in the last couple of years that he wasn’t going to live forever, and that truly made me sad because it honestly felt like he could. But then it also occurred to me that no matter when he moved on from this life, he had already accomplished so much, much more than many of us could imagine accomplishing in multiple lifetimes. And he did it all with astounding grace and humility.
I’m 27 right now. The length of my entire life is the amount of time he spent in prison, not knowing whether he would die there forgotten, with an unjust social system in place in the country he loved, or whether his efforts fighting for justice and freedom for all would come to any avail. I haven’t yet had the chance to read his book Long Walk to Freedom, but it’s easy to find quotes attributed to him that explain the kind of mindset that allowed him to keep going strong despite the incredible adversity, despite the uncertainty, and despite the long years of imprisonment, where he may not have known what, if anything, was going on outside in the world.
It’s a tough place to be, one that he himself acknowledged:
“There were many dark moments when my faith in humanity was sorely tested, but I would not and could not give myself up to despair. That way lays defeat and death.”
And yet, over the span of those long years spent locked away, Nelson Mandela grew into the icon for a movement that not only challenged and rocked apartheid, a decades-old system of societal oppression, but also swept the globe and captivated the world.
“The greatest glory in living
lies not in never falling,
but in rising every time we fall.”
Now, we’re all fighting. Every one of us. Some of our struggles are more visible, more public, more encompassing, like Mandela, and like every other individual or collective group fighting injustice. But for most of us, it’s very intense, personal battles that sometimes can be shared, but most times feel like they’re being fought alone with not nearly enough armour.
“I am not a saint, unless you think of a saint as a sinner who keeps on trying.”
It is incredibly easy to give up when you don’t see anything happening, despite your best efforts. Especially if you look at other people’s journeys and they seem to be progressing much further and faster than you. It’s easy to give up when you feel like your hands are tied, or that you’re trapped in a prison, sometimes of your own making. But sometimes – and this is a cliché, but it’s a cliché because it’s true – sometimes, it is precisely in those moments that the biggest changes are unfolding and taking shape in your life.
Sometimes those moments are the ones that form the crux of the new reality that you’ve given yourself permission to create.
“Do not judge me by my successes, judge me by how many times I fell down and got back up again.”
If I’ve learned anything from the example of Nelson Mandela, it is that there is never any giving up. That there is always a way forward. And that there is always an impact to be made with my life, often in ways that I can’t see, but in ways that others most certainly can feel.
“I am fundamentally an optimist. Whether that comes from nature or nurture, I cannot say. Part of being optimistic is keeping one’s head pointed toward the sun, one’s feet moving forward.”
Rest in peace, Madiba, rest in power.
Thank you for being the giant on whose shoulders we can stand.