Mandela’s Choice

“. . . no matter what a man’s frailties otherwise may be, if he be willing to risk death, and still more if he suffer it heroically, in the service he has chosen, the fact consecrates him forever.” — William James, The Varieties of Religious Experience

At one of the campuses where I teach, a student remarked in a symposium that a fellow classmate had just heard of Nelson Mandela’s death. ‘You know who he is, right?” asked my student. “Sure,” came the response, “he’s an actor” — a case of life being confused as art imitating life, as Morgan Freeman played Nelson Mandela in the film, Invictus

A great man passes on and the world mourns. Jailed for 27 years as a terrorist by the South African government, Mandela emerged from the notorious prison on Robben Island in 1990—and the world held its breath. He had the power to plunge South Africa into all-out racial warfare, but instead he worked for reconciliation and peace. 

Branded a communist and a terrorist early in his career, Mandela was only taken off the U. S. terror watch list in 2008, long after he received the Nobel Peace Prize with F. W. de Klerk in 1993, and was elected South Africa’s first black president in 1994. Some perceptions die hard.

His life followed an arc unusual for the type of human rights heroes we think we know. Unlike Gandhi and Martin Luther King he was not assassinated nor was he always a pacifist. They lived in the public eye and died violently; he lived for decades locked up for life and died at home in bed. There is no template for these kinds of heroes. A man plays the hand dealt him as best he can and lives—and dies—aware of forces larger than himself at work.

What must it be like to walk out of a cell to stand before thousands of people for whom you are both symbol and cipher? To look into the eyes of those around the negotiating table and see both fear and admiration? To turn at the end of the day to stand by a window, feeling the warm night air fold around oneself as the curtain brushes your cheek? To see oneself from a distance, a thin stick-figure gesturing in silhouette, the words from one’s mouth flying like a dove from an ark, looking for a place to land?

Through film, biographies, autobiography, stories, articles, photos, we attempt to understand the human being behind the image. It is we who build the image, but we demand authenticity, the real Truth about the man. It’s not even as if we knew for sure that there was a truth to be had, but every story, every interview, every anecdote from Those Who Were There tries to shatter the Image and find the Man. 

We have need of both the image and the man: the image is portable, can be synced across many devices, and can be updated across all platforms. It is a creation not quite ex nihilo, out of nothing, but if it were not there it would be necessary to invent it. The Man is, literally, another story. 

I don’t know that we ever know ourselves completely. Mandela must have searched his soul intently during those 27 years, piecing together an armature upon which he could create a new man, one dedicated to peace. It may have taken him that long to reconcile with this new man, to learn his ways, and to recognize when he weakened and was in need of hope. 

If that is the case, if it might be true that Mandela—and any of us—may be recreated into new beings whose very existence defies the logic of circumstance, then we are in constant discovery of ourselves even in those moments when we choose “the road less travelled by,” — the one that makes all the difference. 

This theory would run up against the familiar spirit that haunts our discourse about the fitness of those who would be our leaders, for example. Thus, a man, midway through life is presumed to be the same person as the impetuous youth who inhaled or drank or otherwise indulged in foolishness. But do we really believe that no one evolves over time, that we are the same yesterday, today, and forever? 

“You’ll become only who you always were.
What the gods give they give at the start,” 

says Portuguese poet Fernando Pessoa, through “Ricardo Reis,” one of his writing personas. We interpret this view of Fate as laying out a path we are bound to follow no matter what. This is the flip side of another American myth—that of the man or woman who rises, despite the odds, to triumph and glory through sheer will power by any means necessary. Both of these stories lead us into temptation. The first resigns us to passivity: we are already what we shall always be. The second gives us false hope that if we just follow this or that self-help program we will emerge the victors. 

Perhaps our path lies closer to the center—not because having split the difference between the two we are now trapped in the middle—but rather as a genuine third position. 

This position says that we are in a context, a culture, a society, that shapes us through family, education, religion, and social influences, but that does not determine us. Through self-awareness we see our circumstances for what they are: the place we are at in the present, out of all the myriad possibilities within that cultural context. But now that we see where we are we have some choices. They are not infinite but they are choices, and we ignore them at our peril. 

We also recognize that we are inevitably the product of our genetic heritage, yet that too is not definitive of our character. What matters, what opens possibilities for change and renewal, is the awareness that arises through reflection. It may come through a faithful commitment to a spiritual path or it may come through the recognition that we are not alone in this world. However we receive it we now can decide, and it’s the decision that matters. 

We rightly regard Mandela as a hero because he chose to respond to hate with forgiveness. Ironically, the very system that was designed to break him and force him to submit was itself dismantled, piece by piece, in no small measure by the strength of his patience and the power of his character. 

NOTE: I’ve decided to continue Wretched Success here at Blogspot and to copy these musings to Look for some changes to come in the next few weeks!

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