I think Mandela’s genius was in his use of the high ground. Everything he accomplished comes from that platform. Others in history have returned from imprisonment and gone into politics, but none have done so while so publicly forgiving those who had hurt them. You may believe he did this out of some special goodness inside him that the rest of us do not possess, but I do not necessarily agree. I think he might have had ulterior motives. No matter. The results lifted everyone to their best selves, so who cares what private conversations Mandela might have had inside his own head to get us there? He is truly one of those men for the ages, and death doesn’t diminish him at all. It just gives those of us who have not paid him much mind a chance to take a few days, a week maybe, and delve into what he brought to us all and what we need to make sure he stays a part of us.
When Nelson Mandela went to visit the Queen of England, he was scheduled to have a half-hour audience with her. He stayed more than two hours. When he got into the car after the meeting, an aide asked him what she had said. He answered, “She said to call her Elizabeth.” Prior to this invitation to Mandela, only the Queen’s sister and her husband used her birth name when speaking with her. What did he say during that meeting that made her open herself up to him that way? And why did Mandela tell his aide what she said? If I were Mandela, I would have said it in order to brag, but he was not a braggart. So what was the purpose of letting that personal moment out into the light of public scrutiny? He used his high ground well; he used it for the calling for a better country, to make change to bring equality to a nation, and that makes him the best of us all.
We all know Mandela was imprisoned for twenty-seven years. No need to point out how very long a time that is, especially when he could have gotten out sooner by giving up his politics. For much of that time, he was allowed just one letter every six months and one visitor a year for half an hour. He went into prison a militant Marxist, but he came out as what I would call an individualist, a person whose politics depend on the situation and not doctrine. Because of this, he was criticized by all the various factions among those he led. He was accused of being too close to business and of being too liberal at the same time. He negotiated in secret; his fellow anti-apartheids had no knowledge of what he was doing. My point, you ask? He was a loner, following his instincts and the voice of his inner self, and that independence served him and the people of South Africa well. The movement kept him alive, kept his plight in front of the world, but when it came to his loyalty, it was to the voice inside him. Invictus.
Because he is gone and we Americans tend to see historical figures as all good or all bad, not much is being said about his family, and the price they paid for his choices. Those close to him say he didn’t consider himself to be the iconic success that we all did because he lost his family in the process. He couldn’t do both. Imagine being a child and knowing your dad could come home and be your dad if he wanted to, but he’d chosen to stay away over a point of principle. While we all celebrate and admire his courage, his family suffered the consequences of his actions and never really forgave him. Choices always involve giving something up to get something else, and there are many who would have chosen family. This doesn’t diminish what he was; it just makes him human. Isn’t it odd that he could forgive so easily while those around him, his family, could not? It’s one of those twisted fingers of fate. He paid a high price for the gifts to others.
I have examined Mandela’s enormous capacity for forgiveness this past week. He forgave those who guarded him while he was on Robin’s Island. They sat in the front row proudly when he was installed as President of South Africa. I have people to forgive in my life, and there are some whom I would like to forgive me. As I look at the sheer power of his forgiveness, I realize it has very little to do with those he is forgiving and everything to do with the power you have in forgiveness. You give it — or you take it away. It’s one-sided. The forgiven have zero power and you have it all. It’s a heady place to sit I now see. There is no other interaction that is so one-sided. I intend to tap into this new understanding I have of forgiveness and the gift to the forgiver. Thank you, Mandiba.
Did you know that Mandela had no tear ducts; they were removed during an operation for something or other? Yet he, more than probably any other politician, could make us all cry at the drop of a hat. We cried because we never looked at him without seeing what he gave up to get there. We cried because of that moral high ground he wore as if it were a cardigan sweater. We cried because he seemed so very gentle, even fragile. I didn’t cry when he died; I cried when he lived. What a tribute. I intend to read more about him over the coming months. I intend to keep Invictus, a poem I loved long before I knew he had taken it as his own, closer to me. Maybe I will hang it somewhere where I can read it now and again. And when I think of Mandiba, I will think we all have the capacity for his greatness if we listen to the voices inside ourselves and are willing to act on it at all costs.