The news is reporting today that Mandela’s funeral is predicted to be the largest funeral the world has ever seen. Hours – no, days – of media coverage have been given to the life of this extraordinary man. Hundreds of people, famous and not, have talked about the ways in which he changed their lives.
Three things that stand out for me.
The first is that this man of peace refused to renounce all forms of violence as a condition for being released from prison. Instead, he chose to spend more than a quarter of a century locked up with no promise of freedom. I have struggled for years with philosophies like Gandhi’s. It is a philosophy which is undoubtedly both heroic and courageous. But I could never quite agree with it 100%. Never respond with violence? Never? under any conditions? Mandela seems to have demanded something of himself which seems to me as heroic and courageous as Gandhi did. But it was not an absolute refusal ever to engage in physical violence in the face of gross injustice and when no other approach seemed to work.
This stand makes the second thing Mandela did so outstanding. He was able to let go of his anger. Was his anger justified in the first place? How can one possibly say it was not? And yet he walked out of that prison in 1990 after 27 years not with a message of vengeance but of reconciliation. And he lived by that for the rest of his life. I’ve seen people learn to let go of anger, even justified anger, but never on such a scale. And yet we need to learn to let it go. It is destroying millions of people, filling us with hate and revenge.
Related to letting go of his anger was Mandela’s exceptional willingness to look at other people’s point of view. Understanding another’s concerns and perspectives doesn’t mean agreeing with them. But understanding what one’s opponent is worried about is a huge part of resolving differences. In Mandela’s case, the last president of South Africa under apartheid was Frederik Willem de Klerk who said of Mandela yesterday that he was one of the greatest men of all time.
South Africa today has many problems to solve. But it did not descend into outright civil war after apartheid was ended.
Could that have happened without Mandela?
And we can still learn from him so much that is critical to our survival.