I remember when I first read Long Walk to Freedom, the epic autobiography of Nelson Mandela. It was 2006. I lived in a 100-year old house in Germany that had poor heating. I tried to keep warm by soaking in the bathtub every day while reading his book. If you’ve seen it, you know that this particular book is thick and heavy. You can imagine the number of times it fell into the tub by accident.
This book had been on my personal reading list for years. I’d put it off because it seemed too intimidating. But, at some point, I bucked up and decided that if Mandela could spend 27 years of his life imprisoned for fighting a system of institutional racism that was so morally wrong that in 1973 the UN declared it a crime against humanity, then the least I could do was spend a few days reading his book.
Wow. I’m so glad I did. Here’s why this man became my hero:
- He was the first of his family to attend school. He finally completed his law degree while in prison in 1989.
- His actions followed his words: “Rhetoric is not important. Actions are.”
- Even in prison, he continued the struggle, organizing debates, studying law and even Afrikaans - the language of his oppressors, surviving solitary confinement for possessing news clippings, and fighting against racism within the prison system.
- After he was released from prison at the age of 71, his message to his countrymen was one of peace, forgiveness, and reconciliation: “As I walked out the door toward the gate that would lead to my freedom, I knew if I didn't leave my bitterness and hatred behind, I'd still be in prison.”
- He continued to campaign for peace, human rights, education, and HIV/AIDS advocacy (his son died of AIDS in 2005), well into his 90's.
Mandela proved to the world that humans – even fallible humans like him – are capable of changing the world.
It may sound cliché. But, reading that book in the bathtub sparked my interest in the work I do at The Gracias Foundation today. It helped clarify what I wanted to do (the courage and the plan for how to do it would come many years later) and reminded me that I, even as one person, have something to contribute to global humanity. While doing nothing at all would be akin to accepting the status quo.
After hearing about the passing of the beloved Madiba yesterday, I felt heavy, depressed, and fearful. And then I took a deep breath and remembered that I am still alive. And what washed over me was a renewed sense of purpose, commitment, hope and gratitude... and the realization that the best way to honor his life and struggle is to continue, in my own modest way, to make a difference.