As he approaches the end of a most amazing life-marathon, Nelson Mandela assumes larger-than-life proportions. He is grandfather to a nation; a nation that looks to his hospital room, waits for news, and holds its collective breath. Mandela is a giant in a century of giants. He dwarfs the newsmakers and politicians, heads of state and celebrities. And he started the process from a prison cell, society's bottom rung. He lived the truth that hanging in there does make all the difference:
“The greatest glory in living lies not in never falling, but in rising every time we fall.”Accustomed to falling, Mandela taught us how to get up again.
These days, as he comes down the home stretch, I am reading his amazing autobiography (Long Walk to Freedom) and am impressed by the wisdom, grace, and humility of this man.
“I have walked that long road to freedom. I have tried not to falter; I have made missteps along the way. But I have discovered the secret that after climbing a great hill, one only finds that there are many more hills to climb. I have taken a moment here to rest, to steal a view of the glorious vista that surrounds me, to look back on the distance I have come. But I can only rest for a moment, for with freedom come responsibilities, and I dare not linger, for my long walk is not ended.”
Our visit to Robben Island, his prison for 18 years of 27 years, was a pilgrimage for me of deep significance. Madiba, affectionately called by his clan name, is the prisoner most remembered of all the men incarcerated there. Everyone is familiar with his number, 466/64. The 466th prisoner admitted in 1964. The photos of the narrow cell with the stool, tin plate and cup, and bucket are familiar. His notoriety and later, fame, have lasted after other names faded.
What makes Madiba so loved and so mourned, in anticipation of our collective loss? This question will occupy my heart thoughts for some time to come. Reading his books will help as well as talking with people whose lives were affected by his work, his dedication, and his leadership. But I suspect the way we feel about him has more to do with the character of the man. His deep humility and the grace he gave others so generously.
As I looked at the smallness of his cell, the thinness of his mat, the dents in his plate and cup, the humiliation of a bucket for his necessities, it struck me that those things were all outside of him. Very possibly he felt freedom even behind the bars and razor wire. He understood the prison of the mind that kept his captors imprisoned, and he resisted the urge to sink to demeaning others. Freedom is an internal thing, a reality he determined to live, and in so doing he taught a variegated nation that:
“. . . to be free is not merely to cast off one's chains, but to live in a way that respects and enhances the freedom of others.”
Mandela, feel free to linger as you overlook the vista of your life; your long walk is nearly over. You arrived at Freedom some time back and have been so gently trying to show us all that Freedom's door is wide open and all we have to do to enter is let go of what keeps us locked within ourselves--
In 17 days Madiba will turn 95. His condition is critical, but he has accomplished so much else in his life journey, that whether he makes this milestone or not will not matter.