There have been any number of commentaries on Nelson Mandela, and universally they have pointed out his courage and his humility. He never tried to be bigger than his role; he accepted all the praise with grace. There is no doubting his courage and his toughness – his stands against apartheid were uncompromising, and he was not afraid of conflict.
At the same time, he had the strength to forgive and to leave resentment behind. This may be the lesson we all can learn from him more than anything else. While working for the common good matters, and it is true that one person can change history, few us find ourselves in that position. We do more little things than big things, and we should remember that there were thousands and thousands of small acts of courage by thousands and thousands of South Africans that made Mandela’s courage and success possible.
The old saying that it is better to light a candle than curse the darkness is true, but we often laugh when this is added: but it is so much more emotionally satisfying to curse the darkness. All too often, thoughts of revenge flit through my mind or I find myself unwilling to forgive as easily as I might.
I have told the Buddhist tale of the monk and novice who go on a trip and come to a raging river they must cross. Also on the river bank is a woman who says she must get across to save her child who is ill but there is no way for her to cross the swollen river. The monk and novice belong to a celibate sect and it is forbidden to touch a female. But the old monk has the women get on his shoulder and they are able to cross the river, with the novice following.
Safely across, the woman thanks the monk and they go their separate ways. But the novice is fuming and as they travel, the monk notices his agitation. He asks what the trouble is and the young novice says “How could you touch that woman? It is one of our most sacred precepts!” And the monk replies “Are you still carrying her? I put her down three miles ago.”
Mandela knew how to put things down and move on. The past is past and cannot be changed, and the future will be built on how we live in the present. There is no need to carry burdens from the past if they weigh us down. They may be enormously difficult to put aside, but we are better when we do so.
-Rev. Dr. Jim Nelson