December 6, 2013 admin

The teacher of us all

Life feels different this morning. One of the most deeply loved and most universally respected leaders of all time has gone to rest with his ancestors.
For as long as there is recorded history Nelson Mandela will be remembered for his deeds: for his courage and defiance at the Rivonia Trial; for his unyielding dignity during twenty-seven years of imprisonment on Robben Island; for his generosity and forbearance on his release; for his determination and wisdom in leadership, and for his vision and humanity in statesmanship.
More than this, he is and will be loved, both by all who knew him and by the incomparably greater number of people who felt as if they knew him because he embodied, with a humility and understanding which disarmed and encompassed even those who were once his fiercest antagonists, everything which is most true about what being human can and ought to mean.
People will no doubt debate and disagree with some of his political decisions. But it is unlikely that many will ever doubt his intentions, because they were not motivated by self and pride, but by the lights of dignity, justice, integrity and wisdom. By these he was guided through the unlit and criss-crossing paths of destiny, at the risk of his life and amidst severe privations, ready to die for them, but far happier to live and see them illuminate new freedoms.
Unlike many great leaders, he was not, thank God, assassinated; he did not die young; he brought his vision to a measure of fulfilment; his guidance has not been marred by overwhelming contention, and he has left a further legacy in lucid writings which include some of the most compelling moral prophecies of our age:
                It was during those long and lonely years that my hunger for the freedom of my own people became a hunger for the freedom of all people, white and black… A man who takes away another man’s freedom is a prisoner of hatred, he is locked behind the bars of prejudice and narrow-mindedness. I am not truly free if I am taking away someone else’s freedom, just as surely as I am not free when my freedom is taken from me. The oppressed and the oppressor alike are robbed of their humanity.
                 When I walked out of prison, that was my mission, to liberate the oppressed and the oppressor both.

I don’t know if there is anyone else in the world about whose death I’ll find myself joining in conversation in deep shared sorrow with the staff of the supermarket close to midnight and feeling comforted by their words: ‘He fulfilled his destiny’.
Many Jewish teachings have been going through my mind, but especially that of Shimon ben Zoma in the 2nd century: ‘Who is strong?’ he asks, and answers: ‘The person who overcomes his selfish inclination’.
I believe the root of Nelson Mandela’s greatness lies not in how his personality conquered the world, how his vision won over South Africa, or how his courage made him leader of his own people. It begins in his soul. At Mandela’s core was a personhood which had learnt to be motivated not by self, with all the pride, demands and defensiveness which so complicate human life, but by the steady awareness of what is right and the good. It is this which guided him not to succumb either to the humiliations or to the inducements of proffered privilege in prison, or to the prerogatives of power in government, but to be the unbending servant of his just, compassionate and universal vision.
He is the teacher of us all.

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