What we can learn from Nelson Mandela about solitude

February 1, 2014

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(The Hamilton Spectator – Saturday, February 1, 2014)


It matters not how strait the gate,

How charged with punishments the scroll.

I am the master of my fate,

I am the captain of my soul.

— From the poem Invictus

KAMPALA, UGANDA ✦ Much has been made about the tremendous story from Africa that ended 2013, that of Nelson Mandela and the worldwide send-off he was given, and rightly so.

Mandela will be remembered as the embodiment of William Ernest Henley’s poem, Invictus, that 19th-century verse describing a man who, as Henley put it, fell in the clutch of circumstance, who knew the bludgeonings of chance and bloody head, who found wrath and tears and horror, but through it all was unafraid and, in the end, “captain of his soul.”

Well over a month after Mandela’s death, his name is still easily spoken across Africa. Yesterday it came up during coffee with an American friend talking about the story The Shawshank Redemption. My daughter’s Grade 5 class has now studied Mandela’s life. Even while driving daily to the kids’ international school, we pass Mandela Stadium.

The irony is that, humanly speaking, Mandela should have ended up in the trash heap of history’s forgotten freedom fighters. As high commander of Umkhonto we Sizwi, he had planned sabotage, guerrilla war and open revolution and was expected to have been hanged precisely 50 years ago, just after his late 1963 trial.

Instead, South Africa’s apartheid government opted for the surprising, if not risky, sentence of life imprisonment. And that, eventually, as we now know, changed everything because Mandela allowed the bitter pill of prison to become his prescription against hate.

In jail, his eventual reaction wasn’t unlike that of Alexandr Solzhenitsyn, who, after time in a Russian gulag, said “Bless you prison, bless you for being in my life.” In prison, he said he “came to realize the object of life is not prosperity as we’re made to believe, but maturity of the human soul.”

In a 1975 letter to his wife, Winnie, Mandela, said it similarly: “You may find that the cell is an ideal place to learn how to know yourself, to search realistically and regularly the process of your mind and feelings … the opportunity to look daily into your entire conduct.”

In this, there’s something for any of us. Because, like Mandela, we all have a story. A journey. And there may be nothing more important than creating our own private space to keep track of it: who we are and where we’ve come from and how we’ve changed.

To lose track of this — the good times, the dreams, the dreams broken, even the mistakes — is to become terribly impoverished, it seems to me, detached from life itself.

My own feeble attempts to keep track have been imperfect. I have other things to do. The bus is coming. Lunch beckons. But for years, I’ve found an annual journal to be helpful to simply record my prayerful desires and thanksgivings. And while plenty of pages are blank, others are not.

What’s most interesting is to look back on dreams for my vocation that were never met (which I’m now thankful for), hopes for my relationships that were never met (which I’m now even more thankful for), and desires for one thing or another that were, in fact, met, but in ways so unexpected and unusual, I can hardly take any credit. In a larger way on the world stage, this is what

Mandela experienced. This is why, while he wasn’t captain of the entirety of his life to begin with — none of us really are — he was captain of what he did have, his response to a second, albeit tough, chance at it all.

Carving out regular space for reflection is hardly encouraged in our time. Idlers are frowned on. It’s easier, apparently, to exhaust ourselves in one rodent race or another. Or show highly edited versions of who we are. (No more than 140 characters, please.) We think this is more acceptable than the real deal.

But this remarkable story is spilling over from 2013. And it’s all something to think about this new year. This new day. Or any day, really.

About Thomas Froese

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February 1, 2014 • Posted in ,
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