Nelson Mandela’s Fork in the Road

Nelson Mandela’s Fork in the Road

It’s noon on the 6th of December 2013 (New Zealand time) and I’ve just heard that Nelson Mandela has passed away at the age of 95. I turn to my friend in our office and we talk about the calibre of the life lived and the life given that has impacted not just a country but a world. How could a man from a land in many ways disconnected from the rest of us become a leader of peace and the epitome of what we desire in a statesman? Like a master craftsman such as a great silversmith, he was an imperfect man that desired to create something greater than himself. In Nelson Mandela, we found a man who has now impressed his hallmark on the chalice he left for others to drink from.

In living, he became an icon and was the recipient of status and accolades but not before he walked the road of giving and sacrifice. As an anti-apartheid campaigner, he fought for reconciliation at a cost. Like many around the world, we simply saw Mandela through the media reports and numerous perspectives from television documentaries to movie victories but we all have short memories. We saw the statesman and didn’t really know the antagonist, the cause raiser and rule breaker. To build the platform for justice there first was a stripping away of the facades that had been built up in culture and tradition. The peeling away of the apartheid costume was like the tearing off skin from the racial prejudice that was prevalent in South Africa but a reality in the streets of every nation.

No one is born hating another person because of the color of his skin, or his background, or his religion. People must learn to hate, and if they can learn to hate, they can be taught to love, for love comes more naturally to the human heart than its opposite.
– Nelson Mandela

Born as Rolihlahla Mandela on July 18th 1918 in Mvezo, Cape Province, South Africa he had a mixed childhood stemming from being on the wrong side of a royal line. He tended cattle as a young man and through his Christian mother was baptised into the Methodist church where he also received his early schooling.  Mandela was educated at Fort Hare University and the University of Witwatersrand where he studied law. He then took an avid interest in politics and from 1955 through until his arrest in 1962 he was repeatedly involved in seditious activities but it wasn’t until 1962 that he was finally arrested and then convicted of sabotage and conspiracy. The charges in the Rivonia Trial of seeking to overthrow the government resulted in a life imprisonment sentence. Mandela served 27 years in various prisons the most famous of which was Robben Island.

From his pardon and release in 1990 as F. W. de Klerk sought to appease the mounting civil unrest, Mandela then published his biography and would work with de Klerk to see the abolishment of apartheid. Through his position, with the ANC (African National Congress) he assumed office as President on the 10 May 1994 and led South Africa through its transformation to the ‘Rainbow Nation’ up until 14 June 1999.

While ‘the rest is history’ there is a pivotal moment that I believe defined Mandela as a person. Much has been said about his involvement in various political groups and there would have been many influences on people and events from within the political streams as well as his educators and family but I believe prison was the gateway that opened the doors on the rest of Nelson Mandela’s life.

As I finally walked through those gates to enter a car on the other side,
I felt – even at the age of seventy-one – that my life was beginning anew.
– Nelson Mandela

That position of ‘newness’ in a life that had experienced joy and suffering for the cause he believed in indicates a deep spirit that had been forged in fire. One of the conscious values or attitudes I believe is vital for life is to repel bitterness. If there was a Teflon coating for life I would hope that bitterness wouldn’t ‘stick to the pan’. From the smallest of relationship matters to the largest of life’s buffets, it is the most unproductive of responses to life.

I can see that Nelson Mandela’s fork in the road was a point in his life that defined the man. Think for a moment what it would have been like in 1990 if the man who walked free was one of outrage and retribution. If his bitterness had revelled in 27 years of festering would we have seen peace or war?

Do not judge me by my successes, judge me by how many times I fell down and got back up again.
– Nelson Mandela

I often ask myself how do you combat the spirit of bitterness. If my injustice is found true then I have cause for recompense. If my perpetrators are found liable I have cause for justification. So how in my pain and loss can I deal with the circumstances that seem to be in all accounts unwarranted, unfounded and baseless in the accusation? I give thanks.

It has been the most powerful counter-agent to bitterness to simply stop and give thanks for ‘all that I have’. Within any moment you may say ‘I have nothing’, or ‘it has been taken away’ and yet there is always something to be thankful for either past or present. At the moment you have life, a friend a future hope. In the past is a memory, an event, a time of joy or overcoming. All of which are the components of you now.

I believe that Nelson Mandela’s fork in the road was to learn thankfulness. I know that it is a learned habit because by nature I am able to see error, fault and failing so much more easily than humility, beauty and compassion. I teach myself daily to drop bitterness at the door and pick up just a thought of thankfulness in my day.

One of the attitude keys is to have an outward outlook. As I look around me I love to not only admire everything from a beautifully laid out garden to a painting of emotion on a wall but also to see beauty in every sunset or landscape. My children will often hear me pointing out something that looks amazing and spectacular because I want them to walk through life with their eyes open to the things we can be thankful for.

I am not an optimist, but a great believer of hope.
– Nelson Mandela

The next time you are ‘locked up’ mentally, financially or physically take time to look out of the window with eyes averted to the sky. There is an old phrase by a British clergyman called Fredrick Langbridge that goes something along these lines; “two men looked out from prison bars, one saw mud, the other stars”.

At the age of 71 as Nelson Mandela walked out of prison, he made the decision to leave something behind in order to embrace something new. Walk free today with a word of thanks and write it down.

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.
– Nelson Mandela


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