27 years in a cell. A man found guilty, given time to consider, in silence. His circumstances insisted he “search realistically and regularly the processes of (his) own mind and feelings.”
What if we were sentenced to hard labor on the rock pile of life? With only ourselves and our fellow laborers for company. What then?
Would we find things of the spirit? Things gone missing or perhaps just dust-covered, having been set aside. Maybe they’ve been shelved or filed having been “sufficiently accomplished” thus not warranting further attention. Let’s press on to important matters, our soul seems to say.
But that voice…do I know it? Is it MY soul speaking?
What if we took the earphones out and let our own thoughts rattle through our heads as we went running, lifting, riding, driving? What harvest would the silence bring? Are we afraid to have our own thoughts for company?
Is it better to pay them no mind? Drown them out in the noise?
Keeping silent is very, very hard labor. Almost makes 27 years on the rock pile look easy, even a gift.
Nelson Mandela has died at the age of 95 years. We knew it was coming, yet we still find it wrenching our collective guts. World leaders from around the globe are pausing in memory and providing words for a life lived fully. “A man,” as the President of South Africa puts is, “who had no unfulfilled missions.”
At the Virginia Film Festival in November I was privileged to view the film, “Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom.” As a writer, I always come with a notebook and a pen, but in a darkened theater it is difficult to jot down ideas or good quotes. So moved was I, though, by his words spoken to close the film – the message of a life – that I found a small bench in the hallway and, fending off the throngs exiting past me, I sat scrawling frantically so I wouldn’t forget.
This is what I recalled to words:
“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
Mandela was the kind of man who made you believe. A man…
- with every reason to choose revenge but chose forgiveness
- with every reason to choose hatred, but chose love
- who worked through the system to speak on and act in the truth he saw
- who made the people see a way between extremes
- who let kindness take its course
- who insisted reconciliation have its day because it was the only way to freedom
- who every nation today calls their favorite son.
As Pastor Trevor Hudson said of his countryman, “Even in his death, this man is uniting a nation.” And today that nation, though mourning, is also dancing in celebration. That is the African way: lively, colorful, rhythmic, festive, full of heart.
A particular moment remains with me from my viewing of the film. Black South Africans have just received the right to vote and Mr. Mandela is seeking election as their President. There is a line extending for miles in the distance of black South Africans executing their new right. At the front of this line a young woman walks into a small building, pushes her paper ballot through a slot in a wooden box, and exits the building shouting and dancing and singing. And the line joins her in her celebration.
In my hometown a couple of weeks later, I cast my ballot because of this woman. And I lament. On that day in Virginia, not a single voter, coming or going, even wears a smile. The choice we have is among candidates who have not distinguished themselves as honorable, trustworthy or deserving. What a contrast. Where has our life and vigor gone?
Today, we pause to celebrate the life of Nelson Mandela. A man who President Obama has said, “took history in his hands and bent the arc of the moral universe toward justice.” Mandela was resolved, disciplined, dignified, smart, committed, and charismatic. He healed a nation. He was his country’s conscience. He said follow me and they did.
He was doing his duty for his people and his country. A duty for which he was willing to give full devotion, whatever the price. In his own words,
“I have fought against white domination, and I have fought against black domination. I have cherished the ideal of a democratic and free society in which all persons live together in harmony and with equal opportunities. It is an ideal which I hope to live for and to achieve. But if needs be, it is an ideal for which I am prepared to die.” —Rivonia trial, 1964
Read other wisdom of Nelson Mandela here.
What a legacy lived and left for us all to live into. That “we are not born hating, we learn it. And if we can learn that, we can learn to love, which comes more naturally to the human heart.”
One man’s life healed a nation. Can the death of One Man heal a world? Nelson Mandela’s life renews my hope that it can, and it will.
We’re not very good at waiting these days. It’s not our fault. The world has sped up. No time for sitting idle. We need to be productive, purposeful, proactive. Open slots don’t appear on my calendar or in my day. I actually have to schedule them. And then, I have to convince myself it is not wasteful to dally while putting ornaments on the tree or arrange the garland on the banister just so.
When I was a child, I was a better waiter. I had more practice. Things didn’t come immediately. That gave me time to prepare for them, anticipate them and then to truly appreciate them when they came. I remember watching the wrapped gifts, one by one, appear under the Christmas tree as family members and friends placed them there. And on that last night, Christmas Eve, I could hardly contain myself, so excited was I for the morning. We made cookies and put them a plate. We poured a glass of milk and set it next to the cookies. We even put out some sugar cubes or treats for the reindeer.
Then we waited, dressed in PJs, teeth brushed, with our blankies or in our sleeping bags, trying to stay awake for the jolly man himself. Eyes trained on the chimney and listening for the sound of hoofs on the rooftop. But every year, try as we might, our eyelids became droopy and we yawned and trundled off to bed. Or perhaps we fell asleep and were carried to bed. The morning’s light woke us, our eyes shot open when the realization hit us: It’s Christmas!
The waiting was over.
I imagine children today still try to stay awake for Santa, but the waiting is different. They follow him on the internet. They watch tv or movies on their iPads to pass the time. Perhaps they play video games or strike up an online chat. Something to distract them from the monotony of waiting so it’s not so difficult. So much assists in passing the time until The Time comes that you hardly notice. So when it arrives, it’s an interruption in what you were already doing. Oh, look there, it’s Christmas. Much like 11:59 ticks over to 12:00 on New Years, we slip into Christmas.
Nothing teaches you to wait like waiting. Anticipation is an amazing thing. It gives you time to imagine and ponder, to wonder and marvel. It builds energy and excitement. It hopes in you. I love that in Spanish the verb “to hope” and “to wait” is the same word: esperar. Where the one is, the other is, too. You don’t have one without the other.
If waiting is a thing of the past, then so also is hoping. And hope is the middling thing between faith and love. “And now these three remain: faith, hope and love. But the greatest of these is love.” (1 Cor 13:13) The greatest may be love, but to get there from faith requires hope. And hope waits.
Traveling the neighborhood recently I enjoyed seeing a sparkling white figurine of the Angel Gabriel, trumpet to lips, announcing the coming King. In front of him, three smaller figures: Mary, Joseph and the baby Jesus in a manger. Baby and manger were all one piece. There would be no losing or misplacing that baby but also no waiting for him. When the decorations went up, the baby was already here.
This left me a bit melancholy. That in this season of Advent – of waiting – there isn’t any. As a child, that may have been the best gift ever given to me.