On this, the Monday of the first week of our new, post-Mandela world, I’m thinking about heroes and good example and living up to the expectations of those who have gone before us.
Clearly, it is a week for discovering new role models, too. This morning I read, with amazement, the Wikipedia article about Rear Admiral Grace Murray Hopper, a distinguished Naval officer and computer programmer who is being commemorated in today’s Google doodle. As I finished educating myself about her life, I mentally added her to my list of ‘heroes’ – for me, people whose lives are singular or inspiring or demonstrative of the idea that doing your best with what you have is the best way to live well – and began to think about ways to fulfil my own potential, and live as fully as I can.
Nelson Mandela has always been a hero to me. Even as a child, I was aware of his struggle – he was still imprisoned then – and I listened to songs like ‘Lion in a Cage’ and ‘Free Nelson Mandela’ with a sense of puzzled wonder. Why couldn’t the people keeping this great man locked up understand that he should be free, I wondered? Why was his stature as a hero so clear to all of us, and so hard for his own government to understand? Then, the day of his release finally came. I watched, with millions of others, the footage of his ‘long walk to freedom’ in 1990 which, coming so close on the heels of the fall of the Berlin Wall, means that my memories of that time are filled with excitement and giddy delight. Even as a child, I understood that these were important days. I knew enough to know that I was privileged to be living through them.
But heroes are complicated things. Every human being, no matter how remarkable, is still a human being – there will always be elements of each life which will fall far short of perfect. Nelson Mandela – even he! – did not shy away from armed resistance to the apartheid regime, for instance, even though he made huge efforts to ensure that no lives were lost in the process; he felt this was necessary, and even though the idea of violence makes me uncomfortable, I have no doubt but that he was right. An educated, intelligent, reasonable, gentle and humane man, he relied far more on the power of his mind and the weight of his argument to sway people to his way of thinking than he did on violence, and I respect and admire that. The fact that people all over the world, of all colours and all faiths, are united in mourning his passing shows how successful he was at appealing to our higher nature, our compassion, our humanity – and it is because he strove always for peace and equality between peoples that he is remembered so well. Unfortunately, he admitted himself that his family, particularly his children, were asked to suffer too much in the course of his political life and his decades in prison, and that is an unhappy aspect of his legacy. However, in this – as in all things – I am sure he did the best he could, and that is all we can ask of any human being.
Late on Thursday evening last, my husband and I were watching something on BBC Two when a black ‘ticker-tape’ display flashed up on the bottom of our screen. ‘Breaking News on BBC One,’ it read, and so we flicked over to find out what was happening. There were dreadful storms in the UK last week, and so we feared there had been a disaster, or some sort of dreadful loss of life: instead, we were met with a shocked, slightly flustered newsreader announcing Mandela’s passing. Even though he was at an advanced age, and had been suffering with terrible health for some time, I admit I was stunned to learn he had finally succumbed to his illness. As the various TV channels caught the story and started to pay tribute to the lost hero, my stunned feeling became one of sorrow. We watched a special commemorative broadcast – no doubt, sadly, prepared months in advance, ready and waiting for the moment it would be needed – and as the full story of Mandela’s life and the truth of his long, long struggle was played out, I began to realise that this tall, thin man whose face I was so familiar with from my earliest childhood was finally gone, and how much he had done with the time allocated to him on this earth.
We can’t all play pivotal roles in the overthrow of a hated and oppressive regime, and we can’t all invent a computing language while serving as a Navy officer and gaining a PhD in Mathematics. We can’t all become authorities in the field of humane handling of livestock and the rights of autistic people, as another of my heroes (Dr. Temple Grandin) has done. But each life is important and every person is equal, and none of us can make a return trip. Whatever we can do to make the fullest use of our talents, and whatever we can do to improve the lot of others, and whatever we can do to brighten our own tiny corner of the world while we’re here, we should do it. The best way to honour a fallen hero is to conduct yourself in a way that would make them proud – so, living the lessons of Mandela is a good way to pay our respects to his memory.
Here are a few of those lessons, in the words of the great man himself, to be getting on with (and pay attention – there’ll be a test later):
A fundamental concern for others in our individual and community lives would go a long way in making the world the better place we so passionately dream of.
Everyone can rise above their circumstances and achieve success if they are dedicated to and passionate about what they do.
Education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world.
For to be free is not merely to cast off one’s chains, but to live in a way that respects and enhances the freedom of others.
There is no passion to be found playing small – in settling for a life that is less than the one you are capable of living.
Have a happy, peaceful and productive week – and remember that all things are possible to those with determined minds and open hearts.