The mercury dropped last night in San Francisco and a rare frost covered the morning ground. And now, the rains have come and all these commonplace happenings take on a mythological significance as Nelson Mandela has crossed to the other side. The rains are both an auspicious sign of life renewed and tears of farewell to a great man. Listening to the radio this morning, I couldn’t help but be struck by the personal stories of journalists who had had the good fortune to meet him, all moved by his humble and personable manner, his humor, wit and gracious bearing, his listening ear, made all the more remarkable by his stature of a man of great inner power, courage and vision. And made yet more remarkable by his stories of 27 years in prison, a prison within a society already imprisoned by hatred, fear, racism, ignorance and brutality.
27 years! I’m still bitter that I didn’t get my promised prize for winning the pie-eating contest in 4th grade! This man spent almost three decades in jail and emerged loving his enemies, forgiving his tormentors and meeting each day with optimism, hope, gratitude forged from the depths of human suffering. What a story.
It occurred to me that almost everyone else of his stature, those who combined spiritual victory with political struggle for human rights and dignity— from Gandhi to Martin Luther King and so on down through Malcolm X, JFK, Robert Kennedy, Che Guevara— all met an untimely death from an assassin’s bullet. To reach the ripe age of 95, to achieve the unthinkable and become President at an age when most people had packed away their dreams and are content to go golfing, to see some of the fruits of his work ripen, is an extraordinary achievement. And equally to see some rot and spoil, to see some of his own people squander the full measure of freedom and responsibility and stay caught in the tangle of violence that still characterizes some of life in South Africa, must have been cause for another kind of bitterness. And yet he seemed to keep his whole humanity intact. People often lament that they don’t make ‘em like they used to—no new heroes coming down the pike. And yet here he was amongst us, spanning two different centuries and keeping his eye on the prize. As the radio commentators said, “We’re not likely to see a person of this caliber again.”
Or will we? I have a few candidates amongst my students between 3 and 13 years old. If we keep feeding them what they need to grow a true character and a constant vision, who knows what can happen?
As for me, I publicly proclaim that I forgive Mr. Salcito for neglecting to give me that pie-eating prize. I’m over it. No more bitterness, ready to embrace the world with wholehearted love, compassion, empathy and optimism. And I owe it all to Nelson Mandela.