“I wanted to be free so I let it go.”

It’s Mandela Day, formally known as Nelson Mandela International Day. The celebration was officially declared by the United Nations in 2009 and is held each July 18th, Mandela’s birthday. Today, he is 93.

NelsonMandela.org says, “The Mandela Day campaign message is simple: Mr. Mandela gave 67 years of his life fighting for the rights of humanity. All we are asking is that everyone gives 67 minutes of their time, whether it’s supporting your chosen charity or serving your local community.”

For Buddhists it’s a good day to practice loving-kindness meditation, to reflect on the nature of compassion, to perform some sort of Bodhisattva action. But, of course, as in the same spirit of the logo above, every day is a good day for that.

I find Nelson Mandela inspiring for a number of reasons, not the least of which is the way he emerged from 27 years of imprisonment without hatred or bitterness. But rather than read my words about this, here are the words of someone who has actually met Nelson Mandela. This is what former president Bill Clinton wrote a few years ago:

Mandela made a grand, elegant, dignified exit from prison and it was very, very powerful for the world to see. But as I watched him walking down that dusty road, I wondered whether he was thinking about the last 27 years, whether he was angry all over again. Later, many years later, I had a chance to ask him. I said, ‘Come on, you were a great man, you invited your jailers to your inauguration, you put your pressures on the government. But tell me the truth. Weren’t you really angry all over again?’ And he said, ‘Yes, I was angry. And I was a little afraid. After all I’ve not been free in so long. But,’ he said, ‘when I felt that anger well up inside of me I realized that if I hated them after I got outside that gate then they would still have me.’ And he smiled and said, ‘I wanted to be free so I let it go.’ It was an astonishing moment in my life. It changed me.

He’s got so much to teach us about forgiveness. It isn’t about being soft-headed and kind-hearted and essentially weak or forgetful  . . .  Mandela found that forgiveness was a strategy for survival. Because he found a forgiving heart under the most adverse circumstances, because he learned to hate the apartheid cause without hating the white South Africans, he had space left inside to learn and grow and become great.

To me he represents a great political leader. He had the discipline to stay the course for almost three decades, through enormous punishment, to achieve the political objective he sought. And he did it in a way that, in the end, had the support of people across the racial divide. In the process he freed not only black South Africa but, as Martin Luther King said about America, he freed white South Africans, too. It’s a terrible burden oppressing someone else; it’s like being in chains yourself.

What makes Mandela so special is that he’s a real human being. He laughs, he cries, he gets mad, he fell in love with Graça Machel. He’s got a real life. And the fact that he is so flesh-and-blood real makes his greatness and his sacrifice and his wisdom and his courage in the face of all that has happened to him even more remarkable. He never pretended to be somebody who didn’t like soccer or wouldn’t like to be able to go to a boxing match again. He’s not just great: He is a good man. Not because he is perfect—he still has his flashes of anger and regret—but in the big moment, in the big ways, there is nobody like him.”

I couldn’t agree more.

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