The Nelson Mandela Death Watch: We’re about to lose a bit of our soul

As Nelson Mandela’s health continues to deteriorate, it’s inevitable (as it is for all of us) that we will learn at some point that he has succumbed to life’s only certainty.  I imagine press agencies around the world are preparing their obits and leaders in South Africa are planning for what should be the most impressive display of grief over the loss of a leader since John Kennedy.   Each time I read that Mandela’s condition is worsening, I am personally preparing for a world without one of history’s greatest men.

Sitting in Petoskey, Michigan, it’s fair to ask why I would care so much about the eventual passing of a man I have never met and who has lived a very different life than mine.   I imagine some people would wonder why a 58-year old white man who has been inside a police station once in his life would give two hoots about the health and eventual passing of a 94-year old black man who spent most of his adult life in prison.

Because I have been giving far more than two hoots in recent days as I follow his declining health, I had to ask myself that question.   What does the life of Nelson Mandela mean to me and what should it mean to all Americans?

I wanted to write this with the assumption that everyone knows a lot about Mandela.   But sadly I am aware that most Americans probably know very little about him.  Because I have always had a keen interest in the underdog, and because I count my only heroes as those who stood up to authority without regard to the costs to themselves, I am attracted to the details of the lives of men and women like Martin Luther King, Jr., Helen Keller, Tom Hayden, Thomas Paine, Emma Goldman, Woody Guthrie, Martin Luther, Malcolm X, John Lennon, and Eugene Debs.   My library has multiple biographies of each of these heroes and Mandela sits proudly among them as someone who understood that doing the right thing often (maybe always) comes at a price most of us are not willing to pay.

Each year that I taught in three different predominantly white high schools an American History, World History, or Government class, I would always take time on MLK Day to try to connect the lives of my students to the heroism of King.  When I taught World Politics at the University of Michigan in the 1980’s, there was a strong movement to close the university to honor King, but I argued that we ought to hold class, and spend a day across all the curriculum to tie King to what we were currently studying.   In both the high school classes in Michigan, and the graduate assistants’ rooms at U-M, I was saddened to hear young white students complain that King was a hero for black people and that they didn’t see why “we” had to learn about him.

Just like I have never felt the Holocaust was a “Jewish” tragedy, I have never felt King was a “black” hero.  King himself would have rejected such a characterization.   When horrible things happen to people across the world, they happen to all of us, and when heroism occurs across the world, it benefits  all of us.

So learning what drives the heroes in history is important for all of us, because each of us has the chance to be “heroic” almost every day.  But unless we understand the costs of heroism and the wide-reaching positive consequences of it, it’s really difficult to ever act heroically.   Heroism comes in lots of flavors and it doesn’t always have to be profound.  To me, heroism is simply standing up to an injustice, regardless of the costs.   We misuse heroism on the sports fields all the time.  There is no real injustice in a sporting event (the Michigan-Michigan State clock game fiasco notwithstanding) and so there can never be any heroism in sports.  But on a day-to-day basis there are a lot of things to stand up to and all of us can be “heroes” no matter how insignificant the injustice.

I have a step-daughter who I believe thinks I’m crazy.  When I see things that don’t make sense to me, I almost always do something about them.  It’s never for “credit” and it’s rarely anything anyone would call “heroism”, but for me it’s the least we can all do when see bad behavior or injustice.   I recall fondly one of the first outings I took with my future “new” family.  We went to the water park in Mackinac City and, as any potential new step-dad would be doing, I was trying to get over the anxiety of being the mom’s “date.”   So after a few runs down the slides, we all parked on some seats to rest.  A man in front of us was smoking, stood up, and tossed his burning cigarette in the sand as he walked away.  I made a comment and then stood up, walked up to the smoldering butt, picked it up, and put it on the man’s lounge chair (where I secretly hoped it would ignite his towels) and waited.  My step-daughter was appalled and perhaps fascinated as to why I would take the risk of being embarrassed, or even having my ass kicked, to make a point the guy obviously didn’t care about anyway.   But because of what I have learned from people who decided to make a real difference in this world, I just can’t ignore that stuff.  I’m not in any way saying what I did was heroic because my actions were anonymous.  (I have to admit I was really laughing when the family came back pointed at the smoldering butt, looked around, and had no idea what to do…funny stuff…highly recommended!)  Normally when people toss trash or cigarettes in parking lots or out of cars, I stop and hand the stuff back to them, commenting that I noticed they dropped something.   That’s a little more heroic because there really are consequences to face if someone takes offense.  On this day in Mackinac City, I was not really taking on personal risk, but I was also not willing to watch some dope toss his lit cigarette around a water park.  Even little actions like these are the consequence of great sacrifices made by the heroes about whom I have read.

Back to Nelson Mandela.  Mandela spent 20 years before his arrest working against apartheid, the legal separation of the races.  If you ever want to know the limits of man’s inhumanity to man, don’t stop at the Holocaust.  While there can never be forgiveness for the human soul for that darkest of moments, apartheid is a close second.   The treatment of blacks in the South for hundreds of years in America is a disgrace that can never be wiped from the pages of our history books, but it was virtual child’s play compared to what the blacks in South Africa suffered.  Mandela and others knew something had to be done.

Mandela’s non-violent approach was based on the teachings of Gandhi (who spent considerable time in South Africa) and others who understood that using violence against injustice was playing right into the hands of the authorities who would use that violence as a excuse for more repression.   His reward was being sent to prison for 27 years under the most dire conditions.  The only time he was nearly released was when the South African government plotted to get him out of prison to assassinate him and blame it on black radicals.

Upon his release, he was elected President of South Africa and presided over a relatively peaceful transition of power to the black majority.  When most people who had been imprisoned for 27 years and watched hundreds of thousands of people die and millions suffer simply because of their race might have sought revenge against the oppressors who surely deserved it, Mandela mandated tolerance and reconciliation.  This is heroism.

In the end when Mandela dies, our world will be worse off.  If we think of the value of humanity as the collective good of the people minus the collective bad of the people, we are better as a people when guys like Hitler, Stalin, etc. die, and we are worse off as a people when guys like King, Gandhi, and Mandela pass.  All of us, black, white, whatever, will lose a bit of our soul on the day Mandela leaves us.  And Americans should be no less saddened than the South Africans he freed.

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One Comment on “The Nelson Mandela Death Watch: We’re about to lose a bit of our soul”

  1. Kelly Ingleson June 11, 2013 at 11:59 pm #

    I only hope in our lifetimes that we see a younger group of individuals who will live their lives with the sense of honor and grace that Nelson Mandela shared! It is so difficult to impart in youth today that it is not only a responsibility but a duty to humanity to stand against injustice, regardless of the personal cost! Thanks for taking the time to Honor men am women of character!

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