Nelson Mandela inspired the baby boomer generation; many supported the anti-apartheid movement in the 1970s and 1980s. Millennials inspire me as well. I have taught and learned from them at several universities. This generation is the most progressive in terms of views about same-sex marriage, interracial relationships, and new media, according to a survey by the Pew Research Center (March 2014).
When public forums polarize generations, it is unproductive. For example, I would not dismiss most millennials as entitled any more than I would have labeled gen x as slackers. My students often worked 20 to 40 hours per week while carrying a full load of courses and staggering student debt. My peers’ children are hardworking students and professionals.
It is folly, indeed prejudicial, to stereotype millions of people with one label. Mandela is the example for all of us. He transcended age.
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Nelson Mandela’s death gave me pause. Not so much music and dancing in the streets but rather a singular moment when, for once, a pundit went to a real place: “The man was not a saint. He was a man. We may not think we can live up to what he did. But what we can reach for is one light within ourselves and connect positively with others in our own way.”
In the 1964 Rivonia Trial, the apartheid South Africa government sentenced Mandela to life imprisonment for political offenses, including sabotage. He was incarcerated on Robben Island for 18 of his 27 years in prison, where he contracted tuberculosis and received the lowest level of prison treatment.
In the winter of his life, Mandela connected with the other side—in reconciliation. They bridged a great divide and prevented a bloodbath in a country already ripped apart. Although a pragmatic, indeed charming, politician on the world stage, Mandela tapped into his humanity, not sainthood. “If there are dreams about a beautiful South Africa, there are also roads that lead to their goal,” he said. “Two of these roads could be named goodness and forgiveness.”
We all grow and change throughout our lives. When we connect with others—even in modest ways—our light within shines forth.
That may mean pulling together a fractured family . . . building a home for someone in our community . . . supporting an organization that lifts up someone to find a purposeful life . . . ladling a bowl of soup for someone who is hungry and cold . . . feeling the heartbeat of beautiful music, art, or words and sharing it . . . loving our planet, even by way of how we dispose of garbage . . . working with integrity . . . following our faith authentically, whatever it may be. . . .
Whether we have the power to fulfill a long list or a shorter one, no one will keep count. There is no score.
Mandela said many things, but this one seems fitting for the season and one worth living out long after we have vacuumed up dried pine needles that trailed to our doors when we threw out the Christmas tree: “There is no passion to be found playing small—in settling for a life that is less than the one you are living.”
We all can do our best. There is no measure, for the light within is not a number.
The world is not black and white, though easy to see that way. Instead, it is a brilliant rainbow of gray.
“Asimbonanga” (We have not seen him)/”Asimbonang uMandela thina” (We have not seen Mandela) — Johnny Clegg & Savuka, composed in 1987 and performed in 1990. “It is music and dancing that made me at peace with the world–and at peace with myself.”–Nelson Mandela, 1990
Portrait of Mandela courtesy of kimndong
Nelson Mandela’s prison cell on Robben Island courtesy of Paul Mannix
Candle courtesy of Bangin/Gnu Free Documentation License
Supernumeray Rainbow courtesy of Andrew Dunn, http://www.andrewdunnphoto.com