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.
– Nelson Mandela, anti-apartheid activist and former President of South Africa
When I was attending the University of California at Davis in the early to mid-1980s, anti-apartheid sentiment and calls for the UC system to divest financial support to businesses in South Africa were fervent and widespread among college students and across the UC campuses. These were the political and social realities that were very much a part of my undergraduate years. They helped shape my global views as a young adult. These concerns were a world away but I understood that human rights were fundamental to all. And so leaders like Desmond Tutu and Nelson Mandela were heroes to e and many of my fellow students.
I didn’t hear about Nelson Mandela’s death until I got home from a short business trip in Chicago last night. I had read about his declining health a few months back and upon reading it I understood, as many did, that his time on earth was coming to an end. The realization was stunning even at that time, even though we know that the inevitable – mortality – is a fact of life. It is truly a time of mourning, but it is also a time of remembering Mandela’s remarkable gifts – courage, forgiveness, and a mighty pen and voice, among many other gifts. It is a time to honor him by embracing those gifts as our own and ensuring that we use those gifts to further his vision of a just world.
What better way to remind ourselves than to remember some of the wise and generous words he gave us:
Education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world.
I am fundamentally an optimist. Whether that comes from nature or nurture, I cannot say. Part of being optimistic is keeping one’s head pointed toward the sun, one’s feet moving forward. There were many dark moments when my faith in humanity was sorely tested, but I would not and could not give myself up to despair. That way lays defeat and death. I have walked that long road to freedom. I have tried not to falter; I have made missteps along the way. But I have discovered the secret that after climbing a great hill, one only finds that there are many more hills to climb. I have taken a moment here to rest, to steal a view of the glorious vista that surrounds me, to look back on the distance I have come. But I can only rest for a moment, for with freedom come responsibilities, and I dare not linger, for my long walk is not ended.
I always knew that deep down in every human heart, there is mercy and generosity. No one is born hating another person because of the color of his kin, or his background, or his religion. People must learn to hate, and if they can learn to hate, they can be taught to love, for love comes more naturally to the human heart than the opposite.
Overcoming poverty is not a task of charity, it is an act of justice. Like Slavery and Apartheid, poverty is not natural. It is man-made and it can be overcome and eradicated by the actions of human beings. Sometimes it falls on a generation to be great. YOU can be that great generation. Let your greatness blossom.
As these next days test the depth of our sadness, remember his words: “Let your greatness blossom.” I am sure that Mandela would not have wanted it any other way: “It always seems impossible, until it’s done.”