Thursday afternoon, the president of South Africa, Jacob Zuma, announced the death of Nelson Mandela. The world stopped, and millions of people closed their eyes and mourned. A man who had survived so much pain, so much turmoil and had emerged victorious in every way possible, had gone on to his next journey.
Nelson Mandela walked out of a South African prison fighting his own demon: hate. Former president Bill Clinton recalls a conversation he had with Mr. Mandela about that hate.
“Tell me the truth: when you were walking down the road that last time, didn’t you hate them?” Clinton asked. Nelson Mandela replied, “I did. I am old enough to tell the truth. I felt hatred and fear but I said to myself, if you hate them when you get in that car you will still be their prisoner. I wanted to be free and so I let it go.”
Mr. Mandela followed with this extraordinary statement:
“People can take everything from you. I lost my family, the chance to see my children grow up, the best years of my life. They can take everything except your mind and your heart. Those things I decided not to give away.”
Then Nelson Mandela smiled at Bill Clinton and said “Neither should you.”
Smiled. In almost every photo of Nelson Mandela, he’s smiling with his eyes, or his lips, or both. A man who was imprisoned for fighting an unjust and often murderous regime in his homeland smiled all the time. He laughed; he was filled with joy and love and light.
Jennifer Granholm, the former governor of Michigan, posted a photograph of Nelson Mandela decked out in a hat and a jacket from the Detroit Pistons. His smile is from ear to ear. You got the feeling, watching Nelson Mandela, that there was no room in his life or his heart for hate. And when you realized what he went through, what he watched South Africa go through, you wondered if you were in the presence of something miraculous.
We humans hold grudges for the silliest things. Very few of us have experienced anything close to what Nelson Mandela experienced, yet we cling to our own hate and fear. My guess is it was not easy for Mr. Mandela to let go of his demons, but he did, and his life was so much better for it. We could learn something from his journey. We could strive to bring a bit of our own light into the universe by trying to emulate a noble, brave and humble hero.
My friend Jenni wrote that she is never affected this deeply by the passing of a “famous person” unless she knows them. Millions of us are in the same emotional place – this is incredibly painful, but most of us never met Nelson Mandela, we only knew him by his works, by his heroism, by his smile. There are many tears being shed tonight, and tears will continue to flow long after this evening has passed. What I will remember, what I hope we all remember, is a presence as wondrous and giving and loving as Nelson Mandela never really dies. He is with us in all things and always will be.
Do not stand at my grave and weep
I am not there. I do not sleep.
I am a thousand winds that blow.
I am the diamond glints on snow.
I am the sunlight on ripened grain.
I am the gentle autumn rain.
When you awaken in the morning’s hush
I am the swift uplifting rush
Of quiet birds in circled flight.
I am the soft stars that shine at night.
Do not stand at my grave and cry;
I am not there. I did not die.
Mary Elizabeth Frye