Sadly, the death of Nelson Mandela was not a surprise given his extended illnesses and advanced age. Nevertheless there has been a very real and palpable loss in knowing that a great spirit has passed from this earth. In memorializing and eulogizing him let us not try to bestow the mantle of sainthood on him, because in doing so we give ourselves the easy way out of striving for greatness.
There is always a tendency to place special people on a pedestal that is so high that it appears unattainable to mere mortals. The life of Nelson Mandela is a case in point. There is a very real danger that, in showering him in all the praise and honor that he deserves that we neglect two realities. First, he was a human being with frailties, weaknesses and shortcomings. Indeed, Nelson Mandela was far from perfect and he was always the first person to make that clear.
To mention his shortcomings as a human being does not mean that we need to dwell on them. Actually the fact that through his sheer will, discipline and courage he was able to overcome the lesser aspects of himself and achieve greatness should be one of the wonderful lessons of the life of Nelson Mandela. He was not perfect, yet he aspired to perfection of himself and of the world around him. He did not fully succeed in either aspiration, but this global community is so much better because he tried.
And if Nelson Mandela could try, if he could aspire to the perfection of himself and the world as he saw it, then there is no excuse for any of us not to try and emulate that aspect of his life. We can squander the time with which we are blessed to be on this earth waiting for “another Mandela” or “another Martin Luther King” or any other “another”.
We will be squandering our time and wasting our lives waiting when each and every one of us has the power and the capacity for greatness, if we would only take the time to search for and recognize the greatness that resides in us. Nelson Mandela found greatness in himself and shared it with the people of South Africa and the world. It is up to us to find that greatness in ourselves and not pass along the burden of greatness to “another” hero.
And, of course there are an infinite number of iterations of greatness. You might not be the one to liberate a country but you can be great parent, a great son or daughter, you can be a great spouse. There are countless random acts of kindness which can be the vehicle for your personal greatness.
The key is to aspire to be better and to keep trying even when we fall short. Nelson Mandela said that he was not a saint – unless a saint was a sinner who kept trying. We can all incorporate that philosophy into our lives instead of just gazing at monuments and attending memorials.
The other thing to remember is that as great as Nelson Mandela was, he did not achieve greatness by himself. He was an important part of a liberation movement. That is to say he was part of an extraordinary collection of men, women and children who struggled, fought, died and overcame.
To suggest that Nelson Mandela was the sole driving force of liberation in South Africa would be to ignore his brothers and sisters who never made headlines, who have no memorial statues but who made a difference, each in their own very important way. And we should all remember that as great as Nelson Mandela was, we all harbor our very own potential for greatness and for making a difference.
The best way to remember Nelson Mandela and all the great men and women who inspire us is to aspire to be great as well. That will be a proper memorial.
That will be the best memorial of all.