July 14, 2013
I was driving down a highway in Oregon last week when I caught sight of a face on a distant billboard.
The face grew larger as the car sped forward. It was a familiar face, with a familiar furrowed brow, a familiar gleam in the eye, a tender but somehow sorrowful smile I'd seen before.
I was startled. It felt like a visitation. I felt that I'd conjured this man's face out of a desire to know him before he dies, this man who has been in my head every day for weeks.
Then, zoom, Nelson Mandela was behind me.
I didn't know who put Mandela on the billboard next to I-5, or when or why, but it made me feel someone had burrowed inside my brain, inside our collective brain, someone who knows how much Mandela, in what may be his final days, has invaded the minds of so many people.
Hero is a word we toss around as loosely as confetti, so I won't use it for Mandela. But it's not a stretch to say that he is, justifiably, the most respected public figure alive today.
The fact that he may not be alive much longer makes connecting with his life feel urgent.
Shortly after Mandela went into the hospital in June, I began reading his autobiography, "Long Walk to Freedom."
I get up every morning and sit with the book, over coffee, the way some people might get up every day and meditate. I've been reading slowly, superstitiously, as if to read fast might hasten his departure.
An e-version of the book offers this synopsis: "Mandela challenges status quo. Mandela is jailed for it. Mandela is released after 27 years and becomes President!"
The full story, of course, is darker, but even then it's so astonishing that it has the feel of fairy tale.
"Long Walk to Freedom" begins with a boy born into a South African village. The boy runs in the fields and swims in the streams near his mother's hut. Lucky enough to get an education, the boy turns into a handsome, dapper man who goes to the big city, and there, in the humiliations of a racially segregated society, becomes a revolutionary.
When pacifist tactics fail to rid his country of its vicious racist policies, he advocates violence. When he goes on trial for advocating violence, he sits in court and, contrary to the advice of friends, says he is willing to die for his beliefs.
He doesn't die. He merely suffers.
Like the other black Africans in prison, he is forced to wear shorts because black Africans are considered boys. He is tossed into isolation. He digs rock for years in the lime quarry. He marks the days on the walls of his cell. He learns the language of his jailers so that he can understand them.
And when he walks out of prison after 27 years, he forgives.
"It was during those long and lonely years that my hunger for the freedom of my own people became a hunger for the freedom of all people, white and black," he writes in his book. "I knew as well as I knew anything that the oppressor must be liberated just as surely as the oppressed."
In the past few weeks, the spectacle around Mandela has not been as uplifting as that tale. Politicians have angled for final photo ops. His family is feuding over the bodies of his deceased children. Amid claims that he is in a vegetative state, some relatives insist he is "improving."
It's uncomfortable to watch, but it's also a reminder that he is just a man. An old man.
He is not a saint. He is not, despite all the quotable quotes out there on the Internet that reduce him to a grandfatherly version of Dr. Phil, a self-help guru.
He is simply a man, one who carries the 20th century and one of its greatest, unfinished struggles in him, whose life shows us how one person, working with other people, can help shift the world.
Mandela's 95th birthday is Thursday. I have 100 pages left of "Long Walk to Freedom." I'm reluctant to finish it, because finishing will feel like goodbye.
That sounds corny, but one of Mandela's gifts is to make so many people feel connected to his life and consequently to the things he has preached and lived and fought for.
Equality. Forgiveness. Understanding. Tenacity. Learning. The power of time.
Thank you, Mr. Mandela.
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