When Nelson Mandela was asked, “how has prison changed him?” He hesitated a little as if to find the question pointless and replied, “I came out mature.”
Imagine spending 27 years in prison, most of them in solitary confinement. Not the longest sentence in history no doubt but surely enough, or more than enough, to change a man, or any man for that matter. Misunderstood, mistreated, and branded as a terrorist, Mandela had indeed seen it all, felt it all and experienced it all.
Notwithstanding all that, Mandela never lost hope. In his autobiography, Long Walk to Freedom, he wrote, "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 always been inspired, if not intrigued, by the hardscrabble life that this tough-minded and unassuming man had gone through. He endured the death of his mother and eldest son in prison. When he learned of their death, he wrote that “suddenly his heart seemed to have stopped beating.”
In one of his letters, he expressed this soul-wrenching pain as such, “Many people who ponder on the problems of the average prisoner tend to concentrate more on the lengthy sentences still to be served, the hard labour to which we are condemned, the coarse and tasteless menus, the grim and tedious boredom that stalks every prisoner and the frightful frustrations of a life in which human beings move in complete circles, landing today exactly at the point where you started the day before. But some of us have had experiences much more painful than these, because these experiences eat too deeply into one’s being, into one’s soul.”
Yet, despite the seemingly inconsolable pain, Mandela carried out his daily prison routine and labour as if it was just another ordinary day. This was what made Mandela the man he is today. His is a formidable spirit that clung on to hope just as a baby would cling on to his mother’s breast. “Hope is a powerful weapon even when nothing else may remain...This fact endows my spirit with powerful wings,” so wrote Mandela.
Prison has indeed steeled him. He has emerged not only triumphant but wholly transformed. And as he so simply puts it, “I came out mature.” I guess this is what he meant when he said, “I was not a messiah, but an ordinary man who had become a leader because of extraordinary circumstances.”
And as mundane and monotonous as prison is, unchanging, predictable and at times, unbearable, it is still an unpretentious place of "extraordinary circumstances” that forces one to prioritize life from top to bottom. Like news of one’s pending death, it reverses the order of things by dethroning what once seems urgently important like chasing the wind of worldly possessions whilst enthroning what was once overlooked as less important like the love of family, the heart of remorse and the soul of character. This cherished quote from Mandela says it all, “There is nothing like returning to a place that remains unchanged to find the ways in which you yourself have altered.”
Mandela had many teachers in life and prison was one of his greatest. In his private letters, he wrote, “Indeed, the chains of the body are often wings to the spirits.” He went further and quoted Shakespespeare, “Sweet are the uses of adversity, which like a toad, ugly and venomous, wears yet a precious jewel in the head.”
The aggregated force of 27 years has taught Mandela to take the long view of life. He learned to play the long game and to postpone personal gratification. Mandela saw himself as a long distance runner and a long distance thinker and prison was his marathon. Because of this, he learned to judge a life in its totality. He learned to follow the arc of a man’s life to its unembellished end.
His collaborator Richard Stengel once asked Mandela whether he was happy. In the book Mandela’s way, Lessons on Life, he noted Mandela’s response to that question. “He frowned. It is the sort of question he regards as both superficial and intrusive - not a good combination. But eventually he did begin to talk. He talked about how his father had died too early and mostly a broken man. He talked about how his mother had died thinking that her son was a jailbird, perhaps a criminal.
One of his regrets is that he never helped his mother understand the struggle. He alluded to the challenges faced by his own daughters. And he mentioned the ancient Greek writers he had read and enjoyed in prison. They took the long view. He could not recall the writer, but he said that there was the story of Croesus asking a wise man if he could be considered happy. And the wise man replied, “Count no man happy until you know his end.” He (Mandela) agreed with that, and that is in part what made him so prudent and so cautious.”
I guess claiming that one is happy before his end is like eating a cake half baked or expecting a child to run a conglomerate. Every life has a long arc and it bends toward a finality that deserves our patience, understanding and good will. This also applies to failure as much as it applies to success.
Life is an enduring marathon and not a sporadic sprint. It is judged not by one’s occasional successes. Neither is it judged by one’s transient setbacks. It is in fact an indispensable mixture of both and much more. If carried to its fruitful end, successes and failures should always be viewed as pleasant surprises planted along the way to self discovery. One misdeed or misstep does not define a life. Neither does one triumph or good fortune conclude it.
In the end, along this journey we call life, we must accept that every event we encounter all aim to impart a lesson about ourselves that we have yet to discover. And this life is very much a life of discovery as it is a life of overcoming. In other words, it is very much a road of wonderment as it is a road of betterment. And the wonderment of life is in the things we often overlooked or missed out in our daily busy living.
One author puts it this way “Life is not a problem to be solved; it is a gift to be opened. The color of the sky, the song of a bird, a word of kindness, a strain of music, the sun on our face, the companionship of friends, the shape of clouds in summer, the red of maples in fall – these and a thousand tiny miracles punctuate a single day in a precious human life. If we are so preoccupied with plotting out future success or failures, we unintentionally impoverish ourselves by ignoring the astonishing harvest of these small gifts, piled one upon the other, that accumulate without our awareness or acknowledgment.” (Wayne Muller, “A life of being, having and doing enough”)
For this reason, Mandela always saw the good in others. He once shared that seeing the good in others improves the chances that they will reveal their better selves. He is a person who rather err on the side of generosity than to get it right on the side of quick judgment. Despite how he was treated in prison, despite the many many years of incarceration and abuse, the most amazing side of this generosity is that Mandela refused to bear any grudge against those who were responsible for his plight. He led the way by forgiving and reconciling. He essentially turned the blame game into handshakes of forgiveness and set the example for all to follow. He once said, “As I walked out the door toward the gate that would lead to my freedom, I knew if I didn’t leave my bitterness and hatred behind I would still be in prison.”
Indeed, the man’s generosity is in his ability to see beyond the seemingly indissoluble hurt and to reach out despite of it. This is also the same man who made this observation, “In real life we deal, not with gods, but with ordinary humans like ourselves; men and women who are full of contradictions, who are stable and fickle, strong and weak, famous and infamous, people in whose bloodstream the muckworm battles daily with potent pesticides.”
I guess Mandela harbored no delusions about the fallibility of man, including himself. I believe that his generosity is very much deepened by this admission that no man, however adored or admired, is perfect and it is often our mutual imperfections that make us readily understandable and therefore deserving of our unqualified compassion.
Personally, I have learned a lot from reading about Mandela’s life. I guess it would be a great privilege for me to spend just one day with him and to understand a fraction of what he understands about life. This is the same man who once said that fearlessness is stupidity and courage is not the absence of fear but not letting it defeat you. This is the same man whose greatest act of leadership was to renounce it. He served only one term of the presidency but remained active throughout his life helping others behind the glamor and glare of publicity. He was also described as being indifferent to almost all material possessions, that is, he cared or know little about the names of cars, couches or watches. And Richard, his collaborator, once summed up Mandela’s life as "someone who will always stand up for what he believes is right with a stubbornness that is virtually unbending."
Let me share an exchange between Mandela and Richard which can be found in his book Mandela's way. "He (Mandela) once recited for me (Richard) the parable of the young Xhosa man who left his small village to search for a wife. He spent years traveling all around the world looking for the perfect woman, but did not find her. Eventually he came back to the village without a bride, and on his way in saw a woman and said, "Ah, I have found my wife." It turns out, Mandela said, that she had lived in the hut next door to his all her life.
I asked him (Mandela), "Is the moral of the story that you don't need to wander far and wide to find what you are looking for because it is right in front of you? Or is it that sometimes you must have wide experience and knowledge in order to appreciate those things that are closest and most familiar to you?" He thought about this for a moment, nodded, and then said, "There is no one interpretation. Both may be correct.""
This is my takeaway from this exchange. I imagine replacing the word "wife" with the word "happiness" and replacing the young Xhosa young man for myself. I imagine leaving my homeland to look for happiness. But after a long exhausting search, I came home disappointed, empty handed, until I see my wife and children, loved ones and friends, eagerly waiting for my return. It then dawned upon me that happiness has always been waiting for me at home. And, in the tradition of Mandela, the question for me to reflect here is this, "Will I have realized this truth if I had not embarked on the journey to discover life for myself?"
Just as it is for Mandela, who had traveled long and far, enduring and overcoming 27 years of freedom denied, the death of three of his children and one great granddaughter, a troubled nation held bondage under apartheid, and prostate cancer, I guess I have my own life's journey to travel, to experience, to discover and to learn from it. And throughout this journey, I will not give up hope by reminding myself that “every chains of the body are often wings to the spirits.”
Let me end with this tribute to an ordinary man who had lived in the most extraordinary of times as expressed in his own words, "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." Cheerz.