The Mornings of Mourning by Venessa Bowers, MSW, LCSW

Nelson Mandela 1

Thursday night, December 5, 2013, I heard the news that Nelson Mandela had died. While I knew he had been ill for a good while, the thought of him actually completing his life on this planet had never really occurred to me as even a remote possibility. Surely he would live forever. His life had been something I had come to rely upon – a beacon of what I needed to try to emulate in my own life – so vastly different than his, but a personal, daily struggle with bitterness and hatred, none-the-less.

I was a freshman in college when Mr. Mandela was released from prison after 27 years of a life sentence. I was in English (romantic literature to be exact, a really necessary class, let me tell you) and we watched the media coverage. The other women in my class twittered softly about how they really needed to prepare for the test in this class rather than watching this “coverage that has nothing to do with us.” I wasn’t the savviest student in this all women’s college where I was surround by people who had better education than I did and came from background which had no meaning to me (read privileged white females), but I knew this was something important. I wasn’t sure what it meant, but I knew I needed to pay attention (most likely, only time I did in that entire course). From my vantage point, I saw an old man walk through the street with his first raised in the air with a smile on his face. These are dichotomous images…a fist raised and a smile. What on earth could that mean?

I decided to find out. So I read about Mr. Mandela; I watched documentaries about him; I listened to him on a variety of television shows; and I read what he actually said. I was struck, like most of us, about his capacity for forgiveness. I was even more struck by the mythology around the man. The stories people told of him made him seem god-like. To be honest, I liked what he had to say. I liked the way he said it. I thought he was like the grandfather I wish I had had. That’s the benefit of removed television coverage – it tells you what you want and need to see, know, and believe. But I couldn’t wrap my head around the fact that people kept saying he was never bitter about what happened it him. How could that be?

Yesterday on Face the Nation, Michele Norris of NPR, said “And there’s one thing that I think is an important nuance, though, that we need to understand, is people say he wasn’t bitter. People who were closest to him say he actually was bitter. He spent — he spent 27 years; that’s 10,000 days, more than 10,000 days, in prison. He didn’t hear the voice of children. He — his marriage suffered. His friendships suffered. But to understand his magnificence, you need to understand that he was bitter and he did battle with his anger and he won. And that’s one of the most important lessons, I think, for all of us.”

So, he WAS human. And in his humanness, he figured out how to battle his rage and bitterness about the life stolen from him. But he decided to live with compassion and forgiveness for the rest of his life, when he had every right to seek revenge. He decided his inner peace and the peace of his country was more important than the self-indulgent negative behavior he could have exacted on others. And after all these years of watching and learning from him, I still do not understand how he did that.

So today, and for many mornings to come, I like so many others around the world wake up with no Mandela to guide me. I felt safe in my American bed knowing that there was such a person as he living a world away, guiding this human ship with dignity. And now, I mourn that passing. Not because I knew him, or he knew me, but because it was a life worth living.

And it is a life complete. And now, the challenge to emulate him becomes more difficult because it relies on the human capacity to remember on one’s own. To decide for one’s self – a life of bitterness and resentment or a life of peace in the service of others? It demands the constant vigilance to put aside the bondage of self to find the freedom of the mind and soul. And that makes me uncomfortable. Because now it’s up to me.

Nelson Mandela 2

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1 comment so far

  1. Darlene on

    Thank you for sharing your perspective of Mr. Mandela’s life and legacy. I was also profoundly touched by this great man and his life/words. Words that came from one human being who made a choice to be free no matter the circumstances. Words that touched the heart of millions (and will continue for generations to come) and reminded us that everyday we have that same choice to make for ourselves..to be a victim of our circumstances and allow ourselves be a slave to bitterness, hatred and desire for revenge or to see our experiences (though they may have been painful) as part of the tools we are given to make a difference in the lives of others who are hurting by letting them know there is life beyond your pain. I am truly grateful for the impact Mr. Mandela has had on my understanding of what it really means to be free; not because he was perfect, but because he never stopped trying.


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