I was at a Christmas party yesterday when the news reached my phone: Nelson Mandela had died. Such news is invariably memorable –– perhaps not since Ghandi has someone passed away who was so widely celebrated, not for celebrity, power, or religion, but for wisdom and selfless deeds.
I am not any sort of expert on Mandela. Through the last years of his imprisonment, and the early days of his freedom, I was too young to properly understand what apartheid meant. Indeed, I was so awash in shows like Star Trek that I doubt I could have conceived of such an institution actually existing. These days I understand the importance of how Mandela wielded power, and sought reconciliation. He was a wise leader, though some can justifiably argue not always a successful policymaker, and he earned the world’s admiration –– even adoration.
Social media has now lit up, and governments plan to honor him. Leaders from around the world give their remarks, and columnists and writers do their utmost to speak eloquently about him. He was a true giant of the twentieth century, more than a man, a symbol of hope, a glowing beacon for justice, and so forth, etc.
It’s all very poetic and well-meaning, but I fear that with some of these tributes, we might be in danger of setting the pedestal too high, and missing one of the most remarkable aspects of his legacy.
See, near as I can tell, Nelson Mandela was human. He was the son of a tribal chief, three times married, twice divorced and known to be a bit of an autocrat in power. He was not deposited on the Earth as an infallible saint: he was born into a world that, frankly, didn’t seem to treat his kind –– my ancestors –– as though they were human at all.
And as a human –– not a beacon-saint-messiah –– he decided to do something about it.
Though he possessed the same basic frailties and failings as the rest of humanity, he changed the world. As far as I’m concerned, that’s the most important part of his legacy. He was a person, not some sort of demigod, and yet he overcame everything that was arrayed against him –– both from without, and one imagines, from within –– to achieve things that so many thought impossible.
I fear that if our commemorations inadvertently turn him into a supernatural creature, all we’ll do is make excuses for ourselves. Of course there’s still injustice in the world, but we can’t really do anything about it –– we’re not Mandela, after all. He was a gift from God; we’re just ordinary people. So instead of really digging into a problem, we’ll just like it on Facebook, criticize the politicians for not fixing it, and get back to our lives.
I’m sorry, I know that sounds cynical, and it certainly isn’t fair to the many people who are working so hard without notice… but it’s a danger I think many of us are facing. What is remarkable about people like Mandela is that they were all, so far as I know, people. And we’re people too.
Fortunately, most of us don’t have to fight battles the way he did. Most of us do not have the fate of nations hanging on our words and actions. But every day, I suppose each of us can choose to do something a little better, to try to change the course of events around us. And if all of us do that little bit, then none of us might need to be the next Mandela –– need to take the job of altering history onto our own, very human shoulders.
We absolutely must recognize and remember Mandela for his achievements. We can revere his successes, and aspire to his example. I just think we must be careful not to dehumanize him with praise. He thought he was a person, and we need to think that too, because it’s what makes his accomplishments –– his human accomplishments –– so powerful.
Nelson Mandela has died. Fortunately, there are billions of us who can be just a little bit like him –– if we believe, and if we try.
Sorry, I guess my idealism is showing.