As we mark the death of Nelson Mandela, much has been said about his remarkable achievement, his life story, his politics, his tactics, his tenacity and courage. He is fittingly celebrated for his unwavering commitment to and the success of his mission to right the iniquitous wrong of apartheid. But we must not overlook another of his gifts to us: he reminds us of the potential and opportunity we each hold to make positive change, and the ability of human will to triumph over adversity. He exemplified the power of individual thought and intention, directed into action, and the inevitability of its eventual impact. He is for each of us a role model, the personification of steadfast commitment to what is right, and the capacity to catalyze change beginning with one person.
He was an imperfect person, just as we each are. He was human, reassuringly so; he puts what he did within reach for us. Out of his own oppression he made a decision to stand up for what he believed, to devote his life to rehabilitating his country into a democracy and to correcting the unfairness he saw. And then he did it.
Mandela’s life not only shows us the importance of standing up for what you believe, but also the need for compromise, collaboration, love, and forgiveness. Prison matured him: he went in as a revolutionary and emerged a statesman. As Richard Stengel (former editor of Time Magazine) writes, “Prison was the crucible that formed the Mandela we know. The man who went into prison in 1962 was hotheaded and easily stung. The man who walked out into the sunshine of the mall in Cape Town 27 years later was measured, even serene. It was a hard-won moderation. In prison, he learned to control his anger. He had no choice…And he came to understand that if he was ever to achieve that free and nonracial South Africa of his dreams, he would have to come to terms with his oppressors. He would have to forgive them.”
Mandela came to understand the importance of partnership as well as forgiveness. “If you want to make peace with your enemy, you have to work with your enemy. Then he becomes your partner.”
We each have the potential to generate change. It starts first with personal intention. What you believe is the root of your own action, and your own action is what then ripples out and influences those around you and the greater field beyond. Even when you think you are acting alone, you are never alone because your thoughts and actions have life and trajectory and reach others. Even from the isolated confines of oppression in South Africa, Nelson Mandela was influenced by Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King. And there is no way to measure the myriad other unknowns whose efforts were undoubtedly essential to Mandela’s movement–other than to see the outcome and know that it took many to reach it. Mandela assumed the role of leader, but he did not work alone, and he knew this.
“As a leader…I have always endeavored to listen to what each and every person in a discussion had to say before venturing my own opinion. Oftentimes, my own opinion will simply represent a consensus of what I heard in the discussion. I always remember the axiom: a leader is like a shepherd. He stays behind the flock, letting the most nimble go out ahead, whereupon the others follow, not realizing that all along they are being directed from behind.”
When you express your idealism and hope and give what you have to share, then we are all touched, and your unique contribution moves us forward. We come into the world as original beings, each with our own talents and prospects, each a personification of a distinct aspect of the universe and ready to participate in creating for ourselves and others. To succeed at this, it is essential that we recognize the importance and strengths of our individual selves as creators, generators of the future, and the need for participation and teamwork. We work best together.
So don’t underestimate yourself. Remember the opportunity that lies in your thoughts and actions. And the need to come together and share them for common good.
You may read more of Richard Stengel’s article at Time.com.