As I write this, a grand old man hovers at death’s door. By the time it appears in print, he may already be gone.
Godspeed, Nelson Mandela.
His is one of the amazing lives of the last century. Few men have made the transition from political prisoner to national leader; even fewer have done so without the intervention of civil war or other violence. To have done that and remain a respected, even beloved, figure years after leaving power – well, you get the idea.
But the end comes for all of us. Not always quickly or kindly. Though at least most of us don’t have the world’s press straining to be the first to announce our passing. An odd compliment, in a way.
Farewell, Mr. Mandela.
I can’t think of him without thinking of a moment in history. And I don’t just mean February 1990, the moment of his freedom from prison, the beginning of the end of apartheid in South Africa.
That’s a key part of this. But to everyone who was alive then – do you remember?
Do you remember what a remarkable time in history that was?
Think back to 1989 and 1990.
These were the years the Wall came down. That the Soviet Union began to break apart, like a calving iceberg. That the Velvet Revolution came to Czechoslovakia, setting off dominoes across Eastern Europe – and not the sort of dominoes once anticipated in the ‘50s and ‘60s. That even Beijing felt an attempt to “shake your windows and rattle your walls,” in the old words of Mr. Zimmerman.
Remember those days? When it seemed like the books were being rewritten every day, mostly for the better?
Heady times, indeed.
OK, I admit, putting it that way makes it sound like some kind of high school slide show, probably set to a rewritten version of Billy Joel’s “We Didn’t Start The Fire.” But looking back from now, when the headlines involve drones and wiretapping, wildfire and Middle Eastern war … well, it can make someone a little nostalgic.
But here’s the interesting thing about including Mandela in that parade of events. It gives a little perspective.
Nelson Mandela spent 27 years in prison. Years during which he had little reason to believe that South Africa was ever going to change. Years during which it seemed the world would continue on the same old paths in the same old way, for as long as anyone could foresee.
Then, all at once – transformation. Release.
No, the world’s problems didn’t end. We didn’t magically enter the promised land. But so much that no one had even dared promise came to be.
No, it didn’t just happen to happen. It took work and endurance and even suffering on the part of many, with no promise of success. And that may be the most hopeful part of all.
If they could dream then, we can dream now. If they could labor then, not even daring to speak the fear that it might all be in vain, we can labor now.
And what they achieved, we can achieve. However dark the times may seem.
So thank you, Mr. Mandela. Thank you for what you ended and what you began. For not just outfighting injustice, but outlasting it.
Thank you and farewell.
May you rest in peace.
And may we not rest until peace is here.