Lessons from the Life of Nelson Mandela

By Johna Till Johnson

Nelson Mandela

“We must use time wisely and forever realize that the time is always ripe to do right” — Nelson Mandela

Nelson Mandela is dead.

It’s hard to believe—not that he’s dead, but that it happened today.

His life was so epic, so mythic, that it’s hard to believe he was actually alive in our time. He has always seemed to me to be one of the heroes of yore, the kind that doesn’t live any more in these diminished times.

And although I know shamefully little about South African politics or history, I’ve always been captivated by one part of his story: that he spent 27 years in prison—a significant chunk of his life sentence—before not only being set free, but becoming President of South Africa.

I often try to imagine that: being sentenced to life in prison, and actually spending 27 years, a lifetime by itself, imprisoned under brutal conditions.

How do you keep believing in yourself, your cause, and in the possibility of having some kind of impact on the outside world? What keeps you from just giving up, as year after year goes by, with no hope, or reason to hope?

Only Nelson Mandela knew the true answer, and now he’s gone. But as I try to imagine it, here’s what I imagine:

–That after the first shock of the realization settles in, you recognize that although you can’t control your circumstances, you can control your response to them. (And really, that’s no less true in the outside world—we think we have control over circumstances, but how much of your day do you actually spend reacting to them, rather than creating them?)

–That you never give up hope that the dream itself will exist one day, whether or not you are there to see it. And you take faith and nourishment from that dream, and from your ability to believe in it.

–That you remind yourself constantly that your adversaries are humans, too, and seek a genuine connection with them. (Mandela learned Afrikaans in prison, and ultimately succeeded in making friends with the guards.)

–That you refuse to let your failures define you. By then, Mandela had failed many times in his life—he didn’t pass his law examinations, his first marriage ended because of his unfaithfulness, and the fact of being imprisoned (no matter how unjustly) had to have felt like a failure. But none of those defined him. What defined him was his belief in the dream.

These are all easy to write, and inspirational to think about.

But living them—day by day, hour by hour, moment my moment—must have been difficult.

Each moment he had to have made up his mind to resist hopelessness and embrace the dream, to work passionately towards his goals while detaching himself from the desire to be present when they were achieved.

And do all that not once, or twice, but over and over again—there are a lot of moments in 27 years. That takes not just inspiration, but persistence (stubbornness, if you will) and consistency.

There are many lessons here, but this is the lesson I take away from the life of Nelson Mandela: The way to survive, and triumph, is not just to believe in your dreams, but to work doggedly, persistently, with a strong heart, towards achieving them. Day by day. Moment by moment. And focus not on your failures, but upon your efforts.

RIP Nelson Mandela.

And thank you.

47 responses to “Lessons from the Life of Nelson Mandela

  1. Very well written. Thank you.

  2. A thought provoking and truly inspiring post. Thank you.

  3. A fantastic tribute, Johna. It’s hard to put his greatness into words, but you have succeeded.

  4. Its a sad day, Johna, but your brilliant post is a bright spot. Mandela was one for the ages. We need to go back to Lincoln to find a US President anywhere near his stature. Thanks for posting this.

  5. A “like” is not enought, thank you Johna for the tribute to a most inspirational man, and for your own words of inspiration.

  6. Wonderful post to to be read and re-read. Thanks, Johna for sharing

  7. Great post, Johna. Sometimes, however, people find themselves in the darkness of the night and their dreams are obscured or even temporarily lost. Then all that is left is, like you say, to live minute by minute, hour by hour. That is the miracle of human resilience and it is within our reach. Mandela’s ability not just to survive, but to forgive, is an example not just of resilience but of a human spirit that, tempered by difficulty, rose above hatred and soared, providing change for many and inspiration for us alll. Thank you for sharing your thoughts.

    • Johna Till Johnson

      And thank you for posting, too, Anna! I’ve been thinking about what you said–it’s also true that the dreams evolve. Mandela’s surely did. And you are right that forgiveness was a key part of his character. Thanks again for posting…

  8. Thank you, Johna, for writing this wonderful and heartfelt tribute.

  9. Very well said. Yes, it’s not so much hard to believe that he’s gone, in a way, but hard to believe he was recently here. That all those things happened in living memory; that he was amongst us until now.

  10. This is very inspiring and I wish everyone lived more by these lessons. :)

  11. Rest in Peace, Nelson Mandela – and thankyou…

  12. Beautifully written, Johna. What amazes me even more is that the man brought peace and resolution to a torn country, perhaps because he brought it to himself first.

    • Johna Till Johnson

      Lynn, so true! I have been thinking about that much recently. It sounds hokey to say, but you can’t really bring peace to others unless you can bring it first to yourself… I say this as someone for whom “peaceful” would NOT be the first, second, or third description that popped into the mind of anyone who knows me (nor even the 10th, 11th, or 12th… ) “passionate”, “intense”, “loquacious”…. for sure. But never “peaceful”!

  13. Beautiful post on a strong and caring man.

  14. Thank you for your heartfelt tribute. The legacy of Mandela lives on!

  15. a beautiful tribute to Mandela! thank you for sharing!

  16. important lessons perceptively identified.

  17. A moving tribute, Johna, and the best possible pattern for living our lives. Thank you.

    • Johna Till Johnson

      Thanks, Tish! I would imagine that your Kenyan experiences make this slightly closer to home than for those of us who have never even BEEN to Africa…

  18. Thank you for sharing, Johna. Your words are wise, and they are worth to bear in mind.
    All the best,

  19. I have a couple of friends from South Africa, and of course this topic has been at the top of their discussions recently. Generally, they agree that his legacy is far more complex (and perhaps slightly less mythic) than is often promoted outside of SA. But, said a friend (and I quote), “He left prison after 27 years without an ounce of rancor, and for that alone he deserves to be emulated. I couldn’t do it.” Me either. I will concede that his story is much less lofty in real life than it is in popular knowledge, but I love that the very people talking about the problems with his legacy still gave him the legitimacy we all think of as a peaceable and attuned leader.

    • Johna Till Johnson

      That’s exactly it. We can debate whether he accomplished as much as he’s given credit for. But one thing that’s indisputable is what your friend said: 27 years without an ounce of rancor.

      Now, if THAT’s not “getting through the world without causing damage”, I don’t know what is :-) :-) :-).

  20. He actively lived his life every single moment, because he had to do it that way. Because every single moment he confronted the same choice. The alternatives that you outline so well, Johna. Essentially — as in the Bible — behold, I set before you this day life and death. Therefore choose life, that you may live —
    And he did, he chose life (forgiveness, hope, vision) every single time. Every. Single. Time.

    • Johna Till Johnson

      Hi Touch,

      Thanks for posting (and sorry for my rather long-winded post on your blog–I hope some of it was helpful!). As for choosing life every single time…. you’re right!

      The way you put it reminds me of a card I have up on my bulletin board… “I try to take days one at a time, but sometimes several attack me at once!”

      I feel that way often… :-)

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