Tag Archives: Obituary

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.

The Engineer Who Transformed Shipping

By Johna Till Johnson

I have a weird habit, one that I share with many other (equally weird) folks: I love to read obituaries.

“Isn’t that morbid?” you’re thinking. On the contrary: Obituaries usually make me happy.  A good obituary is a celebration of the life and times of a person I’ve probably never heard of, but end up wishing I’d met.

And though I’m sorry to have missed that person, it’s enlightening to know they once existed. It reconfirms my bedrock belief that the world is a far stranger and more interesting place than I’ll ever fully know.

I also happen to be deeply intrigued by shipping containers. One of the great joys of paddling is the up-close-and-personal look you get at shipping containers. Stacked on barges. Loading and unloading from docks. And occasionally, strewn randomly across the landscape.

I marvel at their ingenuity of form, at the fact that they can be stacked so high without (apparently) ever falling over, and lifted and transported securely. I occasionally wonder what it’s like to live in one, given that they’re about as large as the typical Manhattan studio. (Don’t laugh. It’s apparently a growing trend—and it’s eco-friendly to boot.) And of course, I think about the individual who first invented them.

As you’ve probably guessed, the engineer who created the modern shipping container died recently. If you’re too busy to click on the link, here’s the short version: His name was Keith Tantlinger. He died at 92. He lived mostly on the West Coast (California and Washington State) where he worked on tools to build the B-17 “Flying Fortress” bomber during WWII.  And his crucial engineering insight that created the modern shipping container was the Twistlock “locking corner”, a simple and effective mechanism that made it possible to safely stack shipping containers many layers high.

And the smiling photo that accompanies his obituary (taken in 1958, right around the time when he was working on shipping containers) shows a young man enjoying the rush of creativity, and confidently aware that he’s changing the world.

A world that continues to be stranger and more interesting than we’ll ever fully know… which makes me very happy indeed.