The Danger of Mourning Greatness

It feels too soon to be writing about the death of another inspiring human being just after my last blog post, but I have been meaning to write something about Nelson Mandela for some time now, and now seems as pertinent a time as ever. In a minimal attempt to gain some background of South African history when I first arrived here, I decided to read Mandela’s autobiography Long Walk to Freedom (since any account of historical and political events will inevitably contain the bias of whoever wrote it, I figured who better than Mandela to influence my view of the country I would be spending my year in). This was probably one of the best decisions I’ve made while being here.

While his story of course provided a wonderful summary of some South African history and the events of the fight against apartheid, its greatest effect on me was deepening my admiration for man, and by extension his country, not for his iconic status as a historic figure and symbol of greatness, but for simply being a human being – a man with a family, a unique cultural background, and a life full of personal challenges, who quite literally sacrificed his entire life to the singular cause of freedom. As President Zuma announced after Mandela’s death,

“What made him great is precisely what made him human.”

This point cannot be emphasized enough. So much becomes lost in the depth of what makes someone great and the significance of their life when they become pushed into an unattainable status of greatness. In reading about Mandela’s life, I was struck most by the brief accounts about his family and his feelings towards his friends and fellow fighters in the battle against injustice.

No one, I think, has had the power to evoke such deep sentiments of sadness in me with so few and simple words. In every short description of what his family had to go through as a result of the choices he made (which, as he also so powerfully conveyed, were hardly choices at all, as living a life without freedom and seeing the bondage of his brothers and sisters was never an option he could accept): “When your life is the struggle, as mine was, there is little room left for family. That has always been my greatest regret, and the most painful aspect of the choice I made.” Or, I will never forget the passage about the passing of his friend Oliver Tambo and the effect it had on him: “I felt, as I told one colleague, like the loneliest man in the world…it was as if a part of myself had died.”

More than anything, these moments instilled in me a sense of sympathy towards his personal struggles that brought me to the important realization that I can relate – not in the sense that I have been through anything relatable in my life or that I have done anything of equal measure, but simply in the sense that I can relate to him as another human being with normal human being emotions, fears, and concerns.

This statement seems so obvious and ridiculous, I know, and yet I think it is still something that the large majority of people mourning for the late hero of justice fail to truly grasp. For when you realize you can relate to someone so great, you realize that you are in fact capable of equal greatness. As Mandela had said of his life, “I was not a messiah, but an ordinary man who had become a leader because of extraordinary circumstances.” He was of course an extraordinary man in his conviction and firm sense of purpose that guided his every thought and action, but not to the extent that he was singular in his greatness.

So much of his autobiography, for instance, is a testament to the greatness of all of the individuals who were integral to the struggle for freedom. He talks about the “unintended effect” of oppression, and that is that it produced so many men of extraordinary courage and generousity: the “Oliver Tambos, the Walter Sisulus, the Chief Luthulis, the Yusuf Dadoos, the Bram Fischers, the Roburt Sobukwes of our time,” and that “perhaps it requires such depth of oppression to create such heights of character.” In all of the narratives of the extraordinary lengths and sacrifices that so many “ordinary people” went through to achieve the tremendous progress in ending apartheid, it reminds us how much incredible power is latent in each person. The long walk to freedom was tread by thousands of people all united in one common purpose and vision of freedom. That these people did not become icons, saints, or historical figures in the public eye should not diminish the ultimate fact that greatness, and even the kind of greatness embodied by Mandela himself, is not something beyond the reach of every individual. This was a point that Mandela seemed to stress so much in his autobiography in reminding us of the “extraordinary circumstances” that made him into the iconic symbol we now remember him as.

It also shocked me to realize that I don’t actually agree with every single viewpoint and decision that Mandela had made throughout his life, one in particular being the emphasis on armed struggle as the only means of fighting an oppressor on the same terms. Mandela himself even acknowledged the foolishness of some of his original approaches in the struggle, attributing them to the passion of youth and to some extent, naivety. In the realization that profound admiration for a person and his qualities as a man does not equate to unparalleled agreement with his every life decision, you also come to better appreciate that person for his individual beliefs and the complexity of the decisions he often faced. (There’s a lot of good articles out there that highlight all of the misconceptions that people commonly have about his life as a result of his symbolic status, which basically enables people to shape the public memory of his life and beliefs by distancing him from his humanness.)

With all this said about how important it is that we not remember Mandela as an abstract symbol of justice and greatness in a way that inevitably lessens our own potential for greatness, I still struggle to fully comprehend my own feelings now in mourning the death of Madiba. As a heavy air of sadness filled the office today at work, a common sentiment I sensed from those around me (as well as in many Facebook statuses the night before) was that the source of such sorrow for most was that they were mourning the loss of a great leader, whose greatness no one else can ever attain and the likes of which we will not see again. In a way, it was an underlying sense of fear and sadness that such an important agent of change, the kind of leader that is still needed in this world, is no longer with us.

This is all simply to say, I hope that in our mourning for this inspiring individual, we are not mourning for the loss of potential for future greatness in the world, but rather drawing inspiration and hope from the life of someone who reminds us what true sacrifice and love for our fellow human beings looks like. And in our mourning, I hope that we also all become closer to each other in our common respect for someone who fought for freedom …As I stood besides my colleagues at work today in our small auditorium, candles in hand as we sung the South African anthem in memory of the beloved Madiba, whose words “united we stand, divided we fall” captured the essence of the struggle, the sense of unity that filled the dark room was truly moving: black, white, and every shade in between, South African, international, some who had lived much of their lives in a divided South Africa, some too young to have seen the worst of it, all standing together in solidarity to honor the memory of one person who helped make our standing there together possible. At least in that moment, I took comfort and hope from the oneness around me, and felt confirmed of the kind of greatness and further potential for building a free and unified world ahead of us.