Imagine this: You have been sentenced to life imprisonment. Your jail cell is eight feet by seven feet in size. You are only allowed to write one letter and receive one visit from the outside world every six months. Such was the predicament in which Nelson Mandela found himself at age 46.
How did Mandela survive emotionally as well as physically and go on to become the first black president of South Africa and a Nobel Peace Prize winner? Although by the time he was 70 he had spent over one third of his life in prison for his anti-apartheid activities, he retained his friendly, polite, and relaxed demeanor while continuing his humanitarian efforts in the face of formidable opposition.
How was this possible? And how can we follow his example in our own life?
Some of his most famous statements provide clues:
“I learned that courage was not the absence of fear, but the triumph over it. The brave man is not he who does not feel afraid, but he who conquers that fear.”
We are often a cauldron of emotions, some of which threaten to block our progress if we allow them to dictate our choices. Fear’s purpose is to protect us. Animals and humans alike can freeze if confronted with danger, and this is a vital survival tactic: if we stop moving, it will be more difficult for a predator to spot us. So, fear has its place.
However, in many instances fear can cause paralysis when action is what is needed. So, feel the fear – but move forward.
“I am fundamentally an optimist. Whether that comes from nature or nurture, I cannot say. Part of being optimistic is keeping one’s head pointed toward the sun, one’s feet moving forward. There were many dark moments when my faith in humanity was sorely tested, but I would not and could not give myself up to despair. That way lays defeat and death.”
Having an optimistic attitude is simply more effective than being a pessimist. You may not always get what you want, but by being optimistic you increase your chances exponentially. In addition, you’ll also be a lot happier (as will be those around you) along the way.
“Do not judge me by my successes, judge me by how many times I fell down and got back up again.”
The opposite of depression is not necessarily a feeling of euphoria but the willingness to persevere, armed with increased knowledge and wisdom by virtue of what we’ve experienced. Resilience is the ability to be aware of what’s actually happening in our life, rather than what we wish were happening, and to deal with our circumstances effectively. With resilience, we realize that life is not a sprint but a marathon, and that we will need patience, endurance, pacing, and faith in order to weather the rough spots and keep going. So, persevere. Refuse to stay down for the count. You never know if your next attempt will be your breakthrough.
“It always seems impossible until it’s done.”
Nothing in this world is impossible – don’t presume that you cannot do something. Just begin – you will learn more as you proceed as to your next indicated steps. At times your faith and motivation may falter. You may take some wrong turns and wander down some dead-end paths. However, assuming that your intentions are good and you keep your eye on the goal, you will get where you’re meant to go.
“As I walked out the door toward the gate that would lead to my freedom, I knew if I didn’t leave my bitterness and hatred behind, I’d still be in prison.”
Perhaps we’ve finally extracted ourselves from a dysfunctional relationship or an unrewarding career path, or we’ve participated in effective treatment for an addiction or a serious illness. This is a huge stride forward, of course. All the same, how many of us still remain in internal prisons of our own making, shackled by resentment, shame, or fear? Stepping out into freedom and not looking back is a formidable challenge. Sometimes we’ve become so identified with the problem (“I’m an abused spouse”, “I’m an alcoholic”, “I’m diabetic”, etc.) that we hardly know who we are once the issue is eradicated or at least under control. This is the time to extract meaning from our experience, let go of the unnecessary baggage that drags us down, and turn our attention to how we can use our trials for the benefit of ourselves and other people.
“For to be free is not merely to cast off one’s chains, but to live in a way that respects and enhances the freedom of others.”
You may never know exactly how your own hard-earned triumphs will touch and empower other people. Live as if your every action carries far-reaching consequences. This concept is not meant to alarm you or make you self-conscious but to give you a sense of meaning. We all have purpose, and sometimes it’s as simple as treating others and ourselves with kindness and attending to our everyday tasks with integrity and joy.
“There is no passion to be found in playing small – in settling for a life that is less than the one you are capable of living.”
There is such a thing as divine discontent. We become vaguely restless when we sense that we aren’t fulfilling our potential. This feeling that somehow there is more to us than we’re currently manifesting can cause us anxiety. However, it can also propel us forward to test and develop as yet untapped gifts and strengths. What brings you alive? What interests of yours have you been neglecting? Reinstate these in your life.
“A good head and a good heart are always a formidable combination.”
Use your mental faculties in concert with your passions. The two are not mutually exclusive but instead work together synergistically. Imagine that your mind is blue in color and your emotions red. Each situation will call for a different mix of the two hues – some veering more toward dark violet and others toward the more reddish end of the spectrum. However, in all cases there will be at least a touch of both blue and red. Develop and engage both your intellect as well as your heart.
“It is music and dancing that make me at peace with the world.”
Stay in touch with what feeds your soul and brings you serenity. Retain your sense of childlike wonder. Believe in miracles – and help them to come about.
“Tread softly, breathe peacefully, laugh hysterically.”
Don’t take yourself so seriously. Place a priority on your internal state, which nobody can take away from you. Value qualities such as gentleness, serenity, and humor. Easier said than done, of course. However, there are few pursuits so important and ultimately rewarding than becoming a person with whom you’d like to spend the rest of your life – because you will, be it in a jail cell or a palace.
Nelson Mandela, who passed away on December 5, 2013 at 95 years old, was an extraordinary example of resilience. May we honor his legacy.