This week I took some time to review the legacy of Nelson Mandela, and I was incredibly moved. The website of The New York Times contains a full transcript of the speech he delivered to Cape Town on the day of his release, after serving 27 years in prison (you can view the transcript here). The opening of his speech struck a chord within me. He states,
I stand here before you not as a prophet but as a humble servant of you, the people. Your tireless and heroic sacrifices have made it possible for me to be here today. I therefore place the remaining years of my life in your hands.
Wow. It absolutely astounds me, given the generations-old, ego-driven mentality with which each of us struggles to a greater or lesser degree, that anyone could walk out of prison after 27 years and make his first point of business to dedicate his life to his fellow citizens. I, for one, am not so sure I wouldn’t put off the referenced speech for a month or two in favor of taking in a few dozen movies and ingesting my weight in popcorn and soda, or having some of my friends take me on a road trip whilst I poked my head through the sunroof, wearing only a kilt, with my face painted like William Wallace, screaming, “SYNONYMS FOR FREEEEDOOOOOOM!!!” (because the face paint thing is already dangerously close to cliche without using the exact dialogue), or visiting the nearest casino and having a few drinks with the little straw hats in them . . . well, you get it. Having just been given my life back, I’d be quite hesitant to give it away again.
Reflecting on Mandela’s life and the stand he made for his fellow human beings, I am reminded of a question that a friend and lifelong mentor once posed to me. He said, “Are you breathing life into others or taking life away from them?” The conversation which followed was a rather disconcerting revelation of the latter in my case. If it had ever crossed my mind that I was even remotely as great of a man as Nelson Mandela, a brief recap of all my experiences would show that I was, in fact, a little more like a Dementor1 (“Check the footnotes, y’all.” -Beastie Boys).
After making that distinction, a change of perception occurred, and I became very present to something that I hadn’t previously noticed about myself: The world revolved around me. The days that followed were marked with an increasing awareness of just how much life I sucked from others on a daily basis, like a Dementor (well, except for the whole soulless and evil thing). If I was in a conversation with someone, I didn’t give a crap about what was happening in his life. All I cared about was declaring what was going on my own life. Actually, it wasn’t as much of a declaration as it was an ongoing effort to convince everyone in my life that I was happy, while simultaneously bitching about my horrible, horrible circumstances.
It was enough to make me want to jump into the nearest plutonium-powered DeLorean, go back in time several years, and pistol-whip myself. My God, was this what my friends and family had to deal with? And yet it was those dark times, that life-sucking mentality, coupled with the never-ending patience and love of family and friends that would lead to transformation.
Dear friends, personal experience has taught me that true vitality cannot exist within a life which constantly feeds upon the life of another. If it is true vitality you desire, consider that the very expression of your own life depends directly on the lives of those around you. Look into the lives of history’s greatest and most respected leaders, such as the late Nelson Mandela, and you will see that the vast majority of them found true life by giving life.
I have found no greater joy in life than to touch, to move, to inspire another human being.
1. soulless and evil creature of the night, made to suck the positive vibes from various characters in the Harry Potter books; allergic to hugs and peace symbols1
Intro pic located at: