An ode is to be sung or chanted. I can do neither, but I will shout, Whitman-like, from the roof-tops of the world: “Thank you, Mr. Mandela, for showing us how a good man can lead a great life!”
He was 46 when sent to prison; I was 37 when I spent six hours in jail in solitary confinement. I can’t imagine his spending 27 years in prison under the harshest of conditions. I just can’t imagine it after my nanosecond in prison by contrast.
Six hours in solitary confinement with no one to share your feelings with except yourself. Everything has to happen inside your skull. My outlook went from rage to tranquility. I had only me to talk to. No, that’s not right. In the silence you think back to those in your life and talk to them. Afterword you ask yourself, “Who am I to take after?” The storekeeper who gave me a job at Christmas after I stole from his store for weeks? Or my mother’s boyfriend who told me, since his name was George, that I could never think of myself as George again and sent me on a journey to foster homes so he wouldn’t have to look at me? Or Gideon in my third foster home who taught me to plant asparagus and be patient. “In three years it will grow robust and become edible,” he said, looking me in the eye.
In your prison cell you prize communication with the past more than water, with the present more than food. Physically, you may feel virile, but the silent, windowless walls are a taunt because you aren’t. You can only wait for the sound of a key in another person’s hand opening the lock others have you in.
I committed my first crime when I was 10: theft from a 5 and 10 store. I committed my second and worst crime when I was 17: I tore a map of the new nation of Israel from a library book. For a professor to be, that was a series crime.
I was 37 when arrested for brawling. I had custody of three children after a divorce, and the very good but disturbed lady and her new man tried to parent-nap the kids. I fought like mad and the police arrested both men involved.
If you asked me how I made peace with the mother of our three children I couldn’t tell you exactly how, but I could tell you that faith mattered. Faith not that I would be delivered, but faith I would do the right thing by the children, their mother and myself. I had only an ounce of “do the right thing” faith in me. Nelson Mandela had a gallon, no a 1000 gallons, and he found a way to donate it all to millions of others large and small.
His long life reached out and touched someone far, far away—little old me. I could shout “Thank you, Sir, Thank you” from the roof tops.
You’re right, it is ludicrous to compare my six hours to Mr. Mandela’s 236,520 hours in prison, but thinking back over those years I did a little checking to see how Mr. Mandela’s time in prison compared to the time others spent in jail. Strange the results.
First, you have to distinguish between civil offenses of ordinary people from political prisoners. For example, among the ordinary people who spent time behind bars are Paul McCartney (marijuana, alleged arson), Bill Gates (driving), Babe Ruth (speeding), Zsa Zsa Gabor (3 days, traffic charges), O’Henry (embezzlement), Alfred Hitchcock, Johnny Cash, Ty Cobb—I could go on.
My research shows Nelson Mandela to be the greatest among political prisoners. There have been many. I mention a few. First, a few “issue” stalwarts: Mordechai Vanunv (18 years, exposed Israeli nuclear program), and Andrei Sakharov (father of Soviet H-bomb who spoke out against the worst of communism).
Now a few genuine political prisoners: Mahatma Gandhi (jailed many, many times; terrorist to the British, founder of independent and democratic India); Yasser Arafat (terrorist to some, founder of Palestine to others); Aung San Sue Kyi (Burma/Myamar); Vaclav Havel (Czechoslovakia’s Orange Revolution); Leon Trotsky (overthrew the Czars but opposed Lenin-Stalin).
All of these are leaders of national liberation movements against regimes that did not adapt to modern democratic times. They can be compared to Nelson Mandela’s contribution in the sense that to compare means to weigh one against another for similar practices and outcomes. One might rate an eight, another a nine compared to Mr. Mandela’s 10. There are many others who could be mentioned, but I would include two others in particular. One can be compared favorably with Mr. Mandela and one must be contrasted against him, for they were opposites.
Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was a leader in essence of a national liberation movement away from the poisonous practices of racism and discrimination against African-Americans in particular, but all Americans in general. As a primary leader in the Civil Right Movement he literally changed the complexion of all America, not just the ex-slave states.
The other national liberation leader I contrast rather than compare to Nelson Mandela is…. Well, he was sentenced to five years in prison for a failed political disturbance, but served only nine months under privileged conditions likened to a holiday. A few weeks after entering prison he hosted in gaily fashion nearly 40 supporters who came to celebrate his 34th birthday. By his 46th birthday, the age Mr. Mandela was imprisoned for life, this man was known as Der Fuhrer.
Both Hitler and Mandela spent time in prison, one came out a murderer and the other a saint. One engaged in mass extinction, the other in reconciliation. One used democratic processes to be elected president of his country, the other became a dictator wholly untutored in humanity who’s egoistic pig-headedness led to the death of 60 million. Mandela used the democratic process to be freed and then became a tutor to all nations on how to turn swords into plowshares.
What will we teach our children about Nelson Mandela? That he was a great man or that he was a better man than Adolph Hitler.
That Mandela used his prison years to cause a wrong-headed government to see the light of human dignity, and Adolph Hitler used his prison years to raise his nation for a paltry few years to the level of his sickness only to co-mingle its ashes with his.
The two can be compared in one sense: both men were brought up in societies racked with hatred. How they reacted cannot be compared, only contrasted. That’s the glorious gift Nelson Mandela has given all of us—the choice to be like him or like the other. Nelson Mandela will be remembered as a giant of humanity at its best, Adolph Hitler as a pygmy of individuals at their worst.
How do we teach our children’s children to be like Nelson Mandela? How can we do it without ourselves becoming more like Nelson Mandela? That’s another gift he’s given us all. The sheer power of example.
God bless Nelson Mandela. Thank you for being you, sir, so that I can be a better me. And through your shining example, we’re all better people.