The lessons that Nelson Mandela taught us

Last Sunday I wrote a column I hoped would pay appropriate tribute to a great man, Nelson Mandela. He is an inspiration to me. To all of us.

That was Part One. Part Two is today. And Part Two is … well, embarrassing.

I’d forgotten that inspiration is uplifting and joyous only sometimes. I’d forgotten that another pathway for inspiration is to be “found out,” then convicted and humbled, obliged to feel deservedly foolish, and then and only then to be made ready for a new and better life.

See, the human ego is prone to inflation. Assuming some reasonable ability (and willingness!) to pay attention, everyone can, sooner or later, identify some way in which the ego-self is aggrandized. A carefully nurtured, cherished and protected image of self is lifted and advanced across the appropriate lines of humility.

Admiring human greatness is a “good news, bad news” proposition for me. On the one hand, I like noticing and shamelessly lauding what is beautiful, courageous and profound in the human spirit. I’m not threatened by greatness. I like the part of me that is so willing to shine the light on people who are such a bright light to a world regularly groping in darkness.

Mandela’s fight for justice earned him 27 years in prison. Twenty-seven years! He broke rocks in a lime quarry, while the sun ravaged his eyes, permanently damaging his sight. And, when freed … he smiles and waves. He is grateful. Filled with resolve. He shrugs off the temptation to resentment and bitterness the way you’d wave off a single gnat buzzing your picnic.

Are you serious? You make me a political prisoner for 27 years and I’d be grouchy. Embittered. Changed in my very soul, and not for the better. Twenty-seven years? I see me losing hope within the first 36 months. Maybe I kill myself. Or maybe I just slowly turn out the light of my own will and die. “Failure to thrive,” they call it in hospice. Maybe I just dry up and blow away like a pile of forgotten leaves.

In my fantasy, I come out of prison and spend the rest of my days rehearsing the list of all I have lost. I’m not vengeful, just empty and useless. Mandela comes out of prison and spends the rest of his days striving for all he can still learn, experience, achieve, and most of all give! He comes out of prison and says the rest of his life doesn’t belong to him. His life belongs to his country, to his kinsmen, to the cause of justice, truth and reconciliation.

Mandela’s willingness to forgive and teach forgiveness is incomprehensible to me. It boggles the mind.

On the other hand …

I tend to romanticize what I admire. And then I long for what I romanticize. I sit, staring at a life like Mandela’s, or any life called to lead a collective transformation, and I think “how cool is that!” And then I think, “I’ve never been an instrument of collective transformation.”

And then I sigh, shrug my shoulders, and feel unimportant. Not particularly significant. And then it hits me. And I laugh a liberating laughter. At myself.

What foolishness! I use my admiration of greatness to paralyze myself, then to justify inaction. If I can’t change the world like Mandela, then what good am I? Unbelievable. I’ve caught myself using my ordinariness as an aggrandizement and an excuse. Because I’m so utterly ordinary, I have become uniquely irrelevant.

Like I said, it’s embarrassing. But inspiration, nonetheless.

I think of the corny, oft-told story about the boy on the beach. The tide has stranded thousands of starfish, dying in the sun. One by one, the boy tosses them back into the life-giving sea. A passer-by says, “Do you really think that one little boy can make a difference in the suffering of all these starfish?” And the boy, pointing down to the starfish in his hand, says, “It makes a difference to this one,” and hurls it into the sea.

I think of the story Jesus tells of the widow who gives two small coins to charity (Mark 12, Luke 21). He says the widow, so poor, who nonetheless gives freely and sacrificially, has given more than a rich person who donates from such excess.

If I admire and value what I say I admire and value, I’ll get my sights off aggrandized targets. I’ll reach for the starfish at my feet. I’ll give what I have to give. I will leave the prison of cherished resentments.

I’ll forgive the people who have hurt me.

Steven Kalas is a behavioral health consultant and counselor at Las Vegas Psychiatry and the author of “Human Matters: Wise and Witty Counsel on Relationships, Parenting, Grief and Doing the Right Thing” (Stephens Press). His columns appear on Sundays. Contact him at 227-4165 or skalas@