Most ideas begin small. They’re like saplings stretching for sunlight from a forest floor. Vines, the forest predators, twist and turn and often strangle a new seedling. Ideas are the same. They too have a precarious beginning. Their predators are people who pillage a thought and choke it until it dies.

That didn’t happen to Nelson Mandela, a South African anti-apartheid revolutionary. His idea wouldn’t die, though he spent 27 years in prison as a punishment for what was considered by others a preposterous belief: that equality and human rights are inalienable. Albert Einstein said, “An idea that does not first sound insane has no hope.” Nelson Mandela lived for equality. He was an explorer who brought forth an ideal in a world endangered by the absence of consciousness. We live in a world where people are censured, imprisoned and beheaded, simply for an idea.

At his trial in 1964, Mandela said, “I have cherished the ideal of a democratic and free society in which all persons live together in harmony and with equal opportunities. It is an ideal I hope to live for. But if need be, it is an ideal for which I am prepared to die.”

When I think of his life I recall a quote by Ernest Hemingway, “The world breaks everyone and afterward many are strong in the broken places. But those that will not break it kills. It kills the very good and the very gentle and the very brave impartially.” But Nelson Mandela wouldn’t break nor would he die.

He had an unbending will and sacrificed his freedom for the freedom of others. However he is remembered by the gentility he demonstrated when dealing with political and ideological adversaries. He showed how it was possible to disagree passionately but remain temperate, focused, and even genial.

He would eventually become president of South Africa, the country that imprisoned him, a development that was biblical in its scope and one that would have been unthinkable only a few years earlier. He spoke passionately about the need for reconciliation and for initiatives to combat poverty and inequality. For the role he played in leading South Africa’s transition, always with a passion for forgiveness and reconciliation, Mandela received the 1993 Nobel Peace Prize. From my analysis, he taught us that the three most important concepts we should embrace are love, humility and forgiveness. The convergence of these ideals leads to reconciliation. His life embodied these principles.

President Obama said, “We will not likely see the likes of Nelson Mandela again.” I don’t embrace that perspective in theory or in actuality. After the death of great individuals, human nature often elevates their status to god-like proportions. We create a heroic persona. But we need heroes!

Nelson Mandala’s life models greatness but there were many great men and women who came before him, Dr. King and Mother Teresa, for example. Many great individuals will come after him. There is a potential for greatness in all of us. It’s not always about the great heroes who have changed the course of events. Sometimes it’s the small acts of ordinary people that make a difference. It’s the potential of the power of one, the ability to influence change from where you are. It’s amazing the difference one person’s life can make. Life is a composite of great challenges and devotions that ordinary people like us rise and meet. Greatness is not innate. But the potential for greatness is often thrust upon us. That’s our moment of inspiration.

Buddhist philosophy tells us that it is the Buddha who inspires us prompting us to do great things. They say the Buddha is everywhere and if that is true then the Buddha is in us.

--

JOE PUGLIA is a practicing counselor, a retired professor of education and a former officer in the Marines. Reach him at doctorjoe@ymail.com. Visit his website at doctorjoe.us.