A few months into my stay in Johannesburg, I had the good fortune to receive an invitation to a dinner with Nelson Mandela at the Metropolitan Centre of the City of Johannesburg.
I was elated to be sitting two tables away from this icon of the 20th Century. It made his greatness seem approachable.
In his unprepared remarks after dinner he said, “People always ask me, what should I do to help others? I tell them stop waiting for an answer. Do something today. Do something that makes someone happy. Smile at someone.”
“But—” he added. “Do it today.”
This was lesson number one.
The teaching was so simple. In his presence, however, these words struck me powerfully. Examples of the hundreds of times I had thought of doing something for someone but never did raced through my head.
I pledged right then, in the presence of Mandela, to stop waiting for the right thing and just do something.
Since that moment, I try to do more of the little things that my mind thinks up, such as making dinner for a friend, recognizing someone for something they’ve done, checking in on someone, sending a card to someone, or just making a comment or observation that will make someone smile.
I don’t always succeed—I’m terrible at thank you notes and have a blank birthday card sitting next to me that was meant for a friend’s birthday over a month ago. But I do a lot more than I did before meeting Mandela.
The second lesson I learned from Mandela is that our basic freedom comes in the form of choosing our thoughts.
For the 27 years after the treason trial, a lifetime for Jimi Hendrix and Jim Morrison, Mandela fell asleep on a concrete floor and awoke to the sight of steel bars. Under these circumstances, it would be natural to be immersed in the lack of freedom.
However, Mandela recognized and exercised the freedom that each of us has; choosing how we think.
Later in life, I would learn that this is the foundation of mindfulness. The growing research on mindfulness proves what Mandela discovered for himself, that life circumstances, from winning the lottery to becoming a quadriplegic, do not have a lasting influence on happiness. What matters is what we direct our mind to focus on.
Every day, in subtle ways, we are teetering between reactions and responses, just as Mandela must have wavered between anger and calm. Just the recognition of this choice creates an immovable freedom in your life.
The third lesson I learned from Mandela learned is the perspective of letting go.
Twenty-four years ago, Nelson Mandela was released from jail. He made an important choice when he walked out the door, to let go of the past. The defrosting of apartheid had to happen first in the quiet of his own mind before it could happen in the country.
“As I walked out the door toward my freedom I knew that if I did not leave all the anger, hatred and bitterness behind that I would still be in prison,” he said.
Each of us runs the risk of being imprisoned by our past. When I realize I am holding onto some emotion, or tiny injustice, I think about Mandela and my South African friends. While an injustice looks heavy when staring at it in isolation, it starts to feel light when you compare against the weight of apartheid. Without fail, with this perspective, whatever I am holding onto begins to dissolve.
It is unlikely that you or I will ever face the adversity and unjustness that Nelson Mandela endured. But every day, as we teeter between reaction and response, we can recognize that we have a choice. And when a snippy email hits our inbox, that car cuts us off on the highway, a flight gets cancelled, or the Internet goes out, we can choose to respond with a perspective greater than this single event.
Nelson Mandela demonstrated to the world is that it is not our circumstances but our reaction to situations that imprison us. Our individual and collective freedom lies in our ability to manage our thoughts and choose our responses. Just a little more calm, every day, could change the course of a life.
Although what Nelson Mandela accomplished was so big, he did it in small and simple ways. He did it every day.
Most of all, he shows us the potential we all have; the ability to manage our thoughts and choose our responses to every situation. Most importantly, he reminds us that whatever you aspire to do, do it today.
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Editorial Assistant: Marcee Murray King / Editor: Renée Picard
Photo: Marco Raaphorst/Flickr