Don’t get lost in all the sentimental Facebook obituaries, Twitter tributes and CNN eulogies. There’s more to Nelson Mandela, who died yesterday at the age of 95, than meets the electronically-entranced eye.
Mandela may be famously known by most of us as the world’s most beloved grandfather, the affable icon known for inspiring celebrities and rich people to travel halfway around the world in order to drool and do the ugly cry in his presence.
But before he was an icon and everybody’s inspiration, Mandela was considered a ruthless terrorist to the Apartheid regime that convicted him of conspiracy to overthrow the government and sentenced him to die in prison during the infamous Rivonia Trial.
In 1987, former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher referred to Mandela’s political organization, the African National Congress (ANC), as a ‘typical terrorist organization.’ The year before, then-Congressman Dick Cheney voted “along with 179 other members of the House against a non-binding resolution to recognize the ANC and call on the South African government to release Mandela from prison. The measure finally passed, but not before a veto attempt by Reagan.”
Before he became a legend, Mandela was a man born into injustice who refused to accept it, no matter the costs. “If I must die, let me declare for all to know that I will meet my fate like a man,” he said while on trial.
Mandela was a thorn in the side of the powerful. His contrarian life traversed through stages famously described by his role model Ghandi: ‘First they ignore you, then they laugh at you, then they fight you, then you win.’
Actually, Ghandi was being a bit too optimistic. Most who are courageous enough to fight the powerful to the point of facing death don’t win. Most who fight that fight lose–before that one person or generation comes around and strikes the fatal blow; gets lucky enough to live or perish monumentally. They’re the ones who are called heroic, while the ones who made them possible, the ones who lost heroically, are ignored by history or labelled thugs, terrorists, mobs, rabble-rousers.
In his book The Black Swan, the philosopher and mathematician Nassim Taleb shares a story presented by Marcus Tullius Cicero:
“One Diagoras, a nonbeliever in the gods, was shown painted tablets bearing the portraits of some worshipers who prayed, then survived a subsequent shipwreck. The implication was that praying protects you from drowning. Diagoras asked, ‘Where were the pictures of those who prayed, then drowned?'”
So it is with the inevitable Mandela worship: ‘Where are the international headlines devoted to the countless other anti-Apartheid fighters who, rather than accept injustice, faced death like men, then died in the standoff?’
They have no stories. They were never on the Oprah show. Bono never sang in their honor. There have been no tears shed by the rich and powerful for them. And yet, any number of them may very well have been just as brave and courageous and talented as Mandela.
Nelson Mandela was a hero, but he was also lucky–fortunate enough to have fought valiantly and lived long enough to witness the total victory that came as the result of the unquantified, untold suffering of silent heroes who risked their lives and lost the wager.
It is a law of history that the ones who do the heaviest lifting get the lightest reward. Icons like Mandela are always built on the backs of armies of heroes who died while fighting losing battles, who weren’t quite lucky enough to see the war won and whose individual heroics we know nothing about.
Indeed, although Mandela’s own majestically heroic life is marked by monumental successes, the deeper message of his life lay in the less visible disappointments; the times when he suffered alone, not sure that anybody would ever care; the countless moments he faced dying as an anonymous, unsung hero.
Real life is in the losing. True leaders know that losing is what makes winning possible. Life is all about learning from the losses, making the right mistakes. In fact, the one thing necessary for becoming a hero is not that one wins, but that one risk losing something significant. There must be loss, failure, involved–either threatened or realized. Winning, however, is never guaranteed.
“Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Fail again. Fail better.” True leaders understand this. And Mandela was a true leader.
“It is better to lead from behind and put others in front, especially when you celebrate victory when nice things occur,” he once said. “You take the front line when there is danger. Then people will appreciate your leadership.”
Here’s to the losses and to those who lost. I think Mandela would’ve wanted it that way. VFP