By John Y. Brown III, on Fri Dec 6, 2013 at 9:30 AM ET
Reposting from July 2013:
Our world seems on the cusp of losing a genuine hero for the ages, Nelson Mandela.
The word hero gets overused a lot but never when applied Mr Mandela, who looks like Morgan Freeman playing God after God has decided to stick around and live among the mortals.
Muhammad Ali famously dismissed achieving the impossible saying “Impossible is nothing.” Nelson Mandela has exemplified that statement throughout his life and continues to do so.
I first heard of this man when I was 20 years old and had the privilege to spend several days in South Africa in 1983. Apartheid, legalized racial discrimination against blacks, was embedded in the nation’s legal system. Nelson Mandela was incarcerated and in poor health. We were taught at the time that he would almost certainly die in prison.
But he didn’t.
Several years later celebrating his 70th birthday while still in prison, Nelson Mandela rallied his people. He became a symbol of patient and peaceful persistence against injustice and a symbol of inspiration much like Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King had become resisting injustices in their own countries just decades earlier.
Shortly after that, even though struggling with tuberculosis, Nelson Mandela emerged from prison a free man who not only lived but lived to become the president of his country (and the first black office holder in South African history). Ironically, his country had imprisoned him years earlier for resisting its laws and committing treason and sedition in defying Apartheid in Mandela’s youth. As president Mandela went on to remove the yoke of Apartheid from his country and for all of South Africa’s people.
And today—nearly 30 years after I first heard Mandela’s name whispered as a ghost in the failed resistance to South Africa’s Apartheid policy, he is a living embodiment of everything that was impossible then ….and that his most ardent supporters had stopped believing could ever happen.
How does that happen?
How does a man physically weak, legally incarcerated, politically written off, sick with a potentially fatal malady and aging into his 70s not give up?
How does that same man emerge in his twilight years and become arguably an even more successful South African version of our nation’s Abraham Lincoln?
I don’t know.
Except that’s the kind of things that real heroes do…..and real heroes are as rare as they are extraordinary. And it’s worth pointing out that one is still alive and in our midst. Although sadly, perhaps not for much longer. But he’s here now.
And we are blessed to be able to acknowledge him, again, while he is still alive. And thank him for teaching us that impossible isn’t always as difficult to overcome as it seems.