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5 Lessons for All Activists from Nelson Mandela

The world is in mourning today as one of the greatest leaders and activists, Nelson Mandela, passed away yesterday in his home at the age of 95.

The man is and always will be a legend and grand role model. For the anti-apartheid movement, he was a strong and powerful voice, and for the world, he was a beacon of hope during a dark, dark time.

As a result of his resistance to injustice, he was thrown in prison, spending 27 years of his life there.

Yet, his hope for the future and his will to see a more just society never wavered – a passion the world will never forget.

Finally released from prison in 1990, Mandela continued where he was cut off 27 years before.

In 1993, he was awarded the high honor of the Nobel Peace Prize for his tireless efforts that led to a more equitable world. And on May 10, 1994, he became South Africa’s very first black president – an inauguration that 4,000 people attended and billions watched on their television screens around the world.

One of the greatest ways to honor a beloved member of society is to remember what they taught us, and put it into practice. In this way, a legacy can live on in many lives, even after one important life has passed.

Read on to remember what Mandela taught us all through his actions and words.

1. Stay Positive

“I am fundamentally an optimist. Whether that comes from nature or nurture, I cannot say. Part of being optimistic is keeping one’s head pointed toward the sun, one’s feet moving forward. There were many dark moments when my faith in humanity was sorely tested, but I would not and could not give myself up to despair. That way lays defeat and death.”

Lesson: Positivity and optimism are crucial to carry with you during the fight to do good. Without these companions, the fight can become burdensome, even unbearable at times, and it can then be difficult to see the light at the end of the tunnel, so to speak. Work, a good battle, and life overall are never going to be easy, and successes come and go, but without having the will to carry on, these successes cannot even be entertained. This is why we must all be “fundamental optimists” like Mandela – for the sake of our sanity and the animals, environment, and people, and whoever and whatever else we are fighting for.

2. Failure Makes You Stronger

“Do not judge me by my successes, judge me by how many times I fell down and got back up again.”

Lesson: Going hand-in-hand with the first lesson, is this one: that it is only through failures that we can know the taste of success. It is therefore no shame to admit that you’ve failed, but rather a great strength, because from this point, you can pave a way to victory. Failure also:

  • Builds character,
  • Tests your dedication,
  • Helps you stay on your toes,
  • And taps into creative energy you might never had thought you possessed.

Failing is just the beginning.

3. Change Starts with the Change Maker

“As I have said, the first thing is to be honest with yourself. You can never have an impact on society if you have not changed yourself… Great peacemakers are all people of integrity, of honesty, but humility.”

Lesson: Mandela’s quote here harkens back to Gandhi’s famous saying, “Be the change you wish to see in the world.” If we expect others to change, we must make and live the change ourselves. This goes for us and our governments, too. If we want to see great change, a part of it must happen within ourselves and our systems because if we do not really and fully know what it means, we cannot expect others to understand. So be the change you want to see, and practice your values with both integrity and humility.

4. Nothing is Impossible

“It always seems impossible until it’s done.”

Lesson: Now isn’t this just the truth? There have always unfortunately been tremendous evils to overcome, and while they seem impossible to break down and stamp out for good, it is possible and it has been done — Mandela and other anti-apartheid fighters are testaments to that.

People might not seem willing to change due to a variety of reasons from long-standing traditions to utter selfishness, in some cases. But as another great activist once said, “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” If you stick to your values and message along with goodness, and the truth and beauty found within those who endure injustices, anything is possible, and don’t you forget it.

5. Your Work Never Ends

“After climbing a great hill, one only finds that there are many more hills to climb.”

Lesson: By all means, let us rejoice when successes, even the smallest ones, occur. We deserve to celebrate them, all of them, but we must keep going. Because with one success, often times there are 100 more hurdles to go.

This up-and-down-and-up-again path can be daunting, and it can tap a lot of your energy, but if you keep your companions, positivity and optimism, by your side, remember that failure makes you stronger, that change begins with you, that nothing is impossible, and then ultimately accept that your work never ends, then you will be able to keep going and know that what you’re doing is fantastic and so very much needed.

Positive social change is not necessarily the end goal, but rather the journey to get there is what’s really powerful and moving. It’s the journey countless activists have faced before us, and countless more will continue to embark on, but if we can make the road next time around a little less bumpy than ours was today — that is something, and something great.

To help carry Mandela’s lessons on into the future, keep his words with you and keep up the good fight, especially in the face of adversity.

At this time, you may also wish send a message of condolence to Mandela’s family, and consider making a gift to The Nelson Mandela Foundation.

To end, we leave you with Mandela’s own words that he spoke during his trail statement to the court in 1964 and what he later repeated upon his release from prison on Feb. 11, 1990:

“I have fought against black domination, and I have fought against white domination. 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 which I hope to live for and to achieve. But if needs be, it is an ideal for which I am prepared to die.”

You will always be in our thoughts, Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela – Madiba. May you rest in peace.

Image source: Wikimedia Commons