Since the news of Nelson Mandela's passing, I have been listening to newscasters and politicians trying to put his life and achievements in proper perspective. As a lifelong admirer, I support any amount of praise for Mandela's accomplishments. However, it is possible to use my praise and admiration as a way to let myself off the hook. If I characterize him as a superhuman who had something I just don't have, then I give myself permission to keep doing things as I always have.
I propose something a bit more radical than putting him on a pedestal, speaking about him in glowing terms, and then living my life unchanged. I propose using his example to transform my life - really. As mundane as it may sound, rather than focus on Nelson Mandela's character, ideology, or personal philosophy, I propose a focus on his practice.
Mahatma Gandhi, one of Mandela's great influences, was quoted as saying
"I claim to be no more than an average person with less than average ability. I have not the shadow of doubt that any man or woman can achieve what I have, if he or she would make the same effort and cultivate the same hope and faith."
Cultivation of skill through consistent and deliberate effort is the definition of practice.
Mandela was faced with conditions that few people would choose - decades of oppression, imprisonment, and hard labor. But his life stands as evidence that the power in my life comes from taking the focus away from the content of my circumstances and putting it squarely upon what I practice in response. This is captured in a stanza of one of the South African leader's favorite poems -- "Invictus" by William Ernest Henley.
It matters not how strait the gate,
How charged with punishments the scroll.
I am the master of my fate:
I am the captain of my soul.
Mandela is famously quoted as saying "I am not a saint, unless you think of a saint as a sinner who keeps on trying." This is a testament to someone who valued practice. Practice is not about perfection; practice is about doing something deliberately and consistently to build skill. When I look at the world through the lens of practice and skill, every moment becomes an opportunity to begin anew.
What did Mandela practice? Among other things, it seems to me that he practiced courage, patience, forgiveness, and compassion. However, even these are still concepts. What exactly did he do? What did Nelson Mandela practice for twenty-seven years in prison on Robben Island? What did he practice when he was released and then elected to lead a deeply divided nation? What did he practice in response to the people who had imprisoned him for all those years? I am talking nuts and bolts here. Where did he focus his attention? What did he say? What actions did he take? I am talking about what he practiced when he first opened his eyes in the morning, when he was stuck in traffic, when he encountered a stranger, when he received disappointing news, when he was getting ready for a meeting, etc...
Skills are built one action at a time. I have the option, right now, of experimenting with how I could practice, in my own life, the things that helped one man transform a nation and the world. How do I live my life to acknowledge that I am always practicing something? How do I live my life to acknowledge that I get better at whatever I practice? What am I practicing right now? It seems to me that a sincere way to honor the work of Nelson Mandela would be to answer these questions as often as possible for myself.