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Wednesday, May 9, 2012

"Saint. A dead sinner revised and edited." -Ambrose Bierce

Nelson Mandela tells us:
“A saint is a sinner that keeps on trying.”

Politician Nelson Mandela, militant anti-apartheid activist and the leader and co-founder of Umkhonto we Sizwe, the armed wing of the African National Congress (ANC), is one of the most celebrated leaders of modern times.

In 1994 Mandela was inaugurated as South Africa's first black president. Winner of the Nobel Peace Prize in 1993, Mandela also was awarded the Order of Merit from, and creation as, a Baliff Grand Cross of the Order of St. John by Queen Elizabeth II and the Presidential Medal of Freedom from George W. Bush.

Eve Fairbanks of Newsweek said, "Mandela rightly occupies an untouched place in the South African imagination. He's the national liberator, the savior, it's Washington and Lincoln rolling into one."

Mandela and the ANC had used peaceful means to resist apartheid for years until the Sharpeville Massacre. That event coupled with the referendum establishing the Republic of South Africa and the declaration of a state of emergency along with the banning of the ANC made it clear to Mandela and his compatriots that their only choice was to resist through acts of sabotage and that doing otherwise would have been tantamount to unconditional surrender.

In 1962 Mandela was arrested and convicted of four charges of the capital crimes of sabotage (which he admitted) and crimes which were equivalent to treason, but easier for the government to prove. Mandela was sentenced to life imprisonment.

Nelson Mandela was held in prison for over 27 years, emerging to become arguably the world's most loved statesman. His deep and overflowing love for all of humanity has brought all South Africa's diverse peoples together as one nation.

Here is some of Mandela's advice reflecting his own strict self discipline in jail:

"You may find that the cell is an ideal place to learn to know yourself, to search realistically and regularly the processes of your own mind and feelings. In judging our progress as individuals we tend to concentrate on external factors such as one’s social position, influence and popularity, wealth and standard of education …. but internal factors may be even more crucial in assessing one’s development as a human being: honesty, sincerity, simplicity, humility, purity, generosity, absence of vanity, readiness to serve your fellow men – qualities within the reach of every soul – are the foundation of one’s spiritual life …. at least, if for nothing else, the cell gives you the opportunity to look daily into your entire conduct to overcome the bad and develop whatever is good in you. Regular meditation, say of about 15 minutes a day before you turn in, can be fruitful in this regard. You may find it difficult at first to pinpoint the negative factors in your life, but the tenth attempt may reap rich rewards. Never forget that a saint is a sinner that keeps on trying.”

Mandela's "Crucial Internal Factors In Assessing One's Development as a Human Being"

* Honesty

"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." -Nelson Mandela
* Sincerity

“Success in politics demands that you must take your people into confidence about your views and state them very clearly, very politely, very calmly, but nevertheless, state them openly.” 
 -Nelson Mandela, Conversations With Myself

* Simplicity

“There can be no keener revelation of a society's soul than the way in which it treats its children.”  -Nelson Mandela

* Humility

“One of the things I learned when I was negotiating was that until I changed myself, I could not change others.” -Nelson Mandela

* Purity

“A good head and good heart are always a formidable combination. But when you add to that a literate tongue or pen, then you have something very special.” -Nelson Mandela

* Generosity

“For to be free is not merely to cast off one's chains, but to live in a way that respects and enhances the freedom of others.”  -Nelson Mandela

* Absence of Vanity

“The greatest glory in living lies not in never falling, but in rising every time we fall.” -Nelson Mandela

* Readiness to Serve Your Fellow Men

“No single person can liberate a country. You can only liberate a country if you act as a collective.”  -Nelson Mandela

I wonder as I read these "foundations for a spiritual life" how many attributes I have achieved in some measure, and how many I still desperately need yet to improve. There have been many times I have thought about my actions in life represented upon a chalkboard with two divisions: "Plus" and "Minus." I envision myself taking up the chalk, considering my actions, and honestly recording the "score" of my life. I always hope to pepper the "Plus" column and thus overwhelm my dreadful "Minus" totals.

Although no one is proud of the negative outcomes of their poor decisions, I believe facing up to them is very important in developing a better self concept and better strategies for self improvement. The discouraging thing to me is finding myself recording the same type of "Minus" mistakes over and over. In other words, the consciousness of my faults does not necessarily convince me to change and prevent me from recording them time after time under the negative category. I view the rest of my life, no matter the length, as time to better adjust my faults -- ultimately, to stop "chalking them up." These sins wear especially hard; people must tire of my abrasive behaviors.

I understand why Mandela sees a relation to sainthood in working through one's sins. Yet, I don't envision my soulful attainment ever to rise much above the "decent person" level, certainly miles below any saintly designation. I wholeheartedly promise to keep trying to better myself, but I believe my best self image involves the description of "a work in progress." Not that there is anything wrong with those who seek and attain high stations -- I just believe God's grace is a sufficient reward, and too much adulation usually leads to destructive pride and loss of self insight. I lose respect for those who use their elevated stations for self gain and lose concern for basic humanity.

To me, the importance of posting about Mandela involves the opportunity afforded us in struggle. While in prison, he looks inward to find the means of leading a successful life, a life conducive to leadership and activism. As he states, we too often rate our progress as individuals upon "social position, influence and popularity, wealth and standard of education." In struggle and hardship, Mandela grows from within.

We know too well most of us will never possess what we consider to be enough of these external factors. And, is that desire even healthy? Everyone is victim to some external desires. Yet, many devoted, well-meaning people often see little importance in their internal attributes, and they consider themselves "slaves" to powerful individuals and institutions. Out of fear or neglect, they become incapable of initiating needed change. Giving up, they become victims both of outside influences and their own lack of self worth.

Ironically, the humility of honestly facing himself in prison day after day made Mandela see he needed daily meditation to foster inner improvement, a reward he could reap in captivity behind bars. Instead of building his own hatred and plans for revenge against a government that practiced unholy Apartheid, he decided to constantly search for how to become a better person in spirit.

Past sins can be forgiven. Future sins are inevitable. Denying personal responsibility to correct sins leads to a meaningless existence. Our worth as individuals depends upon the work we put into ourselves. We can blame outside influences for our troubles, but, in truth, our own free will allows us infinite choices. God grants us the ability to change, and his offer is always open. Changing negative behaviors involves struggle, and I believe struggles dictate an involvement with needed change. In that respect I believe the Mandela quotation: “A saint is a sinner that keeps on trying.” I, however, would change that quote to this: "God's loving creation of a human being is a sinner that keeps on trying."

“As I walked out the door
toward the gate that would lead to my freedom,
I knew if I didn't leave
my bitterness and hatred behind,
I'd still be in prison.” 

-Nelson Mandela 
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