A great man has just passed from the scene. Nelson Mandela was buried last week. Leaders from all over the world arrived in Johannesburg, South Africa, in tribute to his greatness.
But what is greatness? What separates a person of greatness from the rest of us? How can we emulate those qualities?
There seems to be three major qualities that make a person great: a strong sense of passion with single-minded attention to attaining one’s goal; a willingness to suffer in the short-term to reach success in the long-term; and a deep understanding of oneself and others, to the point that service to others overrides the human desire to protect and preserve one’s own life or seek revenge.
Let’s ponder these three points by examining the lives of two great men: Mohandas Gandhi and Nelson Mandela.
Single-minded dedication to attaining one’s goal: Nelson Mandela certainly possessed this quality. Brought up as an African prince, whose middle name means “troublemaker,” Mandela ran away from home to avoid having to marry a woman his father chose for him. While in Johannesburg he saw the oppression of his fellow blacks by the white South African government. For the rest of his life he sought ways to strike a blow to the tree of apartheid and to bring it down.
For Mahatma Gandhi, the event that changed his life forever was being thrown off a train for staying in the whites only section while traveling to deal with a legal case in South Africa in the 1890s.
Both Gandhi and Mandela publicly burned their pass cards to protest racial segregation in South Africa. Both were beaten and imprisoned for their actions. Neither was dissuaded from their single-minded devotion to their cause of ending the unjust segregation of their people. Both men suffered beatings for their stands.
For Gandhi, violence was never an answer. He practiced and taught nonviolent civil disobedience for himself and his followers. Mandela, following Gandhi’s example, also practiced nonviolence at first, until he became convinced that violence was the only solution to toppling the white Afrikaner government. That’s what got him thrown in prison for 27 years.
A willingness to suffer in the short term for long-term goals: It took Gandhi and the Indian National Congress more than 30 years to end British rule in India. He did it by using the British strength against them. Gandhi taught his followers to make their own cloth with handlooms, rather than buy British-made clothing. It worked. There was nothing the British could do to stop 300,000,000 Indians from weaving their own cloth. Gandhi also walked to the ocean, with those following him growing to the hundreds of thousands. At the ocean he and his followers took salt from sea. This broke the British salt monopoly because there was too much ocean to guard, too few British and too many Indians to arrest.
Mandela’s suffering in the short-term was to be arrested for his crimes against the state and be imprisoned on Robben Island off Cape Town for most of those 27 years. And while he and his associates were isolated and kept from communicating with their followers, Mandela’s example, and his wife Winnie’s demonstrations, kept the issue of apartheid in the minds of the 75 percent majority blacks in South Africa.
Eventually, the violence in the black townships became so endemic by 1990 that the white government had to free Mandela to avoid a racial civil war.
Understanding oneself and others: Gandhi could see colonial India from the British point of view. Having a deep understanding of himself, he could afford to see them and understand their human frailty. He refused to take advantage of the British during World War II when they were fighting for their lives in Europe.
He also had a goal of having the British leave India as friends, not enemies. He succeeded. His goal was to serve humanity, not be served by it.
Mandela also had this deep self-understanding and of the white leaders. He was able to forgive them for what they had done to him and his people. Once he became president of South Africa, he did not wreak vengeance on the whites. Instead, with the help of Bishop Tutu, a Truth and Reconciliation Board was created to allow the persecutors and victims to face each other and to allow forgiveness for the crimes and atrocities committed by both sides in the conflict. Again, service to the greater good was more important than getting revenge.
To be great, an individual must be deeply focused on accomplishing his/her goals, to be willing to suffer in the long run for long-term objectives and, most importantly, that person must be able to understand himself/herself, and be able to see the perspectives of others. In our own way, each of us is capable of this kind of greatness if only we are willing to live our lives with these goals in mind and practice.
Note: Richard Elfers and his wife are visiting their daughter and her family in South Africa. He will be writing future articles from there.