Greatness carries a high price | Rich Elfers

I’ll never be a Nelson Mandela, nor would I want to be. The price he paid to free South Africa from apartheid was far higher than I am willing to pay.

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  • Wednesday, January 8, 2014 3:16pm
  • Opinion

Note: This article is a fourth and final column in a series on Nelson Mandela and South Africa.

I’ll never be a Nelson Mandela, nor would I want to be. The price he paid to free South Africa from apartheid was far higher than I am willing to pay.

Nelson Mandela said the end of either white or black domination was, “an ideal for which I am prepared to die.” I’m grateful I don’t have to live in a nation where oppression dominates and where such bleak choices exist.

Greatness often comes at great cost. That was certainly true of the late Nelson Mandela. Twenty-seven years of his life were spent in prison for his attempt to overthrow the white South African government. Mandela and the African National Congress succeeded in bringing black majority rule to South Africa without causing a civil war, but Mandela failed in another area of his life – being a good husband and father. His daughter noted, “He was not there as a father,” and Mandela admitted his regret for not being involved in his children’s lives.

Mandela was imprisoned on Robben Island when his son died at age 24 in an auto accident. His son was estranged from his father because Mandela had chosen freedom for his people over the needs of his family. That rift between father and son was never healed. He also had two unsuccessful marriages, due in great part to his single-minded devotion to the cause of freedom.

Perhaps, since none of us in this nation have to face the difficult decisions Mandela faced, the lesson we can take from his life is to emulate his ability to develop a goal and carry it through to completion. My lifelong goal has been to have a good relationship with my wife Kathleen and with our children and grandchildren. The major reason Kathleen and I spent nearly 50 hours flying to and from South Africa was to maintain and nourish our relationship with our daughter, her husband and their adoptive children. We are both single-minded in that goal.

Fortunately for us, our other three children, their spouses and children, are nearby and it is easier to spend time with them.

In modern America there are many activities and interests that can distract us from what is really important. Modern distractions might be work, gaining material goods or focusing on sports, to name three. All three bring benefits and fill up our time, but none seem to me to be as important as having a good marriage and raising children who are stable, balanced and productive.

My father died when I was 22. I never had the relationship with him that I would have liked. I determined, as a result of that weak relationship with my father, to become the dad and now granddad I wish I had. I’ve never regretted setting those priorities, although it was and is very difficult at times. Being close to my children and their children has been a very satisfying experience. It also requires a great deal of sacrifice in time and effort.

Nelson Mandela left a legacy of greatness to a whole nation, and to the world, but at an enormous cost; my goal is far less ambitious, but for most of us, far more realistic. Making our family one of our key priorities is a price Kathleen and I are willing to pay.


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