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Learning Forgiveness with Nelson Mandela

This man has received over 260 awards in 40 years, including the Nobel Peace Prize in 1993. He spent 27 years in prison for his battle against apartheid, and is fondly known as Madiba in South Africa. His name is synonymous with the art of forgiveness (among many other virtues), and we’ll look into his legacy, spirituality and some psychology to learn how we can be better at forgiving. So, who is this man?

You guessed it - Nelson Mandela. 18th July is celebrated as Nelson Mandela day (it’s his birthday!) - and since it’s just round the corner, I wanted to reflect on some of the wisdom and lessons that this magnificent man has left behind.

Born in 1918, his real name is actually Rolihlahla (pronounced HOLI-SA-ZAH) Mandela. Rolihlahla means pulling the branch of a tree - which colloquially translates into “troublemaker.” He was born into the Madiba clan of the Xhosa-speaking Tembu people. His name “Nelson” was given to him by his school teacher who did not want to address him by his birth name.

Photo: Metaweb / CC-BY

Honestly, if some school teacher tried to change my name, I think I would have been extremely annoyed, which did happen once - she said my name should have been Suzy because i look like a Suzy. Although I wasn’t angry in that moment, I do look back now with some colourful language in my mind.

But holding onto anger was definitely not a trait that Nelson Mandela had. In fact, his forgiveness has been one of the most disarming and charismatic traits. Reflecting on his 27 years of unfair sentencing in prison, he said,

“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."

Not only did he understand the power of forgiveness, he understood how valuable it was to live in the present moment while looking forward to a hopeful future. Forgiveness is no easy feat. It takes time to develop, it takes courage and it also means you’re willing to let go of the injustice that you may have faced. However, forgiveness is not letting go and then allowing them to do it again. I think that’s one of the reasons why people have difficulty forgiving - because they assume that to forgive means to accept their actions as right, and give them the power to do it again. That’s not true.

When you forgive, you're saying, “This was wrong, I was hurt, but I'm going to let it go because my peace of mind is far more important, and I recognise that you’re a human being who is not perfect.” That is forgiveness. It’s not saying, "Yes you were right, so you win." Nobody wins in this - it’s about who moves forward and is wise enough to leave it behind. Whether you continue to include these people in your life is entirely up to you. You can forgive them and not want to move forward with them. Forgiveness doesn’t give them an automatic ticket into your future.

In the year 2000, Nelson Mandela was asked by Oprah Winfrey how he managed to keep the bitterness at bay. He responded that when he thinks back to apartheid and the things that were done, he feels angry. But he also realises that “you have a limited time to stay on earth. You must try and use that period for the purpose of transforming your country into what you desire it to be. And therefore you have to reject all negative visions in your own soul, in your blood system, and focus your attention on the positive things.”

So it’s not that he didn’t feel rage over the incredible injustice that he and the whole nation was suffering from - of course he did. But he knew that that anger would only bring destruction and not the progress and justice that he envisioned.

In Sanskrit, the word for forgiveness “kshama” is associated with suffering, endurance and kshamata (forbearance). In traditional Indian scriptures like the Bhagvad Gita, forgiveness is considered to be a divine quality, and is never automatically given. Rather it needs to be earned through sincere intentions and effort. The biggest roadblock in forgiveness is ego - it is extremely susceptible to anger, envy, pride, lust and more. It is the cause for the discomfort we feel and also the reason behind not wanting to let things go. Holding onto them gives our ego importance and the ego loves having a party with importance.

According to Harvard Health and John Hopkins medicine, practising forgiveness has shown to lower the risk of a heart attacks, improvement in sleep and cholesterol levels, and relief from symptoms of depression, anxiety and hostility. Forgiveness isn’t just for those leading a nation, so what advice does Nelson Mandela have for people like you and I to learn and nurture this quality?

When asked the same by Oprah, he said, “The first thing is to be honest with yourself. You can never have an impact on society if you have not changed yourself. And one of the most important weapons in changing yourself is to recognise that people everywhere in the world want peace.”

Nelson Mandela’s ability to recognise the truth of the soul that resides in everyone made him a powerful man - yes, powerful in the superficial ways of political influence and more, but also powerful on a spiritual level where he recognised his mortality, the importance of stepping back from the ego and the strength in forgiveness.

To round off this entry, I want to share a poem I have loved for many years and even considered getting it tattooed. In a serendipitous moment, I recently discovered that Nelson Mandela used to recite the same poem during his imprisonment and it gave him hope. So here is Invictus by William Ernest Henley:

Out of the night that covers me,

Black as the pit from pole to pole,

I thank whatever gods may be

For my unconquerable soul.

In the fell clutch of circumstance

I have not winced nor cried aloud.

Under the bludgeonings of chance

My head is bloody, but unbowed.

Beyond this place of wrath and tears

Looms but the Horror of the shade,

And yet the menace of the years

Finds and shall find me unafraid.

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.

So my dear captains and masters of fate, remember that forgiveness is more powerful than you think - don’t let your ego stand in the way of your peace of mind. The more peace of mind you have, the healthier and happier you will be. And if you ever stumble and need that extra push, think of this phenomenal man who against all odds, not only forgave but planted the seeds of progress and peace.

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