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We Want to Be Where Goodness Lives

So, Nelson Mandela has died and the tributes are deservedly pouring in.  The world is undoubtedly a poorer place for Mr. Mandela’s absence.  His story inspires and compels on so many levels.  His legacy is sure and strong.

Whenever something big like this happens, I find myself drawn at least as much to the public reaction to the event than the event itself.  It is fascinating to observe how we respond to tragedies, natural disasters, and the passing of great human beings—especially in our digital age.  You know how the script goes, right?  Within minutes of Mandela’s death, the floodgates were opened on Twitter,  Facebook, etc.  Over and over again, the same quotes from the same sources, the same inspiring pictures, the same truisms, the same carefully crafted statements from important political leaders or rock stars, the same images summoned into service as backgrounds and profile pictures, the same, well everything.  Again and again and again.

 The cynical side of me wondered the same thing I always wonder when I observe our (my) reactions at times like these: “What are we actually doing here?  Especially all of us privileged folk who have never been on the wrong end of injustice, who have limitless access to technology and ample time to spend digging around for inspiring tidbits to link to ourselves?  Is this just another exercise in the personal branding that defines so much of what we do in an online world?  Are we using the death of this man for our own ends?  To prove that we care about the right things, that we love the right things, that we are the right sorts of people who are inspired by the right sorts of people and events and can convey this in the right sorts of ways at the right sorts of times?”

And yet, there I was last night, poring over old articles, reading tributes, watching old video clips of Mandela’s release, listening to crackly old radio broadcasts from the time of his arrest.  There I was, gobbling up the media, wandering around in the history, trying to learn more about his remarkable human being who left such a mark on our world.  There I was (and here I am!), adding to the noise, clogging up the ether with thoughts and images and quotes.  There I was (and here I am), fascinated by this man, drawn to his story, and, apparently, eager to talk about it.

Our motives do not come unmixed.  At least mine don’t.

But behind all of the personal branding and identity bolstering that is undoubtedly at work when we tweet and update and share and pin and God-knows-what-else our way through significant global events, I think there is something else going on, too.  We are drawn to the things that Mandela embodied—goodness, hope, simplicity, peace, respect, dignity, patience, perseverance, determined resolve, compassion forgiveness—like moths to a flame.  We stand in awe of the injustice that he endured.  We are stunned at the manner in which he did not allow evil to defeat his ideals and purposes in the world.  We marvel at the humour and good will that remained intact, even after a lifetime of struggle.  Perhaps most importantly, we are captured by the same vision of the future that motivated this man.  A future of peace, justice, and equality for all.

However incoherently, inconsistently, and selfishly this might be expressed, we love this man because we love what he loved.  At least we want to.  And we want to be near him, we want to sit with his words, to remember his actions, to ponder his legacy even for a few minutes, even if only online.  We want to be where goodness lives.

A few minutes ago, I read these words in the prayer-book that I am using during the Advent season.  I could not help but think of, and thank God for, Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela as I prayed:

Incarnate God,
holding tenderly all things human,
you became one of us.
Lighten our hearts
with a vision of your just mercy,
that we may be gentled into joining you
in the hard and holy work
of releasing peace on earth.
 
In Jesus’ name we pray.  Amen.

——

The picture above is a monument at the site of Nelson Mandela’s arrest near Howick, KwazuluNatal, South Africa, about ninety kilometres from Durban. Mandela was arrested in 1962 and this 50 column tribute was erected 50 years later, in 2012.  The picture was taken by a friend, Rebecca Janzen, on a visit to south Africa this past September.

2 Comments Post a comment
  1. April #

    “We are drawn to the things that Mandela embodied—goodness, hope, simplicity, peace, respect, dignity, patience, perseverance, determined resolve, compassion forgiveness—like moths to a flame. We stand in awe of the injustice that he endured. We are stunned at the manner in which he did not allow evil to defeat his ideals and purposes in the world. We marvel at the humour and good will that remained intact, even after a lifetime of struggle. Perhaps most importantly, we are captured by the same vision of the future that motivated this man. A future of peace, justice, and equality for all.

    However incoherently, inconsistently, and selfishly this might be expressed, we love this man because we love what he loved. At least we want to. And we want to be near him, we want to sit with his words, to remember his actions, to ponder his legacy even for a few minutes, even if only online. We want to be where goodness lives.”

    I think this sums it up very well.

    We all grieve in different ways. It’s a mixed bag of sadness at the loss of such a great man and joy of having had the privilege of witnessing his incredible life. The idea that posting a tribute had anything to do with self bolstering or self branding hadn’t even crossed my mind until I read your blog entry. Am I saying *I* am like Nelson Mandela? No way. I have never encountered the kind of suffering he did!! I have no idea what it would have been like to walk a mile in his shoes! None at all! I can only speculate and draw the conclusion that even what I can imagine would never measure up to what it was actually like to *be* Nelson Mandela. Would I want to be a person who lives like Nelson Mandela or wishes to be compared to him? To be perfectly honest, I don’t have the courage and my ego doesn’t reach that far!! His life merely serves as an inspiration and a push for me to try harder and be better.

    I think part of the frenzy is that many of us once again realize we squandered an opportunity. We squandered the opportunity to know more about a great person(while he was alive), to learn and remember a lesson(at the very least one!). What was it he said again? What was it he tried to teach us? What is it we are supposed to take away with us and learn? ..and out come a plethora of quotes and tributes.

    The way in which many of us live our lives, we are so rushed that we automatically we seek the Reader’s Digest version. Quick! Put it in one..OK.. maybe two sentences! Who was Nelson Mandela, what did he stand for, what is the lesson?! Quick, quick quick!! We need it summed up! We can’t remember more than one, two or possibly three lines. It’s sad really because that *is* what the majority of people will remember him by; those few quotes. Those few quotes will eventually embody who Nelson Mandela was and all he stood for. Most won’t “have the time” or rather more correctly *make the time* to dig deeper into the man who has now passed *because* he has now passed. Not many years from now we will very likely be able to ask a school aged child; “Who was Nelson Mandela?” and we will receive a blank stare and a questioning “Who?”. The quotes will be dehumanized. “Some guy said something”; yeah..and? They will lose their depth; the man behind them now only a name and no longer a real human being –who had a real life story!

    IMO the real heroes and ‘example setters’ receive far too little attention than manufactured idols and movie stars. We are inundated day out and day in by images of people and messages completely devoid of any real meaning or substance. It’s so easy to lose sight of what matters and what is important. When it does happen (and I am fairly certain it happens to everyone at some point) we clamber and try to claw our way back out from the sea of meaningless apathetic garbage. We try and cling even for a moment to something meaningful and true before many many of us are engulfed once again by a life that seems to always be in a hurry and filled is with many many societal “expectations” that in the end..probably really don’t matter at all.

    December 6, 2013
    • The way in which many of us live our lives, we are so rushed that we automatically we seek the Reader’s Digest version. Quick! Put it in one..OK.. maybe two sentences! Who was Nelson Mandela, what did he stand for, what is the lesson?! Quick, quick quick!! We need it summed up! We can’t remember more than one, two or possibly three lines.

      Couldn’t agree more, April. Everything must be accommodated to the parameters of our ever-shrinking attention spans. And, as you say, the trivial and ephemeral displaces the substantive and lasting.

      Thanks for this.

      December 6, 2013

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