observations and opinion
Years ago someone came back from Germany and gave me a chunk of concrete: a piece of the Berlin Wall, they said. I held it in my hand and wanted to believe that this was more than just a grey lump of cement; that it was part of the terrible iron curtain that split the world in half. The wall that had been torn down, giving birth to a new age.
This has gone on for centuries as churches and hucksters have displayed – or sold – splinters of wood they said were “pieces of the True Cross.” The gullible believed it and, by sinking their fortunes and their faith in shards of lumber, they made these artifacts into what they were imagined to be.
So too with words. Abraham Lincoln was a voluble man, but it is hard to believe that he uttered every great quotation ascribed to him. Lincoln’s former law partner and later biographer, Herndon, likely embellished the record a little while burnishing Abe’s claim to sainthood. It worked. When you see that thing on Facebook, “Don’t believe everything you read on the Internet – Abraham Lincoln” it’s not only funny in what it says about the internet, but about how we magnify our heroes’ glory. Lincoln’s words are splinters of the True Cross.
Nelson Mandela is now undergoing this treatment. I don’t doubt that he was wise and well-spoken. Mandela was, in fact, an almost super-human example of restraint and humanity. But the world’s natural love and regard for him inevitably imbues the man’s memory with a certain glow. He was heroic, one of the true moral titans of the 20th Century. If you tell me he said something, I will want to believe it.
There circulates a list of quotations ascribed to Mr. Mandela. Did he say them all, as they are written? I don’t know. But being uncertain of their origin does not denude them of their power, nor of their authenticity. Authenticity is not just based on origins, but also on significance.
A friend once sent me the list, saying that this was most meaningful to her:
“There is no passion to be found playing small – in settling for a life that is less than the one you are capable of living”
I wrote back to say that I too, took those words most to heart. Because, like my piece of the Berlin Wall, I want those words to be true.
What is also true – perhaps more true – is that we do “settle for a lesser life.” We do “play small.” Maybe because we don’t trust ourselves with passion. Maybe because we don’t feel worthy of a greater life. Maybe because we don’t really know, just how much more we are capable of.
That is the great and terrible gulf, the Grand Canyon inside us: not knowing who we truly are or what we might accomplish. The gap that love can bridge. I wrote in “The Big Equal Sign:”
Yes, I do think that. I think one of the largest parts of love, is knowing in our bones, the beauty and potential inside someone, even if they can’t feel it themselves. Especially when they can’t feel it. And the worst loneliness comes, when no one is there to show us what we cannot see in ourselves.
Nelson Mandela was the most consequential of men, in part because he was willing to become who he was capable of being. In the crucible of long captivity, he was forged into something strong yet flexible, resolute yet forgiving. Trapped in a jail cell the most a man can be, perhaps, is full of love and patience. Once released into the world, such love and patience are powerful indeed.
If love has any use at all in this world, it may be to show another the greatness in herself, the whole of who he really can be. Mandela did that, by expecting us to be decent. No more and no less. Each of us may be little more than a chunk of concrete or a splinter of wood. But look what we might become.