I had planned on reading his autobiography, Long Walk to Freedom, during the Christmas Break, but when he died on December 5, I immediately got started. I was about halfway through the book when I went with a friend to see the film of the same name that came out at Christmas. I was nervous that I would stop reading once I saw the movie, but a 2 1/2 hour movie cannot begin to capture the massive swath of history covered in the book, so I returned to reading with renewed interest. (My own review: it's a really good movie... but no surprise, the book is even better!)
Digging into a thick biography is nothing new for me. I usually try to pick up one per year; in the past I have studied the lives of Theodore Roosevelt, John Steinbeck, Sir Ernest Shackleton, Lewis & Clark, Lou Gehrig, Mother Teresa, Eric Liddell, Abraham Lincoln, Thomas Merton, Martin Luther, James McBride, Lauren Winner, C.S. Lewis... My appetite is never really satisfied! I immediately made a mental note for my next one when I saw a preview for a new movie coming out this April on the life of César Chávez.
I am currently in the section of Mandela's book that the movie did not portray in deep enough detail: his 27 years spent in captivity as a political prisoner. He spent 18 of those years on Robben Island, a desolate former leper colony. I finally have to make myself go to bed as I read these chapters; they are so gripping that I do not want them to end, but at the same time I don't feel like I can read fast enough to take it all in.
One of the main reasons I enjoy reading biographies is that I am profoundly fascinated by people's capacity to endure and move on past hardship. I learn from each person's journey, and if you know anything about the people listed above, you will see that the majority of them persevered through unimaginable suffering, remarkable challenges and heart-breaking misfortune.
With this is in mind, I am truly being schooled when it comes to the life of Nelson Mandela. Here's a sampling of some of the things he describes:
- At that time of year, the cells were so cold and the blankets provided so little warmth that we always slept fully dressed.
- The racial divide on Robben Island was absolute: there were no black warders, and no white prisoners.
- Prison is designed to break one's spirit and destroy one's resolve. To do this, the authorities attempt to exploit every weakness, demolish every initiative, negate all signs of individuality -- all with the idea of stamping out that spark that makes each of us human and each of us who we are.
- I never seriously considered the possibility that I would not emerge from prison one day.
- The authorities liked to say that we received a balanced diet; it was indeed balanced -- between the unpalatable and the inedible.
- As a D Group prisoner [the lowest grade], I was entitled to have only one visitor, and to write and receive only one letter every six months. I found this one of the most inhumane restrictions of the prison system.
- We fought injustice wherever we found it, no matter how large, or how small, and we fought injustice to preserve our own humanity.
- [After describing his bouts of solitary confinement] But the human body has an enormous capacity for adjusting to trying circumstances. I have found that one can bear the unbearable if one can keep one's spirits strong even when one's body is being tested. Strong convictions are the secret of surviving deprivation; your spirit can be full even when your stomach is empty.
I won't begin to compare anything in my experience with the expansive saga of Mandela. But for the last several months I have been part of a group that is seeking after lives of shalom and solidarity on the Westside here in Santa Barbara, an underserved community with the majority living at poverty level. So the story of Long Walk to Freedom is compelling and instructive. There are about 20 of us who are building friendships there week after week, and I am grateful that there are many small victories to celebrate.
Nevertheless, we have very, very far to go to truly join in the lives of those we have met. But if Nelson Mandela can live through 27 years of imprisonment, I cannot find any of the challenges I am facing to be insuperable. Rather, as he counsels, I will seek to live by "strong convictions" and the invigorating strength of the Holy Spirit, seeking to work with others to fight injustice and be messengers of peace and hope.
As you begin this year, what road are you on? Has it been a long odyssey? Do you feel like you are nearing the goal, or are you wandering? Are your spirits flagging? Be reminded that the journey is the destination. Redouble your efforts and dig in for the long haul. Personally, I can only do that with the grace and revival of the Spirit's work in my life daily... and reading good books like Long Walk to Freedom!
So as 2014 commences, I rejoice that I have truly, finally, found freedom (Galatians 5:1) through the honesty and beauty of the gospel. It was a long walk, and I will continue on that journey so that others may know that freedom as well.