Thursday, December 5, 2013

Mandela is Gone

My sister sent me the text. In my mind I was rattling through a bullet-point list of assignments to complete and emails to send out. As I rushed up the steps of Juilliard to use the computer lab, I paused to look at my buzzing phone. I read her message, took it in for a moment, and continued climbing the stairs.

A few months ago I decided to join a new project: a musical about Mandela and de Klerk. The musical has the booming bass of their older selves along with the rock operatic rage of a younger and fiery Mandela and a racist de Klerk. Every week we meet on Thursday to go over new pages, new songs, outlining scenes. The collaborative team of director, composer, lyricist, and I have a strong first act and we're on pace for finishing the book by the end of the year. Some of the songs are so epic and sweeping that it's become a 'can you match me game.' I try to write the next scene so that it crackles with the humor, subtext, and strategy that I imagine these two men must have had during the close negotiations to end apartheid. The music team comes back with these colorful, rich African songs inspired by the region and the prison choruses of the men who were wrongfully jailed during apartheid.

This Thursday evening was different. I didn't have any pages, they didn't have any songs. We just sat with the news. We went around the room and talked about what makes a man great, what made Mandela a part of a movement necessary in this world: forgiveness.

We each spoke about the ingredients of greatness. Love, vision, courage, a sense of fatherhood or motherhood for others. One of the elements that's underestimated about civil rights icons and inspirational leaders is strategy. Crowds just see the Dalai Lama smiling, Gandhi waving, Mother Teresa blessing the poor, Malcolm X kneeling at Mecca, and Martin Luther King standing in front of thousands of people talking about his dream and a nation's hope. These succinct snapshots become the short-hand for humility, love, grace, greatness. What doesn't come across is the strategist and tactician. These great figures were amazing organizers of large throngs of people and knew how to use them effectively, and for clear goals. In the Dalai Lama's case he remains a supreme balance of spiritual leader and thoughtful tactician maneuvering against a hostile Chinese government with only his words and carefully selected ambassadors.

Mandela ranks up there with the greatest civil rights strategists and thinkers. He would have his apostles fan out across the world to media centers like London, Paris, and New York City. They would carry the message of anti-apartheid in their own unique way crafted for their particular audience. This didn't go on for months, but decades. From this consistent and insistent message arose boycotts, international pressure, and diplomatic animosity toward apartheid.

What was put before South Africa's racist government wasn't a gun, but something much worse: a mirror. That was the only thing Mandela could arm himself with and give to his followers. Their words made the South African government see what their policies had done. It had turned them into the very monsters they thought they were shielded against with apartheid. The putrid ugliness of a system rooted in a lie and supported by a gun could no longer be denied. Once the ugliness can be traced back to an irrational hatred then that institution is finished. When the monster is forced to look at themselves, they turn back into the scared children of Cain who -in a desperate search for security- re-enact the same crime done by man against their own kind since the beginning. No system, however cleverly designed and brutally enforced, can overcome a spirit in despair or a society blinded by its hypocrisy.

The message of the mirror is undeniable when delivered from a loving heart. These inherent truths are in the gospels of the Bible and the sutras of Buddha. The conscience of an awakened populace is not only more powerful than a bomb; it is the bomb that ends the world in order to bring about the new.

Mandela was one of the few in the 20th century who ushered in a new way of life by lifting the mirror.  We ended the meeting in the African tradition of joining hands in a circle. We each had a moment to speak a eulogy to him. It was our moment to bring the spirit of Mandela into our circle. As we raised the mirror up to our faces, I saw his light in our simple words of gratitude. Thank you, Father Mandela. You can rest now.

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