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What can we learn from Mandela's life?

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I hope readers saw Tracy Warner's wonderful column in Friday's edition on the late Nelson Mandela, a truly extraordinary human being who changed the course of history in South Africa by leading the struggle against apartheid and who chose forgiveness and reconciliation over hatred after the struggle was completed.  

One of the aspects of Mandela's story I find particularly endearing was his well-documented personal flaws. For all of his remarkable accomplishments in working to rebuild South African society after apartheid with dignity and compassion, he had a messy personal life. His was a life of  contradictions and inconsistencies, as a news story in that edition detailed.  

We seem to have difficulty in this country acknowledging that every individual has the potential for good as well as ill. Living with that paradox is much harder than characterizing people as one or the other.   

In the wake of Mandela's death, the question we are left with is whether we should simply remember his accomplishments and leave it at that or step back and challenge our  assumptions about the supreme value we place on retribution to the exclusion of forgiveness.   

Our penchant for retribution gets  played out in many ways, including the "three strikes" laws that have helped America lead the world in the number of individuals incarcerated, often for lesser offenses. We're spending enormous amounts of money keeping lesser offenders locked up, but does this make us  really make us safer?   

I find it interesting that Mandela was  criticized in his own country for his willingness to forgive those who did unspeakable things to preserve the power of the ruling class in his country. Many wanted him to seek vengeance.  

He chose the difficult but infinitely more effective path. 

 

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