The world took a short and sharp intake of breath as Mandela was placed on life support this weekend. A man of greatness breathing his last few breaths amidst a media flurry of hyperbolised feuds and collective fear: “Please, God, don’t take him from us.”
There is no doubt that when he is gone, the world will feel our loss. His wisdom and inspiration and fearlessness have led many into courageous activism and have set the tone in the fight against inequality. These things will be missed.
But in the sorrow of losing a good man, let’s not succumb to the fear that the world will be in worse shape without him, or indeed without other heroes who work and have worked tirelessly to paint in colour and create melodies out of silence. It betrays a reliance on these fellow humans, or a belief that only they can move and do and change, that only they are extraordinary.
In the ordinary there is extraordinary. The ability to act and change and inspire and paint and create is in us all. We are human.
So when Mandela leaves us, or when other heroes follow in his steps, let’s savour what they have left behind – but let’s not wait until the next emerges. Let’s be the next.
In his address as an honorary graduate last week at Queen’s University in Belfast (after which the most clever and best looking historian ever – not that I’m biased – picked up his well-earned doctorate) Professor David Kempton spoke of unsung heroes who have changed the face of Northern Ireland without being recognised. He told of how at the height of the Troubles, people ran towards danger and took risks in the hope that the world might become different: and it did. The Northern Ireland we have now is changed; more colourful and safe. Kempton encouraged those graduating with him to “take risks, and to run – or walk fast at least” – and to do so whether sung or unsung.
Those who take risks and run like Mandela aren’t always known. But they are extraordinary.
Who are we not to be?
And if the risk seems too great or the run too hard:
“It always seems impossible until it’s done.” (Mandela)
P.S.: graduating and facing un(der)employment? Read this.