Out of the night that covers me,
Black as the Pit from pole to pole,
I thank whatever gods may be
For my unconquerable soul.
In the fell clutch of circumstance
I have not winced nor cried aloud.
Under the bludgeonings of chance
My head is bloody, but unbowed.
Beyond this place of wrath and tears
Looms but the Horror of the shade,
And yet the menace of the years
Finds, and shall find, me unafraid.
It matters not how strait the gate,
How charged with punishments the scroll.
I am the master of my fate:
I am the captain of my soul.
- William Ernest Henley
Whenever celebrities or famous people or any sort of public figure dies, the internet makes me crazy for at least 2-3 days afterward. “R.I.P. Amy!” tweets the friend who I have never, ever heard mention that she listens to Ms. Winehouse. “We’ll miss you, bro,” posts the guy who I’m completely sure was never buddies with Paul Walker and watched maybe half of one of the Fast & Furious movies when it was on TV one time. “My heart is heavy with the news that Ray Bradbury, iconic American writer, has passed away,” types that Facebook friend who, minutes earlier, just learned of Ray Bradbury’s existence from a news crawl on an unrelated website and promptly Googled his name, then posted a status about to him to make himself appear cultured when in reality he Cliff Notes-ed his Fahrenheit 451 book report in 8th grade.
That’s why I was so hesitant to publish this post at first. I try to avoid those cringe-worthy, cliché “tributes” to people I never knew and whose lives probably didn’t directly affect my own in the least bit, although these stories are poignant and often tragic, especially when drugs are involved. But this man wasn’t a singer, he wasn’t an actor, he wasn’t a writer. He belongs in his own category of human beings, an exclusive, even sacrosanct, category. I’ve been thinking about him on an endless loop since Thursday, not only because I see his obituary everywhere but because I feel that by losing him, the world has lost something greater than just a man.
We can talk about overcoming obstacles, we can talk about doing the impossible, we can talk about achieving things that are unprecedented, unfathomable, but none of that comes close to what Nelson Mandela did for his country and for the world. Jailed for his beliefs, he sat in a cell each day for decades and somehow emerged not only with the will to continue his work, but the courage and grace to do so justly. This man destroyed his enemies, not by tearing them down, but by convincing them that they were the same: people who wanted humanity to be at its fullest potential.
And I talk as if I have obstacles, like…”It’s raining today. I don’t wanna get out of bed.” “Sometimes, when I tell people what to do, they don’t immediately do what I say.” “I don’t have an iPhone.”
What made Mandela great is his belief that living as an example is the most effective way to inspire others. When I learn about people like him, I think to myself, I can do better. Look at what these great people have accomplished; what’s to stop me from being like them? What’s preventing me from contributing to that same human potential? How much good am I bringing in to the world, versus how much I could be bringing?
Although I’ve been intermittently tearing up throughout the past few days, scenes from Invictus and interviews with Oprah and flashbacks to news segments running through my head–or maybe it’s also just the fact that it’s freezing here and the sun sets at 3:30pm so I’m depressed all the time–one thing that comforts me is the fact that, out of the 7 billion-odd people we have in the world today, one of them could grow up to be Mandela-esque. Working with youth has turned me into a hopeless optimist in this sense. Maybe, just maybe, a few of us will turn out okay. We’ve come a long way as a species in some ways, but there are more than a few issues I’d like to see another Mandela tackle. I may not end any apartheids, but this guy makes me think that maybe I can do something else to help, even if it’s convincing one of my Albanian students that the world isn’t completely doomed.
I am the master of my fate, and I can only hope it’s one tiny shred like Madiba’s.