The passing of the former president of South Africa and anti-apartheid revolutionary Nelson Mandela prompts us to look back at his achievements and impact upon our world. From his widely acclaimed accomplishments, we all can be inspired to a greater participation in and contribution to the world around us. But along with all of that, there are three inspiring features to be found in the more basic information and experiences of this great man’s magnanimous life.

A Synthesis of Spirituality

First of all, in regard to religion, his eyes as well as his heart were wide open. In his autobiographical work entitled Long Walk to Freedom, Mandela explained his rich religious heritage. His father was a priest of the traditional religion of their tribe. The elaborate ritual-filled practice of the Xhosa people centered upon a belief in the oneness of life, a cosmic wholeness, with little distinction between the sacred and the secular and the natural and the supernatural world. His mother became a Christian and Mandela was baptized into the Methodist church.

In his autobiography, Mandela writes,

“No one is born hating another person because of the color of his skin, or his background, or his religion. People must learn to hate, and if they can learn to hate, they can be taught to love, for love comes more naturally to the human heart than its opposite.”

Beyond Names & Labels

Secondly, Mandela took what he was given but never forgot who he really was. You see, Mandela’s Xhosa name given to him at birth by his father was “Rolihlahla.” In Long Walk to Freedom, he recalls the story of how, on the first day of school, his teacher gave each student an English name. The students were told that from that day forward only their English name was to be used. Their education was British. They were taught British ideas and culture which, of course, was assumed to be superior. There was no consideration of African culture. Rolihlahla (which literally means “pulling the branch of a tree” or more accurately “troublemaker”) was given the new name of “Nelson.”

Great Risks & Their Consequences

A third source of inspiration from the details of Mandela’s life is found in an event that took place during his college years. As a student at the University College of Fort Hare, Mandela was a member of the drama society. He tells the story of when he acted in a play about Abraham Lincoln. Interestingly, he played the role of John Wilkes Booth. Mandela writes of his role:

“My part was the smaller one, though I was the engine of the play’s moral, which was that men who take great risks often suffer great consequences.”

In his life, Mandela took great risks. And he suffered great consequences.

Not all of us will venture to be the president of a country or even a company. Not all of us will take a defiant stand against injustice toward ourselves or others. But we can choose to emulate the life of Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela in three ways.

1. We can live with our eyes and our hearts wide open to the people and the world around us;
2. We can move beyond the outward suppression leveled towards us through the use of labels, names, classes and categories and remember the truth that’s written on our souls; And –
3. We can be willing to take bold steps and face the consequences so that each one of us can live more freely in body, mind and spirit.

Thanks for the inspiration, “Troublemaker.” RIP