He raised his voice for tolerance, not his fist for revenge

Mandela's choice spared South Africa from descent into horror

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It wasn't the 27 years Nelson Mandela spent in prison that was most significant.

It was what came afterward: His decision to reach past resentment, anger and revenge for the good of his nation.

Given the cruel history of the world and the bloody narratives of the prideful, two-legged predators who rule it, it would have been natural for Mandela to go the other way.

How many men have been in such a position, in that moment of time with irresistible power building at their backs, yet refusing to use it for anything but the common good?

I can only think of two others. One an American, another a Roman. Surely there must be a few more, and perhaps you'll be kind enough to tell me about them.

But for now let's just say that such men are rare.

So with Mandela's passing this week at 95, with all the iconography surrounding him now, and the speeches of world leaders and the ambitions of operatives hoping to use him after death, we might consider that moment.

It was Feb. 11, 1990, when Mandela walked out of prison after almost three full decades.

He was a black man, a revolutionary who once preached armed violence on behalf of the African National Congress. He'd been jailed by a white apartheid government. And many were thinking this was finally their time of revenge.

Who would have been surprised? The blacks of South Africa wouldn't have been the first oppressed group to grab the knives and cut their former masters down. And the arithmetic for the inevitable reckoning was right there before him.

All he had to do was raise his fist in rage, give an angry series of speeches, manufacture an incident to spark things up and South Africa would have descended into the kind of blood and horror that still plagues some of her neighbors.

South Africa could have gone that route. But Mandela didn't make that angry speech. He didn't raise that clenched fist. He didn't unleash revenge against the whites who had victimized the blacks. Instead he preached tolerance and reconciliation. And so, his nation was spared.

Is it a perfect place? Of course not. South Africa had troubles then and it has troubles now. But it could have been so, so much worse.

Since the news broke that Mandela died, I've read a lot of wise sayings attributed to him. The one that pierced me most was:

"Resentment is like drinking poison and waiting for it to kill your enemy."

Writing about the day he left prison, he recalled, "As I finally walked through those gates … I felt even at the age of 71 that my life was beginning anew. My 10,000 days of imprisonment were at last over."

Like many great men, Mandela had become unattainable before his passing. He'd become legend.

And the imperfect, real, flesh-and-blood life that he'd made for himself disappeared into some symbolic, idealized iconic mist, where mythmakers and politicians and journalists are kings.

We're better at it here in America than anywhere else. We're the superpower still, and by right we are the world leaders in myths and dreams.

One of our great myths involves the man on the white horse.

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