When I was younger, I felt somewhat cynical. I didn’t believe people could change. But then bit by bit, things began to shift here in America. Drunks who got behind the wheel of a car were no longer funny (watch any movie from the 50’s and 60’s when drunk driving was a comedy staple). Public smoking was no longer tolerated. Homosexuals came out of the closet, and began to be treated like human beings (at least in some places). An African American was elected president. These shifts all represent the capacity not only for individuals but for our large and often unwieldy culture to change, to evolve. But if you had told me a quarter century ago that apartheid would end, I would never have believed it. Ever. And yet it did – and one man was largely responsible.
Nelson Mandela stands to me as a symbol of hope, of change. Mandela was filled with hatred for the first eleven years of his imprisonment. And then, he somehow found the capacity inside himself to let go of his hatred, and to try to love all people, to not let anger dominate him. His smile won people. Smile at your enemies. It will disarm them.
You know – he was a boxer. He looked like Muhammad Ali. When he was younger, he was heavier. He did some things that really were… violent. He was not like MLK or Ghandi. But he was magnifying, articulate, charismatic – and hopeful.
When Jon and I were in South Africa three years ago, we went to Robben Island, where Mandela was imprisoned for 18 of his 27 years. I stood in his cell, and tried to imagine the transformation he allowed to happen inside of him. He might have been in a cell, outwardly under the control of others, but he was free in his mind and heart.
It meant a great deal to me to see this place, to stand for a few moments alone in that small room. I had seen it once before, and vowed if I ever got a chance to go there, I would.
When the Millenium celebration was happening in 2000, I had the flu. I lay on the couch and watched as the clock hit midnight in Fiji (the first country to enter the 21st century), and every hour, television crews showed the celebration in each country. There were huge, spectacular demonstrations, full of magnificent displays of fireworks, millions of people partying, everywhere. Except one country: South Africa.
There, on Robben Island, a camera crew followed twenty-seven barefoot men, drummers, as they walked in a line into the prison hallway where Nelson Mandela had been kept. And they began to drum on the floor. Then they pressed their feet against the sides of the walls, inching their way up, above the ground, all the while drumming the sides of the hallway as they climbed, until they were drumming on the ceiling, their legs forming an archway below them. And underneath that human arch walked Nelson Mandela, holding the hand of a small boy. They walked into the cell where he’d been imprisoned, and together lit a single candle.
I wept. I still do, thinking of it. It was the most hopeful thing I have ever witnessed. Every other country had celebrated with a party. South Africa reminded us of how far we can come, and how far we have to go. They chose to embrace hope.
I would encourage all adoption reformers. Light a candle. Let the anger go. Smile at everyone. Forgive them for their ignorance. Never lose your hope and resolve – people can change…