We often hear people ask about the purpose of “bad things” that happen in our lives. “Why does this have to happen?” “What could be the purpose of this suffering?” The question can take many forms, but the answer is almost always the same: Suffering often brings us to a place where we are meant to be and where we can fulfill our purpose in life.
I spent many years as a life coach and a motivational speaker before I fulfilled one of my life’s greatest goals: to meet with legendary South African president Nelson Mandela. I had already had the opportunity to meet with His Holiness the Dalai Lama, but as I thought about people I would want to sit down and talk with, Nelson Mandela’s name was at the top of the list.
In one of my recent podcasts, “Remembering Nelson Mandela,” I discuss this life-changing experience and what it taught me about the value of struggle in personal growth.
Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela was born in South Africa in 1918 and fought against that country’s discriminatory apartheid policies. He was imprisoned from 1962 until 1990 for crimes against the government but was ultimately instrumental in dismantling apartheid. He served as president of South Africa from 1994 until 1999 and continued as an activist and philanthropist from 1999 until his death in December of 2013. He is recognized as one of the leading figures of our lifetime, and being able to meet with him was always a fond dream for me.
The opportunity finally came a few years ago and I, along with others, was able to meet with Mr. Mandela. We were permitted to ask him questions, but I had only one. Knowing how he had been imprisoned for many years and had gone on to become the president of South Africa and an instrumental leader in the movement to end apartheid, I only wanted to know one thing: “How did you do it?” Knowing that Mr. Mandela had gone from being sentenced to life imprisonment and spending 27 years at hard labor to being released before the end of his life and going on to become the president of a country, I was curious to learn his thought processes during this momentous journey. I was particularly interested in learning how he found truth and reconciliation instead of hatred for those who had wronged him.
Meeting with Mr. Mandela was an experience in itself. The group of us who were permitted to meet him were not allowed to use flash photography to capture an image of the experience. Why? Because Mr. Mandela’s eyes were damaged from years of working in the blinding sun, and he could not tolerate even the brief flash of a camera’s bulb.
Mr. Mandela’s answer to my simple question was equally simple. “The man who went to prison never could have become president,” he said. Noting that his younger self was violent, angry and unable to make sense of the obstacles in his life. “Over and over again, I thought, ‘All is lost,'” he said. However, one day a new thought began to creep into his consciousness like a drop of water on a parched land: “Maybe all is not lost.”
Mr. Mandela admitted he had no reason to hope. He had been sentenced to life in prison and had no reasonable cause to believe he would ever be released. However, this tiny bit of hope remained in his mind. He said that he hung on to this hope, “like a desperate person hanging on to a branch before he plummets off a cliff to his death.”
For many years, nothing happened to justify this hope. However, one day, Mr. Mandela stated, “I had a new thought: Maybe my being here is part of the beginning of the end of apartheid.” He slowly began to realize that there might be a larger purpose to his imprisonment. As he began to think about this, Mr. Mandela noted, “I began to wonder: If my imprisonment was part of the end of apartheid, how would I be while I am in this prison? And I began to change.”
This transformational thought process led to events with which everyone is now familiar: Nelson Mandela began to write letters. He was allowed one letter per week from his prison and he used this method of communication to garner support for the end of apartheid. Every week Mandela wrote faithfully, forgetting his own pain and suffering in the light of his growing role as a symbol of hope and freedom to the world.
And the rest is history.
I expected to take away the happiness of finally realizing a life goal of meeting this great man, but I took away more from that meeting. I remember the power of the question he asked himself: If the suffering that I am enduring is part of a larger plan, how would I behave? How would I speak, act and think if this place is part of a greater good?
When we think from the calling in each one of us to greatness, great things really can happen.
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