“Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness, that most frightens us. Your playing small does not serve the world. There is nothing enlightened about shrinking so that other people won’t feel insecure around you. We are all meant to shine as children do. It’s not just in some of us; it is in everyone. And as we let our own lights shine, we unconsciously give other people permission to do the same. As we are liberated from our own fear, our presence automatically liberates others.” There are times when I think Nelson Mandela had me in mind when he uttered those words. No, it’s not because I think he knows me personally, I wish he did, it’s because like most people alive in the world today, it has always been a struggle for me to accept that I matter, that my contribution matters, that my opinions matter. As Nelson Mandela turns 95 today, I’ve taken some time to reflect on this particular quote which I first came across fifteen years ago on a laboratory desk of a colleague.
The United Nations has seen fit to declare the icon’s birthday an International Mandela day, and we are urged to contribute a minimum of 67 minutes to making a difference in someone else’s life. I’m ashamed to say when this initiative started a number of years ago, I was one of those people who asked the question, so you give 67 minutes of your time and then what? My world was only in black and white then. Either you did something that made a permanent difference in someone else’s life or you did nothing. My logic was, you make soup for a couple of people less fortunate than yourself on Nelson Mandela day and who makes them the soup the following day when you’ve gone back to your more fortunate life. It never occurred to me then that someone else could choose to make a lasting difference on that day. I looked at how inadequate my contribution would be, forgetting the light that’s been placed inside of me, that on this day I can choose to reach into that power that’s beyond measure inside of me.
The year has 365 days, and on any given day someone somewhere in the world wakes up asking themselves the question: where will my next meal come from today? By choosing to offer a meal to someone less fortunate than yourself today, you’ve answered that question for that person and perhaps given them hope that someone else will provide for them on the other 364 days of the year. In other words, you’ve given more than a meal, you’ve given them hope. You’ve let that special light that’s on the inside of you shine, and as you did that, you gave another person reason to let their own light shine.
Nelson Mandela represents so many different things to different people. So many times in his life he could have chosen to let fear hold him back, he could have chosen to play small and not let his light shine on the world. But he chose to liberate himself from that fear and as a result liberate the rest of us from our own fears. It’s in our small little actions, done when nobody is looking that we can change the course of an entire life. I know of people who have chosen to give blood today, something they’ve never done before. That’s the sort of power that Nelson Mandela refers to in the opening quote , that we are powerful beyond measure.
No one understands the power that lies within each one of us better than Malala Yousafzai, the Pakistani girl who was shot on the left side of her forehead by the Taliban in October 2012(for daring to advocate for education for all girls). Without getting into the politics of it all, if such a little girl can stand on a platform as huge as the United Nations and tell the world that she is not afraid of the guns that shot her, that all she wants are educational opportunities to be afforded to every little girl in the world, no matter where they are because she has come to learn that the pen is mightier, that when you have to use violence to promote or protect your way of thinking then you are the coward, then you and I can do much better. See a transcript of her speech on this link: https://secure.aworldatschool.org/page/content/the-text-of-malala-yousafzais-speech-at-the-united-nations/
In the speech, she has acknowledged Nelson Mandela and Gandhi amongst others as leaders who have left her a legacy of compassion and nonviolence. More than anything though, Malala has learned that own fears stand in the way of allowing her to shine and thus liberating others. She has said she wants the same educational opportunities she’s now receiving in the UK to be afforded to the sons and daughters of the people who shot her.
My greatest wish is that one of those children, the ones whose fathers are carrying out these atrocities will hear of Malala’s courage and then know that they too are as powerful as she is and take a decision to live in the belief that they are powerful enough to change the world, one person at a time.
You and I may not have the platform of the United Nations like Malala, but we have an opportunity starting this Nelson Mandela Day to touch a life less fortunate than ours and perhaps inspire hope and allow that person to tap into their own power.
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