I was reading Nelson Mandela’s autobiography “Long Walk to Freedom” earlier today, and came across a passage which really struck me: “I am fundamentally an optimist. Whether that comes from nature or nurture, I cannot say. Part of being optimistic is keeping one’s head pointed towards the sun, one’s feet moving forward. There were many dark moments when my faith in humanity was sorely tested, but I would not and could not give myself up to despair. That way lay defeat and death.” It’s often said you should think of others who are worse off than you in times of hardship, something I’ve never been fully comfortable with. Using one person’s suffering as a measuring stick against another’s can often undermine their pain.
That being said, I couldn’t help but marvel at Nelson Mandela’s resilience, not to mention how petty my problems are compared to what he experienced. If he was still able to call himself an optimist despite spending 27 years behind bars, more years than I’ve lived on this earth, you start to question what the hell there is to complain about when you stamp your feet on the ground like a precocious kid when things don’t go your way.
Something inspiring like this passage I read can provide that instant albeit temporary injection of optimism. But optimism can only take you so far. To quote Morpheus (with a slight adjustment), optimism can show you the door, but you have to walk through it. The hard part is digging deep and willing yourself to keep moving forward.
There’s a saying in Islam that even if it is the Day of Judgement and you have a sapling in your hand, plant it. All it takes is time, patience, and bucket loads of hope (or optimism) to see things through. Again, this is something I’m learning as I get older, but as dismissive as we are about it, hope is a powerful weapon.
The worst of human experience can either bring out the very best in you, or the very worst. In Nelson Mandela’s case, it really brought out the very best. But then as the Lebanese poet Khalil Gibran once wrote, “the most massive characters are seared with scars.”
And what a massive character he was.