Nelson Mandela is gone. He was a hero to me and probably you too.
Over the last few decades I've asked a lot of people who their hero
is and more than any other person, outside of parents, the number
one hero people have named has been Nelson Mandela.
He was a true hero in the archetypal, monomyth or hero's journey
mythical sense, as Joseph
Campbell described in his landmark book, Hero With a Thousand Faces
was a man who left his comfort zone, became a new person and struck
out in a new world, re-defining who he was. Perhaps it is because
there are so many ways that Mandela fit the mythic hero's journey
He was a hero because, as he walked the road of the hero's
journey he learned he needed new tools-- such as violent
rebellion-- and he embraced them.
He was a hero because he faced death with courage and
He was a hero because even in the darkest times he held hope
and continued to inspire.
He was a hero because he emerged reborn after 27 years in
He was a hero because he experienced an apotheosis, facing his
higher self and envisioning his nation's higher self, making the
decision to forgive, to build unity and to face the
Mandela was a hero because he returned home. Heroes must not
bask in the glamorous world of the hero. They must return home to
their ordinary world. Mandela refused to stay president. He knew
that it was important that others get involved so that his huge
personality did not get in the way of the growth and progress of
It is rare that we get such a close up, in depth view of a
Adam Serwer writes, in his article, The radical histories of Mandela and MLK
"...remember that sometimes the radicals are correct,
that in the heat of the moment, movements for justice can be easily
caricatured by those with authority as threats to public safety,
and those seeking basic rights and dignity as monstrous villains.
And then after the radicals win, we try to make them safe and
useless to future radicals by pretending our beloved secular saints
were never radical at all.
This negative characterization of radicals is, perhaps, a part
of the hero's journey that Campbell missed. The true hero stands up
to injustice, especially when it is the policy of the top-down
controllers of power. The true hero challenges the status-quo,
challenges the existing rules, assumptions and policies. He or she
rallies the people, shows them hope, gives them a different vision,
a vision that portrays a possible future WITH justice. When a
person stands up and preaches radical ideas, when he acts
radically, demonstrating that it can be done-- it is common,
perhaps likely, perhaps, even, in the short run, DESIRABLE, for the
powers in authority to characterize him as a bad guy, a criminal, a
terrorist, a traitor.
Once a person achieves hero status, we should go back and
remember those who characterized him as criminal. Mandela would
forgive them, perhaps engaging them in reconciliation. Perhaps that
too should be an added element in the hero's journey-- engagement
with the former authorities, the ones taken down by the hero, AND
reconciliation. Yes. Mandela, the world's most beloved hero, has so
much to teach us. Perhaps that even includes a revision, or
amending of the full completion of the hero's journey.
I've dabbled with that the idea of tweaking the monomyth
myself, looking at the idea of a bottom-up, Occupy heroic journey
blockbuster movies portray a single person as the one who saves the
world or the "people." It's been done. In Oz The Great and Powerful
, the main character
saves the day by waking up, inspiring and empowering the people.
Even in that way, Mandela, as a prisoner for 27 years, stood as an
inspiration to the people who moved the anti-apartheid movement
We need more heroes like Nelson Mandela. They are very, very
rare. We need to tell their full stories, particularly about their
standing up to authority, their being characterized as criminals
and terrorists, so that possible future heroes will recognize and
understand the pattern.
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