This week on July 18th, the world celebrated Mandela Day, in recognition of the former South African president’s leadership in conflict resolution, race relations, protection of human rights, peace and reconciliation, gender equality, the rights of children, the fight to end poverty and the promotion of social justice.
Nelson Mandela founded The Elders in 2007 to bring independent global leaders together to continue the work for peace, justice and human rights. His mandate to the leaders he assembled in that first group of Elders was to “support courage where there is fear, foster agreement where there is conflict and inspire hope where there is despair.”
His spirit of hope is still needed now, more than ever.
Over the past year, The Elders have been exploring the “State of Hope” through a series of digital talks. On Monday of this week, Elders Chair Mary Robinson, the former president of Ireland, delivered the annual “State of Hope” address in honor of Mandela Day. In it, she explored the legacy of Mandela and the dearly-missed Archbishop Desmond Tutu (“Arch” to those who knew and loved him), who died in 2021.
I want to share some of Mary’s speech with you because I found it inspiring and a helpful reminder that we must look inward to be the force for hope and change.
“Behind every news story we see the humanity, if we look carefully enough. Being human in the face of grief, loss, conflict, inequality, and struggle is a constant act of resistance and refusal: individuals refusing to shrink or hide, individuals daring to still hope against all the odds.
[Archbishop Tutu] profoundly understood this intimately and instinctively. …He was a bold truth-teller, undaunted by what he called the ‘evil of the world’. And, like all those great men and women on whose shoulders we stand, he has not only led a legacy of ‘doing’ but a legacy of ‘being’. Arch taught us above all else how we should ‘be’ in the world in spite of its complexities and still inspire change, fight for justice, and act with goodness.
It is that legacy of being that I want to draw out a bit this evening.
In so many ways, living in this world is messier, more frightening, and more of an ordeal than ever. The injustice and disorder of all things presses on us and all of us, we crave something better than this. We crave something better.
We rarely ask ourselves what we mean by this better future though. Where should we look for the kind of leadership the world needs? Arch knew where to look. Madiba knew where to look. They asked us all to look within, to accept ourselves as complex and varied individuals, but as people who belong to each other. For them – and for us as Elders – this is what defines the best of humanity.
It’s the potential in each and every person to find resilience, to persist and to even thrive in spite of the messiness, because ultimately we belong to each other.
We can only do better by being better ourselves — by pushing for goodness. And we can only be human by being human together, in this spirit of Ubuntu that creates kinship and belonging even when we disagree. And we all need to acknowledge it is only in our knowing and in our belonging that we can pass on the kind of better future we all want for our children and our grandchildren.
It is easy to be a critic and to stand on the side lines pointing out the flaws and the failures, but this doesn’t bring about change. Imagine the world we could create together if we fixed our gaze instead on the goodness – on the light in the midst of the great darkness.
And what provides that light?
It is we who are that light: each one of us.
When we think of the legacy of Archbishop Desmond Tutu, it is a legacy of light. But respecting that legacy means it is not for us to look behind us to the past, admiring that light from afar. No. Instead, we must respect that legacy by keeping our own light aflame. And the light we need in our world right now is not the kind that can be cast by a candle. The challenges we collectively face need the kind of light that shines so brightly, so brilliantly, that it forces change. That it forces change!
We must let those who would choose evil know that theirs will never be the final word! The light of our shared goodness and our shared humanity is still burning brightly, and from each generation to the next we will keep passing on the torch.”
– Mary Robinson
I hope that in sharing this inspiring message and the reminder of Nelson Mandela’s legacy of hope and courage that you will hold your torch for freedom, peace and social justice everywhere higher than ever.