Millions of people all over the world are honoring Nelson Mandela this week. Political leaders, global philanthropists, and villagers alike are paying their respects to this inspirational man. President Obama and three of the past four U.S. presidents, kings and queens, billionaires and global icons are coming together to join South Africans in memorializing their greatest son. In recent memory, there hasn't been another memorial service attended by so many dignitaries. It didn't happen when our greatest entertainer, Michael Jackson, died suddenly. It didn't happen when Steve Jobs, our greatest innovator, passed away.
Why was Mandela so special? What makes him worthy of this attention?
In fact, the detractors have already begun to surface. Some say he was a violent guy. He was a communist. He disapproved of U.S. policies. He neglected his family. His presidency was mired by corruption and economic problems.
Yet no one can deny the power of his legacy: This is a man who spent 27 years in prison without a fair trial, then won a fair election to become South Africa's first black president and put an end to the apartheid system's generations of unconscionable racial segregation. It would have been easy for him to pursue an agenda of vengeance, but instead, he prioritized the well-being of his country by working as a bridge-builder and pacifist. And then rather than seeking reelection, he stepped aside, turning his focus to HIV/AIDS, rural development and education.
Public service is all about improving people's lives. But socioeconomic problems often seem insurmountable, and we hesitate rather than take the necessary first steps. Politicians get caught up in bickering while wars rage on; corporations focus on maximizing profit while people toil to make and afford their products. As individuals, most of us go about our days without doing anything to help the less fortunate. Too often, helping those in need is done only with ulterior motives.
Nelson Mandela reminded us that we should be doing everything possible to support the public good -- even if that means ultimately stepping aside to let others take the lead. We could spend years dissecting his flaws. Or we can acknowledge that he got one thing right that most of us will get wrong: putting the need of others -- including strangers we will never meet -- before our own.
The best way to honor Mandela and fulfill his legacy is to commit ourselves to helping others. We can all give more time and money to worthy causes, and strive to actively promote social good in the public or private sectors.
And when our time comes to pass -- and that time will come -- may we be lucky enough to also find a place in the hearts of the people.
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