What drew me back to the TV a few days ago during a story about Nelson Mandela was not that he was in the hospital again. Nor was it news that he had pneumonia. Nor even that his lungs were being drained. It was the network lead that captivated me: Young people in South Africa don't see his contribution as so great. What he did, some say, is no longer relevant; it happened in the past. They feel that time has stood still, and they are still involved in a struggle. Mandela is only a frail old man.
Excuse me? Not so great? Mandela was the first black president of South Africa. He broke the back of apartheid. He even spent twenty-seven years in prison after being convicted of sabotage and conspiracy to overthrow the government. What, then, would it take to make a "great" contribution to society?
Dumbfounded that anyone could so easily dismiss accomplishments the like of Nelson Mandela's, I was reminded again of the futility of measuring our actions by any standards other than personal ones. Just a little later, another example surfaced.
During a conversation with my son, the subject of substitute teaching came up. I reiterated to him that I had no intention of "subbing," although I might be enticed into a longer stint in a French Immersion classroom if the need arose. He seemed relieved. I wondered why. He remembered experiences in high school where subs would have a hard time. Even master teachers, star teachers with glowing careers, had to handle situations that would never have arisen during their teaching days, when their reputations and the relationships they had developed with students would have eliminated almost all potential issues. "They [the students] don't know who those people are," he said. These individuals had been objectified. Their past accomplishments forgotten, they were "the sub."
Another very sobering thought indeed. If dismantling apartheid and a sparkling teaching career can be forgotten, where does that leave me? I have learned to measure my actions against my own vision of who I want to be and what I want to do. What others do or do not do, what they applaud or disparage, has no bearing on my sense of accomplishment. Am I working toward my goals? Any I being true to myself? These are my sextants.
What endures, then, if temporal success does not? We will probably never be aware of our greatest contributions to our society, given that these occur on a deeply personal level in our interactions with others. We have a dramatic effect on the lives of those close to us. Even people we hardly know count on us for things we are not even aware of. These actions, conscious or not, are what endures.