Long Walk to FreedomLong Walk to Freedom
by Nelson Mandela

Something in those first two words, “long walk“, says so much. Long — long time, long distance, long wait, long patience. Longing — tasting the flavor of the thing you crave, tasting as if you already have it, knowing your mouth is still empty, but still the taste is there. And walk — always one foot on the ground, moving yourself along without being carried, the effort and the slowness, but also the time to look at things and notice them and think about where we are. And other thoughts that cross my mind — a long parade of picketers on a walk, like the march from Selma — the phrase “one’s walk of life”, a vocation that calls for a long-haul commitment, becoming who we were meant to be. Phrases that stick in my memory from who knows what source — “I’ll keep putting ’em down, Lord, so long as you keep picking ’em up” — and “No place is beyond walking distance, if you’ve got the time.”

I learned a lot of factual information while reading this book. Names and dates, acts and laws, political parties and prisons. I have a clearer picture in my mind now of the steps by which certain things came about, who and what and where and when. This was worth finding out, because it’s too easy to get lost and confused without the details as a foundation. For instance, the official and systematic apartheid which I had associated with South Africa all my life, I assumed had been created about a century earlier, drawing from what I knew of Jim Crow law in my own country. I was a bit surprised to discover that the legal structure of apartheid was much more recent, dating from only a few years before I was born. At a period of history when the first tremors were shaking apart the legal underpinnings of racial apartheid in one country, when the courts were beginning to call “separate but equal” unconstitutional, another country was simultaneously building a firmer structure of the very same injustice. I realized how easy it is for me to slip into assumptions based on what I know, extrapolating incorrectly into things I really don’t know.  It made me wonder, though, why — just as one group of people say “We tried this and it was a disastrous and horrific mistake,” — others would choose that same moment to say, “Now let us try it.” Aren’t we watching and learning from each other? But obviously we aren’t, or I’d have known the things this book had to tell me.

So many of the events, though, did strongly remind me of stories I remembered from our history here at home. When the women rose up to protest the law requiring them to carry pass books, filling the jails, it made me think of the Freedom Summer stories here. When Sophiatown was razed and the residents uprooted to make way for a white neighborhood, it started echoes of Urban Renewal fights here. And the mass arrests on treason charges recalled memories of McCarthyism. Human nature, after all, isn’t one way in one time and place and something else in another time and place. To hear another person’s story and be able to say, “This rings a bell, I can understand this”, to recognize ourselves and each other as brothers and sisters whose stories are all part of one big story, this is how we grow in the understanding that we are all one family.

Two seemingly different discoveries, but closely related. The details of your story are unique to your story, not the same as the details of my story. I must not mix up the facts. But the human heart of your story and mine are both the same. You and I are not strangers, unable to see our human likeness. This is something we know, if we stop to think about it. The trouble is, we often rush headlong through our days without pausing to remember what we know. It’s good for us to stop, sit down, listen to a story of someone else’s life. We pay attention, we learn their unique details. We pay attention, we recognize a brother or sister. We come back into the world’s noise with a bit of quiet fresh wisdom, a little stronger than we were before.

The book seemed to fall into two distinct parts, as Mandela’s life fell. Before prison, a life of active effort, the struggle of a battlefield, the pressures of whirlwind crises and of difficult decisions with unexpected backlashes. A public duty that left no time for privately catching his breath, being with his family, escaping from the avalanche of work. Then, the years in prison, a life of enforced isolation, all the struggles interior ones, crises of faith and of hope, decisions taken deliberately. The man who emerged from prison 27 years later was both the same man he had always been and also different. Unjust suffering can break a person, or it can deepen a person. Mandela wasn’t broken, but deepened.

Cut off from the whirlwind of politics and revolution, he seemed to have looked back at what was happening with a broadening perspective, a view that looked past the crises of the moment to the long road into the future. Where does this struggle take us, all of us, in the long run? Yes, the present injustice must die, that’s a given, that’s the reason for present struggle and suffering. But when this injustice dies, what will come in its place? In a vacant field, will new injustices sprout like weeds? Or will something better be planted, something that may take a long time to bring to full harvest? When he came out of prison, he came out with a vision for the future.

Here’s the strange thing — When I put down this book, I wasn’t sure anymore what the title referred to. The years of Mandela’s life told the story of a Long Walk to Freedom, an agonizingly painful walk, a walk that finally got to the mountaintop. Yet the book leaves us looking at the view, seeing another Long Walk to Freedom still ahead of us, and another mountain in the distance, and more after that. The Long Walk is ongoing, Freedom is an expanding view that keeps calling us to new places. In this world, every Freedom gained is just one more step on the Long Walk, and we have to keep going on to the next one.

How do we manage not to feel exhausted at the very prospect of such endlessness? I find rest and strength and hope when I pause to listen to the stories of people like Mandela, who show us how it’s done with perseverance and grace.