I don't look for public figures to be heroes. Even Mother Theresa has her detractors and I don't know whether they have malice in their hearts or not. Nelson Mandela, it should be remembered, advocated violence against the South African government, and advocating violence makes me uncomfortable no matter how justified it is. It's much easier to venerate the martyred Martin Luther King, Jr., who steadfastly rejected violence.
But Mandela did something that few of us can imagine doing. After serving 27 years in solitary confinement under harsh conditions, doing hard labor for 18 years of that time (per a report I just saw on The Rachel Maddow Show), Mandela, upon being set free, didn't lead his legions of followers in bloody retribution against the government that imprisoned him. To the contrary, he exerted all his influence to guide his nation in search of reconciliation — between the jailers and the jailed, between blacks and whites.
I like to think King, under similar circumstances, would have acted likewise. But we'll never know. And whatever we like to think King would have done, Mandela actually did it.
As I said, I don't look for public figures to be heroes. But in spite of my cynicism about human nature, I find it impossible not to admire Mandela deeply. I am certain that most of us would not have the greatness of spirit to rise above our bitterness the way Mandela did. I doubt I would. That saddens me. But I try to keep Mandela's example in mind, and hope that one day his example will find its way into my heart.